Around the world, responsibly managed conservation travel, including ecotourism, benefits the natural environment, wildlife and local populations.

Most often discussed in the context of rural, developing economies internationally from sub-Saharan Africa to Costa Rica, conservation travel is a win-win-win scenario for local communities, visitors and biodiverse ecosystems. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, ecotourism generates an estimated $6.7 billion annually.

A substantial portion of that revenue goes to support conservation projects—wildlife protection, habitat restoration, community engagement and education initiatives. These funds play a vital role in preserving biodiversity and promoting sustainable development.

This article highlights the potential of conservation travel in the U.S., exploring the growth in brown bear tourism in Southwest Alaska as a sustainable economic opportunity for local populations and an alternative to extractive economic activity.

Where is Southwest Alaska

Southwest Alaska encompasses from west to east the Pribilof Islands, Nunivak Island and other Bering Sea islands; the immense combined delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers; hundreds of miles of interior highlands, including the lower and middle Kuskokwim drainages; the entire watersheds of Goodnews Bay and Bristol Bay and parts of the southern coast, including mountain ranges and great interior lakes: the Wood-Tikchik Lakes, Lake Iliamna, and Lake Clark; western heights of the Alaska Range, and its continuation southward. The Kodiak Archipelago, in the Pacific east of the Alaska Peninsula, is the most eastern part of Southwest Alaska.

Although much of the region is coastal, it also includes tens of thousands of square miles of interior boreal forests, swamps and highlands, and the immense mountain barrier of the southern Alaska/Aleutian Range, part of the Ring of Fire.

These areas combined cover 170,732 square miles, slightly larger than California.

Kenai Fjords National Park wildflowers glacier alaska

Kenai Fjords National Park

Wildlife in Southwest Alaska

Wildlife of Southwest Alaska is diverse and abundant, ranging from terrestrial and marine mammals to birds, fish and invertebrates.

Brown bears are the top predators in the region and can be found throughout most of the mainland and islands, except for some areas in the Bering Sea. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, other land mammals found in Southwest Alaska include caribou, moose, mountain goat, Dall sheep and muskox. Caribou and moose are most commonly found in forested areas. Katmai National Park and Preserve is home to a number of caribou herds; the Mulchatna herd is the third largest in Alaska. The western limit for both caribou and bears is on Unimak Island, the first in the Aleutian chain. 

Mountain goats are well adapted to living in mountainous regions. Dall sheep are also found in mountainous regions and are known for their distinctive curved horns.

Muskox have a fascinating conservation history: they are native to Alaska but were extinct there by the 1920s. In 1930, 34 muskox captured in East Greenland were transplanted to Alaska. In 2000, over 4,000 muskox were estimated to live across Alaska; all muskox in Alaska today are descended from these animals.

Southwest Alaska is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 240 species recorded. The region is an important stopover for many migratory birds that travel between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering grounds in warmer climates. Some of the migratory birds that can be seen in Southwest Alaska are sandpipers, terns, plovers, yellowlegs, kingfishers, wigeons, geese, cranes, swans, swallows and harriers. Some birds also stay to nest in the region, such as bald eagles, owls, falcons, ravens, ducks, gulls, puffins, murres, auklets and cormorants. 

Humpback whale breaching Kenai fjords

Humpback whale breaching, Kenai Peninsula

Marine mammals in Southwest Alaska include whales, seals, sea lions, sea otters and walruses. Some of the whale species that can be seen in Southwest Alaska are humpback whales, gray whales, orcas, beluga whales and bowhead whales. Seals and sea lions are also common. Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals in the region; they play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the kelp forest ecosystem by feeding on sea urchins and other invertebrates. Walruses occasionally visit the mainland coast of Southwest Alaska.

Fish are an essential component of the ecosystem of Southwest Alaska, as well as for the subsistence and commercial fishing industries. Some of the most valuable fish species in Southwest Alaska are salmon (sockeye, Chinook, coho, chum, and pink), graylings, char, rainbow trout, lake trout, northern pike, halibut, pollock and burbot. Salmon are particularly important for the ecology and economy of Southwest Alaska, as they provide food for many animals and nutrients for the soil when they spawn and die.

All five species of Pacific salmon—sockeye, Chinook, coho, chum, and pink—spawn and rear in the Bristol Bay watershed, supporting wildlife like brown bears and eagles, as well as human industry and culture. The Bristol Bay watershed alone provides habitat for 29 fish species and more than 190 bird species. Bald eagles, moose, brown bears, rainbow trout, seals, walrus, North Pacific right whales and beluga whales all live in the region.

Over 3,000 recorded species of marine macroinvertebrates inhabit the marine waters, such as shrimp, crab, lobster, starfish, sea urchin, jellyfish, squid, octopus, worm, snail, clam, mussel, krill and plankton. These animals play important roles in the food web as prey or predators for other animals. Some have economic value as seafood or bait.

bear feasting on salmon Brooks Falls Katmai National Park and Preserve

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve

Local Community Demographics

The population of Southwest Alaska is about 53,000—less than 10% of all the people in Alaska. More than half of Southwest Alaska’s populations are Alaska Natives of the Yupik, Alutiiq, Aleut and Dena’ina Athabaskan tribes. About 121 towns and villages are dotted across Southwest Alaska—many are small, isolated communities.

Only local road systems exist in Southwest Alaska, and a few closely adjacent villages are linked by roads. The area is easily accessible only by air, sea or river, with limited connections via small planes, ferries and barges.

Lake Clark National Park wildlife guides bear tourism ecotourism sustainable travel Natural Habitat Adventures WWF

Lake Clark National Park © Court Whelan

Conservation Travel & Southwest Alaska’s Economy

The economy relies on resource extraction, subsistence and government spending. Over 4,000 locals, including many native Yup’ik and Dena’ina, rely on fish, moose and other subsistence foods for 80% of their protein. 

Fishing, both commercial and recreational, is the mainstay of the economy, and much of the commercial fishing is conducted by non-residents. Kodiak and Unalaska are among the most productive fishing ports in the United States for salmon, trout, king crab and halibut.

Bristol Bay’s commercial sockeye salmon industry is the largest in the world, producing nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye harvest. Approximately 80% of that catch is taken by non-locals. Only a portion of the fishery is processed locally, and just a small share of the value of the harvest is captured in the region, mainly as wages, taxes and royalties levied by local governments and Native Regional Corporations. Currently, hunting and other tourism industries are regular but small, seasonal parts of the economy.

Mining in Southwest Alaska

Mining for cobalt, gold, platinum and mercury has been part of the Southwest Alaska economy since purchase from Russia on August 1, 1867.

Controversy rages over a number of operating and proposed mines, including the proposed Pebble Mine, which would put an open pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed. The federal government is also seeking to lift the moratorium on oil drilling leases in Bristol Bay. 

On January 30, 2023, twelve years after six Bristol Bay Tribes filed a petition under Clean Water Act section 404(c), the EPA completed its review and vetoed the Pebble Mine—an administrative action taken by the agency just three times in the past 30 years

The Nowitna River is a 250-mile tributary of the Yukon River in the U.S. state of Alaska. The river flows northeast from the Kuskokwim Mountains through Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge

The Nowitna River is a 250-mile tributary of the Yukon River. It flows northeast from the Kuskokwim Mountains through Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge.

Relying on extensive scientific research, the agency concluded that the project would pose “unacceptable adverse effects” on Bristol Bay’s fisheries and the region’s aquatic and recreational resources.

The EPA shared, in a comparison of the Pebble Mine with other Alaska large hard rock mines compiled over a decade ago:

“Several of Alaska’s large mines have potentially acid-producing ore, but none are truly comparable with the size of the proposed Pebble mine. The Pebble Mine is unique compared to Alaska’s other large, hard rock mines when looking at characteristics such as size, geochemistry, geomorphology, fisheries, and hydrology. When viewed through the aggregate of these factors, Pebble Mine is distinctly different from any other present or past hard rock mine in Alaska.

More important is Pebble’s massive potential to impact the pristine lands with industrial development. The Bristol Bay watershed is unique in Alaska because it comprises one of the world’s greatest salmon fisheries. It supports cultural, subsistence, commercial, recreational, economic, and environmental values that are unparalleled.”

The mine is intensely opposed by the region’s residents, was denied a federal permit by the Trump Administration, rejected by Alaska’s congressional delegation and beleaguered for over a decade by consistent financial failures. Despite this and despite EPA’s veto, the Pebble Mine continues to threaten the Bristol Bay region, its fisheries and its people.

Northern Dynasty Minerals, the project’s 100% owner, still fights, supported by Alaska’s Governor. In July 2023, rather than appealing EPA’s action to a federal district court, the company supported the Dunleavy Administration’s application directly to the United States Supreme Court to overturn the veto.

The Dunleavy Administration asked the Court to exempt Alaska from the Clean Water Act and reverse EPA’s twelve-year administrative review without benefit of the congressionally mandated process for appeal of federal agency decisions. As 2023 ends, the Court’s decision on whether to accept the case is pending.

In addition to Pebble Mine, the world’s largest pure gold mine is proposed in one of the world’s largest river deltas and has received most federal and state permits needed to begin construction. The Donlin Gold Mine could soon be built along a tributary of the Kuskokwim River, within an ecosystem important for fish, wildlife and Alaska Native people who have continued their traditional ways of life in the region for more than 10,000 years.

The Donlin site will cover roughly 14 square miles, including an open pit more than two miles long, one mile wide, and 1,800 feet deep. Over 40 miles of streams and rivers and more than 4.7 square miles of wetlands would be disturbed or filled.

In addition to the destruction of lands and waters, tribes in the region are concerned about the risk of a tailings dam failure, the loss of rainbow smelt in the Kuskokwim River, and human health impacts. Gold from the mine would primarily be used for wealth management.

Lake Clark National Park two brown bears grizzly bears fighting over fish

Lake Clark National Park © Brad Josephs

The larger point is: there will be other mines encroaching on and polluting natural habitats, and there will be other additional threats to the flora and fauna of Southwest Alaska unless different priorities are paramount and different conversations become the prevailing narrative.

One local leader rightly shared, “We would prefer future generations not still be fighting these interests, but instead focus on questions like:

How do we build a healthy, resilient, sustainable economy that supports our natural resources so they’re still here for future generations?”

Ecotourism offers one answer to that question.

How Conservation Travel Benefits Local Communities

In Alaska, responsibly managed conservation travel offers an alternative to extractive economic activity. One example of the value of ecotourism within U.S. borders is Alaska’s southwest coastal region.

Conservation travel, a form of tourism that focuses on preserving and protecting the environment, has several benefits:

  • Preservation of Natural Ecosystems: By occupying land that might otherwise be used for harmful activities, conservation travel helps protect wildlife and their habitats.
  • Support for Local Economies: Conservation travel can provide local economic growth; the revenue generated can support conservation initiatives and enrich local livelihoods.
  • Education and Awareness: Conservation travel can raise awareness about the importance of protecting the environment, wildlife and biodiversity.
  • Cultural Preservation: It respects and supports local cultures, human rights and democratic movements.
  • Sustainable Development: Conservation travel encourages sustainable practices that minimize the impact on the environment and develop respectful awareness.

By focusing on high-value, low-impact tourism, Southwest Alaska can leverage its unique natural and cultural resources for economic development while preserving its environment and way of life.

Rapidly growing global demand for responsible travel practices and the exploration of diverse ecosystems and cultural heritage create opportunities to generate revenue that supports conservation efforts.

Income streams from ecotourism can include park entrance fees, accommodation, local products and services, and community-based tourism and conservation projects. Funds generated can be directed toward habitat protection, research and monitoring programs, and community development.

Nat Hab offers a variety of lower-impact, high-value conservation travel experiences in the region, including the new Alaska Bear Quest: A Photo Pro Expedition, an itinerary that combines two premier national parks, Katmai and Lake Clark.

Nat Hab's Alaska Bear Camp

© Court Whelan

Building a Sustainable Economy in Southwest Alaska

A sustainable economy is an economic system that aims to conserve natural and financial resources to create long-term financial stability. Sustainable development, which is a key aspect of a sustainable economy, is an approach to social, economic and environmental planning that attempts to balance the social and economic needs of present and future human generations with the imperative of preserving or preventing undue damage to the natural environment.

A sustainable economy promotes innovation and creates opportunities for green jobs, contributing to sustainable growth and development. Conservation travel is a responsible and sustainable form of tourism that not only conserves the environment but also supports local communities and offers a more sustainable opportunity in Southwest Alaska than extractive economic activity.