Working With, Part II

On the Work of Collaboration in Coastal Alaska

February 10, 2016

Karen Hébert with Danielle DiNovelli-Lang

“Please join me and stand with the bears!” So ends a recent e-mail I received from an environmental organization campaigning to curtail old-growth logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and encompasses most of the land in Southeast Alaska. In November, the US Forest Service released a draft of a proposed amendment to the current Tongass management plan, whose ninety-day comment period extends through February 22.1 According to the message in my inbox, written by a wilderness advocate and bear-viewing guide, the draft amendment includes some important provisions to protect prime salmon habitat and forest livelihoods but leaves bears out in the cold. The proposed plan sacrifices the “bears’ necessities” to continued old-growth logging in the Tongass, the e-mail contends.

In asking sympathetic readers to “stand with the bears,” this campaign mirrors a wave of action across Alaska and beyond, as it urges people to pursue environmental protection by joining forces with diverse and dissimilar others—often those formerly at odds in some way, or imagined to lie on opposite sides of once-seemingly-unbridgeable divides. As the Tongass bears appeal suggests, the goal is typically figured as a forward-looking form of collective environmental caretaking versus an outdated and untenable regime of one-way extraction and expropriation. What do we make of this new mode of collaborative engagement, which calls for intimate exchanges and solidarities across political, social, and species lines?2 Danielle DiNovelli-Lang and I have been pondering this of late in the context of our ethnographic research on the politics of environmental risk in coastal Alaska—research that is itself collaborative in nature.

On this blog last April, Danielle and I wrote about our recent collaboration, promising a future piece on related themes.3 As Danielle explained, our “working with” one another grew from each of our long-term experiences working with those in our respective Alaskan field sites, much of which involved working with fish and other animals. Yet when we began our latest investigation, we had little sense of the extent to which collaborative work would emerge not just as a feature of our approach but as a central empirical focus of our study as well.

A few summers back, Danielle and I met up in the Southeast Alaskan town of Sitka to map out our plans for the project, which entailed fieldwork in and across two different Alaskan regions by research teams that included both graduate and undergraduate students. This kind of collaboration was uncharted territory for both of us at the time, each trained as we were in the time-honored traditions of solo ethnography.4 So it caught our notice upon arriving to Sitka that we were hardly alone in our plans for close work with others: collaboration was the name of the game in the region, at least where the environment was concerned. A new collaborative initiative for sustainability seemed to lurk around every corner of the Alexander Archipelago, home to a flurry of recently launched coalitions bringing together long-opposed stakeholders to promote rural resilience, as these were commonly framed.

One such effort was the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a grant-funded initiative to assemble “a diverse group of stakeholders” representing “all Tongass voices…to create positive dialogue and find shared solutions” for divisive forest management issues. Although timber politics had been splintering Southeast Alaska for decades, the roundtable sought to create exchanges and cultivate consensus to forge “a restoration economy” centered on second-growth logging, responsible stewardship, entrepreneurial investments, and associated efforts to promote community-based and sustainable economies in the region, such as forest and stream restoration projects to repair damaged fish and wildlife habitat. These labor-intensive undertakings in former clear-cut zones rely on the heavy machinery and rural workforce employed in industrial-scale timber production, which drove the region’s economy until the 1990s, though now redirected toward reconstructing the very old-growth ecological conditions that the earlier era of logging destroyed. Like the roundtable itself, these recuperative activities are cast as labors of environmental collaboration and care rather than exploitation.

It’s not as if this rhetoric of collaboration and its centrality in discourses of sustainability were unfamiliar to us, given our research backgrounds. The impetus for our multisited study emerged in part from my longstanding research in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska, where a major proposed mine has been met by an opposition movement built from “unlikely alliances” among groups that have not always been so closely meshed, such as commercial and recreational fishing, environmental, and Alaska Native organizations (Snyder 2014; see also Hébert, forthcoming). Moreover, these anti-mining coalitions have tended to position their cause as joining sides with Bristol Bay’s teeming wild salmon, as I’ve been exploring in some recent talks.5 Whether standing with bears, siding with salmon, or joining voices for coastal resilience, green resource futures clearly celebrate collaborative “working with.” It wasn’t until Danielle and I began our comparative, collaborative work in earnest, however, that we were able appreciate just how pervasive this rhetoric of collaborative engagement has become and how powerfully it seems to be reorienting resource development dynamics broadly.

Our findings to date highlight how the collaborations of the present are forged through new ways of entraining bodies and minds, as rural Alaskans reorient their everyday activities to exhibit more delicate and sustained attunement to one another and to the other species they transform. In pursuing the activities of the restoration economy—such as scientific stream rehabilitation, ecotourism, and artisanal seafood production—coastal residents interact more gently and carefully with fish to facilitate quality salmon sales (Hébert 2010), for example. They also become more intimately acquainted with the wood of younger-growth trees as they seek to mold these challenging building materials into structurally sound green showpieces. Whereas fishers and loggers once competed to use natural resources like salmon and spruce, they now strive to make their skills useful to such species as a means of advancing entrepreneurial ventures and gaining legitimacy in environmental debates. In a similar fashion, the social networks that facilitate these collaborative endeavors also require careful joinings in order to stand. Fastidious attentiveness and intimate interconnections thus emerge as hallmarks of the collaborative environmental care work that we are coming to theorize as a novel form of affective labor (see Hardt 1999; Weeks 2007).

By interpreting the relational work that collaborative modes of environmental action require as a mode of labor, we draw attention to the forms of exploitation that have accompanied them. For instance, in our own work and in other recent research, we see how environmental care often operates today in a way that that expropriates and even alienates.6 As coastal Alaskans piece together a livelihood out of an uneasy mix of the old extractivism and the new environmentalism, they are compelled to invest increasing amounts of uncompensated energy in building coalitions and associated projects whose success is often predicated on the invisibility of that work. As happens in the creation of highly crafted specialty salmon products that seem to have “leapt straight from the sea onto the dinner plate” (Hébert 2010: 578), or in the brochure-ready demonstration of the eco-friendly construction performance of second-growth timber, the ever-more-intensive demands of new modes of collaborative engagement tend to be simultaneously oriented toward concealing their own transformative interventions. Focusing on the labor that is increasingly compulsory but persistently unrecognized in the restoration economy reveals ongoing forms of violence and exclusion that belie its win-win rhetoric.

Yet this is hardly all the collaborative turn in coastal Alaska entails. As for Danielle and me, we would like to think that our collaboration is not mostly about violence and exploitation. And many of those we are working with in Alaska have expressed a similar sense of their own strivings. They speak movingly and powerfully about the personal and political significance of the connections they attribute to their recent collaborations, such as the coming together around salmon that has accompanied the fight against the proposed Pebble Mine. In Bristol Bay, the mobilization against the mine appears to have played a role in setting into motion a variety of dynamics that have put its development in doubt (see Hébert, forthcoming). In Southeast Alaska, however, we’ve observed much more cynicism about win-win coalitions for sustainability, and at least some such undertakings have struggled there. Even at the time of our initial visit to Sitka in the summer of 2012, the Tongass Futures Roundtable was already beginning to disintegrate, and it was formally abandoned the following year. Our comparative research suggests that the common push to stand with species and work with others for environmental care plays out quite differently across Alaskan regions and resource issues, contrasts we’ll examine more closely as we continue our analysis. In the meantime, this influential vision persists in setting the terms of environmental engagements we track—shaping yet another round of policy reformulation for the vast lands of the Tongass and focusing our own ongoing collaboration on the forms of labor that build and sustain such efforts.

Karen Hébert
studies changing natural resource economies and struggles over sustainability in the subarctic North. She is an assistant professor jointly appointed in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. Currently a scholar in residence at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she will join the faculty of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, this coming summer.

Danielle DiNovelli-Lang studies resource politics and human–animal relations in Alaska. She teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.


1. For more information, and how to submit comments, see the USFS Land and Resources Management, the Proposed Land and Resource Management Plan, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

2. Note that “collaboration” and “solidarit(i)és” are the themes of the upcoming Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) and Canadian Anthropology Society and Society for the Anthropology of North America (CASCA & SANA) conferences, respectively, both to be held this coming May.

3. We thank the other members of the research team for their work with us, including K. Alexandra Tuddenham, Taylor Rees, Alaire Hughey, Samara Brock, Kendall Barbery, and Austin Lord.

4. There are noteworthy exceptions to this tradition, past and present, of course—for example, the recent work of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (2009).

5. E.g., New Species of Environmental Politics: Taking Sides with Salmon in Coastal Alaska

6. This was vividly illustrated by the fine papers presented by Alex Blanchette, Mara Buchbinder, Amelia Moore, Elana Buch, and Bridget Guarasci at a panel on care across environmental and medical domains, organized by Bridget Guarasci and Elana Buch, at the 2015 American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference.


Hardt, Michael. 1999. “Affective Labor.” Boundary 2 26, no. 2: 89–100.

Hébert, Karen. 2010. “In Pursuit of Singular Salmon: Paradoxes of Sustainability and the Quality Commodity.” Science as Culture 19, no. 4: 553–581.

Hébert, Karen. Forthcoming, 2016. “Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold: Scientific Risk Assessment, Public Participation, and the Politics of Imperilment in Bristol Bay, Alaska.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Matsutake Worlds Research Group. 2009. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds.” American Ethnologist 36, no. 2: 380–403.

Snyder, Samuel. 2014. “Bristol Bay Wild Salmon, Pebble Mine, and Intractable Conflict: Lessons for Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Environment 56, no. 2: 17–26.

Weeks, Kathi. 2007. “Life within and against Work.” Ephemera 7, no. 1: 233–249.

Cite as: 
Hébert, Karen, and Danielle DiNovelli-Lang. 2016. “Working With, Part II: On the Work of Collaboration in Coastal Alaska.” EnviroSociety. 10 February.

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