Scott Hed is the founder and Director of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska (SAA). The SAA is a program of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, an Anchorage-based non-profit. Scott’s background isn’t what one would typically expect when thinking of someone involved in conservation advocacy. But it’s a neat story.
Scott grew up in southern Minnesota “farm country,” with lots of corn and soybean fields surrounding his rural community. He was lucky to have parents with a love of travel, and by the time he graduated from high school he and his brother had criss-crossed the country, visiting most of the United States. Summer vacations to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota were an annual ritual. His family enjoyed fishing and hunting, and these pastimes are still pursued by Scott today.
Scott attended Saint Olaf College in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics with a concentration in accounting. He was a big fan of the movie Wall Street (the original 1987 one) and fancied himself someday working in the fast-paced world of high finance. After college, Scott worked 10 years for a privately-held company in the commercial finance industry. He worked in credit analysis, collections, management, and sales. As is the way of the world, change is never far. The company he worked for was sold twice in the span of 12 months, and the decision was made to close the small branch location where Scott was working in Sioux Falls, SD. Scott was offered the opportunity to remain with the company in his choice of a few different roles. But, at the age of 32, he instead asked himself the question “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”
Rather than move back to Minnesota, Scott decided to take a 10-month severance package in the spring of 2001 and see where that led him. Having not had a free summer since junior high school, it was a welcome break. He had visited Alaska a few times beginning in 1998, he had developed a love for the Last Frontier and its wild places and creatures. Scott spent a month and a half in Alaska that summer, including 3 weeks above the Arctic Circle. Through that trip, he met the people who would radically change the direction of his career path.
Scott went to work for the Alaska Conservation Foundation in the fall of 2001, educating people in the Midwest about public lands in Alaska. After a few years, his employer asked if he’d like to modify his work plan to focus on outreach to the fishing and hunting community. His initial response was “You’re still going to pay me, right?” Scott essentially acted as an entrepreneur and his start-up became the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska (SAA). SAA works with hunters and anglers, hunting and fishing conservation groups, companies in the hunting and fishing product industries, lodges, guides, outfitters, and members of the outdoor media. Scott still can’t believe this is his job.
What are you working on right now?
Most of my efforts are devoted to protection of the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest wild salmon fishery, is one of the top sport fishing and hunting destinations on the planet, and is the traditional home for a vibrant Alaska Native population and culture. Even by Alaska’s high standards, Bristol Bay is widely considered some of the best that Alaska has to offer. The region is remote and accessible only by plane or boat. Unfortunately, the region also holds mineral riches and is facing the threat of mining development on a massive scale. Foreign interests are proposing to build the largest open-pit gold/copper/molybdenum mine in North America in the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay’s most prolific river systems. I’m part of the campaign working to prevent that from happening and to keep Bristol Bay wild.
How did you come to start working in the nonprofit field and do you have any advice to anyone looking to enter into this field?
My educational background and work history was completely unrelated to the work I do now. I credit my good fortune at having my current job to: 1) keeping an open mind to new opportunities; 2) seeing a need and trying to fill a niche; and 3) working hard to make good contacts and leveraging their strengths in ways to contribute to the cause. My biggest advice to anyone looking to enter any field is: Find a job that merges what you enjoy doing, have a passion for, and are good at. It makes going to work each day all that much easier. I believe far too few people can honestly say “I love what I’m going to do at work today.”
Why is this issue so important?
This issue is rather unique, in that it has united forces on our side who have traditionally been adversaries. Before the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine came along, the three user groups in the Bristol Bay region used to fight over allocation of the salmon resource. Now that they’re facing a common adversary, the Native subsistence, commercial fishing, and sport fishing and hunting interests have all joined together to fight for what supports them all. It’s unprecedented. The sheer numbers of salmon that return to Bristol Bay are staggering – over 40 million sockeye salmon alone, each year. Those fish provide the local residents with employment and food, and also support a commercial fishing industry worth upwards of $400 million annually. I work alongside the subsistence and commercial fishing components of the campaign, and even my segment is incredibly diverse. I work with everything from catch and release anglers to big game hunters (about as far from catch and release as it gets), with companies who make fly rods to manufacturers of firearms, and with sportsmen and women from across the USA as well as many other countries. This is also not a partisan issue; many who favor all types of resource development (including mines in other places in Alaska) believe the proposed Pebble Mine is simply the wrong idea in the wrong place.
What is the latest news on the progress of the campaign and what can we expect in the New Year?
Until recently, most of the real opportunity to engage on this campaign has taken place in the State of Alaska. I’m very excited that is beginning to change, as the federal government will play a major role in the decision over whether or not Bristol Bay is an appropriate place for large-scale mining development. People around the nation have been waiting for a meaningful chance to make a difference, and that is coming in 2011. Folks will have the ability to register their opinions on this matter with the Environmental Protection Agency as well as their members of Congress.
What are the biggest threats to Bristol Bay from the proposed mine?
One of my colleagues succinctly describes the threat as three-fold: Size, location, and type of mine. We’ve already covered the “location” piece, so here’s a quick take on the other two. The Pebble deposit is very low-grade, meaning that the percentage of the valuable stuff in the ground is very miniscule. However, the sheer size of the deposit means that the project could still be economical for the developer…but only if done on a massive scale. The project could produce as much as 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste, that would have to be stored forever, behind earthen dams built in an extremely active seismic area. Most folks think it’s simply not worth the risk. In addition to the threat of a catastrophic event, the entire region’s wild character would forever be lost with the creation of a road network, new port, power grid, etc. If the Pebble project were to receive permits to be built, there are thousands of square miles of additional state and federal lands at risk of being developed. Then you’re not dealing with just one big mine, but potentially a handful. This is all about long-term versus short-term values.
How do you bring ideas to life?
For many people, Alaska is a dream destination that they hope to visit sometime in their life. For those who enjoy fishing and hunting, the percentage is probably even higher than the population at large. So, I’ve already got that going for me. I begin by engaging people about Alaska…have you ever been there, do you want to go there someday, etc.? Once that interest is established, it’s not too hard to move the conversation along the lines of “True, Alaska still is the ‘last frontier’ to a large degree. However, there are some major storm clouds on the horizon…have you ever heard of the Pebble Mine?” When people first hear about it they usually can’t believe it’s really being proposed. Once I assure them the threat is all too real, the next thing they want to know is how can they help. Alaska holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many people – I just play off that truth.
What are a couple major successes you have had so far?
One major success for the campaign as a whole would be the fact that the proposal to build the Pebble Mine has far less support with Alaska residents than most resource development projects. The tremendous work being done by my colleagues in Alaska has made this an issue that people are thinking long and hard about. Maybe there are some places that ought to be off limits to projects like this. It’s not like these are the stereotypical tree-huggers either – these are hard-core commercial fishermen, bear hunting guides, and others you wouldn’t expect.
Personally, I’m proud of building the network of so many in the hunting and fishing world into a unified voice on this issue. I helped lead an effort that recruited nearly 300 sporting interests to contact the Bureau of Land Management asking that federal agency to protect their lands in the Bristol Bay region. Again, it’s a very diverse set of allies I count myself fortunate to work with. It’s been a lot of work getting these interests up to speed on the issue and getting them to join the campaign. These same individuals, groups, and businesses will be engaging with the EPA and with Congress in the coming year, which is extremely exciting.
What is one mistake you have made that you have learned from?
In my old job, I first heard the phrase “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission” from a salesman I was traveling with. In my current job, I work as a one-man operation. I do work in coordination with many other people and groups, but if you looked at the employee list for the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska…it’s just me. Having that much autonomy is nice, yet I also operate from a remote office three time zones away so I sometime struggle with checking in with the home office to get permission for some things. The main thing is I try not to make the same mistake twice.
Where have you found the greatest success in spreading the word about this issue?
We utilize a few different methods in getting the word out. From old-school face-to-face interaction at live events to working with the outdoor media to get coverage in various forms of media. I’d have to say that email, the internet and the advent of social media have made getting the word out much more efficient and timely.
What piece of technology has been instrumental in helping with the campaign?
I suppose I could say the internet, or high-definition video cameras, or something all shiny and new but I’m going off the beaten path on this one. I bet I’m the only person who may ever give you this answer: the bush plane. Since the Bristol Bay region is so remote, the main method of transportation in-region is the tried and true bush plane. If a person has an aversion to flying, they probably wouldn’t last long out there. But there’s simply no better way to get someone to understand the values of the region and the gravity of the threat facing it than to show them around. We work with some extremely generous and talented pilots who help us all the time.
What are some of the other conservation projects have you been working on around the state?
While the Bristol Bay campaign occupies the lion’s share of my time, the other major issue I work on is trying to find a way to sustainably manage the nation’s largest national forest, the Tongass in southeast Alaska. It’s had a history of large-scale timber harvest that has negatively impacted numerous areas on the forest. For this campaign, it’s all about finding the balance between an appropriately-sized timber industry that can co-exist with the growing tourism and recreational fishing and hunting industries as well as the residents of the region.
Finally, how can people like me help with getting the word out or donate to the cause?
The ease of getting the word out online is tremendous. Visit www.SportsmansAlliance4AK.org to learn more about the different campaigns, where you can see us in person at different events, and yes to also make a donation to the cause. Visit and share the site with anyone you think might care about this stuff. You can sign up for our Facebook and Twitter groups too. Another thing would be to watch the award-winning documentary film Red Gold and share it widely. It tells the story of Bristol Bay and this looming threat far better than any other method of outreach. And I’m proud to say I have an extremely minor listing in the credits of the film.
What do you see yourself doing when you’re 80 years old?
Hopefully I live that long! Life expectancy continues to increase, so I’ll play my odds. I hope that I’m in good health, enjoying the company of my wife as we split our time between the USA and someplace with a warm climate. We love to travel and plan to spend part of our retirement years in different countries we’ve enjoyed visiting. It’s all part of keeping an open mind and having a thirst for adventure.
What will you do when you win the campaign to protect Bristol Bay?
That’ll be a good problem to face someday. I’ve actually been asked that question. My answer is usually that I’d trade job security in a heartbeat if we could protect Bristol Bay permanently right now. After all, I’m guessing there might be other places I could work on saving for future generations of hunters and anglers. But Alaska will always be my number one work passion.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.