Nelli Atkinson Williams serves as TU Alaska's Special Projects Coordinator, heading the organization's Bristol Bay Sportsmen Outreach program and designing many of our publications. She began working for TU in 2007 based in Lander, Wyoming as the State Coordinator and transferred to Alaska TU in April of 2009.
In this interview, Nelli speaks about her life and work.
What motivated you to launch a career in environmental conservation?
The outdoors has been a key part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Wisconsin and was lucky enough to have parents who loved hiking, fishing, skiing, hunting and other outdoor adventures. I think I caught my first Mississippi bluegill when I was three and was camping and accompanying my parents on various outdoor activities well before that. I remember my sister and I leaving for day-long adventures on my dad's land – we left at sunrise and didn't come home until we were ready for dinner. We built forts, created our own rafts and fishing poles and without even realizing it learned a bunch about the insects, animals, plants and land that we explored throughout our day. On our various family outdoor excursions my mom and dad shared their knowledge of the outdoors with us and instilled in us a respect for natural places and wildlife. The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was required reading. My parents encouraged me to fulfill an obligation that we, as people, have in keeping the land and waters healthy so that they can be enjoyed far into the future.
Why did you become particularly interested in fisheries conservation and protection?
Both my parents love to fish and fresh-caught fish featured prominently in many summer meals. In addition my mom is a teacher and my dad is an aquatic biologist – their careful guidance and a blend of ecological knowledge and inspiring others led me to pursue a conservation career. One of my first "jobs" was helping my dad take water temperature, identify aquatic plant species, and learn about fish habitat on several Wisconsin lakes. I ended up going to school at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point and getting a degree in Natural Resource Management and Environmental Education. As part of my graduate work I landed a job with the Forest Service on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. It was there I really started to learn about salmon, their amazing life cycle and how important they are to both the people and the land. I also met my husband, Austin, a fish biologist turned water law attorney, who took my fly fishing skills to the next level. The more time I spent on rivers the more I realized that trout and salmon are indicative of the health of our land which has a direct effect on the health of people and communities. I began working for Trout Unlimited in 2007 in Wyoming and was lucky enough to transfer to TU's Alaska program when Austin and I decided to make the move back to Alaska.
What do you like about your role at TU Alaska and what are your biggest challenges?
The incredible volunteers I get to work with on a regular basis make my job really fun. Sportsmen and women, businesses, local community leaders…all with unsurpassed passion and dedication to protecting critical salmon and trout habitat in their home rivers is exceptionally inspiring.
What are your biggest challenges?
One of my biggest challenges is not becoming overwhelmed by how much needs to be done in order to ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to eat a fresh sockeye salmon fillet or know the joy of watching a child catch their first fish. Alaska has well-managed and abundant salmon runs, with Bristol Bay as one of the top producers anywhere in the world. Despite that, the region and its salmon face serious environmental threats from the proposed Pebble mine. Next time you are awed by Alaska's beauty and natural grandeur, think about one thing you can do to help make sure it stays the way you love it. If you need some ideas check out www.savebristolbay.org.
What have been the biggest successes so far?
I think there's a lot to be said about the diversity of groups and individuals that are working together to protect Bristol Bay's rivers and fish. It's definitely not a traditional "environmentalist" battle. The movement to stop Pebble mine is collectively driven by sportsmen, commercial fishermen, small business owners, Alaska Native tribal leaders, and many typically pro-development Alaskans who have a stake in the Bristol Bay fishery. Everyone involved should be proud of all they've accomplished by looking beyond their differences and sharing a sustainable vision for the region that supports existing jobs and a truly Alaskan way of life. Now we just have to keep up the good fight.
What do you like to do in your free time?
It depends on the season! In the spring and summer I've been winning my backyard battle with grass and putting in a large vegetable and fruit garden. I also love taking advantage of Alaska's long summer days for trail runs and canoeing on local lakes. Fall finds me fishing with Austin and our golden retriever, Karta, and canning and preserving the summer's abundance. I actually look forward to the somewhat quiet nature of winter – skate skiing, backcountry skiing and cozying up to our wood stove with a good book are among my favorites.
(Photo credit: www.schnitzerphoto.com)