“On a Mission” by Melissa Cole Based in Spokane, Melissa travels the world over (and under the sea) with her marine photographer husband. Her art often features wildlife native to the Pacific Northwest, and can be seen in public spaces throughout the region. The inspiration for “On a Mission” came from swimming with red sockeye salmon as they made their way up the Adams River in British Columbia.

Kaitlin Vadla (’08) is on a mission to protect the salmon and the quality of life for Alaska residents in the Cook Inlet watershed.

By Kate Vanskike

“Throughout my studies, the subjects that held my interest were ones that focused on individual and relational human systems, never the environment or conservation,” says Kaitlin Vadla (’08), who left Gonzaga University with a B.A. in international relations and entrepreneurship and a master’s in organizational leadership. “This is not to say that I didn’t find my deepest joys in nature,” she adds. “The places where I feel most alive are hanging from a rock face, skiing down a mountain, climbing through trees, jumping in the ocean.”

She studied for a year at Oxford and earned a postgraduate diploma of science in New Zealand before returning to her home state of Alaska. When she visited in summer 2013, she had no intentions of staying. However, word spread that Vadla was home and would be a good candidate for a new position with Cook Inletkeeper, a citizen-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed through science, advocacy and education.

In what she describes as “the best accident ever,” she took the job as the grass-roots organizer to train volunteers, prepare for public

open-comment sessions, review permit processes and gather petitions. Her sights set on long-term community development, she loves empowering people to have a voice in resource decisions, giving citizens tools to protect water quality and salmon habitat, lobbying with government leaders, and raising awareness of all these efforts.

“I like to think about long-term trajectories, and how social systems change over time,” Vadla says. “I am coming to believe, more and more, that our well-being and prosperity depend on a healthy environment.”

Fishermen and Filmmakers and a Fight for the Water

Vadla believes that Gonzaga’s teaching of stewardship and social responsibility encourages students to be thoughtful, not greedy, and to be with those most in need. Those values are the heart of her work in Alaska, where fishermen are losing jobs due to dwindling fisheries and coastal villages are sinking into the ocean from erosion. “Because of the way climate change affects different parts of the globe disproportionately, Alaska is getting the short end of the stick,” she says.

“People live here because they love the fish or the hunting or the land,” Vadla says. “People from all walks come together over salmon. Everyone shares the value of our rivers, whether from the standpoint of wilderness and recreation or sport and commercial fishing. People don’t always agree on allocation, but when it comes to watching out for habitat, everybody comes together.”

“We want the fish to come back again and again forever, for everyone,” she adds.

That’s why a coal strip-mining operation through a salmon stream is considered a bad idea. A project backed by Texas billionaires proposes to dig up the headwaters of the Chuitna River to mine the coal underneath. As part of a larger coalition, Inletkeeper is working to save the Chuitna, which has all five species of wild Pacific salmon and flows into Cook Inlet. To illustrate the terrible precedent it would set to mine directly through a salmon stream, the coalition produced a film about Chuitna with the help of a National Geographic filmmaker and support from Patagonia.

The Cook Inlet region includes 47,000 square miles; seven national parks and wildlife refuges and four state parks; and 400,000 people who depend on the watershed’s healthy waters and wild habitats. Chief concerns for Cook Inlet are clean water and healthy salmon, two topics that require constant attention to pollution, climate change, coal mining, oil drilling, boating practices, harbor activity and habitat.

During a short visit to Gonzaga in February to share the Chuitna film, Vadla talked with School of Law students on writing rebuttals, and with Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program seniors on economic development and exploitation – which she has come to understand in a whole new way. Her studies in international relations allow her to deal with government leaders and processes; her organizational leadership coursework helps her communicate comfortably with a variety of audiences.

“Even though I’m not doing something that seems like a typical fit for someone with my major, I have been served really well,” she says. “Giving people a say in resource decisions is quite meaningful.”

What she initially thought would be a short-term experience with Inletkeeper looks to be a long-term opportunity.

“The more time I spend here, the more I have a vision for the Alaska I want to see,” she says. “Other people have that vision, too: for their kids to pick blueberries in the mountains, to fish and hunt, and to protect the land that provides so much
for us.”

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