On February 19, 2019 Dr. Natalie Dawson joined Audubon Alaska as the new executive director. Natalie comes to Audubon with over fifteen years of experience in science, education, public policy, communications, and outreach within Alaska and across the United States. Although quite busy, she found some time to sit down with us and answer a few questions.
Q. Did you have a specific experience that made you want to pursue a career in conservation?
A. Although I grew up in a big city, my parents introduced me to the outdoors from a young age. I loved being outside, and gravitated to the natural sciences. When I was seventeen, I went on my first backpacking trip with my family in Montana. I had never been west, or seen mountains. While we were hiking, we met a woman who was collecting bear hair for a research project, and I realized that it was possible to pursue a career learning about the natural world. With time, I recognized the importance of communicating science for larger audiences, and I was drawn into public policy and education. Now, in my position with Audubon Alaska, I have the best of all worlds: Science, policy, communication and conservation in action!
Q. What about Audubon made you interested in coming to work for this organization?
A. I was attracted to Audubon Alaska for its long history of informing policy through science-based conservation, which has led to building strong and diverse partnerships. Because it is such a big state, it is important to work across boundaries—geographic, sociopolitical, cultural, and ecological—in order to accomplish tasks like permanent protections for the Arctic Refuge and the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands, or highlighting the importance of climate change.
Q. Alaska has many amazing habitats for birds and other wildlife. Is there one place that stands out to you?
A. I think it is more the processes that stand out to me: the Arctic Refuge’s large caribou migrations across mountains, rivers, and coastal plains; the freshwater of the Western Arctic tundra lakes that create nesting habitat for birds from across the globe; the salmon-rich rivers that feed the islands and old-growth trees of the Tongass National Forest; the glacial outwash of the tributary rivers that create the world’s richest salmon nurseries in Bristol Bay. It is in these dynamic processes that Alaska’s places become special, iconic, and in need of protection.
Q. Do you have a conservation victory of which you're particularly proud?
A. This summer, one of my former students is going to be working on a project that highlights the ecological importance of roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest. She is a scientific illustrator who has worked with the US Botanical gardens, and most recently with the Summit research station in Greenland. As a lifelong learner and someone who believes deeply in the power of education, it’s so rewarding to see students and young people take on activism work as part of a conservation legacy that is built through generations of engaged citizens. I’m proud to be a part of this legacy, both learning from past leaders in Alaska and teaching others about the transformative power of expression and vulnerability through change.
Q. We have to ask. What is your favorite bird?
A. I love the Bohemian Waxwing. I grew up in Michigan where Cedar Waxwings were abundant. When I first started working in Alaska I noticed a bird that looked like a Cedar Waxwing and asked my boss, who informed me it was a Bohemian Waxwing, a close but distinct relative. I see them often, and they remain both a reminder of the north and of my first home.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A. Audubon Alaska has a legacy in this state that stretches more than forty years. At this year’s Alaska Bird Conference, I was lucky enough to sit down with some of the board members of Arctic Audubon, our state chapter in Fairbanks. Arctic Audubon members have been here for many of Alaska’s environmental challenges. Gail Mayo, a resident of Fairbanks since 1960 and an early member of the Alaska Conservation Society remembers when the State of Alaska started to build the Haul road. Ken Whitton spoke of caribou studies in the Arctic before oil and gas development shifted their distributions. Pam Miller has worked on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for over three decades, and reminded everyone in the room that these challenges are not new. This is one example of the people who are behind the Audubon name in Alaska. I am excited to reach out to our chapters, to spend time with our members, and to build an even more connected Audubon Alaska network. This is a big state, and we have a lot of work to do!