WWF’s Kyle Newman on conservation, community, and indispensable Indigenous knowledge

Headshot: Kyle Newman, WWF Arctic Program, July 2022

Kyle Newman, WWF’s community partnership leader for Oceans, was born and raised in Alaska. In his work, he finds himself most often listening—trying to understand the needs of individuals and communities and building trust. Being present with someone else—being human and in community with them—is of utmost importance. As Newman’s Gram taught him, we, as people, are more similar than not and this becomes ever clearer if we just take the time to visit.

Newman is the proud parent of two elementary school-aged kids, who keep him busy and constantly thinking, "It really does take a village."

Would you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to WWF?

Alaska became the 49th state of the Union in 1959. My maternal grandmother—or “Gram” as I’ve always called her—was born on a cold April morning in Bethel, Alaska (Mamterilleq in the Yup’ik language) in 1941. As the oldest of 10 children (European/Alaska Native), she grew up in a time when conservation wasn’t a household word—it was a way of life.

Fast forward nearly four decades and I was also born in the same place, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. My favorite memories are of boating among the communities and spending time with my family of more than 20 cousins, eight aunties, and two uncles. My local travels aside, 86% of Alaskan communities cannot be reached by road so subsistence activities such as fishing, hunting, and gathering berries and greens are not a choice—they were also a way of life.

I joined WWF during the pandemic, a time of global uncertainty and change. I was working in the mental health field and had a lot of time between being in-clinic and at home to think and talk with family and friends over the phone. This eventually led me to explore ways I could use my background in community work to help preserve places like Bristol Bay and the Bering Strait.

How important is Indigenous knowledge to conservation?

The communities in the Arctic have been managing terrestrial and marine resources, such as fisheries, for generations. When I think about Indigenous conservation, one of my first memories is that of my Gram telling me stories of the places that she would go with her parents and siblings—where to pick blueberries and salmon berries; where to fish for coho (silver) salmon versus sockeye (red); what time of the year moose hunting was; how much to take versus leave. Little did I know at the time that this was traditional knowledge that had been passed down to her for generations. It was this Indigenous, place-based knowledge that provided people with everything they needed to survive and thrive. Without the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, the picture of the natural world will always be incomplete. And without that whole picture, we, as a conservation organization, miss an opportunity to do the right thing—to listen to the experts who have the knowledge that we need to save the only planet we all share.

What experiences from previous jobs have proved valuable to your current role?

Prior to my role at WWF, I worked within the Alaska Native Medical Center healthcare system as a clinician focused on behavioral health and working with people across Alaska. A large portion of my role there was to travel around the state and listen to the stories of others. The region's history with colonialism and the impact of those actions has led to a loss of culture and community autonomy. Hearing the stories is important, but really listening is what matters. Listening to the needs of communities and elevating those voices is what I find myself doing in my role now. Communities know what their needs are, and people want and deserve to be not just heard but understood. They are the experts. Communities are reclaiming autonomy, and that includes environmental justice and food sovereignty.

What does environmental justice mean to you, and how have you seen the concept play out in practice in the communities we work with?

All people have an inherent right to live in a place that provides and sustains for future generations. Environmental justice is our shared responsibility to work together to protect the natural world for all of us. It also means we must acknowledge past wrongs and work with communities and governments to repair the harm to people and nature. I saw this play out when WWF had the opportunity to work with a tribal leader of a remote community in Alaska when he traveled to Washington, DC to speak about his community’s experiences with rapid climate change and the crucial need to include traditional knowledge in conservation strategies.

View of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from space in bright green with dark waters

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from space.

What element of your work with communities has particularly resonated with you?

Collaborating with the community in Kotlik in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where I grew up to use traditional knowledge to better inform Western science on the behavior and migratory patterns of beluga whales on the Yukon River was special because it felt like being at home, while also contributing to the wellbeing of the community and the conservation of belugas. The reason this story stands out is because the community, for generations, has been aware of belugas using the river system to follow salmon as they are spawning. The challenge is that when US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) scientists estimate the beluga population, they fly transecting lines in the open water, but not in-river. So, the overall beluga count was missing a ton of data. The community said, ‘We know there are a lot of belugas in the river that aren’t being counted.’ So they co-designed a project to test out acoustic monitoring devices in the Yukon River to confirm. Of the 87 days of the study, 83 of those days confirmed the presence of belugas in-river, which is a great example of traditional knowledge adding to Western science, which is important for managing the species for both people and nature. Contributing to nature and combining the work with my personal knowledge of the region was something I wouldn’t have thought about doing prior to my role at WWF.

What gives you hope for the future amidst the challenges you see communities facing?

The Youths and Elders I’ve met in Arctic and Indigenous communities and the sharing of knowledge, the connection to culture, and working together is inspirational. Bringing community leaders to the forefront to access the places and people needed to make long-term change—while also bringing WWF resources to communities and working with those leaders and members of the community—gives me a lot of hope.

Learn more about WWF's work in the Arctic and with people and communities.