An Ashland High School graduate hopes he can turn a piece of a southeast Alaskan island into a vibrant field school where researchers and students from across the country come to study.
Zach Brown, a 2003 AHS valedictorian, is one of four Stanford doctoral students who are forming a nonprofit to buy the Hobbit Hole, a 5-acre parcel and homestead on the largest of Alaska's Inian Islands, between the Gulf of Alaska and Glacier Bay National Park.
Brown grew up in the nearby Gustavus — a town with a population of just over 400 — living there until it came time for high school.
"It's so small, that it doesn't really have a high school," said Brown, whose parents packed up their belongings and flew to Portland to find a school for their son.
There the family bought a car, and began driving south, landing in Ashland because of its size and the fact that it was a college town.
After graduating from high school, Brown majored in biology and chemistry at Pomona College in Southern California and now is in his final of six years in Stanford's Ph.D. program in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science.
When he heard the Hobbit Hole was for sale a few years ago, he began dreaming of turning the homestead into a field school where students could come to study, immersing themselves in the ecosystem.
"It's such a special opportunity for education," said Brown. "We want to expose people to this really phenomenal place."
Brown and three other Ph.D. students began fundraising to create a nonprofit, the Inian Islands Institute, hoping to take ownership of the Hobbit Hole, consisting of three houses, a workshop and dock, all surrounded by temperate rain forest and glaciers.
In an initial fundraising campaign that ended this week for the Inian Islands Institute, Brown and his team raised about $25,000. They plan to use the money for legal fees associated with starting their nonprofit, and an official appraisal of the Hobbit Hole property, among other startup costs. A purchase price for the property has not yet been established.
Brown said they are still very far away financially from being able to purchase the property, but the group has hopes of finding an "angel donor" who values their plan and will financially support it.
To help raise awareness about the project, Brown will hike and kayak more than 1,700 miles from Stanford to the Hobbit Hole this spring, once he completes his Ph.D.
— Teresa Ristow