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 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 sixth and final year 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.
Last summer, they were able to take 12 Stanford students to the homestead, the only buildings on the otherwise uninhabited chain of Inian Islands.
Brown said the students enjoyed the "magical" experience.
"This place has so much to offer," Brown said. "When you're living there, you're taking part in the ecosystem."
Stanford student Anna Wietelmann said the Hobbit Hole was a unique place to travel to and study.
"Life at the Hobbit Hole not only fully immersed us in the social, ecological systems of Alaska and what it means to live sustainably as part of these systems, but also reminded us what really matters in life: nature, friends and great, home-grown food," Wietelmann wrote in a testimonial about the trip. "Even for a seasoned traveler, it was an eye-opening experience."
In an initial fundraising campaign that ended last 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 while the property is up for sale to the public, the owners have agreed to work with Brown and his team, and openly discuss the situation with them if another potential buyer were to come along.
"They're very supportive of what we're trying to do," Brown said of the Howe family, Hobbit Hole's owners. "They would like it to be us."
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.
"I am very much planning to spread the word on my trip," Brown said.
More than a decade after his high school graduation, Brown said, it's unlikely he will make it through Ashland on the journey back to Alaska this spring, but said his time spent there was influential in his budding career in science.
"Ashland's influence on me — it was substantial," said Brown, crediting former Ashland High School biology teacher Brian Bolstad and teacher Jim Lebo with pushing him to study science.
"My biology and chemistry classes from Bolstad and Lebo were some of my favorites, and helped direct me towards environmental sciences," he said.
Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.