Every year the board of the Copper River Watershed Project requests submissions to honor an individual in our watershed that dedicates themselves through their work, volunteerism and community mindedness to improving our amazing home. From these nominations, the board considers each individual and awards our “Watershed Hero.” This year’s nominations included many folks who have improved their communities and our watershed with their deeds and actions. Among all of the nominees, we received an overwhelming number of submissions for Jason Esler, a resident from McCarthy, Alaska.
Esler lived in McCarthy over the course of almost two decades. He came to the Copper River Basin from Chicago as a young 20-something, bringing along his brother and a strong sense of community involvement that he honed as a child. Growing up, Esler would organize summer camps that challenged his siblings and friends to be better people in their community.
As a young adult, he enjoyed the freedoms that the Wrangell Mountains provide for folks looking for wild adventure. As he aged and started finding his greater role in town, Esler first bought an excavator and formed a homesteading service. He began by helping neighbors clear their properties and helped them learn to be fire-wise around structures.
Eventually, Esler expanded into installing septic and grey water systems, trenching for electrical and well lines and clearing for foundations. Not to be one to rest on his laurels, during this time Esler noticed the lack of a trash and recycling service in the Kennicott Valley and set out to tackle this issue. Setting up one the most comprehensive recycling services in the state, over the years of operation, he recycled thousands of pounds of aluminum, tin, multiple types of plastic and cardboard.
Esler’s other dreams and endeavors included starting a low-cost fuel co-op, a new visitor kiosk at the Kennicott River footbridge, creating McCarthy’s first eco lodge and establishing a local currency, “McCarthy Bucks,” that could be exchanged for goods and services among community members. Like any good small-town Alaskan, there isn’t a person in town that didn’t disagree with Esler vehemently on some issue, but every intention or action was meant to make his community better.
Among all of these efforts, another theme that kept coming up in Esler’s nominations was his ability to share in others dreams and joy. Not only did he do the physical labor that each job entailed, he was genuinely happy to see and help his neighbors. Got a new well? He wanted to come celebrate with you. Need some land cleared? He may just bring a few golf clubs along to enjoy the new “driving range” afterwards. Did your kids need new bikes? Esler would show up one day with bikes in tow.
Sadly, Esler passed away last fall in a tragic firearm accident. He was in Willow where he had chased another work opportunity, 40,000 cords of birch trees that he was processing and selling across the state. Esler was a tireless worker and champion of community projects and for this, we are happy to honor him as this year’s Watershed Hero.
Community engagement, waste management and clean-up efforts were things that Elser was deeply passionate about and we remember and celebrate Esler’s life through the Watershed Hero Award and a campaign in his name towards a long-awaited clean-up effort on the Kotsina River delta north of the Chitina bridge. Abandoned vehicles, RVs and large debris such as old fishwheels are spread across the landscape. Help us fundraise to get this area restored to the beautiful pristine place it was and should be by visiting our crowdfunding page at bit.ly/50n1chu. The Copper River Watershed Project will match the first $500 donated to this cleanup effort under Esler’s campaign.
Nik Merlino is board chair for the Copper River Watershed Project.