Not many people realize it, but this December marks the 30th anniversary of America's biggest parks act, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected nearly two Utah's-worth of Alaskan lands.
It's an epic conservation story, involving the country's thirst for oil, the struggle for Alaskan Native rights, and battles between conservationists and developers. In the end, the Alaska Lands Act attempted an enlightened approach to land preservation, setting aside whole ecosystems instead of small fragments, and preserving within them traditional human uses -- even controversial ones.
The roots of the act go back to Alaska's 1958 statehood law, which allowed the new state to select 103 million acres of federal lands for development and resource extraction such as logging. These lands - fully one-fourth of Alaska's territory -- were meant to support Alaskan schools and communities, but the selection procedures was gummed up when Native Americans laid claim to some of those lands.
Alaska Natives, who occupied over 200 villages, had never reached a settlement with the U.S. government over boundaries, and at the time of statehood, huge development proposals threatened the lands they claimed, including the bizarre federal proposal known as Project Chariot, which proposed exploding atomic bombs to create a deepwater port in northwestern Alaska. Unfortunately, the bombs would also flatten villages and poison the lichen that fed migratory caribou, crucial for many communities. Project Chariot, although perhaps the most extreme, was just one of the many lands schemes that convinced the Interior Department to freeze state selections until Congress settled Native claims.
The stand-off might have persisted but for the 1968 discovery of Alaska's north slope oil. Getting the crude to port required a pipeline across millions of acres of traditional Native lands. Under pressure of oil companies to drill, Congress took just three years to resolve Native claims.
But the selection of state lands was stymied again, this time by shrewd conservationists. With few protected lands in Alaska, they won a clause in the Native settlement act requiring the Interior Department to set aside for preservation some "national interest" lands before Alaska chose places for development and extraction. Conservationists focused on Alaska's iconic interior, but a rowdy group of activists from southeast Alaska wedged themselves into the debate on behalf of the Tongass National Forest. The 17-million acre forest, largest in the nation, lacked designated wilderness and was quickly falling prey to cozy arrangements between the Forest Service and timber companies.
The debate raged throughout the 1970s, pitting famously staunch development advocates like Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens against both local and national conservationists. On another front, Alaska Natives wanted guaranteed access to any new parks or wilderness for traditional subsistence activities, like salmon fishing or caribou hunting, and even when these activities involved mechanical equipment.
In 1978, Alaska politicians dashed compromise attempts. Then in a dramatic response, Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to create 15 national monuments, instantly protecting millions of acres in places like Denali and the Tongass. This forced Stevens and others back to the table. Two more years of fighting ensued, but after Carter and other Democrats lost the 1980 elections, they accepted some hard compromises so the lame-duck Congress could act. That December, it finally passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Its 104 million acres of parks, wilderness and other lands included giant areas like Gates of the Arctic and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Parks, plus wilderness on a third of the Tongass. Unfortunately, the law also included outrageous logging goals on the Tongass and compromise language that left open the possibility of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The act also made it clear that parks and wilderness would be managed differently in Alaska, particularly when it came to subsistence hunting and fishing. Acknowledging that such activities were no longer important solely to Alaska Natives, Congress used race-neutral language that granted all rural Alaskans access to new park lands for subsistence. Established mechanized use was also permitted, even in wilderness. That meant that a chainsaw, snowmobile or even a cabin might be legal in wilderness -- jarring exceptions elsewhere. But by preserving existing human relationships with the land, the compromises improved on a past model that gutted indigenous cultures in the name of conservation, a dark heritage of American parks and wilderness since Yellowstone.
The legacy of the 30-year-old act is written across the Alaskan landscape in sweeping protected areas that are the birthright of every American. The law also challenges us to remember that humans have always been part of the wild -- something we need to keep in mind we try to save the planet's remaining wild places without destroying the cultures that still depend on them.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.