Imagine if the National Park System could grow, overnight, by 43 million acres. That's exactly what happened nearly three decades ago in Alaska.
With a few strokes of his pen on December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter brought that many acres and eight national parks into the system, which grew, acreage-wise, by more than half. Another 60 million acres were protected as wildlife refuges, conservation areas, and designated wilderness.
Of course, nowhere else in the United States but Alaska could that much acreage be added to the park system in one fell swoop. But with President Carter's signature to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act the National Park System gained Denali, Gates of Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks.
Such a move likely would be much harder today with Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" and "Mine, Baby, Mine" Palin serving as Alaska's governor. Or perhaps not. After all, in 1978 President Carter had resorted to executive privilege -- the Antiquities Act, to put a finer point on it -- to initially protect many of the 43 million acres as national monuments.
Of historical significance, President Carter wielded the most substantial use of the Antiquities Act when he proclaimed those 15 national monuments after Congress had adjourned without passing a major Alaska lands bill strongly opposed in that state. Now, Congress did pass a revised version of the bill in 1980 incorporating most of these national monuments into national parks and preserves, but before it did so it saw that the act was worded in a fashion to prevent further use of the proclamation authority in Alaska. (Similar language was seen back in 1950 when Congress placed most of the Jackson Hole National Monument into Grand Teton National Park.)
Some believe the act's passage marked the most significant moment in Alaska's history, both because of the lands it protected and because of the 103 million acres of land it allowed the state to pluck from the federal landscape.
Those who ponder such things might be amazed at the fact that it took only three years for ANILCA to move from its initial version to President Carter's signature. After all, the proposed America's Red Rock Wilderness Act that conservationists want to use to protect more than 9 million acres of canyon country and high desert on the Colorado Plateau in Utah has been kicking around Congress since 1989.
But don't get the idea that ANILCA was controversy-free. After all, it placed scads of acreage off-limits to mining and logging, created access problems by designating wilderness, and generated concerns over how the legislation might impact Native American subsistence and access rights. The results regarding the latter point have been mixed. On one hand, recreational all-terrain vehicle use within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has been controlled, if not banned, while ATV use for subsistence purposes was permitted.
For "the rest of the story," one needs to remember that the roots of ANILCA were embedded in the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s that left Americans gasping, so to speak, for gas. While President Carter recognized the need for a pipeline to funnel oil from Alaska's North Slope to the port of Valdez, he felt an equal obligation to protect other federal lands from energy exploration.
“We have the imagination and the will as a people to both develop our last great natural frontier and also preserve its priceless beauty for our children…,” he said at the time.
Over the years, politicians have tried to tinker with ANILCA to make it more industry-friendly. And those attempts have been turned aside. Here's what Don Barry, then the assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, had to tell the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources in October 1999 when it was mulling tweaks to the act that would allow development, energy exploration, roads and even airports into some of the lands -- including national parks -- protected by the act:
ANILCA is widely considered to be one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation ever enacted. ANILCA puts in trust for future generations extraordinary features of America's "last frontier," largely as additions to the National Park, National Wildlife Refuge, National Wild and Scenic River, National Forest, and National Wilderness Preservation Systems. In the words of this Committee's 1979 report, the conservation system units in Alaska protect, among other things, "a full range of nature and history..., mighty landforms and entire ecosystems of naturally occurring...processes, intricate waterforms and spectacular shorelines, majestic peaks and gentle valleys, diverse plant communities and equally diverse fish and wildlife."
Today we continue to argue over how best to use our public lands. While those arguments go on, we're fortunate that the following places exist thanks to the foresight of President Carters and others three decades ago:
* Gates of the Arctic National Park, which contains approximately 7,052,000 acres of public lands and Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, which contains about 900,000 acres of federal lands. The park and preserve shall be managed for, among other things, maintaining the wild and undeveloped character of the area, including opportunities for visitors to experience solitude, and the natural environmental integrity and scenic beauty of the mountains, forestlands, rivers, lakes, and other natural features; to provide continued opportunities, including reasonable access, for mountain climbing, mountaineering, and other wilderness recreational activities, and; to protect habitat for and the populations of, fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep moose, wolves, and [raptors]. Subsistence uses by local residents are permitted in the park, where such uses are traditional.
* Kenai Fjords National Park, which contains approximately 567,000 acres of public lands. The park shall be managed for, among other things, maintaining unimpaired the scenic and environmental integrity of the Harding Icefield, its outflowing glaciers, and coastal fjords and islands in their natural state, and; to protect seals, sea lions, other marine mammals, and marine and other birds and to maintain their hauling and breeding areas in their natural state, free of human activity which is disruptive to their natural processes. The legislation allows the secretary of the Interior to develop access to the Harding Icefield and to allow use of mechanized equipment on the icefield for recreation.
* Kobuk Valley National Park, which contains approximately 1,710,000 acres of public lands. The park shall be managed for, among other things, maintaining the environmental integrity of the natural features of the Kobuk River Valley, including the Kobuk, Salmon, and other rivers, the boreal forest, and the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, in an undeveloped state; to protect and interpret, in cooperation with Native Alaskans, archaeological sites associated with Native cultures; to protect migration routes for the Arctic caribou herd; to protect habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife including but not limited to caribou, moose, black and grizzly bears, wolves, and waterfowl and to protect the viability of subsistence resources. Subsistence uses by local residents shall be permitted in the park. The Interior secretary has the authority to permit aircraft to continue to land at sites in the upper Salmon River watershed.
* Lake Clark National Park, which contains approximately 2,439,000 acres of public lands, and Lake Clark National Preserve, which contains approximately 1,214,000 acres of public lands. The park and preserve shall be managed for, among other things, protecting the watershed necessary for perpetuation of the red salmon fishery in Bristol Bay; to maintain unimpaired the scenic beauty and quality of portions of the Alaska Range and the Aleutian Range, including active volcanoes, glaciers, wild rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and alpine meadows in their natural state, and; to protect habitat for and populations of fish and wildlife including but not limited to caribou, Dall sheep, brown/grizzly bears, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. Traveler trivia: Before it became a national park, Lake Clark was perhaps best known as the backcountry home of Dick Proenneke.
* Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, which contains approximately 8,147,000 acres of public lands, and Wrangell-Saint Elias National Preserve, which contains approximately 4,117,000 acres of public lands. The park and preserve shall be managed for, among other things, maintaining unimpaired the scenic beauty and quality of high mountain peaks, foothills, glacial systems, lakes, and streams, valleys, and coastal landscapes in their natural state; to protect habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife including but not limited to caribou, brown/grizzly bears, Dall sheep, moose, wolves, trumpeter swans and other waterfowl, and marine mammals, and; to provide continued opportunities including reasonable access for mountain climbing, mountaineering, and other wilderness recreational activities. Subsistence uses by local residents shall be permitted in the park, where such uses are traditional.
* Glacier Bay National Monument, by the addition of an area containing approximately 523,000 acres or Federal land. Approximately 57,000 acres of additional public land is hereby established as Glacier Bay National Preserve. The monument also was redesignated as Glacier Bay National Park. The lands are to be managed for, among other things, protecting a segment of the Alsek River, fish and wildlife habitats and migration routes and a portion of the Fairweather Range including the northwest slope of Mount Fairweather.
* Katmai National Monument was enlarged via the addition of an area containing approximately 1,037,000 acres of public land. Approximately 380,000 acres of additional public land was established as Katmai National Preserve. Additionally, the monument was redesignated as Katmai National Park. The monument addition and preserve shall be managed for, among other things, protecting habitats for, and populations of, fish and wildlife including, but not limited to, high concentrations of brown/grizzly bears and their denning areas; to maintain unimpaired the water habitat for significant salmon populations, and; to protect scenic, geological, cultural and recreational features.
* Mount McKinley National Park, through the addition of approximately 2,426,000 acres of public land, and approximately 1,330,000 acres of additional public land is hereby established as Denali National Preserve, and then redesignated as Denali National Park and Preserve. The park additions and preserve shall be managed for, among other things, protecting and interpreting the entire mountain massif, and additional scenic mountain peaks and formations; protecting habitat for, and populations of, fish and wildlife including, but not limited to, brown/grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, swans and other waterfowl, and; to provide continued opportunities, including reasonable access, for mountain climbing, mountaineering and other wilderness recreational activities. That portion of the Alaska Railroad right-of-way within the park shall be subject to such laws and regulations applicable to the protection of fish and wildlife and other park values as the Interior secretary, with the concurrence of the secretary of Transportation, may determine. Subsistence uses by local residents shall be permitted in the additions to the park where such uses are traditional.