Photo of a river winding among an expanse of trees in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.  (FWS)

The Battle to Conserve the “Crown Jewels”

By Cecil D. Andrus

On the 10th anniversary of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (Alaska Lands Act), the late historian T.H. Watkins wrote that the landmark legislation “was at once one of the noblest and most comprehensive legislative acts in American history, because, with the scratch of the presidential pen that signed it, the act set aside more wild country than had been preserved anywhere in the world up to that time—104.3 million acres.  By itself, the Alaska Lands Act stood as a ringing validation of the best of what the conservation movement had stood for in the century since Henry David Thoreau had walked so thoughtfully in the woods of Walden Pond.” 

The Alaska Lands Act, signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, more than doubled the national park, refuge, and wilderness acreage in Alaska and was a triumph for the broad public interest.  It resolved decades of debate about what portion of America’s “crown jewels” should be forever maintained as places of unspoiled beauty and solitude, where fish, wildlife, and scenic values remain paramount.

But the victory in Alaska did not come easily or quickly, and many in Alaska saw it as nothing short of the heavy hand of the federal government dictating what would happen to Alaska’s land.  Nearly 30 years later, T.H. Watkins’ view has become the prevailing view.  A broad national consensus has emerged that the Alaska legislation does indeed represent the pinnacle of the national effort to preserve the very best of “the last frontier,” where we had the opportunity to do it right the first time.

Why did it take so long and require so much effort?

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.  (NPS)
When Alaska was admitted to the Union in 1959, the Statehood Act acknowledged that claims of native Alaskans had never been settled.  In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act which, among other things, established a deadline for sorting out these important claims.  A key section of the legislation—section 17(d)(2)—decreed that at least 80 million acres of the “national interest” lands be set aside for protection based on their natural features.  The Secretary of the Interior was authorized to administer the funding and the process to settle claims and determine which lands in Alaska were worthy of protection as national parks, monuments, preserves, and wildlife refuges.  But the political clock was ticking.  The land was protected from development for only 7 years.

By the time President Carter took office in 1977 and I moved from Idaho to Washington as his Interior Secretary, much of the time to sort out the Alaska controversy had slipped away.  A variety of political and economic considerations were conspiring to delay a resolution and pave the way for widespread development of the unspoiled land in the last frontier.

The issue had to be forced.  The leverage necessary to gain and keep Alaska and Congressional attention was the use of the then 70-year-old Antiquities Act and Secretarial withdrawal provided in the BLM Organic Act (Federal Land Policy and Management Act) of 1976.  The maps were rolled out in the Oval Office and President Carter was shown that with a stroke of the pen he could set aside 56 million acres to protect special places of national importance, from the Brooks Range in the north of Alaska to the Misty Fjords in the south, while the Secretary withdrew 50 million acres.

“Can I do that?” the President asked.  When told that such Presidential action was the only apparent way to generate a crisis and cause the Congress and the special interests to move in the direction of a comprehensive Alaska agreement, Carter said simply, “Let’s do it.”

We were accused of dictatorial action and, especially by then-Senator Ted Stevens, of misuse of the Antiquities Act.  Before long, the leverage applied by the President’s actions and the threat that Congress could be left out of the policymaking prompted action.

Senators Henry Jackson and Paul Tsongas and Representatives Mo Udall and John Seiberling did much of the heavy lifting on Capitol Hill to knit together a bill that finally passed. Ironically, the nation’s greatest legislative conservation accomplishment was signed into law by a defeated President who, contrary to the popular portrayal of his Presidency, willingly embraced an aggressive, gutsy strategy to protect the nation’s crown jewels.

You will still find some in Alaska and across the West who lament the ability of the national government, acting as trustee for the public’s land, to take action as far reaching as the Alaska legislation, but those voices will continue to diminish with time and the public interest will remain the focus of Western public policy.

President Carter has never gotten the credit he deserves for this remarkable piece of legislation, but perhaps there is adequate satisfaction in the knowledge that one can claim a legacy of protecting rivers, ancient forests, volcanic craters, and critical habitat for grizzly bears and caribou.  Future generations will not remember much of the complex and controversial path and the many obstacles that stood in the way of legislation conserving much of the best of America’s last frontier.  Likewise, few visitors who stand in awe at the rim of the Grand Canyon remember how that great wonder came to be preserved.  We tend to forget the battles, but we all enjoy the benefits of the victories.

Cecil Andrus was Secretary of the Interior from 1977 to 1981 and served four terms as Governor of Idaho, longer than any Governor in the state’s history.  He started his political career as a State Senator at age 29, the youngest person ever elected to that position in Idaho.  He is a veteran of the Korean War and is an avid outdoorsman and conservationist.