ANILCA as an International Model for Conservation Legislation

The authors, Egan Cornachione and Paula Pletnikoff, served as Geoscientists-in-the-Parks interns at the NPS Region 11 office in Anchorage, Alaska during the summer of 2019. Paula is now a master's student at the University of Iceland studying ways to advance the sustainable development of geothermal resources. Egan is currently a Rangeland Management Specialist with the Inyo National Forest in Bishop, California.
Three men with backpacks hike a boulder-strewn dry creek bed into the mountains.
Hunters hiking into Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve.


In 1980, after decades of research in Alaska and years of legislative planning, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Widely regarded as the single-largest act of conservation in U.S. history, ANILCA created over 104 million acres of new protected areas in Alaska. Importantly, though, it set a standard for how conservation legislation could be conceived at a large scale with space for a more complex relationship between protected ecosystems and the people who depend upon them. Viewed in retrospect, ANILCA incorporated many aspects of what are currently considered best practices in conservation legislation. In this article, we summarize a framework for considering the distinguishing features of ANILCA from a policy perspective, and how this framework compares to the most recent guidelines for the establishment of protected areas put forth by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We also try to show that, despite its tumultuous history, ANILCA set an early standard for how to design thoughtful and enduring conservation legislation.

Relevant History of ANILCA

ANILCA was formally conceived between 1971 and 1978, with ongoing refinement up to its passage in 1980. An almost irreplicable concoction of environmental, social, political, and institutional factors led to the Act’s unique character compared to many conservation legislations of the time (Cornachione and Pletnikoff In Press). Environmentally, Alaska’s character as a largely undeveloped state with few roads and diverse natural resources created a relatively open canvas for conservationists. Socially, Alaska had a small population with limited infrastructure and a different paradigm of Tribal sovereignty than elsewhere in the U.S. Politically, the 1970s were a period of heightened national sensitivity and motivation for environmental protection.Finally, the institutional hallmarks of ANILCA’s development included:

  1. a coordinated planning body (the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission [JPC]),
  2. newly mandated preparation of Environmental Impact Statements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and
  3. extensive public comment from local, state, and national stakeholders.

Further, the Department of the Interior had both an avowed interest in Alaska to expand its portfolio of parklands and other protected lands, as well as a growing awareness of the importance of including stakeholders in conservation planning and the protection of large ecosystems (Alaska Task Force 1965, Udall 1964). Each of these factors, and a diverse host of others, played a critical role in creating what would eventually become ANILCA.

Williss (1985) and Nelson (2004) emphasize that ANILCA was born not out of a few years of legislative deliberation, but rather from decades of ongoing research, planning, and field study in Alaska. Some of the distinctions of ANILCA—permitting subsistence use and large-scale ecosystem protection, for example— were hardly new ideas once the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 spurred the formal selection of lands for what would later be ANILCA. Professor Richard Cooley, a historian of Alaska conservation, wisely foresaw the potential opportunity for large-scale conservation in Alaska, noting in 1966 that:

Alaska is undertaking a pioneering effort… Its magnificent scenic, wildlife, and wilderness resources are largely intact, and there has been no complicated pattern of land settlement and development. And it has embarked on its land program at a time when knowledge of the principles of land management and conservation is far greater than it was when the West was the last frontier. (Cooley 1966: 3)

The allowances for subsistence activities were similarly widely considered to be a requisite part of conservation in Alaska. While Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans had to advocate for their right to subsistence hunt, fish, and gather, Belous (1991) suggests that it was apparent early in the development of ANILCA that the conceptualization of people as part of the landscape would be a requisite part of any conservation legislation in Alaska.

Further, and most relevant to this paper, the NPS had a keen interest in maintaining a leadership role in conservation globally. Former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall spoke at the IUCN’s First World Congress on National Parks in 1962 (NPS 1962). NPS Director George Hartzog stated his desire to integrate human and ecological systems in future NPS efforts by joining the Man and the Biosphere program in 1971 (UNESCO 2000). Such efforts reflect the early awareness that conservation in Alaska would have international implications.

In short, ANILCA was conceived out of a conglomeration of circumstance, re-search, and planning that created a unique conservation vision, with its international relevance recognized well before it became law. Cornachione and Pletnikoff (In Press) document the conservation history of ANILCA and propose that it can be conceptualized under a framework of seven key features that elucidate the conservation thinking behind the Act.

Key Features of ANILCA

(1) A System of Representative Ecosystems

The starting point for ANILCA was to protect a system of intact ecosystems, each of which represented a major ecoregion of the state (e.g., Selkregg 1974, JPC 1977, and Draft Environmental Impact Statements for proposed Conservation System Units 1973-1975). While ANILCA protected several high-profile tourist areas and unique geologic, historic, or scientifically important features, the legislation was conceived from a top-down approach of identifying ecoregions (i.e., Arctic tundra, boreal forest, coastal rainforest, and others) and ensuring the protection of resources within them. Cornachione and Pletnikoff (In Press) note that this was based heavily on data collected throughout the 1950s and 1960s and compiled in Alaska Regional Profiles (Selkregg 1974).

(2) Ecosystem-scale Conservation

Conservation planners for ANILCA drew boundaries along natural features, extending well beyond distinct sites of historic, geologic, scenic, or scientific significance. The NPS team tasked with recommending areas for protection after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act first identified areas with significant values. Then, where possible, the team drew boundaries to include “complete watersheds, sufficient intact habitats, and adequate units of geological importance” (NPS 1972). Provisions for cooperative management and flexibility to adjust boundaries in the future were included in the text of ANILCA to further ensure ecosystem-scale protection. 

(3) Protection of Cultural and Societal Existence

One of the hallmarks of ANILCA is its protection of the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives and rural residents. Subsistence use of natural resources has transpired in Alaska for thousands of years by Native residents and for generations by non-Natives. Alaska citizens, lobbyists, and legislators along with their advisors recognized, or were convinced to recognize, the necessity to protect the cultures and lifestyles of Native and rural Alaskans. There is a distinction made in Section 801 of ANILCA for the protection of subsistence for Alaska Natives, the main difference being between the protection of “cultural existence” for Alaska Natives and protection of “social existence” for non-Natives. The protection of cultural artifacts and, notably, the traditional practices of subsistence use of renewable resources is outlined in title VIII of ANILCA as a part of the Act’s conservation vision.

(4) Cooperative Interagency Management

Appreciating that ANILCA was creating a patchwork of land ownership, lawmakers included stipulations to encourage the co-operation among federal land managers and between federal, state, and Native land managers. The now-defunct Alaska Land Use Council, as well as the interagency Alaska Public Lands Information Centers are examples of the intention to boost cooperation and foster management across boundaries.

(5) Sustained Stakeholder Engagement

A wide range of stakeholders were given many opportunities to provide input to the JPC and Congress. The importance of stakeholder engagement was further recognized in ANILCA through the creation of Subsistence Resource Councils and provisions the hiring of residents local to the protected areas (Williams 1996). This has helped increase public awareness of issues around parks and protected areas and gives a voice to those directly impacted by decisions.

(6) Integrated Management Flexibility

The JPC recognized the need for “land use patterns to respond to the changing needs of society over time” and that “the ‘appropriate’ land use of today may not be that of 20 or 100 years from now” (JPC 1977, IV-1-4). It was evident that the economic needs, population, technology, and even the environment would change, therefore, ANILCA was designed to be flexible to adapt to these needs while still achieving the original conservation goals. For example, Title XI of ANILCA explicitly recognized that Alaska’s transportation infrastructure would likely need to expand as the state grew. The title provides for the informed and thoughtful future development of roads, transmission lines, pipelines, and other similar infrastructure in a way that minimizes adverse impacts to ecosystems.

(7) Balanced Consideration of National and Local Interests

Made clear by including “national interest” in its title, ANILCA’s purpose is to protect areas in Alaska for the benefit of all U.S. citizens while balancing the needs of state and local stakeholders. The tension between local, state, and national economic and conservation demands is a defining characteristic of ANILCA. The creation of the Land Use Planning Council, as well as Resource Advisory Commissions, were, in part, an attempt to help ensure the continued balance of all interests.

Comparing ANILCA with Current International Protected Area Guidelines

ANILCA was not conceived based on any framework or set of guidelines, but lawmakers were aware of the Act’s international significance (Nelson 2004). The IUCN has published guidelines for creating protected areas since (coincidentally) 1980. Their 2011 guidelines for protected area legislation define characteristics that lawmakers consider when developing conservation legislation (Lausche and Burhenne-Guilmin 2011):

  • Representativeness, comprehensiveness, and balance: Protected areas should represent the scope of biodiversity or other unique values of a region. Priority is given to threatened or under-protected ecosystems and areas of cultural value.
  • Adequacy: Designations should protect enough area to ensure the continuation of functioning ecosystems and maintenance of biodiversity.
  • Coherence and complementarity: Protected areas should be recognized as parts of a greater whole. Groups of protected areas should fill in gaps in ecosystem values and fit together in a way that makes sense.
  • Consistency: Policies and management goals across similar areas should be applied consistently.
  • Cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and equity: Environmental justice concerns should be minimized, and tradeoffs of conservation should be efficiently balanced while meeting the overall conservation goals.
  • Persistence: Protected areas should be designed for long-term ecosystem integrity.
  • Resilience: Conservation objectives should be able to adapt to changing climate and social conditions.

Key features 1 and 2 of the ANILCA frame-work described in Cornachione and Pletnikoff (In Press) reflect the intent of ANILCA to achieve representativeness and comprehensiveness. The top-down conservation planning of ANILCA, based upon the best available scientific data at the time, is a strong example parallel to the IUCN’s recommendation that each ecosystem type be protected within the scope of each law.

The ecosystem-scale protection of ANILCA also helps ensure adequacy of the size of protected areas. Alaska protects the largest national parks and national wildlife refuges in the U.S. and has several of the largest individual protected areas in the world (Wee 2016, Kiprop 2018). Conservation planners in ANILCA wanted to protect an adequate area of land to ensure ecosystem function and continuity (NPS 1972, JPC 1977, Nelson 2004).

A map showing protected areas in Alaska pre- and post-ANILCA.
Map showing conservation units that existed prior to ANILCA (in hatched polygons) and the protected lands expanded by ANILCA (solid colors).

ANILCA also achieves coherence and complementarity through delegating management responsibility to the agencies best equipped to manage each area’s unique resources. For example, the Noatak National Preserve borders Kobuk Valley National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge shares borders with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the two Bureau of Land Management conservation units. The protected areas were not conceived in isolation and ANILCA stipulates cross-boundary ecosystem management.

ANILCA achieves consistency through providing policy guidance for four different land managing agencies. While this unifies land management across jurisdictions, there remains a patchwork of different agency managers with different primary management objectives. Further, the overlapping management of fish and game with the state complicates the reality of protected area management and the regulations for subsistence users.

Features 3, 6, and 7 of the ANILCA framework—preserving subsistence uses, allowing changing needs to be met over time, and balancing local and national stakeholder needs—are examples of the Act addressing cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. The Act seeks to meet the needs of Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans who are directly affected by the management decisions made on the lands and resources they rely on. Subsistence Resource Councils, local hire provisions, and allowing resource uses in certain areas to change over time address economic concerns and equity.

Persistence was an apparent concern to conservation planners, from the NPS to the JPC. ANILCA needed to provide enduring protection without knowledge of the economic future of Alaska or how ecosystem processes may change over time. In addition to protecting full ecosystems to help ensure persistence, the JPC recommended “buffers” against potential future encroachment, and the Alaska Planning Group identified non-protected “areas of environmental concern” as part of the buffering concept.

Relatedly, resilience was met through several factors. Dudley and others (2010), note that large, connected protected landscapes achieve the strongest possible resilience against changing climate conditions. As described in Cornachione and Pletnikoff (In Press) in key features 2 and 4, ANILCA strove to protect full ecosystems and connect boundaries wherever possible. Further, ANILCA includes stipulations for scientific research, monitoring, and public engagement to help inform managers of resource concerns in a forward looking rather than reactionary paradigm.

Finally, some aspects of ANILCA are not reflected in current international conservation best practices. While equity is a component of Lauche and Burhenne-Guilmin’s (2011) best practices, less emphasis is made on including people, culture, and ways of life within conservation legislation. ANILCA is perhaps most distinguished for incorporating some of the subsistence rights of residents impacted by changes in land management. This is a crucial distinguishing factor that is likely not entirely covered within the characteristics put forth by the IUCN.

Concluding Thoughts

Many conservation-minded individuals in the years leading up to ANILCA considered the United States to be an international pioneer and leader in conservation, and this ethos was not lost in the milieu of ANILCA deliberations. Early Alaska park managers such as Mack Shaver grasped both this leadership role and the Act’s complex conservation vision. Shaver spoke at the IUCN’s First World Congress on Cultural Parks in 1984, describing Alaska as undertaking “an experiment on a grand scale.” He goes on to stress the importance of the conservation vision of ANILCA:

to break apart this ecosystem (which contains man) by imposing strictly preservationist values on the majority population of a region that links itself so heavily to the land and its natural products, would in fact have critically altered the very values most worth preserving in these areas… Through ANILCA this continuum is being preserved. (Shaver 1984: 314).

At 40 years, ANILCA is a living, evolving legislation. The conservation thinking that informed the Act reflects some of the most crucial distinctions of modern conservation best practices. From an international perspective, ANILCA serves as a useful case study in not only putting these guidelines into law, but also how to observe their effectiveness over time. While it does not fully address every component of conservation best practices, it achieves pieces of each. In this way, ANILCA provides a useful lens for witnessing how the current best practices in conservation legislation are continually unfolding in Alaska.


This article was based on a project supported by Geoscientists-in-the-Parks, a program through the Geological Society of America and Conservation Legacy. This work benefitted from the input and engagement of many people. We thank Leigh Welling and Lois Dalle-Molle of the National Park Service, who supervised and coordinated the project. Feedback from Deborah Williams, Sandy Rabinowitch, John Dennis, Deb Cooper, and Joel Hard was incorporated into the full technical report from this project and informed this article. Finally, many former federal and state resource managers in Alaska, as well as others involved in the development of ANILCA provided input for this report. We thank all those who took time to share their insights about ANILCA for this project.


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Part of a series of articles titled Commemorating ANILCA at 40.

Last updated: June 23, 2022