National Parks
The American Experience
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Chapter 12:
Decision in Alaska

If you think that Alaska is a long way to go for a national park, so was Yellowstone in 1872. Now Yellowstone is irreplaceable. So is Alaska and so are its unspoiled wild-lands and magnificent wildlife.

Alaska Coalition brochure, 1977

Our decisions on the designation of Alaska lands for conservation will shape the Nation's future as surely as our decisions on questions of energy, taxes, or the national budget. . . . In making that determination, we are confronting probably for the last time an opportunity which we have missed so many times before as our Nation's civilization has spread from coast to coast and border to border.

John E. Seiberling, 1977

Alaska is more than an environmental treasure, it is a resource storehouse.

Don Young, 1977

Born of romanticism and cultural nationalism, the first great national parks of the United States were clearly the result of nineteenth-century perceptions of the American landscape. Outside of the continental United States, only Alaska offered preservationists of the twentieth century one final opportunity to have national parks in keeping with the principles of biological management. In preservationists' own words, Alaska was "our last chance to do it right," to design national parks around entire watersheds, animal migration routes, and similar ecological rather than political boundaries. [1] "This will require the largest possible blocks of land to be set aside as national-interest lands," wrote Peggy Wayburn, arguing the case for expansive parks on behalf of the Sierra Club: "This alone can prevent the loss of perhaps the greatest remaining wildlife, wilderness, and scenic resources on earth." [2]

Even the largest national parks in the lower forty-eight states, among them Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Everglades, were but pieces of far larger biological wholes. Alaska, in contrast, offered the best of both the monumental and the biological in nature. Scenically, its mountains, glaciers, and volcanic areas were unsurpassed on the North American continent, In other words, preservationists need not speak against their own traditions in their quest for Alaskan parks. More importantly, however, Alaska's vastness and near complete ownership by the federal government made the realization of the biological ends in national park management no less attainable. At least, preservationists had good reason to be optimistic at the outset of their campaign for parklands in the forty-ninth state.

In Alaska, as elsewhere in the United States, organized opposition to the expansion of the national park system came from a wide variety of resource interests. For industrialists, Alaska's importance lay beyond its role as the last great refuge for plants and animals. Instead, the nation's last major repository for timber, minerals, oil, natural gas, fresh water, and hydroelectric power seemed to be at stake. "I think we are all acutely aware," noted John H. LaGrange, representing the Kennecott Copper Corporation, "that our Nation and, indeed the world, is passing from an era of surplus to an era of shortage in many mineral and energy commodities." New national parks in Alaska, it followed, again should be restricted to monumental topography, areas rich in scenery but poor from the standpoint of natural resources, "National park and critical habitat withdrawals should not contain more than 15 million acres," LaGrange argued. Otherwise national parks would conflict with the nation's pressing need to find more oil and, in the meantime, to exploit its vast deposits of coal and other minerals, Alaska had all of those resources in abundance. Unfortunately, between 40 and 80 percent of the richest copper deposits alone were located in areas where preservationists wanted to establish national parks. [3]

For preservationists, the opposition of resource interests to the establishment of national parks—as typified by LaGrange's remarks—was nothing new. As preservationists soon discovered, the problem in Alaska was the tendency of the resource issue to overlap the question of Native American rights. Unlike the continental United States, where Indians had been forced onto reservations outside the national parks long before the parks themselves had been created, Alaska was still largely inhabited by groups of native peoples. In Alaska, the creation of national parks could not be divorced from the issue of civil rights. Drawing the boundaries of each new park demanded simultaneous respect for native traditions, cultures, and means of subsistence—customs deeply intertwined with national park lands. "If we are to err," argued Elvis J. Stahin, president of the National Audubon Society, "let us not err on the side of destroying a truly unique culture." [4]

Indeed, it was almost as if the national park idea had come back full circle to 1832 and George Catlin's plea for "a nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" On the plains of South Dakota, the artist had called for precisely the kind of sensitivity that planning for the Alaskan parks demanded if the right of Native Americans to reside on their ancestral hunting grounds was also to be protected. Of course, his perspective was as much a product of the period's romanticism as it was evidence of embryonic concern in the United States for the rights of native peoples. For Catlin, preserving the Indians of the plains added charm to the landscape at the same time it advanced the morality of American culture. Alaska was the final opportunity not only to establish national parks with biological boundaries but to create parks that did not—as Catlin himself would have opposed—drive out or exclude native cultures in the process. [5]

With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Catlin's revolutionary point of view was rejected in favor of the strict protection of monumental scenery. By preservation was meant to protect landscapes, not to preserve the historical relationships between landscapes and people. Not until the 1960s was the policy of protecting natural features in the national parks exclusive of natural processes widely criticized. Biologists at last fully acknowledged the role of Native Americans in changing park landscapes through the use of fire. The Alaska lands issue also drew attention to the fact that native peoples throughout North America had long exerted great influence on the biological composition of the continent.

Native Americans, it followed, were themselves "part of nature," a key link in the chain of natural processes so many biologists hoped to reintroduce to national park environments. At least in Alaska, preservationists conceded, the chain had not been broken. "Indeed," argued Anthony Wayne Smith, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association, "the practice of subsistence hunting, as understood by the Native cultures, can well be looked upon as part of a natural ecosystem which has sustained itself in Alaska for something like 10,000 years and which has proved itself compatible with the stability and diversity of both wildlife and human population" [italics added]. The historical opposition of the National Parks and Conservation Association to hunting, Smith said, elaborating on his point, dealt "only with sports hunting, and if the distinction is kept quite clear along the lines of the pending legislation, no violence can be done to established traditions of national park management." [6]

The naïveté of preservationists like Smith was their assumption that native cultures, like park environments, could be maintained at a fixed approximation of their appearance at some earlier and more ideal period of history. Catlin's romanticism might not be dead but neither were the forces that made changes in the native cultures inevitable. Perhaps the best that could be done in Alaska was to honor the civil rights of the natives and hope that change would not overwhelm their traditions at the expense of the parks. "No conservation group of which I am aware," remarked Louis S. Clapper, a representative of the National Wildlife Federation, "would deny a Native the right to take whatever fish and wildlife he needs for his own family's welfare." That said, so-called subsistence hunting was often "a much abused practice," a "subterfuge" for "the recreational practices" of "employed and 'modernized' natives," [7] Clapper's outspoken comments were compromised by the National Wildlife Federation's own defense of sport hunting among its members. Yet even the most ardent defenders of subsistence hunting could not dismiss the impact of modern technology on native cultures, Ideally, Alaskan natives would resist the temptations and pressures of modern life. It was just as likely, however, that the national parks would be eroded from within as well as from without by what was in fact a vain attempt to uphold the past against the relentless forces of the present.

The resource at stake was wilderness—remote, pristine, and teeming with animals. Before World War II, the natives of Alaska had hardly made a dent in either its wildness or its wildlife. But that was before modern firearms and the introduction of airplanes in effect shrank the boundaries of the Alaskan wilderness. [8] Still, as late as the 1970s, preservationists saw legitimate reason to compare Alaska to Yellowstone a hundred years earlier. Much as Yellowstone had been America's frontier in the nineteenth century, so Alaska was its frontier in the twentieth. The difference was nonetheless striking—Americans must make do with Alaska for centuries to come, at least with respect to wilderness on earth. "What we save now is all we will ever save," declared another popular slogan of the period. [9] Especially in the forty-ninth state, no statement seemed to be a more appropriate—or compelling—call to action.

The wilderness movement, as distinct from campaigns to establish new national parks per se, won its most important victory on September 3, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. For eight years wilderness enthusiasts had sought its passage, citing the need to protect not only the remote unspoiled corners of the national parks but the best of the nation's roadless areas remaining in the national forests and elsewhere on the public domain. Nine million acres of land within the national forests were immediately designated as wilderness; meanwhile, the National Park Service was authorized to study and recommend to Congress which portions of the national parks should also be protected in a wild and undeveloped state. [10]

For a variety of reasons, the study and establishment of wilderness areas in the national parks, especially the largest preserves, moved slowly. Preservationists themselves were far more concerned about the fate of wilderness areas controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. In contrast to the Park Service, those were the agencies historically renowned for their determination to open the public domain to multiple use, including logging, grazing, and mining. Granted, the National Park Service itself was often accused of overdeveloping the most popular points of interest within the national parks. Still, the agency had neither the authority—nor the incentive—to open its backcountry areas to resource exploitation. [11]

Of greater concern to the Park Service was the threat wilderness posed to the agency's bureaucratic autonomy. The management of wilderness areas came under the directives of the Wilderness Act of 1964, not the Park Service's own Organic Act of August 25, 1916. Prohibitions in wilderness areas against the use of any motorized means of access or equipment, not to mention roads, clearly restricted the Park Service's discretion in managing its backcountry zones. Formal wilderness designations would also forfeit the potential for using at least some of those areas to accommodate overflows of visitors in the future. That restriction, too, concerned many concessionaires, themselves an influential body in determining national park policy. Like tradition-minded Park Service employees, concessionaires were highly skeptical of anything that might undermine their own options for further expansion of visitor services. [12]

Not until October 23, 1970, six years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, did Congress designate portions of Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, and Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho, as wilderness. In October 1972, parts of Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lava Beds National Monument, both in California, also received wilderness status. Four more years elapsed before Congress approved the first truly major additions to the wilderness system in national parks. On September 22 and October 1, 1976, the House and Senate, respectively, approved legislation creating wilderness areas in portions of thirteen existing parks and monuments—Badlands National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Haleakala National Park, Isle Royale National Park, Joshua Tree National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Pinnacles National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore, Saguaro National Monument, and Shenandoah National Park. President Gerald R. Ford approved the legislation on October 20, 1976. [13]

The Omnibus Park Bill of 1978, also known as the National Park and Recreation Act, further designated 1,854,424 acres of wilderness in eight additional units of the national park system—Buffalo National River, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Everglades National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In addition, the bill declared another 119,581 acres in the eight preserves as "potential" wilderness, bringing the grand total to nearly two million acres. Supporters of the legislation in Congress, eager to draw attention to their achievement, were quick to point out that this figure exceeded "the total acreage of all lands previously designated as wilderness in the National Park System." [14]

Most of the largest and most popular national parks, however, among them Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon, still lacked approval for their wilderness proposals. Designating wilderness in those parks remained controversial. Although the Park Service endorsed the wilderness idea in public, many high level officials privately expressed their doubts about the wilderness movement. The larger the roadless areas within the national parks, the less opportunity remained for the Park Service to expand its traditional visitor services and overnight accommodations. The Park Service would be left with no alternative but to restrict the number of visitors in the already developed portions of its parks. For an agency that measured its success by how many people it served, such restrictions seemed politically unwise. And even in those parks where management seemed strongly in favor of formal wilderness designations, concessionaires usually were quietly suspicious of, if not overtly hostile to, the concept. [15]

With each frustration of their attempts to establish large wilderness areas in the national parks of the continental United States, preservationists looked upon Alaska as a battleground of even greater importance. If national parks were in fact to be managed as sanctuaries, not merely as scenic wonders divorced of biological considerations, wilderness appeared to be the crucial prerequisite. Wildlife biologists warned repeatedly that the remote roadless corners of America were the only remaining refuges of any real consequence for many species of plants and animals. The management of habitat could accomplish only so much, The alternative to greater and greater reliance on the manipulation of plant and animal populations was providing both with enough territory to survive on their own in the first place.

For a land so rich in natural resources and wilderness, the history of Alaska as an American possession began on a distinct note of irony. Ratification of the treaty in 1867 authorizing purchase of Alaska from the Russians passed the Senate over the objections of opponents who denounced the territory as nothing but a worthless region of snow, rocks, and icebergs. Among most Americans that image of the frozen north held well into the twentieth century. Occasionally, authors, artists, and travelers broke down that perception, yet it was not until World War II, following completion of the Alaska Military Highway through Canada, that Americans finally began to appreciate the true richness and diversity of what was to become the forty-ninth state. [16]

Statehood, which came in 1959, still did not end the bitterness among many Alaskans over their decades of treatment as second-class citizens by the federal government. For a territory of roughly 365 million acres, Alaskans believed federal officials had been far too conservative in allowing the exploitation of its natural resources. In either case, residents were eager to get on with development, not only logging, fishing, and trapping—pursuits comprised in the state's traditional economy—but also opening oil and gas fields and mineral deposits. The legislation granting statehood allowed Alaska to select approximately 104 million acres of federal lands in the state; similarly, the federal government relinquished title to tens of millions of acres of submerged lands along the continental shelf. Only one major obstacle stood between Alaska and the process of completing its selection of federal lands—few politicians had stopped to consider the claims of Native Americans to many of those same properties. Finally, in 1966, as Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indian tribes prepared to take their grievances to court, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall froze all land selections pending congressional consideration of the argument that Native Americans as well as the state of Alaska were entitled to share in the allocation of the public domain. [17]

The ensuing stalemate was not resolved until October of 1971 and passage of the Native Claims Settlement Act. The legislation awarded forty million acres of land and one billion dollars in additional compensation to the Alaskan groups. During the five years Congress considered this apparent departure from federal Indian policy, preservationists themselves were no less aware of the unique opportunity the bill presented to voice their own concerns about the future of public lands in the forty-ninth state. Although most preservationists sympathized with the demands of the natives for a secure land base, native selections, in addition to the selections already guaranteed to Alaska, conceivably might undercut the protection of the best wilderness areas even before they had been identified and established. Alaska, to reemphasize, represented the final opportunity to establish national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges of irrefutable ecological significance and integrity. Without simultaneously addressing the need to preserve the Alaskan wilderness, preservationists argued, all hope of coordinating the development of the state with its protection would be lost. [18]

With the environmental movement, like the civil rights movement, at the peak of its influence, Congress was in little mood to ignore the concerns of preservationists any more than the grievances of Native Americans. Accordingly, Section 17 (d)(2) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act further recognized the desirability of designating up to eighty million acres of the public domain in Alaska as national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers. The act gave the secretary of the interior nine months to withdraw lands deemed suitable for consideration as additions to each of the four categories; similarly, the secretary was given until December 19, 1973, to make his final recommendations to Congress concerning which of the lands initially withdrawn from entry should in fact be protected in perpetuity by the federal government. [19]

Yet another opportunity for preservation was provided by Section 17 (d)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Under its provisions, the secretary of the interior was allowed ninety days after the enactment of the legislation to select additional "public interest" lands for withdrawal from entry. Apparently the provision did not affect state and native selections around native villages but took precedence over all other state and native selections elsewhere on the public domain. In the confusion over interpretation of the (d)(1) provision, however, the state of Alaska, in January 1972, proclaimed the selection of its entire remaining allotment of seventy-seven million acres under the Statehood Act of 1958. [20]

Such complexity and confusion only foreshadowed the coming battle over Alaskan lands, a struggle that would last for nearly a decade. By September of 1972, Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton had withdrawn seventy-nine million acres of the public domain under subsection (d)(2) of the Native Claims Settlement Act, in addition to forty-seven million acres under subsection (d)(1). The state of Alaska immediately protested that the withdrawals conflicted with many of its own selections and, as a result, filed suit in federal court to have Secretary Morton's duplicate choices that were in dispute revoked. In an out-of-court settlement, Alaska won concessions affecting some fourteen million acres of the (d)(1) and (d)(2) withdrawals; for its own part of the compromise, the state agreed to relinquish its claims to thirty-five million of the seventy-seven million acres it had selected in January. [21]

In the end, Secretary Morton's own final recommendations for lands to be protected in Alaskan parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges pleased no one. The state of Alaska again filed suit; meanwhile, preservationists also protested against his proposal to include over eighteen million acres of the (d)(2) lands in national forests rather than in wilderness areas. The objective of the act, preservationists argued, was the protection of those lands rather than the development of their resources, even on a sustained-yield basis. Adding urgency to preservationists' concerns was the deadline established by Congress for the resolution of the entire debate by December 18, 1978. That gave preservationists but seven years to make their case, and already two of those years had slipped by without an acceptable compromise between development and preservation of the state even in sight. [22]

Despite their frustration, preservation groups still used the interval preceding congressional consideration of the Alaska lands issue very wisely. The lull offered them an opportunity for further study and redefinition of their park proposals, for educating their memberships, and, most importantly, for unifying on behalf of a concerted political effort on Capitol Hill. The so-called Alaska Coalition, representing the National Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, National Parks and Conservation Association, and Defenders of Wildlife, officially organized in 1971 during the debate about native claims in the state. Cooperation among the groups was still relatively informal until January 1977, when Congress itself took up the Alaska lands controversy. Under the circumstances, the five member organizations of the Alaska Coalition agreed to pool both staff and financial resources as they prepared to contest what they collectively considered "the most important conservation issue of the century." [23]

The battle was finally joined on January 4, 1977, when Representative Morris Udall of Arizona introduced his bill, H.R. 39, to the Ninety-fifth Congress. By early April, H.R. 39 was accompanied by a host of similar bills; numerous cosponsors had also attached their names to Udall's original legislation. To sift through the complex array of proposals and to assess public opinion, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, with Udall as chairman, approved the creation of a special Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands. On April 21 and 22, Representative John F. Seiberling of Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee and a cosponsor of H.R. 39, convened the first public hearings on the Alaska lands issue in Washington, D.C. [24]

Five months and sixteen volumes of testimony later, the Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands concluded its work. In addition to holding hearings in Washington, D.C., the committee took testimony in Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and Seattle. Afterward the committee moved to Alaska, where it heard the residents of sixteen separate towns and cities, including Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. [25] Never before in national park history had any issue sparked so much public interest and discussion. Even the more noted controversies of the recent past, such as the campaign to preserve the redwood groves of the California coast, had not come close to arousing such a nationwide insistence that the general public, as well as renowned figures in the preservation movement and their principal adversaries, should be heard by a major congressional panel.

By itself, however, the sheer number of people who participated in the controversy still had little effect on the arguments used to sway the opposing sides. To be sure, although many people took the opportunity to speak their minds before Congress, their positions were both traditional and predictable. The hearings, in other words, contained no real surprises. Simply, those with a personal stake in the economy of Alaska pushed for smaller parks and greater development of the state's natural resources. Likewise, those who looked to Alaska as the last American wilderness wanted desperately to protect its mountains, forests, rivers, and wildlife in parks that were not only spacious but clearly of ecological as well as scenic significance.

It followed that support for the Alaskan parks was greatest outside the state. Indeed, much as people living on the Alaskan frontier universally opposed the parks, so citizens in the lower forty-eight states overwhelmingly endorsed H.R. 39. [26] Not surprisingly, supporters and opponents of the legislation lined up similarly in the halls of Congress. Senators Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel of Alaska, in addition to the state's lone member of the House, Don Young, strongly opposed H.R. 39 in its original form. After all, their constituents believed they had the most to lose if the bill were enacted, In contrast, Representatives Udall and Seiberling, among the seventy-two other sponsors of H.R. 39, spoke out for preservation with the obvious assurance that their own political futures would in no way be determined by voters in the state of Alaska.

As if to rationalize their immunity from the Alaskan electorate, the sponsors of H.R. 39 noted repeatedly that their bill was of national rather than local importance. "Obviously, this is a national issue, not just a regional or sectional one," said Representative Seiberling, setting this important theme of the hearings and congressional debates. "The lands involved are public lands, the property of all the American people." Granted, the residents of Alaska deserved protection of their interests. "But they must also be harmonized with the interests of the other 220 million Americans," he maintained. "As Members of the Congress of the United States, we must act in the interests of all the people." [27]

By definition, Congressman Udall agreed, that meant preservation as well as economic development of the state. "If you go to Europe," he remarked, using comparison to emphasize his point, "you don't participate in making new national parks. In the Lower 48 States, we are rounding out the system." Only Alaska still offered Americans "a chance to display some vision" and "some foresight" in national park planning. Since the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872, he observed, approximately twenty-five million acres of land had been set aside as national parks. For the first time in history, Americans had the opportunity in Alaska to double or perhaps even triple that figure. "So I am looking forward to participating in this endeavor," Udall concluded. "I don't know of any major piece of legislation that will have more far-reaching consequences in the country in the future than this one will." [28]

Predictably, opponents of H.R. 39 took precisely the opposite stance, that of stressing Alaska's significance for the United States as a storehouse of natural resources. "D-2 lands are obviously critical to the State of Alaska," remarked Representative Don Young, admitting the biases of the Alaska delegation, "but, more importantly, they are critical to the Nation as a whole." Congress must consider what the United States stood to lose if preservation of the state got "out of hand." Alaskan oil alone would soon "comprise 20 percent of our domestic oil supply," Young noted, "another natural treasure" of the state was its "critical metals." The national parks and wilderness areas as proposed were simply too large to allow adequate exploitation of these resources. "The key issue is how much needs to be set aside to provide appropriate protection without going overboard," he said, reemphasizing his basic theme. "I trust that the subcommittee will act to set aside those unique areas which everyone agrees need preserving but place other lands in less restrictive management systems where diversified uses will be permitted." [29]

Taking up where Young's testimony left off, Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska proposed the protection of no more than twenty-five million acres of land in national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers. "Let me just say," he remarked, justifying his figure, "there is a body of land in Alaska where there is no question, no dispute, that should be preserved in the four conservation Systems." The figure of twenty-five million acres, as opposed to the more than 100 million acres requested by preservationists, was the more "balanced,"moderate," and "reasonable position." Gravel did not need to admit the obvious; the twenty-five million acres he had in mind clearly contained nothing of economic value to the state. Only with that assurance did he freely concede that preservation "is the highest and best use of the land." [30]

Where natural resources might in fact exist in abundance, Gravel further proposed delaying any decisions affecting those lands pending the formation of a joint federal-state commission, "a legislative body, or, as the press has characterized it, in Alaska, a beefed-up zoning commission for the entire State," The object of the commission "would be the development of policy" with respect to all state and federal lands outside the parks. Deposits of oil, gas, and coal, for example, had "not even been scratched." A federal-state commission to protect access to those resources would insure flexibility in future management decisions. "It would be a terrible tragedy in our human existence," he concluded, again revealing his bias for development, "to foreclose the possibility of making an intelligent adjudication when the time came to do it." [31]

Gravel's proposal was endorsed by his Senate colleague, Ted Stevens, as well as Governor Jay Hammond and Representative Don Young. In several meetings with Alaskan residents the previous fall, the four had basically agreed on accepting twenty-five million acres of land for parks, refuges, and wilderness areas. The key objection among preservationists was the unmistakable limitation of those lands to monumental topography at the expense of rounding out the parks to include areas of greater biological significance. In that respect, national park history once more played into the hands of Senator Stevens and the Alaska delegation. "I view the process that we are in now of trying to determine which of our lands have national significance in the true sense that the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Yellowstone and the other areas that have been made national parks had," he stated, sensing his opportunity to quote precedent. As he implied, the preservation of similar natural wonders, areas both rugged and devoid of natural resources, certainly would arouse little opposition among residents of the forty-ninth state. Instead, they were concerned preservationists would in fact seek a decision by Congress "which may well impede future generations of Alaskans from having the ability to utilize the land bank that Congress wisely gave us as an economic floor for the future of our State." [32]

Its legislative complexity aside, the Alaska lands issue was basically another manifestation of the traditional struggle between preservation and use. Only the object of the debate, not its political intrigue, had changed. Just as resource interests worked to thwart a comprehensive protection bill, so preservationists campaigned diligently to effect a parks and wilderness package of both biological substance and legislative permanence. Advocates of greater development and fewer parks invariably relied on the Alaska delegation to espouse their views in Congress. Similarly, preservation groups, rallying under the banner of the Alaska Coalition, looked to Representatives Udall and Seiberling, among other concerned members of Congress, for their own leadership on Capitol Hill.

Much to their advantage, by 1977 and the introduction of H.R. 39, preservationists knew more about Alaska than their predecessors a century before had ever known about Yosemite or Yellowstone. By the late 1960s, writers for the major conservation magazines were traveling throughout the state, informing the memberships of their respective organizations of the areas considered worthy of protection. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, coupled with the completion of the controversial Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1977, lent further credence to preservationists' claims that Alaska, much as the lower forty-eight states, was in danger of being subdivided into economic spheres of influence. Initially, preservationists feared the search for oil and the construction of the pipeline would destroy the Alaska tundra and decimate the great herds of migrating caribou. Proposals to dam the largest rivers in Alaska, then shunt their water southward through Canada into the thirsty American West, also struck preservationists as the epitome of utilitarian arrogance and callousness toward the natural world. [33]

For preservationists, Alaska was a chance for beginning anew rather than for repeating errors common to the lower forty-eight states. "In Alaska we have the opportunity to learn from our past mistakes," remarked Edgar Wayburn, chairman of the Sierra Club's Alaska Task Force. "We have given away the Redwoods of California, the Big Thicket in Texas, and the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida, just to name a few, and we have had to buy them back at exorbitant prices," he pointed out. Large parks in Alaska would still be "free as far as the exchange of cash is concerned." [34] David Brower, president of Friends of the Earth, likewise emphasized the unique opportunity offered by federal ownership of so much of the state. "Alaska, as a late maturing child in the society's scheme of things," he said, "is still richly endowed, as youth always is, and we should think carefully before we let qualities that only Alaska still possesses be made as ordinary, or even as repugnant, as too many other places have been driven to become." As examples, he confessed he was "mindful" of California, "my native State, not to mention Texas." The unrestrained development of Alaska would do nothing more than turn an extraordinary environment into another commonplace one, thereby undermining preservationists' own fervent hope of sustaining "Alaska's appeal, productivity, and creativity for centuries." [35]

Such idealism was to prove important for buoying preservationists' spirits in the months and years ahead. The entirety of 1977 passed without any action on H.R. 39, with the exception of the public hearings conducted by the House Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands. As preservationists feared, the delay only worked to the advantage of their opponents, especially Representative Don Young, who succeeded in adding no fewer than eighty-five amendments to the original bill once the subcommittee convened early in 1978 to draft the final version. Not until April 7, 1978, was the Interior Committee prepared to report to Congress as a whole; by then only eight months remained until December 18, 1978, the deadline established for the resolution of the Alaska lands issue under the Native Claims Settlement Act. If the controversy had not been resolved by that date, technically all of the lands withdrawn from entry pending congressional review would once again revert to the unreserved public domain and be subject to both state and native selections. [36]

Under the circumstances, preservationists were indeed fortunate to have the support of the new administration. Granted, President Jimmy Carter and his secretary of the interior, Cecil Andrus, proposed a ceiling of only 92 million acres of parks and wilderness as opposed to the 115 million acres of land sought by the Alaska Coalition and specified in the original version of H.R. 39. Still, with Senators Mike Gravel and Ted Stevens threatening delay of the legislation in the Senate, and in light of their call for the protection of a mere 25 million acres of territory, the endorsement of the White House was crucial. On May 17, 1978, the House of Representatives began debate on H.R. 39 and two days later approved the bill by a vote of 277 to 31. Preservationists were jubilant, not only because the House proposed to protect more than 120 million acres as national parks, wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers, but because passage of the bill had been won by such a stunning, lopsided margin. [37]

The celebration, however, proved to be premature. In the Senate, Mike Gravel successfully thwarted serious consideration of the Alaska lands bill throughout the summer and into the fall. Although his delaying tactics grew unpopular, even with Senator Stevens, they nonetheless had the desired effect of preventing final action on H.R. 39 in 1978. [38]

The December 18 deadline, in other words, would not be met. Once again preservationists were extremely fortunate to have the support of the Carter administration. Even as the Ninety-fifth Congress disbanded, President Carter and Secretary of the Interior Andrus had considered their options. As early as October 11, Andrus had informed the public in a signed editorial: "If Congress is unable to act, President Carter and I will." [39] On November 16 Andrus made good his promise by withdrawing 110 million acres of public lands in Alaska from entry under the authority of the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 and the Federal Land Management Act of 1976. Each allowed the secretary of the interior broad discretion in the protection of wildlife and wilderness areas on the public domain. Finally, on December 1, further invoking the articles of the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Carter gave added protection to 56 million of the 110 million acres withdrawn by Andrus as national monuments. Andrus's withdrawals were to stand for only three years; Carter's designation of the national monuments would be permanent if Congress itself refused to decide the Alaska lands issue. [40]

Carter's objective was in fact to force Congress to make the final decision. In that respect, his action was like President Franklin D. Roosevelt's veto in 1943 of the bill to abolish Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming. Like Roosevelt, Carter believed the protection of Alaska transcended local prejudices and special interests; at least, the decision was too important to allow a few legislators manipulating the political process to forestall the ultimate test of the nation's true will. Nevertheless, 1979 was another year of postponement; indeed, the political season began as another period of frustration and despair for preservation interests, with new amendments threatening the integrity of the original legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 1978. In the second House vote, taken on May 16, 1979, preservationists withstood the new opposition by a tally of 268 to 157, only to lose ground once again in the Senate. Its final version of the bill not only considerably weakened the management safeguards approved by the House but granted protection to twenty-six million fewer acres of Alaska lands in the process. [41]

Ironically, the fate of Alaska was sealed in 1980 not only by compromise but by the intimidation of preservation interests. On August 19, the Senate finally passed a considerably less protective Alaska lands bill. Dismayed but defiant, preservationists would have worked to postpone the legislation yet another year, but for the election on November 4 of Ronald Reagan as the next president of the United States. Unlike Carter's, Reagan's attitude toward environmental legislation was openly hostile. Fearing that he might kill the Alaska lands legislation entirely, preservationists both within and outside the Congress saw no choice but to make their peace with the Senate version of H.R. 39. "Political realities dictate that we act promptly on the Senate-passed bill," Representative Morris Udall said, issuing a personal warning. "We must accept the fact that Reagan is here for four years." [42] On November 12, the House agreed to recognize the wisdom of the Senate, and on December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the compromise legislation into law. Granted, the bill was a disappointment for preservationists, although it did, in Udall's words, "accomplish 85-90 percent of the things the House wanted." [43] The penalty of further delay under the Reagan administration might well have been the sacrifice of legislation of any kind.

Considering what they might have lost, preservationists understandably celebrated what they had won in Alaska as a milestone of American conservation. "Never has so much been done on conservation for future generations with one stroke of the pen," wrote Charles Clusen, chairman of the Alaska Coalition. The acreages protected were indeed impressive, a total of more than 100 million acres or 28 percent of the state, including 43.6 million acres of new national parks, 53.8 million acres of new wildlife refuges, and 1.2 million acres for the national wild and scenic rivers system. Of those lands, 56.7 million acres were to receive further protection as wilderness, subject only to accessibility by foot, horseback, raft, or canoe. "Not since the days of Theodore Roosevelt's large public land withdrawals," Clusen concluded, "have we seen such boldness, dynamism, and leadership for the protection of our land heritage. The Alaska "victory' also shows that the American people believe in a conservation ethic and support environmental protection more than at any previous time in history." [44]

Only after more careful reflection were most preservationists willing to concede that their battle for Alaska may in fact have just begun on December 2, 1980. In park after park, critical wildlife habitat had either been fragmented to accommodate resource extraction or excluded entirely. As a concession to copper mining interests, for example, approximately one million acres in Gates of the Arctic National Park were denied wilderness protection. Similarly, state selections threatened grizzly bear habitat, salmon streams, and caribou breeding grounds bordering Mount McKinley National Park. The Alaska Lands Act renamed the park Denali and expanded it by a whopping 3.7 million acres. The point again was that size by itself was no guarantee that wildlife, especially migrating populations such as caribou, could be sustained without further extending protection to their lowland breeding grounds. [45]

Other preservationists sensed a troublesome precedent in the use of the term "preserve" to describe large expanses of wilderness that historically would have been labeled "national parks" or "national monuments." The management principles of national parks and monuments were clearly defined by precedent, but what was a "national preserve?" One unsettling answer could be gleaned from the legislative histories of the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and the Big Cypress National Freshwater Preserve in Florida. In each instance, Congress had granted wide discretion to the secretary of the interior to allow mining, oil drilling, grazing, hunting, trapping, and other extractive uses both within and adjacent to the parks. [46] On the roughly twenty million acres of land designated as "preserves" in Alaska, much the same discretion prevailed. The management of a preserve, in other words, could easily be determined by administrative fiat rather than established by public consensus.

Ideally, preserves would act as buffers for more sensitive park areas. In fact, however, often the preserves themselves were in greater need of protection. The mountainous, inaccessible landscapes forming the core of the new parks and monuments rarely had the same potential for economic development. In keeping with the size and ruggedness of Alaska, its parks could be far larger than those in the lower forty-eight states. In the final analysis, however, national park history had repeated itself. The only unchallenged mandate in Alaska was the endorsement of monumentalism. Beyond its mountainous terrain, especially along the seacoasts of Alaska and in the forests of its southeastern panhandle, entrenched commercial interests, both native and non-native, successfully resisted most long-range efforts to effect preservation over economic use.

In defense of their right to make such a choice, Alaskans argued that pioneer Americans in the past had also enjoyed the freedom to exploit the land as each saw fit. Now that the rest of the country had been developed, residents of the lower forty eight states had no right to dictate to Alaskans that they and they alone must sacrifice economic opportunity for wilderness preservation. Besides, Alaskans loved the frontier way of life and themselves wished to preserve the land base supporting it. [47]

In rebuttal, preservationists asked again whether or not Alaskans could in fact resist unwanted or undesirable forms of change indefinitely. "Big, outside corporations are looking all over the world for resources," noted Representative John F. Seiberling, for example. He warned Alaskans to support H.R. 39: "And with the kind of machinery and airplanes and the kind of money that people have in the outside, they are going to come in here and each one is going to take a cut of the salami and when he gets through, there will not be much left for the people of Alaska unless we set aside certain areas." [48] Persistent opposition to H.R. 39 on the question of personal freedom led to the allowance of subsistence hunting and the establishment of national preserves to accommodate it. Gradually, however, even preservationists who supported the practice came to recognize the potential for its abuse, especially since the snowmobile, airplane, and high-powered rifle had replaced the dogsled, spear, and hunting knife as tools of the chase. [49]

Alaska, it seemed, eventually would change much as the rest of America had changed. Writing on behalf of the Alaska Coalition, an anonymous preservationist was among those who conceded the point, "For a land which is expected to give so much material wealth to the nation, we only ask in return that the nation seek to protect certain lands and wildlife so that this priceless natural heritage will survive for future generations." [50] Margaret Murie, the noted author and longtime Alaskan adventurer, was even more eloquent, "My prayer is that Alaska will not lose the heart-nourishing friendliness of her youth, . . . that her great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the Arctic blossoms may live in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the north. This is the great gift Alaska can give to the harrassed world." [51] On a scale unique in American history, the passage of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980 realized this fondest of preservationists' dreams. But could the dream be sustained? [52] Indeed, even in the vastness of Alaska, one fundamental accomplishment still eluded the movement—effecting its dreams in perpetuity, in physical reality as well as in transitory laws.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/chap12.htm — 17-Mar-2004