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NPS in Alaska Before 1972


Response to ANCSA, 1971-1973


NPS in Alaska, 1973-1980





The National Park Service and the
Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980: Administrative History

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Passage of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980 marked the historic zenith of this Nation's conservation and national parks movement. On a grand scale, with now-or-never urgency, the people, their agency trustees, and their elected representatives fulminated over Alaska's fate, striving to balance conflicting demands of preservation and development. The struggle became a symbol of paramount national values, transcending the Alaska land base itself. Only by the thinnest margin of time and events was the Act consummated, for the trends of world history now thrust us apace into the economy of scarcity. No matter how many new parks and refuges may be enacted in the years to come, never again will such extensive landscapes be dedicated to esthetic, essentially non-utilitarian futures.

Over many generations the Nation's conservation systems had preserved scattered remnants of the frontier in the developed regions of the country. Alaska—its remote spaces thinly populated by people who left few traces—allowed an accelerated but more generous replay of that earlier history "down below." The forces that took a century to fence the trans-Mississippi West were similarly transforming Alaska in little more than a decade. Statehood, Native land claims, and oil combined to impose a new land tenure system on one-fifth of the Nation in record time. At some point in this gigantic land disposition the national interest must be served.

In 1971 Congress set in motion the process that would allot Alaska's land amongst its many claimants, changing Alaska from almost wholly federal domain to a mix of federal, state, and private ownerships.

As part of this process, the National Park Service and other federal conservation agencies were to recommend national interest lands, which Congress would consider for preservation as parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and wild rivers. This mandate triggered a massive response by the agencies, by conservationists, by opponents of the conservation proposals, and by Congress itself. Nine years it took, from 1971 to 1980, to resolve by legislation the issues raised by the national interest lands commandment.

The course of events during that nine years, as it affected and was affected by the National Park Service, is the subject of this study. Though the work of other agencies and groups is treated for contextual purposes, the substance of this study is the institutional response of the National Park Service to the congressional charge. Nor is this study designed to assign credit internally or to other agencies and groups for the roles, actions, and decisions that helped to carry the legislative and political process to conclusion. Rather, it is an institutional history premised on the notions that all of the players inside and outside the National Park Service did their work according to the lights that guided them, and that given the stakes of land and the varied interpretations of the national interest residing therein, the eventual political settlement embodied by the Act gives proof of the vitality of the democratic process in this Nation.

It is recognized that this study verges on instant history. In this instance, the justification for writing history while the wake of events still perturbs the waters is twofold: First, in minds and files, all of them mortal or destructible, lie the data of history. These data erode as people scatter and the years take toll of lives and records. Second, the evolution of the parkland proposals during the legislative and political process largely defined congressional intent and prescribed the tone for parkland administration, intent and tone that would carefully blend national, state, and local interests in varying combinations in each of the parklands. In his December 2, 1980, directive for implementation of the Act to his assistant secretaries, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus put the case succinctly:

It is critical to preserve this information not only as an adjunct to implementation but also to document for the future one of the most important environmental successes of this generation. . . . Your staff should be instructed to retain all Alaska-related documents and to cooperate . . . in compiling the legislative and administrative history and consolidating the background documents.

In this light, the present study is a facet of the implementation of the Alaska Lands Act of 1980. It is principally an overview historical narrative that isolates salient events and actions. Secondarily, it is the means to identify, compile, and protect (physically or by reference to source repositories) the documents and, by extensive taped interviews, the memories of participants. The study is not intended as the definitive word on all aspects of National Park Service involvement in the Alaska Lands Act process. Rather, it provides the narrative frame for major events and compiles the data for future detailed studies, as these are deemed necessary and appropriate by historians both inside and outside the National Park Service.

This study contributes to the larger history of the Alaska Lands Act being compiled by other federal and state agencies, public groups, and congressional bodies. Someday, perhaps, these many elements will be synthesized in a general history. As important, as Secretary Andrus recognized, this history will illuminate the Alaska management policies of the National Park Service itself. Captured in the narrative and the reference annotations are the base points of congressional intent and understanding as to the roles and functions of each parkland in the Alaska mosaic These distillations of purpose help hold Park Service administrators to account. Ignorance of these purposes could produce drift and deviation from ideas and ideals forged by nine hard years of thought, strife, and resolution. The point is, each of these new parklands has a defining history already. This history, pulled together and recounted in this volume, is a guide to parkland administration. Here are explicated the sanctions of a law that finally balanced conflicting interests through democratic process. Thus, though people change, this history, if assiduously consulted, can lend continuity of administration to a land base that requires new departures and adaptations by the National Park Service. The rationale for non-traditional parkland management—in such critical fields as access, hunting and subsistence, wilderness, habitat, and cultural protection—are here set forth. Any responsible National Park Service official dealing with Alaska lands or issues—whether in administrative management, planning, development, or operations—who remains ignorant of this complex background imperils the future of the Alaska parklands.

The author of this work, Historian Frank Williss, has set the Alaska Lands Act-period into a contextual history significant in its own right. Chapter One traces the earlier history of the National Parks in Alaska, beginning in 1910. The traditions established in those pioneering years lent substance to a long series of critical land-use, biological, and cultural studies that laid the groundwork for National Park proposals in the 1970s. Chapter Two establishes the background of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, one clause of which called for conservation-unit proposals to be presented to Congress. Chapter Three relates the internal response of the National Park Service to this call, the mobilization of the Alaska Planning Group, and the inter-agency cooperation that resulted in the 1973 proposals to Congress. Chapter Four describes the legislative process that then ensued, a process that evolved over six years into a hard-fought political struggle that taxed the National Park Service to provide specific data and revised recommendations relating to the proposed parklands. Chapter Five narrates the ground-proofing work of the Alaska-based task force, in social and physical environments that required tenacity and enlarged perspective. Here, too, is treated the controversial National Monuments period, 1978-80, a time when a necessary holding action at the national level created great stress in Alaska at the community level, pending confirming action by Congress. Finally, the Epilogue treats the first stages of Alaska Lands Act implementation, a challenging period when non-traditional parkland precedents were set by a gifted group of superintendents and their miniscule staffs, who were thrust into vast landscapes with only the slimmest resources. Mr. Williss concludes his history with questions about a future unpredictable but promising.

With a personal note I conclude this Introduction. To have participated in some of the exciting moments of this history—with the talented and dedicated people whose work is sketched below—was to touch the stuff of legend. There was drama here, every bit as moving as that passed down from the legendary campfire at Yellowstone. But all this was only prelude.

The work now being done and yet to do gives us the chance to recapitulate the early days of Park Service history. Here is a place where new legends wait to be born, where new heroes can prove their mettle.

William E. Brown


Last Modified: Tues, Jan 9 2001 10:08 am PDT

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