Alaska: Land of the Midnight Sun or Land of National Parks?

Alaska is on my mind. Dave is in Alaska for a conference and it’s his first time visiting the state.  He is, understandably, absolutely awed by the majestic surroundings and, therefore, I have been receiving frequent texts from him harking on the loveliness of the natural landscape (and the cuteness of seas otters).  While surrounded by the breathtaking, expansive beauty of Alaska, it’s not hard to understand why over half of all land managed by the National Park Service is found in this detached state.

2004 Backpacking trip north of Fairbanks, AK

We have Jimmy Carter to thank for the awesome amount of land (54 million acres in National Parks alone) that is protected in the NPS system in Alaska.  Before 1980, Alaska had a few national parks but it was not the patchwork of protected land that it is today. Starting in the late 1970s, legislation named the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was being introduced into Congress calling for the protection large tracks of land in Alaska as National Parks or Preserves. However, the bill was unpopular with Congress at the time – especially the Representatives from Alaska who did not want such a vast amount of land removed from use for economic development (most likely the kind of economic development related to oil and mineral extraction – obviously they were not thinking of the economic development that recreation can bring).

In 1978, in response to extractive pressure and the delays in Congress with passing the ANILCA,  Jimmy Carter – using the Antiquities Act – protected the majority of the lands in question as National Monuments. By using the Antiquities Act, President Carter was able to bypass Congress and protect over 56 million acres of land. He signed the Act by executive order and, viola, the land was under NPS jurisdiction. Understandably, President Carter’s action upset more than a few people – including many Alaskan residents who initiated riots and protests.  The controversy caused increased interest in the ANILCA and Congress began discussing compromises that would allow the bill to be passed.

By November of 1980, Jimmy Carter had lost the re-election race to Ronald Reagan and Congress began to feel even more pressure to pass the ANILCA before the Republicans gained Congressional majority. After years of debate, a compromise was finally reached and the ANILCA was passed in late November and signed by President Carter on December 2nd 1980.  In response to what some would consider President Carter’s brash use of the Antiquities Act, included in the ANILCA was a provision that with future use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska, National Monuments that are to be greater than 5,000 acres in size will require Congressional approval.  This is only the second time in the history of the Antiquities Act (signed in 1906) that the Presidential powers of the Act have been reduced.

Sea Kayaking in Prince William Sound

By signing the ANILCA, President Carter created 10 new national parks and increased the acreage of the three parks already in existence in Alaska.  The final act protected 100 million acres of federal land (not just NPS land).  The sudden increase in the amount of federal land in Alaska caused the doubling of acres of national park system lands and a tripling of the total acres of designated wilderness in the federal system (designated wilderness can be found on any federal land – NPS, USDA Forest Service, US Wildlife and Fisheries Service or Bureau of Land Management).  Currently, and thanks to the ANILCA, Alaska has 15 National Parks, 1 National Wild River, 1 National Historic Area, and 1 National Heritage Site.

Arguments against the ANILCA were about locking up land in Alaska that could otherwise be used for economic development. However, after the passing of the ANILCA Alaska’s tourism industry exploded.  Each year, Alaska receives about 1.5 million visitors who are spending money on trips, food, hotels, rental cars, airline tickets, souvenirs, etc. The direct tourism money that goes to the state is estimated to be over $2 billion dollars and 1 in 8 jobs in Alaska are related to the tourism industry. The passing of the ANILCA may have done more for Alaska’s economy than oil or gas extraction ever could. Conflict between oil and gas extraction and the conservation of land is still playing out in Alaska, most recently with regards to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which was expanded to 18 million acres under the ANILCA.

The ANILCA is often thought of as one of the most important land conservation act in the history of the United States. The passing of the act is still having ramifications today for the tourism industry in the state of Alaska, for the NPS employees that manage vast, expanses of land, and the visitors that come to Alaska each year to be awed and overwhelmed by the natural beauty around them.

Seward, AK (outside Kenai Fjords National Park) - photo credit to Dave I.


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

NPS Alaska Regional Office: Alaska Parks

Alaska Geographic: Alaska’s National Parks

The Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor Industry

Wikipedia: The Antiquities Act

The ANILCA Act Text

Wikipedia: ANILCA

National Parks Conservation Association: ANILCA

3 thoughts on “Alaska: Land of the Midnight Sun or Land of National Parks?

  1. Pingback: Alaska Update « Gambler's House

  2. Pingback: The Latest in Public Lands News: Wilderness, National Monuments, and H.R. 1459 | The Average Visitor

  3. Pingback: September is National Wilderness Month | The Average Visitor

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