Forty years ago this week President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). It is widely considered the greatest public land legislation in American history.
The impetus for ANILCA came in a simple provision of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that directed the Secretary of Interior to withdraw up to 80 million acres of federal land in Alaska for the possible establishment of conservation areas (Listen to audio interviews of Fran Mauer and then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus on ANILCA.
A national campaign to lobby Congress developed soon after and grew exponentially following the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter who immediately took a personal interest in passing Alaska lands legislation. Environmental groups across the Nation organized the Alaska Coalition which led the lobbying effort. The campaign involved the greatest citizen action since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Preservation of the wild character of vast landscapes that still remained in Alaska was the primary motivating idea that galvanized the American people into action. The feeling was that in Alaska we had a last chance to preserve wildlife and wilderness on a vast scale that was no longer possible elsewhere in the country.
Following a seemingly endless debate in Congress in which the House of Representatives passed bills by wide margins that would have best protected the largest area of land, a less than ideal Senate version was ultimately passed and sent to the President. The final legislation added about 40 million acres to the National Park System, 53 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, 2.2 million acres for National Conservation and Recreation areas, 3.4 million acres to National Forests, designated 24 Wild Rivers and also designated 56 million acres of Wilderness within National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests in Alaska. The new conservation units established by ANILCA total over 100 million acres, an area the size of California.
While the Alaska conservation lands established by ANILCA are unprecedented in scale, much remains to be done to further protect wild lands in Alaska. Tens of millions of acres within the parks, refuges, forests and BLM-administered lands have wilderness qualities but remain to be designated as Wilderness. The integrity of several conservation areas are threatened by development, such as the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge where the Trump administration is rushing to lease to oil companies. The Izembek Refuge Wilderness remains threatened by road building proposals. In addition, the wilderness character of many conservation areas established under ANILCA is being threatened by inappropriate stewardship on the part of federal officials who are allowing increasing use of aircraft, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
The promise of ANILCA to the American people and all future generations remains in question. ANILCA established a vast system of protected lands where wildness prevails—but can we keep them wild?