In July, Don Berens , Allan Sowinski and I made a trip to Alaska to visit three of its spectacular national parks.
Our first stop was Wrangell – St Elias, an eight our drive from Anchorage. At 13.2 million acres, it’s the nation’s largest national park and contains the largest wilderness area in the National Wilderness Preservation System. It contains Mt. St. Elias, which at 18,008 feet, is the second highest peak in the United States and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. It also has Mt. Wrangell, at 14,163 feet, is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America. Our adventures involved hiking the Erie and Bonanza Mine trails along with visit the abandoned mining town of Kennecott.
The next two parks we visited, Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic were north of the Arctic Circle and required bush plane access. Our starting point was the native village of Kotzebue located 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle and only reachable from Anchorage by commercial flight.
Gates of the Arctic was created to preserve and protect 8.4 million acres of the diverse arctic ecosystems of Alaska’s central Brooks Range. It is acknowledged as the premier Wilderness park in the national park system and serves as the headwaters for six Wild Rivers. The park name comes from wilderness advocate Robert Marshall, (a NYer who along with brother George and Herbert Clark, were the first ADK 46ers) who traveled the North Fork Koyukuk country from 1929 to 1939. Marshall called the two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, which flanked the North Fork Koyukuk as the gates from Alaska’s central Brooks Range into the far north Arctic, On our visit here, we camped on a gravel bar along the Ambler River. Our first day involved hiking up a box canyon where we explored a snow field, topping the day off with a climb to an over look for a panoreamic view of the Ambler River valley and our campsite. The next day we hiked along the Ambler Riiver, crossing several tributaries along the way. The Ambler River running clear and COLD only perked my paddling imagination. With a flow of about 7-8 mph, I could only imagine what it would be like to sit back in my Merlin II and just steer.
Kobuk Valley , at 1.7 million acres protects the central section of the Kobuk River and the 25 mile Great Kobuk Sand Dune, where we landed and camped. Native peoples have used this area for at least 12,000 years. Their history is recorded at the Onion Portage archaeological site. We sent two days , hiking on the sand dune, occasionally dropping down into the river valley below to explore the taiga forest. In one instance, we observed a beaver dam. Our guide told us that there’s a northern migration north due to the warming of the arctic.
Prior to statehood, virtually all the land within the territory was federally owned. Upon entering the union in 1959, the Alaska statehood act allowed Alaska to select 104 million acres of federal land as state land. However, conflicts erupted as the state selected lands which have been traditional used by natives. So the state lands selection process was put on hold until the native claims could be settled.
As a result, on December 18, 1971, The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was enacted into law. ANCSA settled outstanding native land claims and established clear native title to selected land and resources. To do this, the Act established 12 regional corporations and a method of conveying surface estate (land) and subsurface estate (mineral and other resources) to each regional corporation. As a result , 44 million acres of federal lands were transferred to the native regional corporations. ANCSA also called for the study of 80 million acres of federal lands for the creation / expansion of federal conservation units.
As the process of establishing the new federal conservation units languished, President Carter took action. Using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, on December 1, 1978, the President designated 100 million acres of federal lands as national monuments. This protected current national parks such as Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley, Kenai Fjords, Lake Clark and Katmai as national monuments.
Finally, on December 2, 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. ( ANILCA or the Alaska Lands Act). The Alaska Lands Act set aside over 104 million acres of the 49th state as parks, refuges, monuments and wild and scenic river areas. It created over 43 million acres of new parks – designating 32.4 million of those acres as wilderness. Overall, the act created 13 major additions to the federal national park system and designated 56 million acres of Alaska as Wilderness. Unfortunately, the House and Senate versions of this legislation had differences. While the House version was clean, the Senate version contained two problematic provisions.
(1) It contained a $40M annual provision to subsidize logging in the Tongass National Forest. As time passed, even conservative members of Congress had problems with this clause , since it was not subject to the annual budget / appropriation process. Consequently, it could not even be debated, Fortunately this was corrected through the TONGASS TIMBER REFORM ACT.
(2) Section 1002 of ANILCA required that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be studied for it oil development potential. Oil development would be in direct conflict with the 180,000 animal Porcupine Caribou herd, which utilized the coastal plan for it’s calving ground. It is also an important resource for subsistence users and local natives. Unfortunately, the coastal plain was never protected and opponents for years attached riders in attempts to open the area to oil development. They finally succeeded, including it as a revenue item in the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.”
Regardless of the problems with the Senate version, there was no time to reconcile the House and Senate bills. President Carter was a lame duck President, and the incoming administration was no friend of wilderness, national parks or the environment. So the Senate version became law. Regardless, The Alaska Lands Act literally doubled the size of the national park system. It was the Louisiana Purchase of the American Conservation movement.