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Alaska Lands Act: 20 Years Later

In the 20 years since the passage of the Alaska Lands Act, nothing has changed in many of the state's wild places. And that's reason to celebrate.

Dawn. The zipper on the tent is stiff with frost. Outside, the light seems as brittle and cold as the ice on the edges of the Noatak River where we are camped. A blanket of fresh snow powders the shoulders of Mt. Igikpak, pink now against the sunrise. I stretch stiffly and turn in a slow circle, inspecting the new snow on each of the peaks that surround the river, before moving toward the campfire near its bank.

The mound that was last night’s fire is still warm. I bury my hands in the soft, white ashes to work the stiffness from my fingers before rekindling the fire for coffee. There is no movement from the other tents. No wind. Just the soft sounds of the river moving quietly along. It’s morning in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Twenty years ago, several thousand miles away, something happened to ensure that mornings would still be like this in wild Alaska. On December 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the most sweeping conservation initiative in this country’s history. The bill itself was just 186 pages. A printed copy of it would be invisible against the arcing sweep of any one of the mountains holding up the sky this morning. But its effect was immense: 12 national parks and monuments and 11 national wildlife refuges were created, 26 rivers were added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system, and 56 million new acres of federally protected wilderness were designated. In all, the act set aside 104.3 million acres of wild land in Alaska-places like this stretch of riverbank in Gates of the Arctic.

It’s difficult to think of laws on a morning like this, beside a wild river, with the metal coffeepot scraping against ice as I dip it full of water. The water is as clear as air, so cold it makes your teeth ache. I blow on my hands to warm them before returning to the fire to start the coffee.

Halfway back to the fire, I stop. Pressed into the mud between the river and the tents is a fresh grizzly track. I kneel next to it, the mud soaking through the knee of my pants, and place my hand inside the great track. A place like Gates, where it’s still possible to come upon a line of fresh grizzly prints on the shore, was wild long before the passage of ANILCA. This is old-fashioned wilderness, echo-swallowing, border-defying, leave-you-weak-in-the-knees wilderness. It’s a place where space is as much a part of the landscape as are the caribou or the wind.

No law created it. In fact, nothing we do can ever “create” more wilderness. We can only destroy it. Or preserve it. ANILCA simply said that these places should not be destroyed.

That concept, even when it bears the full legal weight of an act of Congress, can seem as thin and fragile as new morning ice when your palm is pressed into the track of a grizzly. But the truth of the matter is that if there are going to be places where grizz and wolf tracks still stitch along a riverbank, where tens of thousands of caribou pull the winter down from the mountains behind them, if we are going to have any wild places left, it will only be by a conscious human choice. Jimmy Carter made that choice for us 20 years ago, and we’re 100 million acres-100 million wild Alaskan acres-richer for it.

It is not a perfect law. The compromises and political wrangling necessary to get it passed left open the possibility of oil and gas development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Although ANILCA set aside 5.4 million acres of wilderness in the Tongass National Forest, it also mandated federal funding for logging quotas of 4.5 billion board feet every decade, exposing vast stands of old-growth timber to chainsaws. Other gaping loopholes allow miners to gouge streambeds in search of gold.

“The act is not an end,” said one conservationist who helped shape its passage, “but a beginning.” And what a beginning it was.

On a morning like this, you can dwell on what the act didn’t do, or you can listen to the whistle of wings as a half-million pintails stir the air over the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, or to the white thunder of glaciers calving in Glacier Bay National Park. You can sit and imagine how the sunlight looks just now, pink and gold, reflecting off the ice columns of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, or try to name the colors in the plumage of puffins gathering on the cliffs of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. You can watch ribbons of mist thread through the treetops of Misty Fjords National Monument, or look for ancient footprints on the beaches of Cape Krusenstern. All of these areas were either initially preserved or enlarged by the passage of ANILCA.

“The mountains,” said President Carter when he signed the bill, “the rivers and lakes that harbor salmon and trout, the game trails of caribou and grizzly in the Brooks Range, the marshes where our waterfowl spent summer, all these are now preserved, now and I pray, for all time to come.”

But I’m not thinking any of those things. Instead, I’m following the grizzly’s tracks on the beach, stepping where it stepped, matching its gait in a kind of dance, imagining the animal at the end of those tracks still moving, backlit, perhaps, by the morning sun, heading into some nameless mountain range. The only thing I’m thinking about is President Carter’s words as he signed ANILCA into law:

“Let us celebrate.”

My awkward dance in the tracks of a grizzly seems an appropriate way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of such a landmark piece of conservation legislation. As I head back to camp, the mountains all around me are bathed in a wild light, almost glowing at the start of another wild day in a still-wild place. It is morning in wild Alaska.

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