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Public Lands History

Ever since William Seward purchased the territory from Russia in 1867, Alaska and its lands have captured the imagination of Americans across the country.Over the years, this fascination with Alaska has played out in the White House and in the halls of Congress. Presidential proclamations and Acts of Congress have created a body of federal public lands in Alaska cherished by all Americans.

Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of public lands in Alaska.

Public Lands and Wilderness in Alaska

From the time of John Muir’s and Bob Marshall’s trips in Alaska, pioneer conservationists there sought stronger protection for the unsurpassed wilderness of “The Great Land.”

In the decades prior to enactment of the 1964 Wilderness Act, rainforest.jpgno ‘primitive areas’ or ‘wilderness areas’ were designated administratively by the Forest Service in the two national forests in southeast Alaska. Because the Wilderness Act itself only designated forest lands with prior administrative protection, no areas in Alaska came into the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964. However, the Act did require wilderness reviews for the many large roadless areas and the roadless islands in the existing national parks and national wildlife refuges.

Not daunted by the lack of foresight by Forest Service officials, conservationists in Southeast Alaska prepared their own citizen wilderness proposals, but a generally hostile congressional delegation made approval seem a distant dream. Priority attention had to be given to the constant fight to turn back massive timber sales on the Tongass National Forest.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Land use decisions in Alaska were bound up with the aboriginal land claims of Alaskan Natives, and with the pressures resulting from the 1968 Prudhoe Bay oil discovery and plans for the Trans Alaska pipeline.

When the Alaska Natives filed suit over their land claims, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall imposed a land freeze, stopping land transfer (including those to meet the State’s highly generous statehood grant of 104,000,000 acres). To get the oil flowing and additional state land selections transferred, the Udall Land Freeze had to be lifted, and that could only occur when Congress resolved the Native land claims issue.

The upshot was, by 1970, huge pressures from the governor and the State of Alaska, the oil industry and developers of all stripes to pass an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to implement a settlement that had been negotiated with Native organizations.

A few conservationists in Alaska and in Washington D.C. realized that when the Udall land freeze was removed, the slicing up of Alaska lands — the 375,000,000 million acres of Alaska almost entirely owned then by all the American people — would surpass the frenzy of the 19th-century Oklahoma land rush. Where or when, in the rush to transfer millions of acres of lands out of the federal estate, would anyone speak up for the national interest in reserving some great expanses of Alaska as national parks, national wildlife refuges, national wild and scenic rivers, and as wilderness?

“D-2” and The Alaska Coalition. Pressed into action by Alaska conservation leaders, The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club formed the core of a new ‘Alaska Coalition’ coastplainweb1.jpgcreated to deal with this question of the ‘national interest lands’ in Alaska, in the context of the Native claims settlement. In a come-from-behind effort, the Coalition urged Congress to include in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act a provision requiring protection of some large expanses of federal land for more detailed study as potential parks, refuges and wilderness areas.

Against all odds, the Alaska Coalition pushed this amendment to a vote on the House floor in 1970, where their ‘Udall-Saylor National Interest Lands Amendment” was defeated, 178-to-217. Though defeated, the impressive size of the favorable vote helped create political momentum for the national interest lands idea. Building on a similar idea in the Senate version of the bill, a national interest lands provision was incorporated in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

This “D-2” provision—so-called from section 17(d)(2) of the law—required that up to 80,000,000 acres of federal lands in Alaska identified by the Secretary of the Interior as having highest values for park, refuge and wilderness purposes, were to be reserved and given interim protection until Congress could act on the results of more detailed studies. The 80,000,000 acres were given special congressional protection until December 1978.

During the mid-1970s, the federal agencies undertook intensive land-use studies all across Alaska to equip the Secretary of the Interior, Republican Rogers C.B. Morton, to fulfill the D-2 mandate. In parallel with those efforts, Alaska and national conservation leaders mounted an enormous effort to develop their own comprehensive and detailed set of park, refuge, wild river and wilderness proposals, designed on a scale to match Alaska’s vast and incomparable wilderness resources. The question was, how to get this unprecedented set of proposals enacted into law?

Conservation leaders realized such a visionary program would draw powerful opposition from Alaska boosters, the governor, the Alaska congressional delegation and every conceivable development interest, from oil to mining. To get their package through Congress would require a far larger, more cohesive effort than anything America’s conservation movement had ever imagined. Led by Chuck Clusen, the Alaska Coalition reemerged, uniting Alaskan and national conservation groups, which pooled unprecedented resources for this unified campaign.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. In 1977, with the citizen-developed Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) introduced in Congress, an extraordinary constellation of leaders came together behind it:

  • Jimmy Carter became President, with Cecil Andrus as his secretary of the Interior. Both were strong supporters of the vision of a truly historic Alaska lands bill.
  • Rep. Morris K. Udall—sponsor of the original ‘national interest lands’ amendment back in 1970—became chairman of the House Committee on Interior & Insular Affairs.
  • Rep. John Seiberling (D-OH) became chairman of Udall’s special Alaska Lands Subcommittee and was an essential leader—the detail man teamed with Udall’s unmatched legislative skills.

The campaign to pass ANILCA—the largest, most cohesive campaign in the history of the environmental movement to that time—raged through the late 1970s.[i] Udall, Seiberling and their conservationist supporters—and President Carter—triumphed in passing a very strong bill in the House in 1978 by a margin of 9-to-1. [It is noteworthy that this bill, passed in another era of energy concerns, would have permanently blocked oil drilling by designating all of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain as Wilderness.] When a Senate fillibuster blocked this bill, with the interim protection of the D-2 lands set to expire in December, 1978, President Carter and Secretary Andrus took executive action to protect them indefinitely.

In 1979 the House again passed a very strong bill, but the Senate committee approved a less desirable version, giving weaker protection to smaller areas. [For example, this version left the 1.5 million acre Arctic coastal plain open to the possibility of oil drilling.] When Carter and the Alaska Coalition won the first of a projected series of Senate floor votes on amendments to strengthen and expand the inadequate committee bill, Senate leaders pulled the bill from further floor action. Instead, they convened behind-closed-door negotiations dominated by the Alaska delegation.

The Senate-passed bill that resulted was still unsatisfactory to conservationists, who worked with Reps. Udall and Seiberling to prepare a much stronger substitute version they hoped to have the House adopt when it received the Senate-passed bill. However, the 1980 election intervened and Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. It was obvious that Reagan would side with opponents of the Alaska Lands bill. So, the House leaders, conservationist coalition and Carter had no real choice but to accept the weaker—but still historic—Senate version.

On December 2, 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. The Act designated some 55 million acres of wilderness, more than doubled the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Vast new wilderness areas were designated in existing and new national parks (32,355,000 acres in eight park units) and in existing and new national wildlife refuges (18,560,000 acres in 13 refuges). In a particularly hard-fought victory, long-delayed wilderness protection was provided at last for national forest land in Southeast Alaska (5,362,000 acres in 14 wilderness areas on the Tongass National Forest).

On its tenth anniversary, the late T. H. Watkins wrote that the Alaska Lands Act:

… was at once one of the noblest and most comprehensive legislative acts in American history, because, with the scratch of the presidential pen that signed it, the act set aside more wild country than had been preserved anywhere in the world up to that time—104.3 million acres. By itself, the Alaska Lands Act stood as a ringing validation of the best of what the conservation movement had stood for in the century since Henry David Thoreau had walked so thoughtfully in the woods of Walden Pond.[ii]

* Excerpted from Doug Scott’s “A Wilderness Forever Future: A Short History of the National Wilderness Preservation System,” to be published soon by the Pew Wilderness Center and The Wilderness Society.

[i] For a detailed journalistic account of that campaign, see Robert Cahn, “The Fight to Save Wilderness Alaska,” 1982, booklet published by the National Audubon Society.

For a first-hand account, see my “In the National Interest,” Sierra, Vol. 76, No. 1 (January-February 1991), p. 40. For an appraisal 10 years later, see T. H. Watkins, “The Perils of Expedience,” Wilderness, Vol. 54, No. 191 (Winter 1990), p. 22.

[ii] T.H. Watkins, “Alaska and the Weight of History,” in Celebrating Wild Alaska: Twenty Years of the Alaska Lands Act, booklet published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Alaska Wilderness League (2000), frontispiece [reprinting 1990 essay].