The Alaskan wilderness exerts a powerful draw over all who visit or live in its beauty. From indigenous peoples through early pioneers, trappers, and miners, Alaska is also home to intense debate and rancor over how to best use and conserve the natural resources of this vast land. The growth of public interest in environmental awareness, with its often dramatic clash with developmental concerns, is a consistent theme in modern Alaskan history. |
This modern history of Alaska began with the 1867 purchase of 586,000 square miles of wilderness from Russia. In the early years as part of the United States, the Alaskan wilderness was seldom visited, but the discovery of gold exerted tremendous new excitement about the area. By 1915, gold prospectors had created the Klondike stampede and other gold frenzies in Nome and Fairbanks. These hardy individualists focused on making money and had little use for early environmentalists and proponents of preservation. Early Alaskans resisted most federals efforts to create wilderness preserves, primarily because such actions tended to curb residents access to local, seemingly plentiful resources.
These early conflicts set the stage for more dramatic confrontations in the mid-20th century. World War II brought increased pressure on the Alaskan wilderness, as more development ensured including the call to drill for oil. While drilling eventually commenced, these early calls for development also created a cadre of powerful, crusading environmentalists. Foremost among these was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who argued passionately for wilderness preservation. He, along with others, championed the creation of Arctic refuge; in 1960, the federal government established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protecting millions of acres of Alaskan beauty from development.
In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act added more protection to vast areas of Alaska, but over 1.5 million acres of wilderness in the coastal plain went undesignated as “wilderness” in order to get the bill passed. Currently there is bipartisan support to further protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain; the proposal safeguards traditional uses, including subsistence hunting, for Alaskan Native people making the coastal plain home. The designation also preserves critical habitat for more than 100,000 caribou, grizzly and polar bears, and dozens of migratory bird species.
Back in 1980, critics of preservation argued that preventing the development and exploitation of natural lands would ruin Alaska’s economy and stifle opportunity. However, the history of Alaska is full of contradictions and, surprisingly, Alaska’s protected wilderness provides the foundation for a growing and powerful tourism industry. The act of preservation ensures that the wilderness is available to wide array of people engaged recreational, educational, and transitional pursuits. Even more telling is the fact that there has been no serious legislative effort to diminish the state’s wilderness acreage.
In an area of such vast beauty and plentiful resources, it is hardly surprising to find the drama and conflict surrounding the causes of environmentalism and development. As Alaska continues to grow and attract more people, these conflicts will continue to provide the impetus for continued discussion and reflection of what is important to us as individuals and collectively as a nation.
Supporting and organizing wilderness preservations, Shaun Patsy, has been positively active for 19 years in sharing his knowledge and love for Alaska's wilderness. As both an enthusiast hunter and activist for Alaska's wildlife and wilderness programs; Shaun writes several articles and blogs, pertaining to Alaska's great land, rich culture and friendly outdoor activities. For more on Alaska hunting and adventures visit Ram Aviation
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