Celebrating America’s “Great Land”

In the 150 years since the United States purchased Alaska, Americans have taken extraordinary steps to protect its wildlife and wild lands

  • Mark Wexler
  • Conservation
  • Oct 19, 2017

Sunset paints ice, water and sky within the beautiful bounds of Alaska’s Chugach National Forest. Largely untouched by roads or trails, this 5-million-acre reserve is one of many priceless, protected places in Alaska that sustain some of North America’s most iconic species. Among them (left to right) are bald eagles at Kachemak Bay, sockeye salmon at Wood-Tikchik State Park and brown bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve.

IT WAS A WATERSHED MOMENT for a nation still reeling from the effects of its Civil War. On a chilly October afternoon in 1867 in the northern coastal outpost of Sitka, the United States completed a deal with Russia that increased the size of U.S. territory by 20 percent. In exchange for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre, America gained some 600,000 square miles of wilderness northwest of Canada that the local Unangan people called Alyeska—the “great land.”

Though some critics ridiculed him for engineering the deal, Secretary of State William Seward considered it a bargain. Among other things, he felt that it gave the country control of “one of the most, if not the most, important possessions” in the region: the four Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea that were the main breeding grounds for millions of northern fur seals.

To protect these mammals and control profits from the seals’ precious pelts, U.S. lawmakers established the Pribilof Islands Reservation, the first federal wildlife reserve in the nation’s history. As it turned out, the creation of that reserve also marked the beginning of an extraordinary, and often controversial, 150-year effort by Americans to protect wildlife and wild lands in what has been called the Last Frontier. “These accomplishments,” says NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara, “rank among the country’s greatest conservation success stories.”

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Harbor Seal and Pup in Alaska's Kenai Fjords

Ice forms a familiar pillow for a harbor seal and her pup in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. Clumsy on land, these earless seals slide and roll to reach the sea.

Land of superlatives

Numbers alone can’t begin to describe the abundance and beauty of Alaska’s natural resources, but they do give a sense of the state’s vast size. Alaska boasts 39 mountain ranges that contain 17 of the country’s 20 tallest peaks, including Denali, North America’s highest mountain. Nearly 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline—more than all other U.S. states combined—dominate much of Alaska’s coast, while some 3 million lakes, 3,000 rivers, 170 million acres of wetlands and an estimated 100,000 glaciers grace its landscapes.

More than twice the size of Texas, Alaska also is a land of living giants. Its territory shelters the two largest bear species on Earth—the polar bear and Kodiak brown bear—as well as North America’s largest subspecies of moose, the Alaskan moose. The state’s marine habitats host seasonal populations of the two heaviest pinnipeds in the Northern Hemisphere—the Pacific walrus and northern elephant seal—and eight whale species, including the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. Additionally, Alaska hosts the continent’s largest concentration of American bald eagles and its coastal waters produce nearly 80 percent of the planet’s supply of wild Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon.

Americans knew none of this, of course, in the late 1800s. To many people living in those days, “Alaska was an otherworldly place, shrouded in mystery and perhaps even foreboding,” says historian Stephen Haycox, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska–Anchorage. But an 1899 expedition helped change those perceptions by showing the nation the unique, untamed nature of the newly acquired territory.

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Alaskan Bull Moose

Regal in its antler crown, an Alaskan bull moose stands framed by fall foliage in Denali National Park and Preserve. North America’s largest subspecies of moose, these animals can reach 7 feet at the shoulders. This setting is apt: Denali is home to North America’s tallest mountain at 20,310 feet.

Exploring another world

Organized by railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman, the 9,000-mile voyage along Alaska’s coast included some of the most influential U.S. scientists and naturalists of the day. The group discovered some 600 new plant and animal species, including 344 insects. It also produced detailed journals and nearly 5,000 photographs, paintings and maps. One participant, geographer William Gannett, wrote: “If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young—wait! The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of the kind in the world. And it is not well to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeking the finest first.”

Expedition members also noted destruction of coastal forests and fisheries by commercial operations. “Their motto seems to be, ‘If I do not take all I can get, somebody else will,’” wrote naturalist George Bird Grinnell. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Pribilof Islands, where overharvesting had taken a toll on the fur seal population. In 1870, its numbers were estimated at about 4.5 million. By the time Grinnell, Gannett and the other expedition scientists visited the islands three decades later, little more than 200,000 of the animals survived. That discovery eventually led U.S. authorities to sign a treaty in 1911 with Canada, Great Britain and Japan that limited the harvest of Pribilof seals—the world’s first international agreement designed specifically to protect a wildlife species.

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Polar bears on Alaska's North Slope

Death begets life on Alaska’s North Slope, where polar bears skirt the well-picked bones of a bowhead whale. Local Iñupiat people still hunt whales for subsistence. Bears and other wildlife thrive on scavenged remains.

Legal battles over land

“The Harriman expedition participants were among the first to struggle with the concept of how to balance protecting Alaska’s pristine nature with the world’s demand for its natural resources,” observes historian Robert McCracken Peck, a senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. That struggle has since dominated almost every debate over claims and control of Alaska’s 375 million acres.

When the territory became the 49th state in 1959, the federal government maintained ownership of 60 percent of Alaska’s lands. About 100 million acres of what was left became the property of the state. However, in passing the statehood act, federal lawmakers ignored the rights of Native Alaskans, even though an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that the nation’s tribal groups had a valid claim to indigenous lands.

Belatedly, Congress addressed the issue in 1971 by passing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It awarded more than 200 Native communities title to 44 million acres plus nearly $1 billion in compensation. The law included an important provision that gave U.S. lawmakers eight years to decide which of the state’s “most spectacular natural environments, recreation areas and wildlife habitats” should be protected. These so-called “crown jewels,” as Congress labeled them, included parts of such vast wild regions as the Copper River Delta, Brooks Range, Tongass National Forest and Alaska Peninsula.

The “crown jewels” provision ignited a bitter feud between conservationists and Alaska residents, who claimed sovereign rights to the state’s land and fought against threats to their livelihoods, mainly derived from oil and gas development, fishing, timber and mining. “For many Alaskans, limitation on development is threatening because of the state’s extreme reliance on resource exploitation for income,” Haycox says. Though Alaskans love the environment, he says, “the problem comes when environmental regulation affects the potential for jobs and revenue.”

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Aurora borealis over Alaska's Brooks Range

Brilliant hues of the aurora borealis flare over Alaska’s Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. The U.S. Congress declared part of the range as one of Alaska’s “crown jewels”—worthy of eternal protection.

Heated debate yields historic act

After nearly a decade of debate, Congress finally passed a strong protectionist bill in 1980: the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act—the largest single stroke of conservation in world history, providing federal protection for some 104 million acres of spectacular real estate. It designated nearly 44 million acres for expanding or creating 13 national parks and preserves, including Gates of the Arctic and Katmai. It set aside acreage for 16 national wildlife refuges, 2 national forests, 2 conservation areas and 26 wild and scenic rivers. While many of those areas remained open to timbering and mining, 57 million acres received federal wilderness status, more than doubling the area of U.S. public lands closed to development—and safeguarding habitat for millions of animals.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, for example, hosts one of the world’s largest concentrations of waterfowl, with breeding sites for more than 1 million ducks, some 500,000 geese and 100,000 swans. Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve protects the state’s largest group of Dall sheep and populations of grizzlies, black bears, moose and threatened Steller sea lions. And one of Alaska’s most popular sport fishing areas, the Gulkana Wild and Scenic River, is the leading Chinook and sockeye salmon spawning stream in the Copper River Basin. More than 2 million salmon return to the river’s watershed every year.

Another area of critical importance to wildlife is the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which borders the Beaufort Sea in the northeast corner of Alaska. Yet today, this is the site of the most heated debate over future use of the state’s natural resources. While Congress designated more than a third of the 19-million-acre refuge as wilderness in 1980, it did not afford the same protection to the Coastal Plain—the “1002 area”—because of the potential to drill there for oil and natural gas. By some estimates, this 1.5-million-acre area may hold up to 12 billion barrels of crude oil, roughly 18 months’ worth of current U.S. consumption. Yet the Coastal Plain also provides critical denning sites for hundreds of threatened polar bears and habitat for dozens of other species, including more than 190,000 Porcupine caribou.

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Porcupine caribou herd newborn

A calf newly born to the Porcupine caribou herd rests near its mother in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Protecting these calving grounds is vital for the Gwich’in people, who harvest caribou meat (below) to survive.

Conflict in a “sacred place”

The caribou’s annual migration can cover up to 3,000 miles, the longest migration of any land mammal on Earth. Each summer, caribou stop in the 1002 to bear thousands of calves. That’s why the Gwich’in people, who live near the refuge and in 14 other villages in Alaska and Canada, call the Coastal Plain Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “the sacred place where life begins.”

“Our people’s fate is tied to the health and well-being of the Porcupine herd,” says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. Still mainly reliant on hunting and gathering, the Gwich’in claim a cultural and spiritual connection to caribou dating back 20,000 years. “We rely on the caribou for our food, our clothing and our subsistence way of life,” says Demientieff. “As politicians debate over whether to open the Coastal Plain to oil and gas development, we believe that the very survival of our people is at stake.”  

Gwich'in caribou harvest

To date, several attempts by Alaska’s federal lawmakers to open the 1002 area to drilling have failed. But as of August 2017, Congress was considering a bill that would allow oil exploration in the area. Along with the Gwich’in, NWF and other conservationists oppose such exploration for fear that energy development could force the caribou to abandon their crucial calving grounds and cause other serious impacts to wildlife.  

Like the refuge, much of the 49th state still remains as wild as it was 150 years ago when the United States purchased the territory from Russia. “Alaska stands as a beacon, a statement that there is yet in the world a place of permanent, natural magnificence,” Haycox writes. Thanks to a remarkable conservation legacy, that beacon should shine brightly for generations to come.


Conserving Alaska

The National Wildlife Federation has a long history of encouraging wildlife and habitat conservation in Alaska. In the 1970s, NWF played a key role in promoting passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, putting more of its efforts into passage of the law than it had done previously with any other legislation. More recently, the Federation supported its former state affiliate, the Renewable Resources Coalition, on a campaign to educate the public about problems posed by the proposed Pebble Mine project, which threatens the health of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in the Bristol Bay watershed. For decades, NWF also has fought to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. “Some natural treasures are simply too special to degrade,” says NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara, noting that the refuge spans five different ecological zones. “The refuge represents the last opportunity to preserve an entire, undisturbed ecosystem that runs from mountain top to the sea within the Arctic Circle.”

Support NWF and help safeguard the future of wildlife.

Mark Wexler is editor-at-large.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

NWF Calls on Congress to Protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Invest in Wildlife Conservation
NWF Blogs about Alaska
Silent Seashores?
Protecting Home for Wildlife in the Arctic
NWF Wildlife Guide: The Arctic
The National Wildlife Federation's Pacific office

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