The last Eden

2014-02-28 19.33.50

The empty Aleutian Range mountains rise above the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge south of Anchorage/Craig Medred photo

Whether by accident or design – and there would appear to be a little of both in play – Alaska has become a global model for how to save the planet.

The state’s success is worth noting in the wake of the first official report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which met in Paris earlier this month.

“Not unexpectedly, the specific findings are depressing,” writes Thomas Lovejoy at Science Advances. “More species are threatened with extinction than any time in human history. Ever growing human populations and their activities have severely altered 75 percent of the terrestrial environment, 40 percent of the marine environment, and 50 percent of streams and rivers. The health of freshwater biodiversity has been particularly neglected because freshwater is widely understood and managed more as a physical resource vital to survival rather than as the special and delicate habitat that it provides for an extraordinary array of organisms.”

Alaskans of long ago should be applauded for paying attention to the latter long before Earth Day made the environment a “cause.”

Efforts to protect Alaska freshwater habitats, driven by a desire to preserve salmon, date to a 1919 Territorial ban on dumping timber, fill or anything else in anadromous waters and by 1949 the Territorial Legislature was debating a bill to control water pollution, according to a history of the Anadromous Fish Act passed into law as one of a newly born Legislature’s first acts after Statehood in 1959.

The 1959 legislation, wrote Mike Frank, “substantially broadened the protection afforded the state’s anadromous fish bearing waters” and raised “the potential fine to a
maximum of $5,000 and the potential imprisonment of not more than one year.”

That was only the first step by the fledgling state to protect its waters and land. Only about a decade after protecting the waters home to salmon, the state approved the 105,000-acre Kachemak Bay Park, which today covers nearly 400,000 acres, and started the development of an Alaska State Parks system that today encompasses 3.3 million acres.

The largest state park system in the nation, it covers an area more than twice as big as the state of Delaware. And Alaska state land set-asides didn’t end with state parks.

More than 3.2 million more acres were preserved as state game refuges, critical habitat areas, and wildlife sanctuaries managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

All told, state-protected lands cover an area larger than the state of Vermont, and the state is a bit player in Alaska land preservation.

Global perspective

Lovejoy, in his essay headlined “Eden no more,” observes that “the IPBES assessment coincides with new and hopeful visions emerging from the conservation community that adjust the scale and impact of collective efforts upward dramatically. The Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s goal of Half-Earth was one of the first, with the aim of conserving half of the planet’s lands and seas to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including humans. The National Geographic Society has a goal to place 30 percent of the planet in protected areas by 2030. The… (plan) is essentially coincident with the One Earth vision from the Leonardo DeCaprio Foundation.”

Alaska went way past the goal of placing 30 percent of land in protected areas with the 1980 passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which grew federally protected lands in the state by more than 100 million acres.

Today the National Park Services controls about 52 million acres of land in Alaska, an acreage about equal to that of the state of Kansas. Sixty-five percent of the 79.8 million acres of land in the park system are in Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns another 76.8 million acres in Alaska. That agency’s land holdings, which blanket 16 sprawling and wild national wildlife refuges, represent 86 percent of the 89.1 million acres of land the agency owns in the country. 

Another 24.4 million acres of land are protected in Alaska as part of the National Forest System. 

National parks, refuges and forests are the most protected of federal land holdings. Those protected areas, coupled with the 6.5 million acres in state protected lands, preserve almost 150 million acres of Alaska or 41 percent of the state’s 365.5 million acres.

But acreage in protected categories doesn’t end there. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns another 72.2 million acres of Alaska. How one views the protection, or not, of these lands depends to a significant degree on point of view.

“Historically, BLM has been dominated by commodity interests, especially ranchers and mining companies,” University of Idaho professor Adam Sowards observed in High Country News. “But in the 1970s, Congress passed several laws that increased public involvement in land management decisions. It also directed BLM to balance extractive uses such as mining, grazing and logging with other activities, such as wildlife conservation, recreation and preservation of wilderness areas. These laws shifted the agency into what has been called a “green drift” toward greater environmental protection, even in the face of subsequent congressional gridlock.”

Almost ever since that shift, a debate has raged over the difference between land protection and what has been called a land “lockup.” That argument is no different in Alaska than anywhere else, where some BLM lands in Alaska are more protected than others.

About 1 million acres of BLM land north of Fairbanks are in the the White Mountain National Recreation Area, which ANILCA set aside for “public outdoor recreational use and for the conservation of scenic, historic, cultural and wildlife values, and for other uses, if they are compatible or do not significantly impair the previously mentioned values.”

Nearby by Beaver Creek was also given protection as a federal Wild and Scenic River, which greatly restricts the activities the BLM can allow upon adjacent uplands. The same is true of lands in the nearby Mount Prindle and Limestone Jags “research natural areas.”

Protection versus protection

Millions of acres of BLM land in Alaska falls in various sorts of special-protection classes. The agency also manages a variety of Special Recreation Management Areas (SRMAs) in the state. The range in size from the popular, 700-acre Campbell Tract SRMA adjacent to the state’s largest city to the 848,000 Tiekel SRMA adjacent to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park along the Canadian border in Eastern Alaska.

Total BLM SRMAs in the agency’s East Alaska District – which includes the Tiekel SRMA, the Denali Highway SRMA, the Delta Range SRMA and the Delta River SRMA – total about 1.7 million acres.

The BLM reserves SRMAs to protect recreation, which is often at odds with any sort of development, especially in wild areas.

The BLM is also considering or has already dedicated millions of acres of Alaska land to Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). ACECs are set up, according to the agency, to “protect important historical, cultural, and scenic values, or fish and wildlife or other natural resources.”

BLM has no readily available list of Alaska lands protected in the agency’s various special protection categories, but the total appears to be approaching a quarter to a third of the 72.2 million acres the BLM owns in Alaska.

That could push the amount of Alaska land protected from development past the Edward O. Wilson foundation standard of Half Earth. But as a practical, boots-on-the-ground matter, Alaska is already well in front of the Half Earth goal of dedicating “fully half the surface of the Earth to nature.”

The U.S. Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium (MRLC) classifies less than a tenth of a percent of the land in Alaska as “developed.” Though Alaska has seen development, it remains largely undeveloped.

Natural land changes in the state continue to dwarf the activities of man.

‘By far the greatest Alaska change across this decade has been the conversion of forests to shrub and grasslands, primarily as a result of wildland fire,” the MRLC concluded at mid-decade. “Other land cover categories that have experienced losses from 2001-2011 include perennial ice and snow and wetlands.”

In much of America, as songwriter Joni Mitchell observed, people might have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” but Alaska to date has largely avoided the pavement, the parking lots, the dams and most of all the agriculture, which has truly driven the major conversions of land in North America.

Maybe it’s as simple as the northern latitude keeping people away. Alaska’s human population remains comparatively tiny. The state boasts the lowest population density – one person per square mile – of all 50 states; Wyoming, which is second, has six times per many people per square mile.

But then Wyoming is within the globe’s favored habitation zone.

Fifty percent of the world’s population lives between 20 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude and 80 percent live between 20 degrees north and 60 degrees north, according to geographers. 

The Anchorage metropolitan area starts at about 61 degrees north and stretches to near 62 degrees north. It is home to almost 55 percent of Alaska’s spartan population of 736,000 people, roughly 80 percent of whom live south of 62 degrees.



















25 replies »

  1. That despicable Trump’s dealings with China have made it impossible for my subdivision of 400+ (and the other 12,000 in my MO comm,unity) recycle paper.cardboard and glass. This means more square feet for obnoxious landfills and an up-tick in pollution, which represents an up-tick in global warming. Why can’t POTUS (and many legislators get it?). Now comes the tariff on Mexican produce. When the supermarket shelves are empty of tomatoes, avocadoes, cucumbers and hundreds of other edibles, maybe somebody will take notice.

    • Recycling in China as eco-friendly? From Alaska? Really?

      The “carbon emissions” required to ship garbage to Asia to (maybe) be processed, and the energy required to do so, is a net negative. Particularly since we are paying money to send it to places that don’t recycle their own garbage, which is magnitudes greater than ours. Most US recycling is expensive virtue signalling.

      We are in no way short of land, and landfills for things like glass and cardboard, which are made from sustainable products in any event, are much more eco-friendly than recycling overseas. Even plastic is better off underground locally than in the ocean.

      Absent a commercially economically-viable, nearby market for recycled material, which Alaska will never have, using the minuscule amount of land for landfills, which land at end of service, when closed off and covered, can be repurposed to other uses, makes far more ecologic and economic sense.

      Yes, we do need to address over-packaging and other ills, but that won’t happen as long as the ill-informed are told by eco-activists that if they just recycle they are “helping the planet” in a meaningful way.

  2. Craig,
    Not so sure that Alaska is “protected” like you think.
    What we have seen in Wyoming is fossil fuel companies are paying to snuff data on human exacerbated climate change.
    “THE BANKRUPTCY of one of the largest domestic coal producers in the country has revealed that the company maintains financial ties to many of the leading groups that have sowed doubt over the human causes of global warming.”
    If AK allows groups like AFP to skew the data and lobbyists from global conglomerates to infiltrate top positions in state DEC, etc….then many of the “controls” that were once in place to limit pollution will no longer be there to protect our water or air.
    (Like why are the dead whales showing up on the beaches south of Anchorage?)
    Having a few seasonal rangers with “smokey the bear” hats on will not mitigate oil & gas fracking and other environmental degradation currently happening across the state.

    • Steve, your comment is all innuendo with zero facts to back it up. Just fabricated hysteria.

      • Bryan,
        Not much inclusiveness to what I have to say.
        Go back and read my link.
        “The documents in the court docket show that the coal giant gave contributions to leading think tanks that have attacked the link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, as well as to several conservative advocacy groups that have attempted to undermine policies intended to shift the economy toward renewable energy.”
        Do you think those National think tanks only effect policy in Wyoming?
        Come on Bryan…the whole world knows AFP is doing the same thing.
        Alaska is ground zero for fossil fuel companies affecting public policy…just look at the current administration in Juneau.

      • “(Like why are the dead whales showing up on the beaches south of Anchorage?)”

        This right here is part of the problem. People falsely assuming that the brief span of their lives defines (worse yet, should define) the environmental status quo. It is fundamentally a-rational, as it ignores thinking critically as opposed to cherry-picking information to support a pre-existing belief.

        Whales had been hunted to near-extinction levels by about 1900. Commercial whaling effectively ended only in 1946. Since that time the population has only now rebounded to about what it is estimated to have been in the 17thC. Based on what we know about rebounding populations of marine mammals worldwide being necessarily associated with increased strandings, there is zero reason, nor evidence, to assume that a couple incidents are anything but anomalies, or a perfectly normal consequence of a recovering population finally re-entering parts of its historic range.

      • Matthew,
        Not only are scientists in AK concerned about the amount of dead whales showing up on shorelines, but WA is also seeing an increase in dead (beached) whales.
        Many scientists believe the lack of food sources are to blame?
        Are the 5 billion pink salmon released by hatcheries in the Pacific eating all of the whale’s food?
        Are other environmental factors like wastewater (from ships and drilling operations) to blame?
        “Washington responders typically see only four to eight beached gray whales each year.
        But Calambokidis says the network has already responded to 18 dead whales in 2019 as of Monday…
        …scientists can’t rule out starving whales as a sign that something is amiss in their ecosystem.” “[Strandings] could be exacerbated by changes in the environment — [gray whales] are a good reflection of what’s going on in the ocean,” Milstein says.
        “Millstein says this could be a sign of a decline in quantity, quality and availability of food.
        Because gray whales eat arthropods — insectlike creatures at the very bottom of the food chain — arthropod health impacts animal health all the way up the chain.”

      • “Can’t rule out…”

        They are theorizing based on current observation. That’s what scientists do. What they aren’t doing is showing that there is necessarily a problem in any sort of a historic sense.

        This is the problem, again, with alarmism, it takes simple questions about what might be happening, conjecture, not yet even testable hypotheses, and tries to prematurely, based on fear and nigh-religious certainty of belief, assign its cause to that belief system.

      • Could, might, possibly these are a few other words that many people fail to read when the words they are reading say what they want them to say. It’s amazing what the brain can do by simply choosing to omit a word here or there.

      • Steve, you say “scientists believe the lack of food” is killing off the whales. Believe? Also, Killer Whale pods have been increasing in numbers and they kill whales for sport through drowning. How does one tell the difference between starvation and drowning if a scientist doesnt even know?

      • First off…
        Reporting of observations and collecting data does not make scientists “alarmists” in any stretch of the Imagination…nor does speaking of these events.
        Secondly, there appears to be a major problem in the Pacific Ocean (Fukushima, 5 billion hatchery fish, oil and gas wastewater, ships dumping grey water, nuclear testing, global warming…take your pick at what is causing it today)
        The reality is many scientists with a lot more education and experience than the right wing voices on this site are concerned.
        The whale may very well be our “canary in the coal mine”.
        “Nearly 60 gray whales have been reported dead from Mexico to Alaska. Many were skinny and malnourished.”
        You can put your head in the sand and forget about all if this, but those of us concerned about our family’s health and wellbeing are definitely looking to scientists to see why this is occurring.

      • Steve,

        It’s not the scientist who are the alarmists, it’s the people who twist their words or completely omit their words that are the alarmists. Using a sentence by a scientist that isn’t a definitive statement as a definitive statement is what alarmists are doing, but I expect you already know that.

      • Well Steve O,
        Since this vast amount of dead whales on the beaches is a new phenomenon, I would hardly believe that any scientists are ready to release “definitive statements” on their current observations?
        You are the Symantec King of twisting observations and data away from the plausible conclusions.
        The reality is that 60 dead whales in a few months is a LOT of beached whales on the NA Pacific coast.
        Take your pick at what is causing it…the end result is premature death with many emaciated creatures.
        Any statement made to the press by investigators on scene is worth examining.
        As human diseases such as cancer cause premature death among our human population, I would think it is prudent to keep a close watch on environmental factors affecting wildlife and marine mammals in our biosphere.
        You may not, but that is your choice…

      • is 60 a “lot?” more dead bowheads than that show up “in a few months,” and the bowhead population is about a tenth the size.

      • Craig,
        From what WA says they normally have 4 to 8 dead whales a year wash up, yet have had 18 in less than half a year…that is at least triple there average so far….but,
        this dead whale thing is not isolated to N.A….
        What the Euros are reporting is one of the causes that I was thinking of in the back of my mind…
        “A large amount of plastic was found in the whale’s stomach, although it is unclear if the waste caused the whale’s death, according to the organization.
        Plastic has been documented at all levels in the marine food web, from the deepest trenches to the most far-flung beaches, according to a study published Thursday by Scientific Reports”

    • Steve,

      If you really think the majority of Alaska isn’t protected there are only a few reasons you would think so.

      1. You have never been to Alaska
      2. You have never tried to purchase property in Alaska
      3. You have never been outside of the major city in Alaska
      4. You do not understand the protections in place and simply disregard facts

      If your previous writings are to be believed option 4 is the only option that fits.

      • Steve O…
        Maybe you are part of the AFP propaganda arm working across the Nation to deny climate change?
        You do claim to be a Libertarian and you do not feel climate change is a concern in Alaska?
        “In March, 2011, Americans for Prosperity sent memos to U.S. senators to support an attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lawful regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act”
        You do remember that AFP was sponsoring our Governor’s “talks” throughout the state and that Gov Dunleavy disbanded the Climate Action Committee in Alaska and took down their homepage?
        He (the governor) would not even come out of his office in Juneau when a group of young students approached his office with a statement on Climate Change.
        “Americans For Prosperity and state AFP chapters are members of the State Policy Network.”
        You cannot deny that AFP is a large part of the “Climate Change Deniers” funding propaganda to support more fossil fuel extraction in America.

      • Steve, you do realize that todays CO2 levels are the same as they were 3 million years ago and that sea pevels were 100 feet higher amd that temps were 11 degrees hotter? What the hell is “Climate Change”? I love how the left just that makes up silly terms and expects people to believe them.

      • More of your loony conspiracy theories Steve? I’m not sure you even contemplated the irony involved with accusing me of being part of the “propaganda arm” of Americans For Prosperity, while you are literally being a mouthpiece for Greenpeace by spreading their propaganda. You really do make me laugh sometimes.

        I’ve been clear on what I think regarding climate change. I’ve provided many, many links to scientific journals and articles that all conclusively illustrate the well known and scientific fact that the climate is changing, it has changed, and it will continue to do so. I’m not sure why the followers of the religion of anthropogenic global warming deny this scientific fact, or why they keep changing the name of what it is they seemingly worship. Nearest I can tell the only deniers are the anthropogenic global warming true believers who deny science and push the agenda of extremist organizations like Greenpeace.

      • Well Bryan,
        The term “Climate Change” is not just acceptable to “the left”, but to the overwhelming majority of Americans.
        Remember that:
        “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree…Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”
        You can debate this (as “Steve O” chooses to do), but what we are seeing with court documents is that most of the loudest voices against human exacerbated climate change are paid propagandists who are funded by fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries who started AFP that is currently active in writing policy in AK.
        Looking at Alaska as “unprotected” in the face of these circumstances is my point.
        “Barrow is ground zero for climate-change science,” Itta said.
        “We worry that climate change is shrinking the sea ice and we don’t know how that will affect the animals that depend on it.
        At this time there is no effective plan if a catastrophe such as a ship collision or oil spill occurs”
        It seems many others also feel AK has little protection in place to deal with oil spills in the Arctic…

  3. Good point Craig finishing up your article with reference to Alaska’s natural resources being partially saved by virtue of the fact Alaska is located at a high latitude.
    Just think what it would be like if we didn’t have a “dark season” to keep the tourist industry seasonal.

  4. I have bad news for those who would like to save Alaska: You are too late. It has already been saved.

  5. Craig, That’s Good article, and no typos or grammar caught my eye. For once I opened several of your many links. You sure do your research, and do a good job of synthesizing all of the data into a coherent article, with a core point thus very well-supported. Bob

    Sent from my iPhone


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