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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.