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The Planet
Alaska: Keeping it Wild, Then and Now

By Jack Hession and Jenny Coyle

Twenty years ago, a band of activists convinced the American people and Washington, D.C. decision-makers to protect 103 million acres of Alaska's wildlands and rivers.

It was the largest single land conservation act in the nation's history - and it wasn't easy.

The oil, timber and mining industries put up big bucks to counter these efforts. Questionnaires sent out by conservationists asking Alaska residents which lands should be protected came back with nasty comments. Neighbors made them feel unwelcome.

"Miracle" might be too strong a word, but that's what it felt like for these activists when, after their decade-long effort, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act on Dec. 2, 1980.

"Unfortunately, last-minute deals left the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in legislative limbo, as neither wilderness nor available to oil and gas leasing, so we've spent the past 20 years fending off attacks," said Melinda Pierce, lobbyist for the Club's public lands team. "With the Bush administration targeting the Arctic for drilling, the coastal plain is more vulnerable than ever."

As Sierra Club activists gear up - again - to defend this wild place, they should remember the successes we've enjoyed, against all odds, in Alaska.

When statehood was granted to Alaska in 1959, the new state government was authorized to select 104 million acres of public land as its own. The ensuing fervor to claim land suitable for gold mining, timber cutting, and oil and gas drilling was so intense that some Native communities found stakes hammered through the center of their villages.

To protect the interests of the Native people, the federal government placed a freeze on all public lands, saying the state selection had to wait until Native claims were settled. Even when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and industry clamored for a pipeline to transport the oil across federal lands, the freeze stayed put.

That is, until 1971, when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed by Congress, lifting the land freeze. The oil industry got to work on its pipeline, and the state and Native people got busy selecting their lands.

Thanks to a savvy conservation community led by the Sierra Club, with President Edgar Wayburn at the helm, the settlement act also contained a golden amendment: It withdrew key lands for study and possible protection as national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and wild and scenic rivers.

Bill Mankin, who organized support for Alaska lands protection in his home state of Georgia, said, "It was like someone set out this huge smorgasbord and said, 'This is your one shot. Draw the lines on the map. You wish you had it do over again in all the places you screwed up, so here's your chance to get it right the first time."

Draw lines they did. In anticipation of the amendment's passage, Anchorage activist Mark Hickok and her colleagues had already been scouting out places most worthy of protection.

Hickok was one of the founding members of the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club, which got its start after Wayburn and his wife Peggy visited the state in 1967. She also co-founded the Alaska Wilderness Council, which pulled conservation groups together to map the lands to be preserved.

"The Maps on the Floor Society" gathered input from Alaska residents and others about which lands should be protected, and then, in Hickok's small apartment, they penciled lines on maps spread out on every available surface.

The final map was hand delivered by activist Walt Parker to the Department of Interior. At the same time, Wayburn presented the Sierra Club's recommendations to Interior Secretary Rogers Morton. As federal agencies studied the lands, the Sierra Club continued to work closely with decision-makers in Washington, D.C.

The stars began to align in 1977 when President Carter took office. Reps. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and John Seiberling (D-Ohio) chaired the House Interior Committee and Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands, respectively. Along with 75 co-sponsors, they introduced H.R. 39, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, sometimes called the Alaska Lands Act.

Debate over the bill raged for the next four years. Seiberling conducted field hearings around the country and in Alaska. And the Sierra Club mobilized its grassroots forces like never before. In Atlanta, Ga., where Mankin and others worked their magic, more than 300 people showed up.

Finally, in 1980, after serious back-and-forth dealing, Congress passed the Alaska Lands Act, and Carter signed it.

It included a 19-million-acre Arctic Refuge, with 9 million acres designated as wilderness. The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain was excluded from wilderness, however, and slated for further study, enjoying management as a wilderness area until Congress decides its fate.

In every administration since the act was signed, threats have been made and bills introduced, to drill the Arctic Refuge. For instance, in October 1995, President Clinton vetoed an omnibus spending bill because it included a rider to open the Arctic coastal plain to oil and gas leasing. Congress withdrew the rider.

The Sierra Club has been a constant presence, pressuring decision-makers to keep the oil derricks at bay.

Now President Bush, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the Alaska delegation are pushing to drill the coastal plain. Once again, Sierra Club activists must rush to the barricades.

The odds are daunting. Consider that each year, every Alaskan man, woman and child receives a dividend check from the state's oil revenues. Last year it was $1,900 per person - a healthy kick for a family of five.

"This might be our last chance to protect the refuge for the Native communities and caribou herds that depend on it," said Pierce. "We've got to get the coastal plain protected once and for all."

On the Front Lines
The pivotal players in the Alaska story including Edgar Wayburn, Rich Gordon, Cliff Lobaugh, Mark Hickok, Bill Mankin, and Carolyn Carr.

Map of protected lands in Alaska

Take Action

Urge your senators and representative to oppose any effort to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling for gas and oil. Ask them instead to support permanent protection of this national treasure by co-sponsoring two bills in the House and Senate that were slated to be introduced by March, designating the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge as wilderness. Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) are champions of the House bill, and Sen Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is taking the lead on the Senate bill.

U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510 or
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515.

Editor's note: Jack Hession just celebrated his 30th year as the Sierra Club's Alaska representative. It's safe to assume that wherever the Sierra Club is mentioned in this story, Hession was involved, if not leading the way.

Photo courtesy John Kauffmann/NPS

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