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Alaska Wilderness – A Work in Progress

Ed and Peggy Wayburn's two week Alaskan holiday in 1967 would mark the beginning of an epic battle for the soul of Alaska -- the last great wilderness -- that would culminate in the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.  ANILCA, as it came to be known, was a BIG deal.  It more than doubled the size of national park and refuge system.   It brought 44 million acres of new national parks and preserves into our National Park System and it designated over 55 million acres of new wilderness across the state.  For the Sierra Club, and for other conservationists, ANILCA was the conservation victory of the century. 

Ed was Sierra Club’s President at the time and would later be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. When presenting Wayburn with the country’s highest civilian honor, Clinton remarked, "Edgar Wayburn has helped to preserve the most breathtaking examples of the American landscape. He has saved more of our wilderness than any other person alive."

Summit Circle 2Now more than 30 years later I am here with the Sierra Club's Summit Circle to pay homage to this incredible legacy, to explore great expanses of wilderness in Denali National Park, and to learn about the continuing threats wild Alaska faces.  As the group heads to Camp Denali about 95 miles deep into the park, I reflect on what ANILCA did for the surrounding landscape.  The park was transformed from a very large 2 million acres to an astounding 6 million acre park and preserve.  All kinds of wildlife are visible to us as we pass by, easy-to-spot caribou, moose, grizzly bear.  We even catch the rare glimpse of a grizzly in his futile pursuit of a caribou cow and her calf.  Then we get a glimpse of the main attraction, Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, adorned in glaciers.  As a novice mountaineer, Denali has always held a near mythical place in my psyche.  Could I possibly make it to the summit?  Part of me wanted to leave the group behind and make the multi-day trek to base camp to see the mountain up close and personal. 

Before I could make a run for it, the bus rolled on and we eventually made it to Camp Denali, our base for our time in the Park, a full 13 hours after our journey started in Anchorage.  I've been in a lot of wilderness areas and national parks in the lower 48, but never in a place so out there. The vastness, the solitude, the raw wilderness, it's all so super-sized and our place in it is so microscopic. Yet, despite our small size, our impact is grand in scale. In a rebuke to the National Park Service and Alaska's tourism industry, the Alaska Board of Game in 2010 removed the “no kill” buffer zone east of the park that had protected the park wolf population.  This decision renewed hunting and trapping of park wolves in the former buffer.  The park wolf population has now fallen from 143 in 2007 to 55 this spring, and the chances of the park's 400,000 visitors seeing a wolf has declined from 45% in 2010 to 12% last summer.

It’s not just the wolf that’s under siege in Alaska, America’s Arctic is too. While climate change is causing average temperatures to rise around the world, the effects are felt most dramatically in the Arctic, where temperatures are climbing at roughly twice the global pace. Pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean and to mine for coal in the foothills of the Brooks Range is mounting. Yet there is good news to be had.  On February 21, 2013 Secretary of Interior Salazar announced the first-ever, area-wide plan for managing the Western Arctic.  That plan permanently protects nearly half of the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, including several ecologically vulnerable areas, like Teshekpuk Lake, from oil and gas leasing.  Of course, there’s more to do, like finally securing permanent protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, keeping the Arctic Ocean off limits to oil drilling, and keeping Alaska’s huge coal reserves in the ground, not to mention figure out a way to protect the wolves that are disappearing at an alarming rate in Denali. 

Summit Circle 1These are daunting challenges.  But the good thing about Alaska is that it inspires millions of Americans every year.  There’s no way that rugged beauty and wildness can’t impact you once you’ve seen it.  Incredibly, it impacts millions more who haven’t seen it…. Just the idea of it is good enough for them.  And, wouldn’t you know it, the vast majority of Alaska is owned by all Americans.  We all have a say in its future.  Make your voice heard.  And if you can swing it, get up there on a Sierra Club Outing.  Who knows? Maybe there’s an Ed or Peggy Wayburn among you waiting to be unleashed.    

-- Peter Martin, Executive Director, Sierra Club Foundation

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