Just last year was the centennial anniversary of the creation of the US National Parks. Since their start, nearly 60 parks swath the United States, sea to shining sea. We who enjoy these places 100 years after their inception have a lot to owe to forbearers and visionaries like writer, naturalist and environmental activist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and the at times controversial Rough Rider president, Theodore Roosevelt. Now it is 2017 and a new, even more controversial president has a high degree of potential to put them at risk. Trump’s cabinet has a set of traits in common in addition to a characteristically un-American white ethno-nationlism: Anti-environment, anti-science, anti-acceptance of climate change. Because the majority of Alaska is federal land, this poses a direct threat to America’s last true wilderness.
With this immense wilderness, Alaska is home to expansive natural offerings; Glaciers crash into the sea in misty fjords chocked with icebergs, Denali shoots to the sky at 20,301 ft., whales sing on desolate stone shores, bears fish for salmon in raging frigid rivers. This beauty is made possible by abundant life and abundant life in Alaska is typified by the mammals where the state’s human population of 741,000 (2015 projection, U.S. Census Bureau) remains predominantly in a few pockets in Anchorage and the surrounding Matanuska Valley and Juneau in the panhandle. In the interior and on stretches of unpopulated coastline is a rugged and humble reminder of the way the world used to be.
The value of these types of places was realized early on with the creation of parks for the purpose of being visited solely for their natural beauty beginning with Yellowstone in 1872. Since then, chunks of the country have been blocked off for wonderment and visitation. The Department of the Interior’s National Park Service has the mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” With overwhelming size and natural forces at work, it shouldn’t be surprising that substantial parts of Alaska got blocked off for this very purpose.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Behind all of the natural beauty are coveted resources: fossil fuels. The presence of oil in Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope pitted environmentalists against big investors and Alaskans (some of which who were yet to arrive) who saw potential economic opportunity. The extractive industry saw a major win with the creation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1977, an effort to exploit domestic reserves and ween the United States from Middle Eastern oil. Many years later, the United States has found itself in several wars in the region, entanglements it is yet to get out of. In the middle of it is Alaska, wild and abundant.
For many in the lower 48, Alaska is many things. It is a conflicting land of outdoor recreation, conservation and preservation versus exploitation and extraction. The same debates rage up there as well as down below. Healthy debates are good for stakeholders. It makes sure everyone has their voices heard and their needs met. That’s why in order to showcase some of its voiceless natural wonders in an effort to share the beauty with those who might advocate for it, this series will highlight three of Alaska’s National Parks: Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park and Glacier Bay National Park. Elemental wilderness. It is part of what makes America great. Our prosperity is measured by some here and around the world not by how high our top earner’s salaries are but by how wild and pristine this land is and how connected people are to it. Make no mistake, the future of these places is imperminent. Then again, so is everything.