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‘We Pioneers Destroy the Wilderness We Love’

<i> Kim Heacox, a former National Park Service ranger-naturalist, writes about science and natural history. </i>

North to Alaska. First it was gold, then oil. Now tourism. There has always been good reason to go. Alaska is the “last frontier,” wildlife wonderland and a geography of childhood dreams where someone can still win or lose fortunes, still find a new life out there among old life styles. The gold is nearly exhausted and the oil destined to be, so Alaska has focused attention recently on her most spectacular, ubiquitous and unparalleled resource--the scenery.

“Its grandeur is more valuable than the gold or the fish or the timber, for it will never be exhausted,” wrote Henry Gannett of the U.S. Geological Survey, who traveled through Alaska in 1899. “If you are old, go by all means; but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of the kind in the world, and it is not well to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.”

As bumper stickers in Anchorage say, “Once you’ve seen Alaska, everything else looks like Texas.”

Ironically, as elsewhere in America for almost four centuries, people come to Alaska and in so doing make the land less than what it was. This is an ultimate consequence of U.S. Manifest Destiny: We pioneers destroy the wilderness we love. Tourism is a diluted example of this, but no person--not even a well-meaning visitor--can tread upon the land without impact. The questions then arise: How many people is too many? How long will the “last frontier” last?

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In one of this nation’s most sweeping land bills since the Louisiana Purchase, President Jimmy Carter created over 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves, wildlife refuges and wild and scenic rivers when he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. It was hailed as the environmentalists’ coup of the century. But many private citizens and corporate industries in Alaska screamed from behind their “No Trespassing” signs that the land was being locked up. This was America, by God, where a man has a right to work the land as he sees fit--a developers covenant, so to speak. The outnumbered and out-financed environmentalists saw another America--a land of opportunity unable to control her opportunists--and it was high time for a change. A Hamiltonian ethic was edging out the Jeffersonian promise.

Private and corporate sectors still had a sizable chunk of Alaska, and they’ve since imposed aerial wolf hunts to keep the moose populations high and, hence, the moose hunters happy. They’ve harvested king crab to the point of economic extinction. They’ve added pipelines along the Arctic Coast that have indisputably altered the calving and feeding patterns of two major caribou herds. They’ve poached countless grizzly bears. They’ve leveled entire spruce/hemlock forests on islands and peninsulas along the coast without the slightest regard for sustained yield forest management. They’ve dumped mine tailings and toxic wastes wherever they could. And they’ve labeled as “communists” and “socialists” anyone who countered their “all-American” motives.

Yet in a state with no income tax, sales tax or property tax, and in a state that has given away $1,700 dollars to each resident--man, woman and child--over the last three years (totaling over $800 million dollars), the residents of Alaska have themselves a government gravy train more socialistic than anything anywhere in the United States. It’s astounding to hear these people who have so much crying for more.

Take Denali National Park, for example. Formerly called Mount McKinley National Park, it was established in 1918 and enlarged in 1980 to 6-million acres. That’s three times the size of Yellowstone.

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Hailed as a sub-arctic Serengeti, Denali is rich with caribou, moose, bears, foxes and other wildlife; and above it all rises the massif called McKinley, the roof of North America. There is plenty here to see and plenty of people who want to see it. Visitation to Denali has increased 15-fold since the early 1970s, prompting concern among park managers about the “Yellowstoning” of Alaska’s nine national parks--Denali, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kobuk, Yukon-Charley, Wrangell-St. Elias, Kenai Fiords, Lake Clark and Gates of the Arctic.

The National Park Service has thus resolved to do things a bit differently in Alaska. For 70 years this popular Department of the Interior agency has had to cope with a paradoxical mandate, “to provide and protect for the enjoyment of all.” A historical leaning to the provide side has resulted in massive development in the grand old parks--Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smokies and the Grand Canyon--and has created what wilderness advocate Edward Abbey calls “national parking lots.” Failure to reverse this trend could trample Alaska parks as well, for biomes in the Far North cannot absorb human impact nearly so well as can those down south.

The NPS in Alaska has taken a small yet important first step, attempting, within the lands it administers, to keep history from repeating itself. Visitors were turned away at Denali last summer.

The park has been carefully divided into resource management units with a visitation ceiling assigned to each, depending on the size, ecological fragility and human carrying capacity. Only so many people are allowed in any given unit at any given time. When all the units are full, the park is full, and visitors are turned away. NO VACANCY. The NPS in Denali aims to protect the resource first, and provide for the visitor second.

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This is a new management decision in our national parks and it has infuriated many people, Alaskans certainly notwithstanding. They want a national park, not a Holiday Inn. They want the visitation ceilings raised--or abolished--in favor of going where they want when they want. As author John McPhee wrote in “Coming into the Country,” a best-seller about Alaska, “Everybody wants to be the last to arrive.”

An untrained eye might not see a slow erosion of the wilderness integrity in America’s parklands, but it’s there, and any truthful ranger sharing a beer out of uniform will say it’s there. As one such ranger in Alaska said, “People up here need to start closing a few doors in front of them, not behind them. Otherwise this same ‘I-Me-Mine attitude’ will trample Alaska just as it paved New Jersey, deforested Ohio and polluted California.”

Changing attitudes is no easy task, least of all for an agency beset with budget cuts, hiring freezes and resulting low morale. A reduced staff in Denali will make it virtually impossible to find the poacher who killed one-third of the park’s wolves last winter. But the visitation ceiling is there and it’s a beginning--and it deserves public support.

At stake is the Alaska wilderness, a land that doesn’t bend, but breaks. It can accommodate a few people, but not everyone.

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If you never get to Alaska, or if you get there and have to wait your turn to tread out into that immense space, with pristine tundra underfoot, then take heart that here is a small fraction of the Earth that may remain unmolested for hundreds of generations to come. And if it doesn’t, if it too falls prey to Manifest Destiny--to the oilmen, fishermen, timber men or tourist hordes--then all of us in this decision-making democracy will have stolen a beautiful heritage from our descendants.


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