The second book on my reading list was Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve by John C. Miles. This book is pretty different from all the other books on the list in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s an academic monograph rather than a work of popular nonfiction. In addition, it’s not exclusively about Alaska, but is instead a general history of the concept of “wilderness” in relation to the National Park Service. Alaska is an important part of this story, so Miles devotes two whole chapters to it, along with occasional mentions of Alaska parks in other chapters, but this is definitely a general work rather than a specifically Alaska-focused one. For both of these reasons, it wouldn’t be high on the list of books I would recommend to someone looking to learn about Alaska in general.
It was, however, a very useful book for me to read while working for the Park Service. The issues Miles discusses are at the heart of National Park management in Alaska (more so than in many other parts of the country), and the history he describes is crucial to understanding why Alaska parks are the way they are and why the NPS manages them the way it does.
The crucial idea to keep in mind in any discussion of wilderness and National Parks is that “wilderness” has a very specific meaning in the context of federal land management. While in popular usage it generally refers to land that is simply undeveloped and has a vaguely “wild” feel to it, for federal agencies it refers specifically to land designated by Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System following the specifications in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Designation as wilderness adds a number of restrictions to what a federal agency can do with a specific area of land. It only affects federal land already managed by one of the land management agencies: National Park Service (NPS), Forest Service (FS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The exact restrictions vary by agency, but in general they are intended to keep the agency from building roads or permanent structures, and for some agencies they also restrict what sorts of activities the agency can permit outside entities to do. For example, the FWS is generally able to permit mining on National Wildlife Refuges subject to various conditions, but no mining is permitted in the parts of refuges designated as wilderness. (Mining is prohibited in National Parks in general, so wilderness doesn’t add any additional protection to park lands in this case.)
Because the mission of the NPS is fairly narrow and oriented toward preserving natural conditions, wilderness designation does not have as much effect on National Parks as it does on other federal lands managed by agencies with missions that can at time conflict with preservation. The main effect it has on NPS lands is to prevent the Park Service itself from developing roads and visitor facilities, as well as limiting the methods park managers can use to carry out certain operations. Miles chronicles the way this came about, which includes the extensive development of roads and facilities in the early decades of the agency’s operation and the resulting backlash among many conservation organizations which eventually led to the push for the Wilderness Act, which the NPS strenuously opposed at the time. Despite the Park Service argument that it was doing a good job of preserving wilderness in parks and that additional protection was unnecessary, the act eventually passed, and the agency grudgingly carried out the evaluations of park lands for wilderness designation that it mandated.
Where Alaska comes into this story is that in the aftermath of the Wilderness Act and the designation of wilderness in many existing parks attention in conservation circles turned to Alaska and the potential for designation of wilderness areas on a scale unimaginable anywhere else. There were a few National Parks already in existence in Alaska before statehood in 1959, but a series of events following statehood led to a major push in the 1970s to establish many more, and to make them primarily wilderness parks.
First, the Alaska Statehood Act provided for the federal government to convey a huge amount of land to the State of Alaska. The state began to make its selections of land it wanted, but as this process went forward in the 1960s concern began to rise among both conservationists and Alaska Natives that the state was selecting lands that each group considered important for its own purposes, and it was likely that the state’s ultimate plans for these lands would conflict with those purposes. The discovery of vast oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope in 1968 added a heightened urgency to the settlement of land claims, which was a necessary condition for building the pipeline that would be essential for getting the oil to market. The Natives were in the strongest position to negotiate at this point, and the result was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), which settled Native claims in an unprecedented way that involved the setting up of a series of for-profit corporations to provide a continuing income for Native groups. These corporations, like the state, were entitled to designated amounts of hitherto federal land, and they began making their selections just as the state had.
ANCSA also contained some provisions for certain lands to be withdrawn from selection to be studied for their potential to remain in federal ownership as conservation areas. Many conservationists thought these provisions were overly weak, but studies went forward over the course of the 1970s. (The river trip McPhee took in the Arctic and described in his book was part of this effort.) The culmination of this effort, and a continuing lobbying effort by conservationists, was another law, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA). This act designated many new National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, expanded the boundaries of some of the existing ones, and additionally designated much of this land as wilderness.
Miles devotes a lot of attention to ANILCA and the periods both before and after its passage because this was a new direction for wilderness in the parks. Instead of trying to stave off development of the few remaining remnants of wilderness in Lower 48 parks, ANILCA designated intact, pristine areas of wilderness in blocks of millions of acres each. (Of course, none of this land was quite as pristine as wilderness advocates sometimes implied, but it was still much less impacted by human activity than almost any parkland anywhere else in the country.) The scale of this effort was unprecedented, and the people who came to Alaska to work on it were quite sincerely devoted to the wilderness ideology and enthusiastic about their achievements. That helped set the tone for park management in Alaska, which has continued to have a strong wilderness focus and to strenuously avoid talk of development or increasing opportunities for visitor access.
Needless to say, this makes planning for the parks in Alaska a rather different enterprise than planning for parks elsewhere. Mostly it consists of planning to do nothing, which leads to the inevitable question of why plan at all. In the rare cases when there is a compelling reason to plan for physical changes in the parks, the number of bureaucratic obstacles to navigate is impressive. This was one of the biggest frustrations of doing this work for me, and one of the main reasons I think that job was not the best fit for me. I’m glad these lands are being protected as wilderness, and I’m glad someone is working on continuing to keep them that way (at least most of the time), but I’m also glad that someone is no longer me.