Alaska’s Critical Role in Protecting Global Biological Diversity

The International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22nd) was set officially by the United Nations back in 2000. While perhaps not the most prominent holiday on the calendar, it’s an exciting one for us here at Alaska Wilderness League as it’s a day we can recognize the critical role Alaska’s landscapes play in safeguarding thousands of species, from the rainforests of Southeast Alaska to the Arctic.  

In the Tongass National Forest you can find all five species of Alaska’s salmon and the highest density of brown bears and eagles in North America. From snowy, white arctic foxes which travel incredible distances in tight family groups, to giant bowhead whales (one of the few whale species to reside exclusively in Arctic waters), and even tiny microorganisms in the soil and sea, the Arctic is a rich ecosystem, vibrant with life. And it is urgently in need of protection.  

Since 1970, species populations around the world have decreased by nearly 70 percent — and that loss is increasing at a rate never seen before in human history. The last biodiversity die-off of this magnitude was the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And, because climate change is causing the Arctic to warm nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, biodiversity decline in this region is happening much more rapidly.  

Late forming and receding ice pack puts deadly stress on many animals in the Arctic, while expanding industries continue to increase their footprints and ecological disturbances in already taxed habitats and ecosystems.  

For people who call the Arctic home, food shortages from declining animal populations are becoming more common, especially for Alaska Native communities. In Alaska, a loss of biodiversity can jeopardize livelihoods, cultures and health.  

When we talk about biodiversity, it’s not just the number of species, but also the complexity of our systems and ability to thrive and have resiliency. Diverse biological systems create the building blocks of our communities, providing crucial resources like food, fuel, shelter and medicine as well as much more complex services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling and pest control.  

Biodiversity loss is an issue of global significance, and the solution could start right here in Alaska.  

Daniel Dietrich Photography;

What Work is Happening in the U.S. to Support Biodiversity?  

In December 2022, 190 nations came together and agreed to protect 30 percent of the planet’s lands and seas, an agreement more widely known as 30×30. However, the U.S. is one of only two countries not officially belonging to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity largely because political opposition blocked membership.   

To work around the opposition and still contribute to this important work, the Biden administration created the “America the Beautiful” initiative, which sets the U.S. on a path to “conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 for the sake of our economy, our health and our well-being.”  

Daniel Dietrich Photography;

How Can Alaska Help Protect Biodiversity?  

Globally, only about 17 percent of our planet’s land and roughly 8 percent of its oceans are protected. In the U.S., that number drops to just 12 percent of the land and one-quarter of the oceans held within permanently protected areas, which include marine sanctuaries, national parks and wildlife refuges.   

In the U.S., Alaska is one of the only places where we can secure vast ecosystem-level wins for species, communities and the planet. We need a public plan for public lands, especially in Alaska. 

To have any hope of meeting the 30×30 commitment, we must start with Alaska’s great swaths of biologically diverse and culturally significant lands. In addition to serving as home to 229 federally recognized tribes and the highest proportion of American Indian and Alaska Native people in the U.S., a 2020 study of intact habitats around the world identified 93.6 percent of Alaska’s lands as essential in stabilizing climate and avoiding species extinction. The study emphasized the unique importance of Alaska’s vast landscapes and high carbon storage capacity. In fact, federal lands in Alaska store 62 percent of the total carbon stored on all U.S. federal lands — much of it in undisturbed soil. Maintaining these ecosystems in a healthy state presents huge-scale benefits to all.  

Still not convinced? Just look at the numbers:  

  • In total, the Arctic is home to more than 21,000 known species of highly cold-adapted mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi and microbe species — including more than 900,000 caribou that roam in 32 herds across the tundra.  
  • Over 1,000 vertebrate species are found across Alaska, including 32 species of carnivores, more than any other state.  
  • When considering opportunities for landscape level protection, those in Alaska are unrivaled — the state is home to 220 million acres of federal public lands. 
  • 85% of the nation’s lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service are in Alaska, 76.6 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national wildlife refuge.  
  • 65% of the nation’s national park lands are in Alaska, 52.5 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national park.  
  • 29% of the nation’s lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are in Alaska, 71.3 million acres. Home to our largest piece of U.S. BLM land.  
  • 11% of the nation’s lands managed by the Forest Service are in Alaska, 22 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national forest.  
  • More coastline than the rest of the United States combined is in Alaska and is America’s connection to the Arctic Ocean.  

Extraction infrastructure, rampant oil and gas development, old-growth logging and mining and climate change are all putting Alaska’s biodiversity at risk. According to Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, “The America the Beautiful initiative reflects an inherently pragmatic approach that puts people at the center and outlines an inclusive and collaborative vision where locally led efforts to conserve, steward and restore lands and waters will help us reach our shared goals.”  

At Alaska Wilderness League, we work tirelessly to protect Alaska’s wild lands and waters by inspiring broad support for federal policy action. Whether that’s defending the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest, or fighting ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in the NPR-A, our work (with your support!) helps to ensure wild landscapes endure to support vibrant communities and abundant wildlife for generations to come. We hope you will support this effort with us!