As Alaska Wilderness League celebrates its 30th anniversary, we honor Jimmy Carter, a U.S. leader devoted to protecting the environment and one of Alaska’s greatest conservation heroes. As a young farm boy growing up during the Depression in Plains, Georgia, Carter ran barefoot outside in the fields, developing an awareness of the environment’s fragility. Life was simple. People walked or rode on mule-drawn wagons. Newspapers were used for tissue in the outhouse. Carter wrote in his memoir, “Hour Before Daybreak,” that “the most persistent impression as a farm boy was of the earth. There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam and red clay that seemed natural and constant.”
President Carter’s rural upbringing, hunting and fishing traditions, and deep appreciation for the great outdoors stayed with him through life. He was the first world leader to address concerns about a changing climate. Long before the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, President Carter implemented vehicle fuel efficiency standards that saved millions of barrels of oil, reducing carbon emissions. Conservation was a priority in his White House.
Carter’s presidency and dedication to conservation came at just the right time for the intact lands and waters of Alaska. Before Alaska became a state, our nation’s leaders grappled with how to strike a delicate balance between preservation and development of Alaska’s rich natural resources. Veteran conservationists, such as Olaus and Mardy Murie, who had witnessed the loss of much of the United States’ ‘lower 48’ landscapes to industrialization, recognized early the need to pursue protections. Years before Carter’s presidency began, a campaign was created to secure durable protection for Alaska’s lands and waters.
When Carter took office, Congress and conservationists from around the country had been fighting for nearly a decade to secure protection for Alaska’s most important wild places. In 1978, political wrangling brought down a crucial attempt to pass key conservation legislation, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). In response, President Carter stepped up to protect 56 million acres of Alaska’s wilderness through his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to create monuments. That one action doubled the size of the entire U.S. National Park System. While some Alaskans protested and burned the President in effigy, many hailed his decision, which ultimately pushed Congress into action.
Under President Carter’s leadership, thanks to the momentum from his monument designations, in 1980 Congress finally passed ANILCA, the greatest piece of conservation legislation in U.S. history. With the stroke of his pen, this law set aside more than 100 million acres of protected lands and waters in Alaska—an area the size of California. Congress sought in ANILCA to preserve for future generations certain lands and waters in Alaska with nationally significant values, including areas important for wildlife, subsistence, wilderness, recreation, scientific, scenic, and historic reasons. Importantly, it prioritized protecting the hunting, fishing, and cultural traditions of Alaska’s Indigenous people whose lives have depended on the resources of their homelands for thousands of years.
The “fierce debate and compromise” necessary to pass ANILCA, as Carter remembered in his 25th-anniversary reflection, was well worth the political capital. “Alaska’s parks were perhaps the last ones of large size that will be created anywhere in the United States, protecting natural landscapes on an ecosystem scale.”
Not since Theodore Roosevelt had any president protected so much public land. This sweeping act created or expanded 13 national parks and preserves, 16 wildlife refuges, 26 wild and scenic rivers, and many wilderness areas. Carter clearly saw the value of safeguarding these beautiful and wildlife-rich public lands for future generations, and we are so grateful that he did.
In 1990, 10 years after the passage of ANILCA, President Carter and Rosalynn Carter had the opportunity to make a special trip to America’s largest and wildest refuge, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the protection of which was made possible under President Carter’s historic law. During this well-timed visit, the Porcupine caribou herd aggregated on the coastal plain. The Carters witnessed the astonishing procession of more than 100,000 caribou marching by them on the tundra. It was unthinkable to consider industrial activity in such a sensitive area. “Oil development can never happen here,” Carter boldly said.
Later that day, when asked what he felt most proud about during his presidency, he responded immediately, “The Alaska Lands Act!”
Caption: The author (left) visits with the Carters on the tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Photo courtesy of Debbie S. Miller
Soon after his trip to Alaska, Carter joined Alaska Wilderness League’s Board of Directors as an honorary chair.
“The Alaska Wilderness League provides leadership on protecting the Arctic Refuge and keeps other groups in the coalition invigorated,” Carter said in 2013 at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Over the past 30 years, Alaska Wilderness League has continued its work to protect the Arctic Refuge and other federal lands in Alaska, honoring President Carter’s conservation legacy.
There is no place in the world that is quite like Alaska, and we can thank Jimmy Carter for protecting America the Beautiful in its purest form.
Written by: Debbie S. Miller, Alaska Wilderness League Board Member
Debbie S. Miller is an author and teacher who has lived in Alaska for more than three decades. She has written many books and essays about Alaska’s wilderness, wildlife and indigenous people. Her first book, “Midnight Wilderness,” describes the wonders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge based on 14 years of wilderness trips through the area, and “On Arctic Ground” provides an in-depth look at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. As an educator and children’s book author, Ms. Miller travels extensively to schools throughout Alaska and the United States. She is a founding member of Alaska Wilderness League.