Environment in Alaska Essay

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Alaska is the northernmost, westernmost, and “easternmost” state in the United States (parts of the Aleutian Islands cross the 180th meridian). Because of its size and location, it encompasses many different geophysical areas, from rainy spruce and fir forests in southeast Alaska, to the desert of the Arctic. Alaska also contains many natural resources, and the exploitation of those resources has often been a point of controversy throughout its history.

Before its “discovery,” the Inuit people, Eskimos of non-Inuit origin, Aleuts (of the Aleutian Islands), and Native Americans populated Alaska. These included the Athabascans of central Alaska and the Tlingit and Haida tribes of southeast Alaska. Unlike most of the United States, the indigenous peoples of Alaska were not forced into reservations. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 was an attempt to avoid the mistakes of past national policy toward indigenous peoples. ANCSA is also central to understanding the politics of land conservation in Alaska.

Russia, Spain, and Britain were the major powers in Alaska until 1876. Russia was most influential. Vitus Bering, a Dane working for the Russian Czar, “discovered” Alaska in about 1728, although there is evidence suggesting earlier Russian exploration. The Russian influence in Alaska is seen in numerous towns and villages throughout the Aleutians and coastal Alaska, many of which still have small and distinctive Russian Orthodox churches. The name of the state comes from the Russian interpretation of the Aleut Alyeska meaning “great land” or “mainland.” Russian exploration extended to northern California, raising concern in Spain, which pressed its explorations north to Alaska. Spanish names in Alaska still exist, including the cities of Valdez (pronounced Val-DEEZ) and Cordova. British explorer Captain James Cook, seeking the inside passage, explored what later became known as Cook Inlet, and named Turnagain arm, near Anchorage, because, having failed to find the northwest passage, he had to “turn again.”

Russians fur traders hunted sea otters to the brink of extinction. Timber and fish were also important, particularly as the otters became scarce. The Russian America company established its headquarters at Sitka (New Archangel), which was the center of Russian colonial government until 1867, when the United States, at the urging of Secretary of State William Seward, purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million dollars, or about two cents per acre. This purchase was made well after the otter population had withered. Of course, there was widespread ridicule of “Seward’s Folly,” but most enlightened citizens and officials realized that Alaska contained considerable natural resources and provided strategic benefits for the United States in its competition with Great Britain over the Pacific Northwest.

American Development

After 1867, most Americans and the national government paid relatively little attention to the territory. The region remained under army control until the Organic Act created civil government in 1912.

The formation of a territorial government was hastened by gold discoveries in the region, including the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon. The most direct route to the Yukon was via Skagway, Alaska, and then over the treacherous Chilkoot Trail. Alaska had its own gold discoveries: At Juneau in 1880, along the beach in Nome in 1898, and near Fairbanks in 1902.

Gold was mined in Juneau until World War II, and gold panning is still a popular tourist activity. In the 1880s, John Muir visited Alaska (Muir Glacier bears his name), and became one of the earliest proponents of saving Alaska’s natural treasures from development. The conservation movement of the early 1900s led to the creation of the Katmai National Monument in 1918, and Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917, both of which were expanded under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

Despite gold rushes, the population grew slowly, and was concentrated in southeast Alaska. The federal government completed the Alaska Railroad, which connects Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, Denali Park, and Fairbanks, in 1923. It is now owned by the state. The major supply port for the railroad, Anchorage, started as a tent city in 1914 and was incorporated in 1920. The first major population boom in Alaska came in the 1940s, during World War II. It continued through the cold war, as military spending increased Alaska’s population and built key infrastructure. The Alaska Highway, linking the state to the lower 48, was completed as a military supply route in 1943, although it was not a reliable year-round road until the 1950s. The World War II and postwar period also saw the shift of population from southeast Alaska to Anchorage and the “railbelt” from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

In 1935, the Department of Interior and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration established Matanuska Colony about 45 miles north of Anchorage to encourage farmers from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota to develop agriculture in Alaska. The Matanuska valley soon became famous for its outsized vegetables-the long summer daylight makes crops grow quite rapidly-but the success of the colony was mixed, at best. Some dairy farming and relatively small-scale vegetable farming remains, but since the late 1980s, the MatanuskaSusitna area has become a major population center and, in essence, a suburb of Anchorage. Other industries that remain important in Alaska are fishing, timber, mining, and tourism. Tourism in particular has grown considerably since the early 1980s, and tourism is particularly important to the economies of southeast Alaska cities, and, to a lesser extent, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The most important event in Alaska’s economic history was the discovery of oil on the North Slope. In the late 1950s, some oil was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula and in Cook Inlet, but the potential of the North Slope discoveries was far greater. In 1969, the state sold oil leases for $900 million, a huge windfall in a poor state with a budget that in 1968 only exceeded $100 million. The ensuing construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline created a boom in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and swelled state coffers. When oil started flowing through the pipeline in 1977, the importance of yearly royalty income became clear. Over 85 percent of the state’s revenue comes from oil, and Alaskans pay no income tax or state sales tax. While the oil economy has paid substantial benefits to Alaska, it has also come at a cost. During the oil price crash of the late 1980s, state revenues plummeted, the economy suffered, and many people left the state. In 2006 state revenues (from oil royalties) were sharply higher due to increases in the world price for oil, although demands on state government remained quite high.

Increased oil wealth has increased expectations of state services to “rural” (that is, remote) Alaska, from airports, to state-subsidized television services (discontinued in 1996), to state-supported local schools, which have helped keep communities together because children no longer need to go to big cities or regional boarding schools. The erosion of native traditions is palpable in these communities, as modernity replaces, or is melded with, tradition. As snowmobiles (“snowmachines” in Alaska) and outboard motors replace dog sleds and oars, some might bemoan the loss of traditions; but many rural Alaskans appreciate how technology eases a very difficult way of life, even as modern conveniences take a cultural and environmental toll.

Environmental Issues

Alaska has long experienced conflict over the exploitation of its rich natural resources. Like many other places in the western United States, Alaska’s resource exploitation history involves periods of extreme overexploitation of species (otters), followed by near extinction and slow recovery. Improved management techniques avoided the worst environmental abuses, and Alaska’s early economic potential was found in fish and timber, not gold and furs. These industries remain extremely important. Entire communities in Alaska, such as Cordova and Kodiak, are highly dependent on the fishing industry. At the same time, other industries have overtaken these traditional industries. Tourism is the second most important sector in the Alaska economy, after oil. This juxtaposition of industries is important, because Alaska has many industries that, for most of the time, are compatible with each other, but when an environmental crisis occurs, interests clash.

For example, some travel agents and other industry sources reported that bookings for Alaska tours dropped after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which, while vast, still affected a relatively small part of Alaska, and was nowhere near the primary tourism markets in southeast Alaska and Denali Park. However, the exploitation of natural resources worries some in the tourism industry because they know that people visiting Alaska expect not to see clearcut forests or oil spills. Oil is also incompatible with fishing if large oil spills occur. Fishing is an iconic Alaskan industry, but it is also a much smaller part of the economy than is oil.

The most heated environmental controversy in Alaska, or centered on Alaska, was the fight over what were called the “d-2” lands, so called after section 17(d)(2) of the ANCSA, This provision allowed the Secretary of the Interior to reserve 80 million acres of land for the “national interest.” Many Alaskans were outraged by the very idea of allowing such designations of land, believing it interfered with the state’s powers to select state lands-which then could be made available for development-under the Statehood Act. These Alaskans feared that the land would be “locked up” and forever unavailable for mineral or other development. The Congress did not take up an Alaska lands bill for years after ANILCA was enacted, so the issue came to a head when, in 1978, President Carter set aside over 100 million acres to protect them from development-40 million under ANCSA, and the balance under his powers to declare national monuments. This induced Congress to enact ANILCA, which created and expanded national parks, preserves, and monuments, including Denali, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Glacier Bay, and Gates of the Arctic.

A continued environmental challenge in Alaska is one that is shared by many western states: The increased growth of the urban areas. Population growth is somewhat limited in Anchorage because there is not much available land. Much of the land to the north and east of the city is military or parkland. This has led to a form of suburban sprawl in the Matanuska-Susitna valley, as people move there to avoid expensive housing in Anchorage. They choose to commute as far as 100 miles round trip. Amidst these environmental challenges, Alaska faces the usual challenges of any economy based on natural resources: The commodity may run out, or prices may drop, or the environmental cost of extracting the commodity may exceed its benefits. Alaskans and Americans have met and addressed these challenges in the past, and have adapted to changes in their economy and to changes in perceptions of the value of the environment.


  1. P.A. Coates, The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation and the Frontier (University of Alaska Press, 1993);
  2. S. Hammond, Tales of Alaska’s Bush Rat Governor (Epicenter Press, 1994);
  3. Anne Hanley and Carolyn Kremers, The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North (Fulcrum Publishers, 2005); S.W. Haycox, Alaska: An American Colony (University of Washington Press, 2002);
  4. W. Haycox, Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska (Oregon State University Press, 2002);
  5. W. Haycox and M.C. Mangusso, An Alaska Anthology: Interpreting the Past (University of Washington Press, 1996);
  6. Larry Kaniut, Tales from the Edge: True Adventures in Alaska (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005);
  7. Orlando Miller, The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony (Yale University Press, 1975).

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