U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act added more than 100 million acres of pristine lands to the existing system of national parks, preserves, and refuges.

Summary of Event

Under the 1958 Alaska Statehood Act, Alaska Statehood Act (1958) section 17(d)(2) authorized the U.S. secretary of the interior to set aside as much as 80 million acres of Alaskan land for addition to national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and the wild and scenic rivers systems. Section 17(d)(1) allowed the secretary to set aside other unreserved and unappropriated public lands for study and classification in order to protect the public’s interest in such lands. Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton Morton, Rogers signed both of these sections into law on March 15, 1972. Congress set the deadline for passage of an Alaska lands conservation law as midnight on December 16, 1978. Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation Wildlife conservation [kw]U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife (Dec. 2, 1980) [kw]Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife, U.S. (Dec. 2, 1980) [kw]Alaskan Lands and Wildlife, U.S. Congress Protects (Dec. 2, 1980) [kw]Lands and Wildlife, U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan (Dec. 2, 1980) [kw]Wildlife, U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and (Dec. 2, 1980) Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation Wildlife conservation [g]North America;Dec. 2, 1980: U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife[04320] [g]United States;Dec. 2, 1980: U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife[04320] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 2, 1980: U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife[04320] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 2, 1980: U.S. Congress Protects Alaskan Lands and Wildlife[04320] Andrus, Cecil D. Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy Seiberling, John F. Tsongas, Paul E. Udall, Morris K.

What became know as the “d-2 decision” D-2 decision (Alaska)[D two decision] on Alaska represented many things to many people. It was a unique decision in U.S. history, serving as a commitment to protect national treasures for all times and all peoples. Selection of these lands pitted the idealistic conservation movement, centered in the eastern United States, against the pragmatic, development-oriented, individualistic westerners. It was a decision made by all in an open, democratic fashion. It affected more than conservation issues in Alaska: This legislation influenced how the country acted on conservation decisions elsewhere.

In 1972, various federal agencies the National Park Service, National Park Service, U.S. the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, U.S. and the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. began studying Alaska national interest lands for d-2 selection. Some 125 million acres were proposed for selection by these different agencies.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in May, 1978, to set aside more than 116 million acres of federally owned lands and waters in Alaska, out of a total of about 375 million acres. The bill, authored by Morris K. Udall of Arizona in the House and Lee Metcalf Metcalf, Lee of Montana in the Senate, would have placed all of these lands in the wilderness classification. President Jimmy Carter declared the Alaskan wildlands his administration’s top environmental priority. Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus proposed that more than 92 million acres be preserved with this legislation. The House Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands studied these proposals and held extensive hearings. The state of Alaska disputed some of the d-2 lands chosen for selection; compromises revised the Udall bill and reduced the acreage of d-2 lands.

Senator Ted Stevens Stevens, Ted of Alaska delayed action on the Senate bill, and it was badly weakened by state and development interests. Senator Mike Gravel Gravel, Mike killed the bill on the last day of the Ninety-fifth Congress with a filibuster at 2:00 a.m. The real issue was not the protection of lands but rather the preservation of the Alaskan lifestyle and freedom, especially in regard to mining and hunting activities. Compromises failed to extend the congressional deadline for acting on the d-2 legislation; its seven-year deadline was fast approaching. If the legislation did not pass by December 16, 1978, the d-2 lands under consideration for annexation to other protected federal areas would become available for state selection and development. The Carter administration had to act to save these lands.

In November, 1978, Andrus, by special order, closed 110 million acres of Alaska to development for three years to give Congress more time to act on the d-2 legislation. On December 1, 1978, Carter invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act Antiquities Act (1906) and declared 56 million acres as seventeen national monuments and directed Secretary Andrus to protect another 39 million acres as national wildlife refuges. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland Bergland, Bob closed mining on another 11 million acres in southeastern Alaska.

New d-2 legislation again passed the House in 1979, but Senate resistance to the legislation again stalled passage of any Alaska lands bill. A weakened compromise bill finally passed the Senate in August, 1980, surviving massive attacks from development interests and from those who believed that Alaska’s individualistic lifestyle was being threatened by outside interests. As the Senate compromise bill went to the House for approval, little time remained for conservationists to restore many of the deleted lands to the bill. No action was taken on this lands bill until the lame duck session following the 1980 election. Threats of Senate filibusters by Alaska’s Stevens and Gravel convinced congressional supporters that this compromise legislation was the best action that could be achieved. The unfavorable political climate for d-2 legislation forecast by the election of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy to the presidency and many conservatives to both houses of Congress stimulated acceptance of the Senate land bill. Consequently, the House passed the Senate bill on November 12, 1980, and Carter signed it into law on December 2, 1980.

Despite the compromise, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, often known as the Alaska Lands Act, was one of the greatest conservation actions of the twentieth century. It doubled the acreage of the national park system with its 43.6 million acres, added 53.8 million acres to the national wildlife refuge system, and added 3.4 million acres to the national forest system, including two new national monuments on Forest Service land. It also designated the protection of twenty-six wild and scenic rivers or segments of rivers. It tripled the size of the national wilderness preservation system with its 56.4 million acres. This single legislative act, born of the Alaska Statehood Act and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) set aside a total of 104.3 million acres.


Alaska is in many ways considered to be the last frontier in the United States, but the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act opened a new era in conservation history, in state and federal cooperation, and in the preservation of resources, cultural heritages, and lifestyles. Because of their importance to Alaska Natives, Alaska Natives subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering were allowed on some of the d-2 lands that were added to the National Park Service in Alaska.

The cultural values and lifestyles of Alaska Natives were considered as important as the physical features of these new parks, but the issue of subsistence hunting rights for Alaska Natives remained controversial. Other federal legislation has recognized Alaska Natives’ needs for such rights. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) allowed them to hunt sea mammals for subsistence, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 Endangered Species Act (1973) exempted Alaska’s Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and non-Native village residents from its provisions as long as these peoples are engaged in nonwasteful subsistence activities. Subsistence use of wildlife receives priority over sport hunting. Conflict over the state of Alaska’s refusal to recognize these subsistence rights led the U.S. government to usurp the rights of wildlife management from the state of Alaska on all federal lands. Alaska’s federally owned lands constitute about 256 million acres, more than one-third of the state’s total area.

Recreational hunting, or sport hunting, generates several million dollars for Alaskan businesses each year. Normally, no sport hunting is allowed on lands managed by the National Park Service, but d-2 lands legislation recognized the importance of this activity in Alaska and designated some 18.9 million acres of land to be added to the national park system as preserves rather than parks; sport hunting is allowed on these preserve lands in Alaska. National parks in Alaska where sport hunting is not allowed make up about 8 percent of Alaska’s total area.

Subsistence activities are also allowed on the newly established national wildlife refuges under section 810 of the Alaska Lands Act. It requires federal land managers to assess the impacts of their management actions on the refuges in light of subsistence needs. Six regional councils were established to advise the secretary of the interior on the management of the refuge system as it related to subsistence needs of Native Americans.

Other sections of the Alaska Lands Act were proposed for special interests within the state. One section of this legislation provided an annual subsidy of $40 million to guarantee that timber production from the Tongass National Forest Tongass National Forest averaged 450 million board feet per year, even if the timber harvest lost money. The legislation also required the U.S. Forest Service to reevaluate timber prices every five years if the prices had declined; no recalculation was required if timber prices rose during this period. A price increase added to the profits of the timber company holding the sale rights but did not increase the revenues gained by the Forest Service. This provision encouraged disastrous timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest, and in 1990 the provision was repealed.

In the early 1980’s, the Reagan administration selectively distorted, ignored, and violated the intent of the Alaska Lands Act; in many instances, the administration made it a development act. Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt Watt, James G. led the attack on these lands in Alaska by controlling the budgets for their management. Without adequate funds to hire personnel to study the d-2 lands and to prepare scientifically sound management plans as required by the act, many lands were not adequately protected or managed. The remoteness and size of Alaska and its resources produce special problems for land management. Strong pressures for development of oil and gas areas, increased timber harvest, more mining, and consumptive use of wildlife resources continue on the d-2 lands of Alaska. Many of the lands that were excluded from d-2 land acquisitions are under federal control, particularly by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A lack of funding prevented the adequate study of these lands so that they could be added to federal preserves under the 17(d)(1) section of the Alaska Lands Act. In the early 1990’s, adequate funding for the d-2 lands and those that should be studied under the d-1 section of this act still had not been provided.

Many of the d-2 lands include parcels owned by Alaska Natives through lands selected under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. These lands represent potential development within otherwise undisturbed wilderness areas. Effective planning is needed to control development of these areas so that it does not destroy the unique qualities of the surrounding d-2 lands.

What has been preserved by congressional action is not always protected. Section 810 of the act requires that federal land managers assess the impacts of their decisions on subsistence users. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Amoco Production Company v. Village of Gambell. Amoco Production Company v. Village of Gambell (1987) The village sought to enjoin the secretary of the interior from leasing Outer Continental Shelf Outer Continental Shelf areas in Norton Sound and the Navarin Basin of the Bering Sea for oil and gas exploration. Alaska Natives argued that such exploration damaged their subsistence rights activities. The Court held that section 810 did not apply to these leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.

A key concept of the d-2 land selections was to include entire ecosystems so that the ecological integrity of these biological systems on wildlife refuges would be maintained in Alaska. Detailed plans were to be compiled for sixteen areas. The greatest conservation fight involving d-2 lands was expected to be related to the development of oil reserves within the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Enlarged by the addition of d-2 lands, the refuge lies east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field and may contain more oil and natural gas reserves than did Prudhoe Bay. Its 19.3 million acres also contain perhaps the most pristine wilderness in North America. A legacy of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, it serves as a constant reminder that lands once preserved by Congress must continue to be protected and defended from development. Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation Wildlife conservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catton, Theodore. Inhabited Wilderness: Indians, Eskimos, and National Parks in Alaska. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. Examines the concept of “inhabited wilderness,” which was an important factor in the passage of the Alaska Lands Act. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Geographic Society. Guide to the National Parks: Alaska. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2005. Provides details on all aspects of Alaska’s federal lands. Includes excellent photographs.
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    National Parks Magazine 55, no. 3 (1981). Entire issue is devoted to the history and future of public lands management in Alaska. The National Parks and Conservation Association deserves much of the credit for the passage of the Alaska Lands Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stock, Dennis. Alaska. New York: Harrison House, 1983. Provides an outstanding overview of the beauty of Alaska’s lands. Features 190 photographs supplemented by detailed text about Alaska.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strohmeyer, John. Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Presents in fascinating style the story of the changes resulting from the discovery of oil in Alaska. Details the events that shaped the way Alaskans view their resources and how their attitudes affected conservation efforts. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Wilderness 41, no. 164 (1984). Entire issue is devoted to the history of the development and implementation of the Alaska Lands Act. Provides a good overview of the battle for conservation in Alaska. Well written and accompanied by spectacular photographs.

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Categories: History