It’s hard to know which sourdough or pioneer first said, “You can’t eat the view.” Facing raw, wild nature, early settlers often blamed their hunger on the scenery. Like them, generations of Alaska politicians have blamed our “locked up” public lands for a bottomless economic hunger.
Yet we eat the view all the time in Alaska. Take salmon, for instance. There is a direct connection between abundant wild land and abundant wild salmon. Salmon thrive where rivers run through vast tracts of wild land. When you eat salmon, you eat the scenery.
Moose and caribou need lots of room to roam, and Alaska is one of the few places on the planet where that still exists. A moose backstrap is a tasty chunk of raw wild land.
Same for the berries, ducks, hooligan, mushrooms, clams and deer that fill Alaskan freezers. Without wild scenery, these foods wouldn’t be there for us. Abundant public land means that we can access these foods, and access is one of the first things lost when land is developed. Alaska is the last place left on earth where subsistence is still a viable lifestyle, thanks to our wild scenery. Wild foods are the least expensive and most nutritious available to us.
On a recent trip around Lake Iliamna, I was mesmerized by endless lines of sockeye salmon streaming past our beach campsites. Threading the woods and islands of Iliamna country are what my friend Roman Dial calls “BMW trails” (bear, moose and wolf), a sure sign of healthy wild scenery. I grew up on a tributary of the Connecticut River, where the last salmon now beat their heads against impassable dams. I’ve tramped the remaining wild corners of the planet and never seen anything approaching the density of Alaska’s game trails. What we still have is precious and rare - why would we trade that for anything?
Millions of Alaska visitors are coming to see things they don’t have in Ohio, Texas or China. They are not here to admire our cities or our pipelines. They want to eat our scenery, and we in turn benefit from the money they spend gorging on our beauty.
Wild nature is our market advantage, Alaska’s special sauce, what sets us apart. Yet it is the rare Alaska politician who extols our intact wildness, instead highlighting what we don’t have and hastening the loss of what every other place has already lost. This poverty mindset dominates our politics at all levels. It’s as if we are trying to become New Jersey with mountains.
While Alaska has so far avoided the worst mistakes that have marred wild scenery worldwide, the story is still being written. Wildness is slowly eroded by thousands of small cuts that aim to improve our quality of life. By trying to make ourselves financially richer, however, we become impoverished when we lose the land and foods that sustain us.
Salmon are the perfect economic system: for very little investment, they provide infinite returns. Yet across history, we have failed to act, out of greed, ignorance or indifference, and each time, salmon have blinked out, from Scotland to New England to the Pacific Northwest. In 1991, Bill Frank, Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, said, “If the salmon could speak, he would ask us to help him survive.”
Help didn’t arrive in time in the Northwest, and now Alaska is the last stand for wild salmon. Good will and the best of intentions have never been sufficient to protect salmon. In the absence of moral restraint, we need legal restraint to keep us from stealing off the plates of our grandchildren. Will we leave them the same smorgasbord of wild scenery that feeds us today, or an empty platter?
Brad Meiklejohn is a senior representative in conservation acquisition with The Conservation Fund. He opened the Fund’s Alaska office in 1994.
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