OPINION: Celebrating Jimmy Carter’s public lands legacy

On Oct. 1, we celebrate President Jimmy Carter’s 99th birthday and give thanks to a man of public service, faith and humanitarian achievement who touched so many lives. His devotion to building homes for the needy, ensuring fair elections around the globe, eradicating disease and conservation challenge us all to support our communities.

Here in Alaska, we are especially grateful for Carter’s commitment to passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), groundbreaking for its protection of both extraordinary lands and the rights of people who live there. In the years since its passage, we have been privileged to witness the wisdom and success of ANILCA.

Carter lauded the work as “no ordinary statute,” calling it “one of the most exceptional pieces of conservation legislation enacted by our great nation — or any nation. In sheer magnitude, it stands alone, establishing conservation mandates for more than 100 million acres of federal public lands and preserving the rights of Alaska Native and rural residents to continue to undertake subsistence activities on those lands.” Commenting on his legacy, Carter extolled the Act as “the most significant domestic achievement of my political life,” further adding, “Our great nation has never before or since preserved so much of America’s natural and cultural heritage on such a remarkable scale.”

ANILCA protected more than 30% of the nation’s public lands, as well as providing for Alaska subsistence ways of life. The Act safeguarded 104 million acres, including approximately 60% of our National Parks, more than doubling the National Park system, more than 50% of our country’s Congressionally designated wilderness, and more than 80% of our terrestrial National Wildlife Refuges.

Tribal organizations statewide played a central role in shaping and passing ANILCA that followed on the heels of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood were very active in passage of both Acts, taking a broad view of customary and traditional harvest and trade. Traveling to the White House, traditional chiefs thanked President Carter for making Admiralty Island a National Monument, noting, “Such a noble decision in our Tlingit culture does not go unrecognized.” Upon being made a member of the Raven Beaver Clan, Carter responded, “I am deeply grateful for this honor, and I want to express to the Tlingit tribe and to others who are deeply committed to the outdoors, to the heritage of our nation, my permanent commitment never to betray their trust.”

Importantly, ANILCA recognized the values, customs and traditions that help Indigenous people to survive and provided the continued opportunity for rural residents to engage in a subsistence way of life. Title VIII expressed Congress’ intent that “the utilization of the public lands in Alaska is to cause the least adverse impact possible on rural residents who depend upon subsistence uses of the resources of such lands.”

Carter has been subject to the spectrum of Alaska manners. At the outset, Alaska’s political and business elite saw ANILCA as a betrayal of the state and a blueprint for economic ruin. But the economic and conservation benefits of his legacy are now widely acknowledged.


The Act spurred a multibillion-dollar annual tourist economy attracting millions of visitors. Communities that once scorned the Act have come to see its value. Seward, now host to a multimillion-dollar Kenai Fjords National Park visitor industry, twice condemned the park’s creation but later rescinded a resolution opposing Carter’s action and asked that the Park be expanded.

As we celebrate Carter’s 99th birthday, we recognize that we are now the generation entrusted to defend ANILCA’s protections and values. Challenges are ongoing to both the integrity of protected lands and subsistence.

We are grateful for the time many have spent with Carter crafting this landmark legislation and during his visits to Alaska. We send love and appreciation from Alaska with a promise to defend this gift conserving Alaska’s diverse lands and recognizing the dignity of Alaska’s peoples.

We wish the president and his family joy as they celebrate this birthday.

Sarah James, Ph.D., is a Gwich’in Athabascan Elder.

Chief Frank Thompson is a member of the Evansville Tribal Council.

Peg Tileston is co-founder of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Kirk Hoessle is president and CEO of Alaska Wildland Adventures.

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