Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act

What is ANILCA?

In 1980, after years of congressional debate, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, into law. Often called the most significant land conservation measure in the history of our nation, the statute protected over 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska, doubling the size of the country’s national park and refuge system and tripling the amount of land designated as wilderness. ANILCA expanded the national park system in Alaska by over 43 million acres, creating 10 new national parks and increasing the acreage of three existing units.

From the time it was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977 until it was enacted in 1980, the ANILCA legislation was considered in over a dozen versions. The final Act is a painstakingly crafted compromise that reflects the struggle for balance between development and conservation of public lands in Alaska. Now, over 30 years later, battles are still being waged in Congress and courts over the interpretation of key provisions in ANILCA.

Alaska Statehood

To better understand ANILCA's complexity, it is useful to know what necessitated the law. When Alaska became a state in 1959, virtually all of its land mass was federally-owned. Under the Statehood Act, Alaska was granted the right to select 104 million acres of land, which it could manage as a revenue base.

During the first eight years of statehood, Alaska identified 26 million acres for selection. As the State staked out more and more land, it was inevitable that lands the Alaskan Natives had a traditional interest in were identified for selection by the State. Consequently, the Native community argued that, without a treaty or an act of Congress extinguishing Native title, the State should not continue to make selections. Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior at the time, agreed and declared a freeze on any additional state land selections.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Even with the support of the Department of the Interior, the Native community would have been hard pressed to obtain a lands claim settlement in the Congress if it hadn’t been for the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. Because of the land freeze, however, the State couldn’t proceed with development. Suddenly, the oil industry, the Nixon Administration, and the State of Alaska were advocating on behalf of the Natives. Enacted in 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) created twelve Native-owned regional corporations, granted 962 million dollars in seed money, and authorized the Native corporations to select 44 million acres of federal lands in Alaska.

The environmental community—concerned that Alaska was being carved up with too much emphasis on development—was also involved in the ANCSA debate. Its efforts are reflected in Section 17 (d) (2) of the Act, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw 80 million acres of significant federal lands from development. These lands, referred to as “d-2” lands, were to be available for potential congressional designation as national parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, or national forests.

Most important, the "d-2" provision of ANCSA set a deadline for Congress to respond; if it did not act to designate these lands earmarked for special protections by 1978, the withdrawal would expire and the lands would be reopened to development.


Finally, six years after ANCSA was enacted, Congress began to address the "d-2" lands issue, resulting in the introduction of the first version of ANILCA. In addition to the overarching controversy between development and environmental interests, ANILCA gave rise to debates about reconciling Native and rural lifestyles with the changing demographics and technologies in Alaska. The issue of access was central to this debate.

Questions arose as to where and for what purpose would access be appropriate on public lands protected under ANILCA. What were acceptable means of access? Were airplanes, motorboats, and snowmachines appropriate everywhere, for any purpose? Or only in certain places for specific purposes? In order to pass ANILCA, compromises were made and many of these tough questions were left to be answered later.

As contentious and lengthy negotiations dragged on and numerous versions of ANILCA were considered, the ANCSA deadline for addressing "d-2" lands was drawing near. The Carter Administration responded in 1978 by withdrawing over 100 million acres of federal lands from development: 40 million acres were withdrawn under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, and 56 million acres were designated as National Monuments with one swoop by President Carter’s pen. These bold actions ensured that Congress would not delay action on the “d-2” issue any longer, since passage of an Alaska lands bill was now necessary for the Alaskan congressional delegation to have an impact on how those public lands would be used. Additionally, the 40-million acre withdrawal by Secretary Andrus was to be rescinded with passage of a bill. In November 1980, Congress passed a final version of ANILCA that President Carter signed into law on December 2, 1980.

Current Status

Today, more than 30 years since the passage of this monumental conservation achievement, we are still discussing and defining the meaning of ANILCA's access provisions. NPCA successfully challenged illegal recreational ATV use in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in 2007. A draft plan for trail management, including where ATVs may be operated, was released for public comment in November 2010. Also in 2007, ATV use by residents of Cantwell for exclusively subsistence purposes was finally permitted with strong stipulations to protect park resources. While some issues, such as these, are finally working themselves out, there remain other access issues – such as the recreational use of snowmobiles--that are still unresolved. We must all maintain our vigilance and commitment to the purposes of ANILCA if we are to keep Alaska wild for present and future generations.


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