Environmental group grants lifetime award to former President Carter for his Alaska work

Jimmy and Roselynn Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter and wife Roselynn Carter talk with Debbie Miller during a 1990 camping trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Miller, an Alaska teacher and author, helped found the Alaska Wilderness League. The organization this week gave a special lifetime award to the former president for his advocacy on behalf of Alaska public lands, including the Arctic refuge. (Photo provided by the Alaska Wilderness League)

Former President Jimmy Carter was honored on Wednesday by the Alaska Wilderness League for his conservation work in the state.

The Mardie Murie Lifetime Achievement Award recognized Carter’s role in creating and passing the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“Alaska is a special place for many Americans, and President Carter was ahead of his time in understanding how protecting wild Alaska would outlive his White House tenure,” Kristen Miller, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement released Wednesday. “Tonight, we honor and celebrate President Carter’s legacy in Alaska – protecting some of our greatest shared resources for generations to come, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”    

Wednesday’s award ceremony was held at the Alaska Wilderness League’s 30th anniversary celebration, held at the Burke Museum of History & Culture in Seattle. The former president, who recently turned 99 and is in hospice care, was not at the event. His grandson, Josh Carter, accepted the award on his behalf, the league said.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, put more than 100 million acres of federal territory in Alaska into conservation units, such as national parks, wildlife refuges and designated wilderness areas. Among the designations were expansion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Denali National Park and Preserve.

Carter has referred to ANILCA as one of his major life achievements. “The passage of this act is one of the proudest achievements of my presidency and one that will endure through the centuries,” he said in an essay published by the National Park Service.

Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter signs the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in a White House ceremony. Attending, fifth from the right, is Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. (Photo provided by the Alaska Wilderness League)

Carter, who has served for decades as an honorary chair of the Alaska Wilderness League, continued to advocate for conservation of the land units designated by the 1980 act. He has campaigned against oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in favor of protections in the Tongass National Forest and against the plan to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in the southwestern part of the state, intervening in 2022 in a court case over that matter.

At the time of its passage, however, ANILCA was deeply unpopular in Alaska, reviled as a land “lockup.”

Carter, too, was deeply unpopular in Alaska. When he ran for re-election in 1980, he got only 26.4% of the Alaska vote, the lowest percentage ever in the state for any major party presidential candidate.

But Alaskans’ attitudes about the act have changed over time, said Andy Moderow, senior director of policy for the Alaska Wilderness League.

“Public lands are Alaska’s future. They’re the places where we go to hunt and recreate. They’re the places where subsistence protections are in place today,” he said, referring to the law’s guarantee of a rural priority for harvests of fish, game and wild plants for noncommercial and traditional uses.

For him, the important public lands that were protected through ANILCA include Denali and the Chugach National Forest, he said. People in other parts of Alaska benefit from public lands as well, he said. He cited as an example the Kenai Peninsula coastal town of Seward, which has benefited economically from being the gateway to one of the conservation units created by the act, Kenai Fjords National Park.

There are still criticisms of ANILCA.

Alaska Native organizations have argued for several years that the ANILCA subsistence protections are not strong enough for Indigenous residents, particularly since the state lacks its own rural priority after the Alaska Supreme Court found that it violated the state constitution.

Those arguments have now intensified as the federal and state governments clash over subsistence salmon fishing in the Kuskokwim River, a site where salmon runs have dwindled. Many Native leaders argue that the rural priority is under attack by the state and possibly should be replaced with a more specific Native priority. At its annual convention last month, the Alaska Federation of Natives passed a resolution calling on Congress to amend ANILCA to strengthen Native subsistence rights.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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