Learning from Alaska: Sustainability and the Conservation Movement, Part Two

Learning from Alaska: Sustainability and the Conservation Movement, Part Two

It was critical to get visitors thinking about what they’d seen and experienced, as the stakes were high for Alaska in 1974 and supportive voices needed...

Continued from Part One

It was critical to get visitors thinking about what they’d seen and experienced, as the stakes were high for Alaska in 1974 and supportive voices needed to be heard. The construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline project — an 800-mile oil pipeline and road connecting the north slope of the Brooks Range at the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean) to the Port of Valdez in southeast Alaska — was commencing and would bisect and make accessible what was then one of the largest road-less, untouched tracts of wilderness existing anywhere on earth. Native American groups in Alaska, mindful of the horrific experiences of Native Americans in the “lower 48” and determined not to see it repeated, had fortunately attained at least some political power in Alaska and worked hard to protect their ancestral lands and their communities. As well, the environmental movement was going strong and conservation organizations – adamantly opposed to the pipeline – sought concessions to make up for their stinging pipeline defeat. Shockingly, and in an atypically bi-partisan fashion, something amazing came out of all this.

If the creation of National Parks was America’s best idea, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was a close second. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law one of the most sweeping conservation acts in our country’s history, designating certain public lands in Alaska as units of the National Park, National Wildlife Refuge, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Wilderness Preservation, and National Forest Systems, resulting in a once-in-a-generation expansion of all of these systems. The consequences of this act were profound on many levels. For the then Mt. McKinley National Park, the change was so much more than in name only. Renamed ‘Denali National Park and Preserve,’ the Park expanded from 2 million to 6 million acres (a million acres is roughly 40 miles square). Many other new areas received various levels of protection, including other new and expanded National Parks. Also notable was the establishment of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost National Park in the U.S. (the entirety of the Park lies north of the Arctic Circle) and the second largest at over 8.4 million acres, slightly larger in area than Maryland. The Park consists primarily of portions of the Brooks Range, the planet’s northernmost, contiguous mountain range. Most of the Park is protected in the area demarked as the ‘Gates of the Arctic Wilderness,’ which covers over 7.2 million acres (no roads, no pathways, and no trails other than those established by caribou). This area adjoins the Noatak Wilderness Area and together, they form the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States. The Western Arctic caribou herd and other herds, collectively totaling over 500,000 animals, move through the Gates of the Arctic during their yearly migrations. I had been fortunate to get a bird’s eye view of the Park’s eastern boundary, flying over the Brooks Range while travelling back and forth from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay (after my first season in Denali, I went on to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline project as an environmental quality control engineer, monitoring the contractors’ adherence to environmental constraints established as conditions of its construction – yet another story).


“There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.

In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity.

The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books …To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action.”

Robert (Bob) Marshall
Co-founder, The Wilderness Society


There exists a significant body of literature in support of the protection of our National Parks and our remaining wilderness areas written with great eloquence. Consequently, I won’t attempt to describe the critical importance of preserving a place where the water in its streams and lakes is fresh and drinkable, where no animal or plant species is threatened or endangered, where one can step lightly on a square foot of ground and have some reason to believe that yours may be the first human footsteps there, where you can get lost and maybe, not be found. Even if one never has an opportunity to visit such a place, the knowledge that it exists can be refreshing to the spirit and can provide for hope and optimism when bogged down by the constant demands and responsibilities of one’s daily life. These places do still exist and as evidenced by Denali and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, they exist in more than our imaginations alone.

Unfortunately, it’s no secret that our nation’s parks, preserves, refuges, and wilderness areas are under constant siege, whether from overuse, neglect, lack of resources, the desire of some to “unlock” and open to potentially destructive uses and now of course, population pressures and attendant climate change. As isolated as Alaska is and as severe as its climate can be, the wilderness still invites unwanted attention. Construction of a new road through the Gates of the Arctic is now being contemplated by the State of Alaska, proposed to link the Dalton Highway (the pipeline service road constructed in 1974) with the Ambler Mining District to its west. To the east of the Gates, Sarah Palin’s call to “drill baby, drill” — a philosophy wholeheartedly adopted by our current administration — represents a recent, direct, and specific threat to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest wildlife refuge at close to 20 million acres. And that’s just arctic Alaska. There are many more areas at risk throughout our country (perfect example – recent action regarding the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah) and of course, in our own back yards.

Fortunately, as architects and designers, we are practitioners of a craft that through our daily actions, serves to lessen our collective environmental impact. By extension, the choices we make and the actions we take help protect our remaining wilderness by reducing pressure to consume what remains of our natural resources – most of which always seem to reside in or adjacent to these very fragile, very precious places. It’s important for us to always know that our efforts to create sustainable environments have a direct impact on their future, so when in the midst of a struggle on a sustainability-related issue with a colleague, client, or contractor, take heart, as the struggle is more than worth it.

Even more fortunate, none of us here in the Bay Area have to go far to experience and even more directly support protection of our wild places. Thanks to an act by Richard Nixon, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) was established in 1972. Anchored by the Presidio and the open spaces flanking the Golden Gate Bridge, the GGNRA, at over 80,000 acres, is one of the largest urban National Parks on the planet. Even as the most visited of the National Parks (15,000,000 visitors per year as opposed to less than 10,000 at the Gates of the Arctic), its breadth and diversity allow for multiple uses and a variety of experiences, even including the opportunity for solitude and a touch of wilderness in the midst of our densely populated urban landscape. With support from other privately-funded organizations like the Presidio Trust and The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, it is also one of the best-managed, best funded units of the National Park System. We are profoundly lucky to have such an asset adjacent to where many of us live and all of us work.

We should all be in awe that a society so enamored with its manifest destiny and bent on expressing to the world its exceptionalism could have mustered enough collective wisdom to preserve such places as National Parks and wilderness areas for future generations. Quite a miracle. But even in the rarified air of our exceptionally progressive circles, there seems only a weak connection between sustainability and the conservation movement as we in this country used to know it. As architects, we’re well versed around the technologies, metrics, and goals around creating sustainable buildings and environments, but the connection between that knowledge and its relationship to the preservation of what remains of the natural world feels a bit less clear, less immediate. Recent experiences have reminded me that the need to strengthen this connection is indeed immediate; our few remaining wild places are as fragile as ever, are all under assault, and require our collective, constant attention and action in order that they remain protected.


“I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving”

Edward Abbey


This past August my wife Ellen and I headed north to the Gates, our first time back to Alaska in over 25 years. With five other travelers and two guides, we shared a one-and-a-half hour bush plane flight from Fairbanks to the “town” of Bettles (2010 population = 12) and then another one-and-a-half hour bush plane ride further north to our base camp site at Folly Lake (via a 60-year old De Havilland Otter, outfitted with floats). It was one of the most spectacular flights we’ve ever taken to one of the most spectacular sites we’ve ever visited. After dropping us off, the pilot taxied around the lake to gain position, took off, and disappeared into an adjacent valley.  Finally, we were in a place with absolutely no evidence of or proximity to any human activity.

After a week at base camp and a float plane pick-up delayed due to weather, we were all safely transported back to Bettles, where we – after spending the night in our sleeping bags on the floor of the open aircraft hangar – were able to get a flight back to Fairbanks. It was a memorable week, with challenges presented and challenges met, all successfully and with good humor. In spite of early winter conditions, with daily snowfall, strong winds, and below freezing temperatures, we were all prepared and all felt overwhelmingly fortunate to stay in such a unique and amazing place. It was the consummate wilderness experience.

Ellen and I then headed south to Denali National Park for a few days, where she also, coincidentally, has deep ties (yet another story for another time). Again, we were fortunate to experience the Alaskan wilderness in a rare fashion, albeit with a considerably less challenging conditions than in the Gates of the Arctic! We were both happy and relieved to see that in spite of some haphazard development at the Park’s entry and the creation of a couple of new, managed trails by the Park Service, Denali remains as it was when we’d each first encountered it – a wilderness that for the most part is unspoiled and untrammeled. We were also fortunate to rekindle some old friendships and acquaintances, a few over four decades old. A true homecoming and another set of profound experiences. Our plans to return to Alaska are already taking form.

If you’d like to know more, here’s just a small selection of available resources you may find compelling:


And of course…


Note: The annotated photographs throughout this post and Part One comprise of a few digitized copies of 40+ year-old slides (so please, excuse the quality). Some of the best photographs were graciously ‘loaned’ to me by Kenny Bahr, a semi-professional photographer and one of the members of our Gates of the Arctic party. If you’re at all compelled to share any of these in any form, please refrain from sharing Kenny’s, as they represent a good portion of his livelihood (you can, of course, contact him to purchase: kennybahr@ofmlive.net).

Folly Lake, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Kenny Bahr

First Snow, looking north, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Kenny Bahr

Caribou bulls, Gates of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Kenny Bahr

Caribou bulls on the run, Gates of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Kenny Bahr

Caribou bulls, Gates of the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Kenny Bahr

Arctic tundra, Gates of the Arctic

Arctic light, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic

Base camp, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic

Heading out for the day, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic

Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic