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For the Wild, 9: Half-Earth, Alaska Style

Wildlands Network published For the Wild in 2017 to celebrate 25 years of reconnecting nature in North America. Every couple of weeks, we’ll be posting a new excerpt from this inspiring collection of prose, poetry, and photographs as a special feature on our website. Please join the Rewilding Society or our Wildlands Stewards giving circle to receive a bound copy of For the Wild. Visit our Donate page to learn more.

Half-Earth, Alaska Style

by Brad Meiklejohn

Person sits on rocky overlook above wide river valley, with wild mountains in background
Sheenjek River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo: Steven Chase, USFWS

WHEN E.O. WILSON WROTE Half-Earth, in which he proposes that we set aside half the Earth for wildlife in order to protect biological diversity, he surely was thinking of Alaska. Alaska comes closer to protecting half of wild nature than does anywhere else on the planet.

The forty-ninth state stands typical conservation design on its head. Instead of habitat islands in a sea of humanity, people inhabit “island cities” embedded in a matrix of wildlands. Rather than minimal wildlife corridors between distant core reserves, Alaska’s sparse road system connects distant human centers.

By many measures, Alaska’s conservation system works. Alaska has fewer endangered or threatened species than any other state. All of the state’s large carnivores exist in viable populations. In fact, Alaska still retains most of its post-Pleistocene plants and animals in near-natural patterns of abundance and distribution. Alaska hosts an estimated 31,000 brown bears, 7,500 gray wolves, and healthy populations of wolverines, lynx, and coyotes. One million barren-ground caribou roam in 25 distinct herds while 100 million seabirds occupy coastal waters, 10 million waterfowl nest in intact wetlands, and more than 300 million salmon spawn in the largely undammed rivers where 40,000 bald eagles eat the depleted carcasses.

These ecological riches remain, in large part, because President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law in 1981. Among the most visionary conservation acts in history, ANILCA created or expanded 17 habitat reserves bigger than Yellowstone, including the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the 30 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias/Kluane/Tetlin/Glacier Bay wildland complex.

As a transplanted New Englander, it’s hard for me to return home; I’ve been ruined by Alaska. John McPhee, an Easterner himself, expressed a similar awakening in his Alaska classic, Coming into the Country: “I may have liked places that are wild and been quickened all my days just by the sound of the word, but I can see now I never knew what it could mean.”

Wilson rightly exhorts us to aim higher. Conserving fifty percent of the planet sounds audacious only if one is accustomed to aiming low. Alaska-scale conservation should be the goal everywhere and is feasible even in the near-term in many frontier regions like northern Canada, Siberia, Central Africa, Patagonia, and the Amazon.

Alaska is like the Great Remembering, a reminder of Earth when it was still whole. Alaska teaches us that large wildlands work.

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