He changed the name of a park and the landscape of Alaska

Alaska celebrates significant anniversaries in 2017, including the 100th anniversary of Denali National Park. During his term as President of the U.S., Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which among other things, changed the name of Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park. We decided to interview the former president to get his thoughts on ANILCA, which was the landmark legislation of his presidency.

President Carter began his administration in 1977, and settling land-claim issues in Alaska ranked high among his priorities. Claim issues dated back to 1959, when Alaska officially joined the Union, and involved complex matters of Native claims granted with the passing of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the state’s title to more than 100 million acres of land for public use, community building, and natural resource-exploration, as guaranteed by the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958.

In 1978, nearly two years after he took office, the lack of progress frustrated the President until Cecil Andrus, Secretary of Interior and former governor of Idaho, encouraged him to make use of the Antiquities Act, which was created in 1906 and gave presidents freedom to issue executive orders to protect areas of unique national interest. Carter invoked the Antiquities Act to designate 56 million acres as national monuments. Also, Secretary Andrus used the Federal Lands Policy Management Act to set aside another 40 million acres.

The maneuvering set off a series of protests among Alaska’s elected officials and citizenry, who opposed the move on the grounds that great swaths of land would not receive multiple-use designation and would be open to Native subsistence activities. Elected officials argued that they had not been allowed to utilize state resources in a fashion similar to other states.

Though unpopular, President Carter’s directive coupled with the election of 1980, which dealt the incumbent a landslide loss, helped break the legislative impasse. Both conservation and multiple-use advocates concluded they could ease off some of their demands to produce a bill that settled land-claim issues and offered some measure of satisfaction to each side. As a result, on December 3, 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which gave varying degrees of protection to more than 157,000,000 acres of land.

During the interview, President Carter mentioned “senatorial courtesy,” which generally is spoken of in the context of political appointees and is the practice of confirming an appointee only if there is no objection by the senators from the appointee’s state. In this context, the President referred to senatorial courtesy as an impediment to passing ANILCA, which Alaska’s two senators at the time, Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Mike Gravel, opposed.

Many of the players in the ANILCA drama now concede that President Carter, now 92, did a good thing. Not every Alaskan agrees. —Russ Lumpkin 

Russ Lumpkin: I appreciate you giving me a little bit of your time today.

President Jimmy Carter: It’s a pleasure.We’ll talk about a favorite subject of mine.

RL: Are you getting much fishing in these days?

PJC: Yes a good bit, I’m building a new pond right now. I have four ponds already, and I’m building a fifth over my wife’s objection. We’ll be fishing in north Georgia in about a month, then we go to Pennsylvania every year. We’ve been going 43 years; we’ve only missed one year. And we’re going to Alaska next year. We went to Argentina this year for the fifth time. And I always go out to Montana for a few days in August to fish.

RL: Since I’ve taken the job at Alaska, I’ve fished in Alaska a few times. I want to catch one of the giant trout up there, (PJC chuckles) but so far, the largest I’ve caught is about 14, 16 inches. I thought it was great, but the people I fished with were disappointed.

PJC: Well that is great. I caught one almost 32 inches on the Copper River, east of Lake Illiamna. There’s several Copper Rivers up there, but I caught that big rainbow about 30 years ago.

RL: I guess we should proceed. Had you been to Alaska prior to your presidency?

PJC: No, I never had been.

RL: I’ve read that you visited Alaska twice during your presidency—stopping on your way to and from Japan for an economic summit. What about Alaska inspired you to preserve such large swaths of land, especially given so many Alaskans, including politicians at the national level, at the time were against it?

PJC: Actually I had stopped then and when I went to Japan for a funeral service for the former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. I attended a state fair in Alaska while we were contemplating the passage of the Alaska lands deal, and I was despised. The Secret Service decided to double my protection because of the animosity toward me in Alaska. But I enjoyed getting out in the boondocks and fishing.

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