The edge of the bride’s dress, brilliant white in the mid-May sun, grazes gray rocks on the beach at Derby Cove in Caines Head State Recreation Area. She and her groom arrived moments before on a motorboat, leaped to shore, and now pose for their own cadre of paparazzi. Resurrection Bay shimmers, and snow-capped peaks rise sharply from the sea in the distance. My friend and I watch with amusement from our campsite above the high tide line. Public lands, it seems, are for more than just pure recreational pursuits or habitat for Alaska’s wild animals; they also make perfect places to celebrate life’s momentous occasions.

Alaska’s Public Land

About 87 percent of Alaska’s land is public. Of the entire pie, more than half is federally owned by the National Wildlife Refuge System, National Park Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the military. The State of Alaska is second in line with almost one-third. Native Corporations own about 12 percent, and less than one percent is privately held. 

Permission is needed to access private land, military properties are especially restrictive, and most Native Corporation lands require permits for activities like hiking, camping, or even berry picking. That leaves state and federal acreage available for recreation, and there’s no shortage of fun to be had in the patchwork of national parks, preserves, and monuments; 16 national wildlife refuges; two huge national forests; a plethora of state parks, recreation sites, campgrounds, and public use cabins; and a slew of BLM-managed wild and scenic rivers, science and information centers, and the agency’s only national recreation area (White Mountains NRA near Fairbanks).

Depending on the type of public land and who manages it, activities allowed on them include hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, boating, snowmachining, mushing, learning about cultural and natural history, watching wildlife, scientific research, natural resource development, and conservation efforts.

A Few Favorites

A favorite place for one Alaskan, Greg Siekaniec, regional director for the Alaska Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Located at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, the refuge is the state’s smallest, says Siekaniec, and he relishes the fact that “every component of the ecosystem is there and still functional. Unangan people have lived there for more than 10,000 years, with the sea and volcanoes, the animals, and some of the most inclement weather on earth, and have stewarded this place that, now, people from around the world can visit and enjoy.” Siekaniec says he loves getting out on the land. “You can go on a hike from the Frosty Bridge down to Applegate Cove in Izembek Lagoon, and in a three-mile hike, it’s amazing what you can encounter. Brown bears, songbirds, caribou, migrating birds in the distance, ducks and geese, berries on the tundra, and a stream full of fish.”

While Izembek captivates him, Siekaniec thinks Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge is the “unsung hero of the refuge system.” Its wetlands create a spectacular place for breeding waterfowl. “It is a place we’re still getting to know,” he says, “and we’re constantly learning new things in partnership with the Koyukon and Kobuk people who have lived here for thousands of years.”

Alaska’s public land stewards collaborate with a variety of entities to achieve their missions, including other sections of government such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, nonprofits like Alaska Geographic, private businesses that contract for things like campground management, youth groups, and historical and cultural preservation associations. 

Backpacker in red shirt poses for camera on a gravel trail between rocks, a pond, and a hill with red lichen.
A backpacker pauses amid unique rock formations along the Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park. Photo courtesy Susan Sommer

Andy Hall, executive director of Alaska Geographic, an organization that partners with agencies to connect people with Alaska’s public lands through educational products and programs, has his personal favorite places to play, but he thinks Alaskans tend to under-appreciate a famous one: Denali National Park and Preserve. “I know that sounds counter-intuitive,” says Hall, “but over the last 25 years, as a very robust tourism machine has developed around the park, Alaskans have avoided it.” He spent part of his childhood there when his dad was the superintendent and says that despite having lots of great memories of the experience, he more or less sidestepped Denali until he joined the nonprofit. Now, as part of his job, he visits the famous destination frequently and is “impressed at how little it has changed, and how wild and beautiful it remains.” Although visitor services at the park entrance have been improved over time with the Visitor Center, the Alaska Geographic Park Store, the Morino Grill, and the Murie Science and Learning Center, Hall says that once he’s beyond those trappings, he still recognizes the park he knew 50 years ago. Also, he says, carefully managed traffic limits impacts on wildlife; bus riders are likely to see caribou, wolves, grizzlies, and other critters common in the park.

Brown bear sow in river. Three cubs lie on a fallen tree trunk behind her.
A brown bear sow and cubs fish for salmon in Anan Creek in the Tongass National Forest. The Anan Wildlife Observatory offers world-class bear viewing 30 miles from Wrangell; guided tours are available, but everyone must apply for a permit to visit. Access is by boat or floatplane only. Photo courtesy Mark Meyer, USDA

It’s early June, and I’m hiking with my boyfriend and his dog from Primrose Campground on Kenai Lake 7.5 miles up to Lost Lake in the Chugach National Forest. Backpackers, mountain runners, and fat-bikers make up modern-day traffic, but we see no one else until lunchtime beside the lake. We’re walking the same path as countless others have over the decades along this section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a commerce route from southcentral Alaska to the state’s interior and beyond before there were roads. Part way up is a dilapidated log cabin with a corrugated metal roof; I learn later it was built in the early 1900s by Charlie Hubbard, a miner from Nevada who moved to Alaska in 1897, staked claims along the Kotsina River in what is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve as well as in these Kenai Mountains, established and ran the Primrose Mining Company, and passed away in Seward at the age of 100. 

How Should We Use Public Land?

Stakeholders often disagree about how public lands should be used. Battles rage today about building roads across wilderness to access potential mining areas, which themselves are the subject of fierce debate. 

A famous years-long struggle over land resulted in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which created most of the national parks here. ANILCA guaranteed that many wild places would remain so, free of human development. That didn’t mean free of human activity, though. The act allowed access to public lands, many of which are remote and without roads. It also stipulated that traditional subsistence activities by Alaska Natives could continue. Creation of the national parks bolstered the tourism industry, which helped Alaskan-owned businesses thrive, and Alaska beckoned to new generations as a wilderness recreation paradise.

That rosy glow only goes so far, though.

Utter the moniker “Pebble” and any American who’s been paying attention the last several years knows you mean the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska; although it’s on state land, operations would affect portions of Lake Clark and Katmai national parks, as well as local and downstream habitats. Say the acronym “ANWR,” (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and some think of caribou herds and the indigenous people who rely on them as a food source. Others think pristine wilderness. Still others conjure drilling for oil; 1.5 million acres along ANWR’s coast, dubbed the “1002 area” (pronounced ten-oh-two) after that section number in ANILCA, was originally set aside for possible resource extraction within the 19.2-million-acre refuge. And there’s the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), a huge chunk of the Arctic coastal plain in northwestern Alaska managed by the BLM, that was set aside in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy; today’s estimates of oil and gas potential from the area are less than in previous years. Adjacent Alaska Native lands and communities, including Utqiagvik, could be directly affected by resource extraction activities in the NPR-A. Similar dissonance applies to mentioning “the Tongass”—that phrase typically raises either the specter of clear-cut logging or saving old growth forests for a variety of reasons.

A yellow tent, campfire surrounded by rocks and boots, in a field with mountains behind
Boots dry around a campfire along the Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy Alexis Bonogofsky, USFWS

We’re camped at Fielding Lake State Recreation Site, north of Paxson on the Richardson Highway. It’s nothing fancy, but our camper is comfy, and besides, we like rustic. At least 20 cabins line the far shore, accessible only by boat until freeze-up. We see a homeowner launch his rig and speed across to his getaway. As darkness falls and the last motorhomes arrive to park in this flat, brushy lakeside valley, we crinkle our noses at the thought of crowds. All is quiet, though, and we sleep well. In the morning, we hike an ATV trail that tops out on a ridge overlooking long, narrow Fielding Lake. In the distance, paddles flash in the sun as three kayakers explore. To the north, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline parallels the highway, disappears under the Delta River, then reappears on the other side, snaking up and over a foothill of the Alaska Range and continuing another 600 miles to its origin at Prudhoe Bay.

Patchwork colored map of Alaska's public lands
A map of Alaska’s Public Lands. Courtesy of Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

The Future of Public Lands

Sometimes, access to public lands exists precisely because of industry. For example, the Dalton Highway, dubbed the “Haul Road” for its role as a supply corridor during construction of the pipeline and for continued support today, runs 415 miles mostly through BLM land from just north of Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean. Backpacking, day hiking, camping, and aurora and wildlife watching opportunities abound along this sparsely traveled dirt ribbon. 

Although Hall warns that, during the summer, mosquitoes on the Dalton are “apocalyptic,” that’s no reason to shy away from an adventure there. Even for longtime Alaskans, the drive is eye-opening. Says Hall, “I like the Haul Road because it remains rustic and is lightly traveled by tourists. Wildlife sighting opportunities along the road rival Denali’s. What you see on the Dalton that you don’t see in a park is the essence of Alaska, the business of resource extraction taking place side by side with pristine wilderness. I also think people have a hard time understanding just how big Alaska is, even residents. On the Dalton, you can get a hint of the scope of the place and how human activity impacts the land both positively and negatively.”

Siekaniec stresses the importance of Alaska Native peoples’ cultural history and knowledge in understanding public lands, especially in the refuges he oversees. “I wish more people knew that every refuge is a sacred place to the Indigenous people here,” he says. “We happen to manage these lands that have been managed so perfectly for up to 50,000 years that we barely perceive their human presence on it. Each refuge has an ancient story that involves humanity and its intimate relationship to all the living and non-living things on it, under it and above it.” His agency assists with oversight of those lands through ANILCA and the Federal Subsistence Management Program, unique legislation that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the United States. The director says he wants “everyone to know we respect the legacy both past and future of Indigenous stewardship and hope to gain bigger and more meaningful partnerships in our work together.”

People will continue to pursue their dreams for Alaska, for better or for worse. Where does that leave public lands? What will be their fate? Alaska’s are treasured, yet not guaranteed. 

“I can walk out my door and in a matter of minutes enjoy a hike that will take me through a state park and a national forest,” says Hall. “A short drive will expand my choices exponentially. Visit most Lower 48 states, and when you try to do that, you’ll encounter fences, gates, and no trespassing signs. We’re lucky to have these lands to explore and enjoy. I hope they’ll remain intact for generations to come, but that’s not a given,” he continues. “There are plenty of folks who’d love to carve them up and develop them. We have to appreciate what we have, and we have to be diligent about protecting them for generations to come.”


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