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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2014

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Conservation and Abundance in Alaska

Alaska likes to think it is different. Larger. Wilder. Full of opportunity. Unlikely to make the same mistakes as elsewhere because, well, it's different.

In one sense, this is misleading. Alaska's sparse population means that vast areas show little sign of human presence, but damage done to tundra and forests persists for decades. Alaskans themselves show no greater (or lesser) tendency to conservation and sustainability than anyone else, and an unwillingness to learn from other places is shortsighted.

In another sense, however, Alaska is different. Its lands contain the largest swaths of wilderness in the United States. Its ecosystems support indigenous practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering that are greatly reduced or lost elsewhere. Alaska's seas produce more than half the nation's fish catch. Unlike places where "conservation" means protecting a scarce remnant of what once was, conservation in Alaska is also about the abundance that still is.

This abundance provides the opportunity that Alaskans see around them. A wealth of salmon provides recreation, food, and income to a large percentage of the state's residents and attracts thousands of visitors every summer. Vast tracts of land with minerals, oil, and timber remain to be developed, always with an assumption that there is another river, another valley, another mountain range where wilderness persists.

But abundance can also create complacency. Everyone can see the risks facing the last few acres of rare habitat or the last members of an endangered species. When 200,000 red salmon make it past hordes of fishermen to swim up the Kenai River in a single day, it is harder to imagine there could ever be a problem. When 100 million acres of land are already protected in national parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges, it is more difficult to see how another road or mine will make much difference.

This is precisely the thinking that leads to incremental loss, to the slow attrition that may not even be noticed as each generation thinks that what it sees is normal, unaware of what has already been lost. Here, Alaska needs to learn from what has happened elsewhere, to pay close attention to the history of natural abundance in the rest of the country and beyond.

The debates of a century ago about the purpose of national forests are still relevant today. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the myth that we can still somehow "have it all," everywhere and at once, still has hold in Alaska. Unfortunately, few or none of us can remember the abundance of the bison, the passenger pigeon, or even the Atlantic salmon. So in our ignorance we assume that hundreds of thousands of caribou and millions of seabirds will always be with us. We assume that national parks contain a vibrant whole rather than a fragment, however beautiful, of what once was. Thus, many in Alaska claim that its national parks and wildlife refuges have forever satisfied the state's conservation needs, leaving the rest of the state open for business.

But losses can also happen rapidly. Industrial and technological prowess let us push farther and deeper, and undertake projects that are bigger and bigger. Progress of this kind can provide us with assets to underwrite and serve conservation, but it also raises the stakes when something goes wrong, as Alaska saw with the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Resource extraction can happen faster and faster, leaving less and less time for changing course as we learn about adverse consequences. Yet moving at a slower pace would extend the period in which job creation and other benefits are realized and also would provide a chance to assess what is happening, to learn from experience here as well as elsewhere.

In some instances, Alaska has learned from others and become a world leader in conservation and sustainability. Fisheries management is a prime example. At a time when fisheries management worldwide continues to wrestle with basic problems, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council leads the way to ecosystem-based practices aimed at sustaining abundant fisheries. Among other measures, the council protects cold-water corals by closing large areas around the Aleutian Islands to bottom trawling, restricts or eliminates fishing for many forage fishes, and has set a zero catch limit in Arctic waters due to uncertainty about what the ecosystem can support, lest we overfish the region before we realize what we have done.

The state of Alaska, too, manages its salmon fisheries with great success, with the concept of sustainable use enshrined in the state constitution. As one example, Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska is home to the world's richest red salmon run. In 1997, the returning salmon were small in size and few in number. The state shut down the valuable commercial fishery. Rather than protest, asserting some right to continue to fish for profit regardless of the state of the fish population, the fishers accepted the state's decision. They recognized that the long-term health of the fishery was at stake. Today, the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is again strong and healthy, thanks to a commitment to manage for abundance, for tomorrow as well as today.

These successes are not without controversy. Nor do they characterize Alaskans' attitudes to all environmental topics. Bycatch of king salmon by offshore fleets is contentious, pitting fishers against fishers. A preference in favor of (largely rural) subsistence hunters and fishers over (predominantly urban) recreational hunters and fishers continues to divide state management and federal management, with arguments and counterarguments about Native Alaskan rights, modernization, equal access, and life in cities versus remote, roadless villages. Support for a cautious approach to fishing in Arctic waters has not translated to support for a similar approach to other resource development. But these debates nonetheless center largely on the allocation of abundance, not the management of scarcity.

This is Alaska's biggest difference-it still has the chance to conserve abundance throughout its ecosystems. There will always be demands for new activity, claims that the associated impacts will be modest, assertions that the state's economy needs more and more. Oil revenues, for example, have shown Alaska the benefits (and some of the costs) of large-scale development, but the state's long-term wealth lies in what the land and the sea continue to provide.

Ecosystem-based management, sustainable development, biodiversity, and other concepts are useful tools for conservation. To be used effectively, though, they need to be paired with a vision for what is possible. In many places, conservation goals focus on protecting endangered species or representative habitats. This is important, and is relevant in Alaska, too. But a bolder vision is also needed, in which ecosystems are managed for abundance. This is the promise and the challenge of conservation in Alaska, to value what is plentiful and to keep it that way.

Henry P. Huntington is a senior officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs the science work of its Arctic programs.

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