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.
Read the full essay at Environment Magazine