Alaska Is the Last Frontier. But for How Long?

My friend Andy, atop Mt. Juneau

This article was originally published in Extra Newsfeed.

JUNEAU, ALASKA—Every few years, budget concerns become the talk of the news cycle: whether or not Congress is going to raise taxes or cut taxes — increase services or take them away. Social security, health insurance programs, and various public services always seem to be on the chopping block, with Democrats striving to keep entitlements and spend for the “good of the people” and Republicans looking to cut government services and privatize what they can.

I could go on and on about the politics of it all, but we’re all sick and tired of hearing it. Aren’t we? The national debt has ballooned to epic proportions, and unless either party makes searing changes to large entitlement programs, we aren’t going to change much.

The national debt concerns me, and it always has. But these days, my concern is considerably heightened because it seems like treasured national institutions — our public lands — are at risk to solve the problem of the debt crisis.

The most recent public lands issue centers on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — a remote place, unlike Yosemite or Yellowstone. You can’t drive there, and few people have ever laid eyes on this piece of very publicland. Congress is currently debating whether or not to open up this large swath of federal land to exploratory oil drilling.

The phrase “drilling for oil” has been synonymous with the Alaskan economy ever since the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay oil field in the late 60’s, providing a massive boost to the state’s coffers and shaping Alaska as we know it today.

From salmon fishing to logging, Alaskans make their money off the land. Natural resources are taken from the vast expanse of ocean, tundra, and forest, and are commoditized and sold for profit. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as there are enough resources saved for subsequent years — as long as natural resources are managed sustainably.

Yet Alaska is also one of the last places in the country that has remained relatively wild, and free of human development.

Today, we think of Alaska as the Last Frontier — a place where caribou roam free and citizens can homestead the land. It’s a state where the original pioneer spirit of America is still alive and well, with Alaskans taming the land around them in order to make a life for themselves and their families.

Yet a hundred years ago, in the days before Los Angeles was a big metropolitan city, California was the Last Frontier.

Two hundred years ago, it was anything west of the Mississippi.

Four hundred years ago, the island of Manhattan was covered in trees, streams, hills, and wildlife. To Europeans living in the Old World, all of America was the Last Frontier, a land of bountiful plenty just waiting to be conquered.

In 2017, Alaska is the Last Frontier, but that’s just for a snapshot in time. If we continue to conquer the natural world around us, where will the Last Frontier be in another hundred years? We keep pushing the boundaries of wildernessfurther and further away from us, and soon there won’t be anywhere left to go.

National Wildlife Refuges were created for the express purpose of keeping wilderness wild. There is merit in this. The ramifications of living in a world without any biological diversity are unknown, because it’s never been done. Mother Earth will adapt and improvise, and the fittest will survive. But will humans make the cut?

As long as we’re a rich country full of resources both natural and manufactured, we’ll have a debt problem. Yet searching for solutions to these short-term problems by opening up our wilderness for immediate economic gain is foolhardy.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will cause irreversible damage to one of the last frontiers of America, all to obtain a trivial amount of a finite, non-renewable resource. It’s 2017, and Alaska is the Last Frontier. Let’s try to keep it that way.