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Origins of the bill

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The new book Eye on the Caribou by Chris Carlson old from the perspective of one who was on the inside, here’s the story of the passage of the Alaska Lands Act. It was an effort spanning 80 years, from the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt and culminating with President Jimmy Carter signing into law what many consider the greatest piece of conservation legislation in history. It is a story of grit, greed, political double-­crosses and shrewd strategy that achieved what many thought unobtainable. Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt: (Cecil) Andrus, while still serving as Idaho’s governor in November of 1976, extended an invitation to the then president-elect to take a fly-fishing float trip on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Andrus issued the invitation while standing in the Carter’s kitchen at the former president’s home in Plains, (Georgia) following his interview to be the next Secretary of the Interior. Carter accepted the invitation from the incoming 44th Interior Secretary, and he kept his word.

The float trip turned out to be both serendipitous and fortuitous. As the two couples sat around the evening fire, the men would first settle up on the day’s bet regarding who caught and released the most cutthroat, the largest and the first. They usually bet $1 on each. Then the conversation would turn to larger matters.

The timing could not have been better. Just a month earlier, Andrus had taken 15 of the nation’s premier journalists on a week-long tour of Alaska covering many of the sites being contemplated as additions to the nation’s great systems of protection and conservation: wilderness, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments and wild and scenic rivers. The trip garnered extensive publicity for setting aside and protecting anywhere from 80 million to 103 million acres of federal lands. This would satisfy the commitment to the environmental community to accept the settlement of the long unresolved land claims of Alaska’s Natives. It also allowed the trans-Alaska pipeline to proceed in exchange for a promised significant increase in the great preservation and conservation programs that over the years the United States, more by luck than coordinated planning, has been able to achieve.

With his Alaska trip fresh in his mind, and knowing that the president’s No. 1 goal for the nation’s major environmental organizations was passage of the Alaska lands legislation, Andrus took full advantage of time spent by the evening camp fire to discuss his media tour of Alaska, the status of the then negotiations, the likelihood that Alaska’s Democratic Senator, Mike Gravel, would prove to be the dog in the manger and do everything he could to stall and delay any legislation.

Always able to look down the road and over the horizon to anticipate what would be coming, Andrus began to lay out his fall-back strategy to the president should Gravel not only succeed in torpedoing the current legislation but also block an extension of the deadline for resolution of the lands issue contained in the 1971 Land Claims Act.

The idea involved achieving the goal by using the presidential land withdrawal power under the Antiquities Act to create national monuments by the stroke of a pen. Andrus thought President Carter might have to designate as many as 17 new or expanded national monuments to protect both the lands and congress’ option to act in compliance with the previous Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act requirement.

Andrus had the complete trust of the president. The two had worked closely together when both were serving as governor of their respective states and became acquainted at National Governor Association meetings. In later years Carter would say Andrus was the only person he considered for the Interior post. He relied heavily on Andrus’ views with regards to most western issues and backed up every decision Andrus later made on Alaska. Andrus had been reading about Alaska since childhood, in particular Jack London’s stories about Alaska and the Yukon. He also fondly recalled that the barbershop in the nearest town to their little farm used to save the old Outdoor Life magazines, and he and his brother, Steve, would read every issue from cover to cover, and dream about some day visiting there.

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