My Turn: Prince William Sound: A forgotten wilderness?

  • Wednesday, February 10, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

As a lover of wild places, I’ve thrived on Alaska’s wilderness over the course of the past 40 years. Like thousands of others, I’m grateful for amazing places such as the Arctic Refuge, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Prince William Sound. In these protected public lands we can all find beauty, open space, peace, wildlife, subsistence food, adventure, isolation, discovery, fascination and inspiration.

Prince William Sound embraces a wilderness that I’ve explored over the past few summers. While paddling up the magnificent College Fiord and camping near the face of Harvard Glacier, it’s hard to imagine that Anchorage is just an hour away. The Chugach Mountains form a spectacular rampart that separates an urban, noisy setting from a wild mosaic of thunderous tidewater glaciers, icy fiords, islands and seabird rookeries, lakes and salmon-filled rivers, alpine meadows and peat bogs, beaches and wooded coves.

From mountaintop to sea, Prince William Sound is a rich world of land, ice and water on the northern edge of the world’s largest temperate rainforest.

This is a jaw-dropping kind of wilderness where visitors from all over the world can witness calving glaciers, brilliant blue ice, countless waterfalls, unpopulated islands, breeching whales, puffins and murrelets, roaring sea lions and lofty peaks that rise above the water like clouds.

Congress recognized the wonders of Prince William Sound when they established the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area under the 1980 National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This two million acre study area represents less than half of the 5.3 million acre Chugach National Forest. The study area includes the largest concentration of tidewater glaciers in North America and some of the most iconic wilderness on the planet — Columbia Glacier, Harriman and College Fiords and Knight Island with its towering peaks and quiet coves.

Let’s call this jewel the forgotten, unfinished business of the Alaska Lands Act.

The Forest Service has yet to advance a Chugach wilderness proposal or recommendation to Congress. Now is a good time for the public to speak out about the future management of Prince William Sound and a possible wilderness designation.

The Forest Service is in the process of revising its management plan for the Chugach National Forest. When adopted, this plan will govern the management of the Chugach Forest for the next 15 years. The plan will likely include a recommendation to Congress that all or part of the wilderness study area be designated as formal wilderness, along with 10 rivers identified for inclusion under the National Wild and Scenic River System.

In the early 1980s the Forest Service was committed to preserve the wilderness character of the study area in a largely undeveloped environment. But since the opening of the 2000 Whittier Tunnel, there has been increased recreational and hunting use, unauthorized structures and littering, human sanitation problems at crowded campsites, illegal chainsaw use, and overhunting of black bears, largely through bait stations that can leave an ugly mess.

Having seen some of this degradation first hand, we should urge the Forest Service to strengthen its current protections for the wilderness study area. The vast majority of this region is primitive in nature: roadless, wild, spectacular. The Forest Service should maintain the wilderness character of this worldclass area. Instead of caving into special interests, and chipping away valuable acres of the study area, such as Knight Island and Glacier Island, the Forest Service should do all it can to protect one of Alaska’s greatest wild treasures.

It’s ironic that most of our nation’s national forests contain designated wilderness areas, including 19 wilderness units in the Tongass National Forest. The Chugach National Forest, while embracing some of the most magnificent country in America, has not one acre of official wilderness. Have we taken this de facto wilderness study area for granted?

If you care about the future management of Prince William Sound, its stunning wilderness, and the Chugach National Forest, you can submit written and online comments to the Forest Service until Feb. 19.

• Debbie S. Miller is the author of many Alaska nature books. She is currently working on a book about Prince William Sound and the wilderness of the Chugach National Forest.

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