By Michelle Werts

Margret “Mardy” Murie
Margret “Mardy” Murie. Credit: USFWS

In 1924, right after becoming the first female graduate of the University of Alaska, an intrepid young woman and her new husband embarked on an unusual honeymoon: a 500-mile caribou research trip — by dogsled — through the Alaskan wilderness. This was only one of many nature adventures that Margret “Mardy” Murie would undertake in her lifetime. Her passion and commitment to the environment earned her the nickname “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.” Sunday would have been her 112th birthday, while this October marks the 10th anniversary of her death. Mardy Murie’s contributions to conservation, though, will hopefully span many lifetimes to come.

Alongside her husband, Olaus, Mardy Murie was instrumental in getting a number of major conservation laws passed, including:

  • The designation of eight million Alaskan acres as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960.
  • The creation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined “wilderness” in a legal sense and set aside 9.1 million acres for protection.
  • The passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, which protected 104 million acres in Alaska — doubling the size of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and doubled the size of America’s national park and refuge system.
Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest
Bear Mountain on the Sitka Ranger District of Tongass National Forest. Credit: Mary Stensvold/USFS Region 10

For her years of conservation efforts, in 1998, President Clinton awarded Murie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Murie died in October 2003 at age 101, one year after receiving the National Wildlife Federation’s highest honor, The J.N. “Ding” Darling Conservationist of the Year Award. Her legacy, of course, lives on, and some of that legacy is still steeped in legal and conservation battles.

As mentioned, one of Murie’s major accomplishments was helping get ANILCA passed, which protected millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness. It initially took three years and dozens of drafts to get the act in pass-able shape, and even after its passage, ANILCA has found itself mired in 30 years of battles over various aspects of the bill. One of the key battles that is still being waged in Congress today surrounds land ownership.

A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
A polar bear and her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS

When Alaska became a state in 1959, part of the deal was that the state could sell 104 million acres of land as a revenue base, but while selecting this land, the state began to encroach upon lands valued by the Alaskan Native communities. This led to the creation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, which gave the Native communities the right to select 44 million acres of federal land in Alaska for themselves with a catch: Approximately 80 million acres were excluded from potential selection because of their potential to be designated as federally protected lands (i.e. national parks, wildlife refuges, etc.). Nine years later, with ANILCA, the federal government tried to address many of the swirling questions around those 80 million acres, including how these lands could be accessed, what activities were allowed on them and more. With its passage, the issue of federal versus native versus other land in Alaska was partly settled, with the other part still up for debate today.

For years, various versions of the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 340) — better known as the Sealaska lands bill — have been proposed to Congress with an aim to finalize an exchange of lands still owed under ANCSA, some of which were originally excluded for inclusion. The most recent version of the bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June, meaning that the bill could be called to a floor vote if Congress is so inclined. Many groups, including American Forests, have watched this bill closely over the years, and it will be interesting to see what happens with it next.