When ordinary folks or even experienced policymakers discuss natural resources, what specifically comes to mind? While minerals, oil wells, mines, and rich agricultural land come to mind for some, the term “natural resources” has seemingly undergone an evolution in meaning in the last few decades. This shift carries with it significant policy implications.
Rather than physical resources to cultivate for production, increasingly natural resources are often considered to be scenic and cultural. This shift has occurred in both the emphasis that society places on what is considered a natural resource and the subsequent protections, methods of preservation, and utilization of those resources.
State definitions of natural resources vary widely across the United States. Coastal states often emphasize fish or lobster, while central states incorporate grazing land as a key natural resource to cultivate for their people. Renewable or finite, from the earliest days, natural resources were always viewed as things to harvest, develop, and consume for human betterment.
Yellowstone – the first large scale national preserve – was established in part for the “enjoyment of the people”, but also for the “preservation…of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders…and their retention in their natural condition.” This law, passed in 1872, was the first to set aesthetic value on equal footing with consumable resources under the same justification of enjoyment and benefit of the people. During this time, natural resources primarily included water, consumable timber, mineral ore, oil, and other deposits. The conscious decision to group preservation of the land together with its harvestable resources was the first shift in the consideration of what natural resource were. Still, for most of the 20th Century, natural resources were viewed as the consumable parts of nature, even as parks were established to seal off cultivation of the resources within them.
Over the last fifty years, a greater emphasis on the aesthetic wonder of nature and the ensuing rise of ecotourism, mean that landscapes, specific biomes, and particular scenic views are all considered by the government to be a natural resource. In states that have significant traditional natural resources, like fossil fuels, along with ecotourism resources, state and federal rules can often contradict one another due to conflicting emphasis or outright definition of what is considered a natural resource.
The state of Alaska possesses vast reserves of coal, oil, natural gas, zinc, and lumber. The state’s economy is inextricably linked to its natural resource industries, which also include seven of the 10 largest national parks in the country. Alaska’s purchase in 1867 from Russia was largely ridiculed as “President Johnson’s polar bear garden,” but the administration was vindicated when gold was discovered in several areas of the newly acquired territory.
Due to its strategic geopolitical value and bountiful resources, Alaskan statehood was realized in 1959. Because of the value of Alaska’s natural resources, the state constitution enshrined a requirement for the utilization and conservation of those resources “for the maximum benefit of its people.” Alaska’s constitution does not differentiate between ecological natural resources like wildlife refuges and traditional oil, gas, and mineral resources. Rather, both of these resources are subject to the same management and conservation for the state and national interest. Having both a great wealth of consumable resources and immense beauty and wonder, Alaska is unique in possessing the full array of natural resources. Still, the economic resources that keep the state functioning are its fossil resources not scenic views.
Recently, the Biden administration suspended fracking on federal land, as well as rescinded leases for some ongoing developments, putting a question mark on further natural resource exploration. The conflicting battle of definitions of natural resources is playing out currently in Alaska: should Alaska become solely a nature preserve or is it a reserve of natural resources?
While Yosemite serves as an example of how simply preserving natural resources in place can be for the “enjoyment of the people” it is not clear that aesthetic beauty, untouchable landscapes, or even ecotourism is the highest value of the natural resources, especially in the case of Alaska. Natural resources, by definition, must be consumable.
Since 1959, Alaskan oil production has accounted for over $180 billion and accounts for almost 85 percent of the state’s budget. With over 60 percent of Alaskan land being federally owned, restrictions and limitations on exploration and development can be economically devastating. If the goal is to preserve the wilderness, and define the state’s scenic wonder as a natural resource, it is a natural resource that is difficult to consume and sustain an economy on.
The Biden administration revoking the means to cultivate some Alaskan natural resources creates friction with both the state’s own constitution and a key part of the Alaska Statehood Act. It is in both Alaskan and the national interest to clarify the distinctive regulations, procedures, and precedents for utilizing and conserving the U.S.’s natural resources.
Washington setting up Alaska as a giant national park, with a virtual wall around its resources may sound like a way to conserve and preserve natural resources. But natural resources include consumable deposits, wildlife, and timber, which are needed for the livelihoods and survival of the Alaskan people. To deprive them of full access to responsibly cultivating their own resources is to undermine Alaskan statehood. Whether it is federal government action or a campaign by environmentalists over time, pushing Alaska toward a future as simply a nature preserve needs to be considered more thoroughly.