THE IDITAROD TRAIL AS A MODEL FOR CONSERVATION
Every spring, dozens of mushers and over a thousand huskies gather together in Alaska to
embark on a journey through one of the most challenging natural environments on earth. The trip
takes them through 1,100 miles of wilderness, past landmarks known only for their sheer
inhospitality and the inherent dangers they present. There are places on the trail spoken of only
in whispers; the steps, where the trail drops several hundred feet in under two miles; the Dalzell
Gorge, which snakes through a narrow and treacherous canyon; and the burn, a stretch of seventy
miles where the winds blow so viciously that the landscape is entirely clear of snow, even at
temperatures down to -60F. These mushers have come to participate in what is commonly called
the “Last Great Race on Earth,” a trek by dogsled along the Iditarod National Historic trail.
Every year, the Iditarod race draws tourists from around the world to the numerous small
communities distributed along its length, and over two thousand more fans become members by
donating money to the cause.2 The funds from these sponsors and the hard work from devoted
volunteers are two of the main factors contributing to the upkeep of this length of wilderness,
and the media attention on the race itself has made it a source of Alaskan state pride. For these
and other reasons, the designation of the Iditarod trail as a national historic trail and its protection
as such is truly an exceptional example of innovative and profitable conservation.
The trail first came into use over a hundred years ago as a supply route for gold rush
communities throughout the Alaskan interior, and was used primarily to deliver mail and
supplies to miners by dogsled. In the winter of 1925, the isolated coastal community of Nome,
Alaska was struck by a diphtheria epidemic, and unless a serum could be retrieved from
Anchorage the entire population of both American miners and native Alaskans could be wiped
out. Attempts were made by train, airplane, and boat to transport the serum across the 2000 mile
distance, but all efforts failed. As a last resort, the people of Nome organized a dogsled relay, but
were doubtful of its potential for success. The relay was able to bring the serum to Nome in
record time, and the route by which it was transported, the Iditarod trail, was made famous.
On October 2, 1968, the National Trail Systems Act (Public law 90-543)3 was approved, which
instituted a system of trails throughout the country chosen for their scenic and recreational
values. Although a note was made in the Act suggesting further evaluation of “gold rush trails in
Alaska” (INHT), there was little done at the time to pursue this. A decade and a half later, the
Bureau of Outdoor Recreation chaired the Alaska Gold Rush Study Team in order to evaluate
possibilities for additional national scenic trails. In 1977, nine years after the National Trail
"The Official Site of the Iditarod." The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. 2008. Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc. 28 Oct.
King, Robert E. "The Iditarod National Historic Trail: Historic Overview and New Insights for its Centennial
Year." BLM Alaska: The Iditarod National Historic Trail. 10 June 2008. US Department of Interior, Bureau of
Land Management. 30 Oct. 2008
Systems Act was first made, the team suggested that the 2,037 mile long Iditarod trail system be
preserved, and the proposal was passed.4
Challenges arose due to the fact that the trail crosses lands owned by ten different federal
government agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, the Dept. of Defense, and several native corporations (BLM), as well as the state of
Alaska and a number of local and private proprietors.5 Because of the different interests of these
landowners, cooperative agreements were reached with the owners of those sections that were
not under federal control. The conservation agreements limit growth and expansion by
landowners onto the protected land, and prohibit any actions that pose a threat the trail’s natural,
historic, and cultural resources. However, the Act states that opportunities for outdoor recreation
are permitted under the conditions that they do not harm these resources.
In fact, outdoor recreation has been not only allowed but actively encouraged, and it is through
this that the most benefit has come to local communities and businesses. Protecting the integrity
of the trail has provided the starting ground for a series of annual events and attractions, such as
the Iditarod dogsled race, that have provided significant benefits for the local economies. Today,
visitors to the trail and its events (which include the Iron Dog snowmobile race and a summer
ultra-marathon) make up a large percentage of total tourists to these trailside communities, many
of which are heavily dependent on tourist dollars. In fact, the trail’s position as a source of
economic stimulus over the past 30 years has proved so effective that its status has gained wide
attention and support among Republicans as well as Democrats. In January 2008, a celebration of
the Iditarod trail in Wasilla, Alaska was attended widely by politicians from around the state, and
Republican governor Sarah Palin served as a primary speaker in its favor. Sponsors of the event
and the race itself included the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, the USDA Forest
Service, and the Department of Land Management, but also the ANS Natural Gas Pipeline,
Chevron, and Exxon Mobil, industries which are certainly not known for their environmental
philanthropy.6 A project such as this with bipartisan appeal is something that has become
increasingly rare in conservation efforts, and here is a model that can serve as an important
lesson and guide for possible movements in the future.
The Iditarod Trail Committee, a non-profit which runs the annual dogsled race, states as its
mission “the promotion and preservation of the historic Iditarod trail.” It received in the fiscal
year of 2006 over three million dollars in donations, much of which came from private gifts of
up to $10,000. Clearly, there lies a great appeal in the preservation the Iditarod trail for its
current uses. It is a cause which allows fans in Alaska and around the world to fulfill their
interest in intense outdoor recreation in such a way that is not itself harmful to the area in which
it is performed.
"The Iditarod National Historic Trail." 2002. Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance. 28 Oct. 2008
"Alaska State Trails Program." Alaska Trails System. 14 May 2008. Alaska Department of Natural Resources,
Division of Parks and Outdoor Rec. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/aktrails/ats.htm>.
"2008 Iditarod Days Festival." Musher's Ball; Iditarod Days. 2007. Iditarod Days Committee, Greater Wasilla
Chamber of Commerce. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.iditaroddays.com/>.
Because the story behind the Iditarod is so deeply intertwined with the state’s history, it has
served particularly valuable in building pride among Alaskans. This deepened pride, in turn, has
resulted in an interest in the continued protection of the historic route and the wilderness through
which it travels. Today, any suggestion of harming the trail would likely result in public outcry
among Alaskans, and would be seen as destroying a vital part of the state’s history and cultural
The immense appeal of the Iditarod has been further harnessed through a program called Iditarod
Insider in the Schools, which brings information on the race to classrooms across the United
States.7 Through this program, students in elementary and middle school are assigned a specific
musher to follow as he or she completes the various checkpoints over the course of the race.
During the process, students learn about geography, history, anthropology and science, all seen
through the perspective of their musher’s interactions with the outdoors. The lessons place
particular emphasis on ecology, weather, and wildlife, and have proven to be incredibly popular
with teachers and students alike. The ability of a single trail to bring excitement to so many
students nationwide and to further environmental learning is truly remarkable, and may help to
encourage a new generation of environmentalists by emphasizing the importance of nature. The
more that children know and understand about the world we live in, the more likely they are to
understand the inherent value in its protection.
The true effectiveness in the protection of the Iditarod trail lies in its ability to appeal to and
foster pride in people of all political backgrounds, and its position as a rare case where
conservation brings not only additional economic stimulus, but further promotes the interest of
conservation by acting as a tool for environmental education. This is an example in which a limit
on development in the interest of conservation has proven to be mutually beneficial for all
involved parties, and has cultivated an intense bipartisan pride in a truly remarkable
"Alaska State Trails Program." Alaska Trails System. 14 May 2008. Alaska Department of
Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Outdoor Rec. 1 Nov. 2008
"The Iditarod National Historic Trail." 2002. Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance. 28 Oct. 2008
"Iditarod Trail Committee." Charity Navigator: Your Guide to Intelligent Giving. 2006. Charity
Navigator. 28 Oct. 2008
King, Robert E. "The Iditarod National Historic Trail: Historic Overview and New Insights for
its Centennial Year." BLM Alaska: The Iditarod National Historic Trail. 10 June 2008.
US Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 30 Oct. 2008
"The Official Site of the Iditarod." The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. 2008. Iditarod Trail
Committee, Inc. 28 Oct. 2008 <http://www.iditarod.com>.
"2008 Iditarod Days Festival." Musher's Ball; Iditarod Days. 2007. Iditarod Days Committee,
Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.iditaroddays.com/>.