Employee Profile Series, Alaska

“A Vast System of Wildlands”

Francis Mauer with a single engine aircraft on skis by USFWS
Francis Mauer with a single engine aircraft. 📸 by USFWS

It was December, 1971. Congress had just passed legislation that addressed Indigenous land claims in the still young State of Alaska: the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). In the same Act, they set an expectation that additional Alaska lands would eventually become national wildlife refuges, parks, forests, and recreation areas. In response, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska immediately called in its most experienced field biologists and managers to identify important wildlife areas. They called this effort the “December Exercise.”

Fran Mauer remembers the team. Bob “Sea Otter” Jones. Cal Lensink. Jim King, Dave Spencer, Will Troyer and Averill Thayer. “They’re unsung today, but their knowledge played a gigantic role in identification of lands to be added to the Refuge System,” he says. Six years later, Fran stepped into their legacy as he joined another planning team that informed one of the most comprehensive pieces of conservation ever passed, with an expansion of public land totaling an area larger than the entire State of California: the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

two men standing in the snow in Alaska, black and white photo
Calvin “Cal” Lensink (left) and John Tener (Canadian Wildlife Service). This photo which was taken on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain in 1969 during the first re-location of musk ox to their former range in Arctic Alaska.📸 Ave Thayer

Congressional action started in earnest in 1977 following the election of President Carter and the introduction of HR-39 by Morris Udall, Chairman of the House Interior Committee. A former Service employee, Harry Crandell was instrumental in encouraging Congressman Morris Udall to introduce the amendment that is now known as 17 (d-2). Fran says that without Harry Crandell, ANILCA may have never happened. Section 17(d-2) of ANCSA required the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to withdraw up to 80 million acres of federal in Alaska land and make recommendations for potential wildlife refuges, national parks, wild and scenic rivers and national forests. Congress then had seven years to act on the Secretary’s proposal.

Fran’s planning team spent the next four years providing wildlife information to support legislative action as Congressional leaders fought to advance various proposals, many of which had differing boundaries and acreages. It was an immense undertaking — especially for a young biologist and relative newcomer to planning issues. But Fran observes his path had been cleared by generations of highly knowledgeable people who had preceded him.

Early expertise of these most important wildlife lands traced back thousands of years. Indigenous peoples had long known the best places to hunt and fish, and their communities and cultures continued to thrive.

A harvest of salmon hang in a smokehouse. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

Alaska Native communities were particularly concerned about the effect the proposed public lands might have on traditional ways of life, and a significant portion of Fran’s job was working with the Tribes to ensure both their interests and prime habitats were protected in the process of expanding national wildlife refuges.

“Aldo Leopold wrote about ‘thinking like a mountain’ in A Sand County Almanac, and that’s what we had to do. We had to think comprehensively about the entire system, refuges, wildlife and people, and figure out how to best preserve and connect them,” he remembers.

“It was ultimately decided to include Native village selection lands under ANCSA within refuge boundaries for a couple of reasons,” Fran observes. “First, subsistence cultures had much in common with refuge goals — the habitat protection and sustainable use of wildlife. Second, Native land selections were not entirely finalized at the time. If we didn’t move to incorporate the communities within refuge boundaries, a more complex land ownership pattern might have resulted, possibly affecting both Native rights and conservation goals.”

The Nowitna River. Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge was one of the new refuges established under ANILCA. The refuge is on the traditional lands of the Koyukon, Tanana, Upper Kuskokwim, and Holikachuk peoples. Local knowledge about past changes in animal abundance and habitat conditions are extremely valuable because wildlife studies were very limited before the refuge was established. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS.

Like the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Clean Water Act, ANILCA was landmark environmental legislation. “It was unique because in Alaska there still existed vast, remote lands where wildness remained. The goal was to protect as much of these rare, valuable lands as possible. In the end, we succeeded in securing the greatest public land conservation act in the history of the United States.”

Fran spent his childhood in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, a small farming community 185 miles northwest of Minneapolis; his family had deep roots in the region. He remembers his father showing him Indigenous artifacts such as hammer stones and axe heads found while working in fields on a farm before the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. He also learned from his dad that the Great Plains once teemed with herds of bison hunted by a great diversity of Indigenous Tribes, and eventually devastated by the U.S. government. While growing up, Fran often tried to imagine his homeland before it had been altered by non-Indigenous settlement and agriculture.

“I graduated from high school in 1964, the same year the Wilderness Act was signed into law,” says Fran. “It was championed by Hubert Humphrey, one of Minnesota’s Senators and the Democratic candidate for president in 1968. Humphrey’s enthusiasm for the legislation was infectious, and I decided I’d somehow seek a career in conservation and natural resources.”

Fran attended the local junior college and later transferred to South Dakota State University, majoring in wildlife biology.

“A professor suggested graduate school, but I was a bit burnt out on academia at that point,” Fran says. “The draft was on, so I enlisted under a program that allowed a two-year hitch, and I was trained as a medic. Frankly, I was worried about being sent to Vietnam, but I ended up getting detailed to Valley Forge Army Hospital near Philadelphia.”

There Fran trained as a laboratory technician — a lucky break, he felt, since it augmented his grounding in science and could ultimately prove useful in a wildlife biology career.

After mustering out of the service, Fran was accepted into a graduate zoology program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He worked the summer prior to his first academic year for the National Marine Fisheries Service on a project to assess the potential for a commercial shrimp fishery near Kodiak. As the end of summer approached and he prepared to travel to Fairbanks for his studies, he decided to visit Mount McKinley (now Denali) National Park. There was no direct highway to the park then, and the trip required a circuitous route via the Glenn, Richardson and Denali highways.

“It was absolutely gorgeous, there weren’t any crowds, the wildlife was abundant, it was fall and the blueberries were ripe. It just made a very deep impression on me — both about the value of wilderness and the challenges implicit in protecting it.”

Fran got his Master’s degree in 1974, and took another summer seasonal job, this time with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mapping salmon spawning areas near Fairbanks. Before the summer was up, he was offered a permanent position in the agency’s Ecological Services Division, reviewing environmental assessments of proposed federal projects. Two years later, he joined a refuge planning team in the Alaska Area Office that worked on Alaska’s potential new wildlife refuges.

Signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on December 2, 1980, ANILCA established 43 million acres of new national parklands, added 53 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge system, designated 24 wild and scenic rivers and ordered evaluations for the protection of 12 additional rivers, created the Admiralty Island and Misty Fjords National Monuments, added 56 million acres to the Wilderness Preservation System, expanded the Tongass and Chugach National Forests by 3.4 million acres and established the White Mountains and Steese National Recreation Areas.

With his work on ANILCA completed, Fran transferred to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where he served as a wildlife biologist from 1981 until his retirement in 2002. He participated in extensive field studies of the Porcupine caribou herd; he also researched the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s moose and Dall sheep populations. In 2005, Fran received the Alaska Conservation Foundation’s Olaus Murie Award for his lifetime work in protecting Alaskan wildlands and wildlife.

A herd of caribou graze on green tundra.
Caribou in their summer home, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS.

Though Fran is now retired he remains highly active in conservation advocacy, noting that conservation is an ongoing process, one that requires constant commitment and diligent oversight. Simply designating a refuge isn’t sufficient, he observes: it’s stewardship by the Service must be monitored and maintained. Even the most remote and inviolate refuges — such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — are vulnerable to decline.

“When you’re flying around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge these days, you can see scarred areas on the tundra from repeated aircraft landings,” Fran says. “They weren’t there 30 years ago, and they’re likely to get worse as visitors increase. We have to act decisively to protect what we’ve chosen to preserve. Sometimes, I admit, it can get discouraging. But throughout my career, I’ve learned that you can’t ever give up, even if an undesirable outcome seems inevitable. So here we are 40 years after passage of ANILCA, and what do we have? A vast system of wildlands and wilderness, if we can keep it wild.”

Francis Mauer 📸 USFWS

When did you join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?


What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

Probably the degree of trust that my supervisors accorded me. I was able to work sometimes directly with legislators on ANCILA, whether it was accompanying Congressmen on tours or dealing with committee members and staff when I was detailed to Washington. We had to be quick and nimble during the evaluation and planning processes, and my supervisors gave me almost free rein to handle whatever came up. That kind of latitude is rare in a government agency, particularly for someone just starting out in his career. Of course, there would’ve been repercussions if we had screwed up.

How do Alaska’s wild places sustain you?

Really, it all goes back to my childhood wonderment about the Great Plains prior to European contact. Much of Alaska still has a primeval character to it. The land affords a great solitude here, and that’s very rare in today’s world. You can be dropped off by an airplane on a gravel bar in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the plane leaves, and the silence is almost magic. It’s as though the essence of the wild soaks deep into your soul.

What are your foremost concerns about Alaska’s wildlife resources?

I’m worried about maintaining the ecological integrity and wildness of our protected lands over the long term. The entire notion of predator control, for example, concerns me. To say we have to kill grizzlies and wolves to assure high moose and caribou populations reflects backward thinking. We should learn the lessons from Yellowstone, where the re-introduction of wolves has resulted in more biodiversity and ecological stability, not less. And for bears, there’s research indicating they are critical to recycling nutrients in riparian and flood plain ecosystems. They grab salmon and haul them out into the woods to eat them, and the salmon scraps and bear feces enrich the entire area. If you kill most of the bears in a drainage to ramp up the number of moose, the result may be an artificially high number of moose for a while, but then the moose may decline precipitously because forage quality has decreased due to reduced nutrients that are transported by bears.

When I’m not working, I’m — -

Well, I’m retired, so “not at work” pretty well sums up my life. I spend a lot of time in airplanes and remote places, and I work around the house. I’ve also found that retiring from a government agency essentially restores your civil liberties, so now I can speak openly. I advocate for wilderness through my association with Wilderness Watch, which monitors the stewardship of national wilderness areas.

What’s the greatest misconception non-residents have about Alaska?

They tend to misunderstand wildlife productivity in the northern latitudes. It’s much lower in temperate areas. It takes a long time for a tree to grow in the Alaskan interior, and tundra ecosystems are especially sensitive — fragile, even. When the caribou are aggregated into huge herds following calving on the coastal plain, it can create a misconception of their relative abundance. For most of the year, they’re widely scattered across a very large area. And in fact, there have been significant declines in some areas, due in many cases to overhunting. There once was a very large herd that migrated in the area between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. It numbered about 500,000 animals in the 1920s, and in 1972 it had dwindled to only about 6,000 animals. Excessive hunting during the 1950’s and 1960’s was a major cause. All hunting of that herd was banned for several years, starting in 1973. It’s taken nearly a half century for the herd to reach 80,000 today, which is still much lower than what it once was. While there’s this myth of boundless resources in Alaska, our wildlife are extremely vulnerable, and we have to be careful.

What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska or your job?

In the early 1980s, I was part of a team conducting a census of the Porcupine caribou herd on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. We worked out of an abandoned DEW Line station that had an airstrip. And one night — this was in summer, when stays light 24 hours a day, I walked out from the airstrip with my binoculars, and scanned from the northwest, and then did a 180 degree rotation to the south east. There was a solid wall of caribou on the horizon throughout the entire rotation. I could hear a rumbling sound from vocalizations between the cows and their calves and the churning of hooves. The sun was a low in the northern sky, the light was golden, luminating this great mass of wild animals with the Brooks Range in the background, its glaciers and snowfields were bathed in gold — it was a stunning sight I’ll never forget. It reminded me of what used to occur when millions of bison roamed the Great Plains near where I was born.

What advice would you give people who want to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

The Service has an extremely important mission, and I was proud to be a part of it. I’d say you really have to have the desire — the passion ­– to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat to work for the agency. But you must get out on the land rather than sit behind a computer screen. You can’t let your senses become dulled by technology and social media. You need to get out and see and experience the real thing, and decide if it’s right for you.

What wildlife species particularly inspires you?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time with caribou, and I’d have to go with them. They’re remarkable creatures in so many ways, and their adaptations are likewise amazing. They rely on movement to optimize sparse food resources over a vast landscape. So they’re great travelers — the mileage champions of the terrestrial realm. Caribou are able to go the longest distance per calorie of energy. It’s due to a fascinating combination of biochemistry, digestive system, musculature, skeletal structure, insulation, individual and herd behavior.

Read more: ANILCA at 40

Story by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled and edited by Brett Parks and Katrina Liebich, External Affairs.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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