"Nobody knew what to do," former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday during a symposium at the National Conservation Training Center commemorating the refuge's 50th anniversary.
The refuge was created with 8.9 million acres during the final months of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. Twenty years later, in 1980, Carter, near the end of his time in the White House, signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which allowed the refuge to expand to 18 million acres. Today, it covers 19.6 million acres.
Alaska was represented in the U.S. Senate in 1980 by Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Mike Gravel. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator ever, died in a plane crash in August.
Bills to protect the refuge from exploitation regularly passed the U.S. House of Representatives, Carter said, but they were always blocked in the Senate.
"No one wanted to violate what two U.S. senators didn't want," he said.
Carter, now 86, and Cecil D. Andrus, his interior department secretary, found a solution in the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave Carter the authority through executive order to designate national monuments in the refuge.
"We found 17," he said. "After that, Sen. Stevens began to negotiate with us."
"I spent more time looking at the map of Alaska than anywhere," Carter said.
Public opinion in Alaska ran so strong against Carter that the Secret Service advised him not to go into the state.
"They burned me in effigy in Fairbanks," he said.
Once, at a public event, two dunk tanks were set up, "one with my face and one with the Ayatollah Khomeini," he said.
Carter said he later felt that the refuge would be safe forever, even through subsequent administrations and both houses of Congress.
"A few weeks after I left office, President (Ronald) Reagan appointed James Watt as interior secretary and ANWR was opened to drilling," said Carter, who described Watt as "despicable."
Every time Republicans took over the White House, there were new moves to open the refuge to development, he said.
Soon after President Reagan took office, he changed the miles-per-gallon limits that Carter implemented, Carter said. That caused the country to waste more oil than all the drilling in the refuge could produce, he said.
"There is still a great challenge for all of us," Carter said.
Carter said he eventually visited the refuge with his wife, Rosalynn. They met native people, saw the Porcupine Caribou herd, saw musk oxen form a protective circle to protect their females and young when the Carters came too close, saw Dall sheep up close, and saw wolves, grizzly bears and polar bears, he said.
"I caught grayling, arctic char and salmon," said Carter, an avid fly fisherman.
Since 1996, Alaska's population has increased by 15 percent, its tourism has tripled, it has the lowest death rate among the states and it is No. 1 in the number of students who finish high school, statistics that Carter said have vindicated him among Alaskans and the chamber of commerce that condemned him.
The refuge "is a little portion of our planet that is left alone," he said.
Anyone can enter the refuge to hunt, fish, hike, camp, do research or just enjoy its beauty, but they have to walk in, canoe in or fly in.
Carter did not address the media and was not made available for questions.