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I've lived near the Chugach National Forest all my life, but it wasn't until well into adulthood that I had seen all its parts and appreciated its vastness and variety. Still, I doubt I'll ever really know this seemingly infinite land. Prince William Sound, just one of the Chugach's three parts, has 3,500 miles of shoreline among its folded islands and deeply penetrating fjords and passages. The Copper River Delta is another world entirely. Unlike the musty secrets of the Sound's obscure passages, the delta opens to the sky like a heavenly plain of wind and light, its waving green colors splashed by the airiest brushstrokes. It's a huge area: Driving across the delta and back from Cordova takes most of a day. The western part of the national forest, on the Kenai Peninsula, is largely alpine. It's got remote, unclimbed peaks, but also many miles of family hiking trails, accessible fishing streams, and superb campgrounds.

The Chugach is managed primarily for recreation and conservation. President Theodore Roosevelt created it in 1907. The next historic moment for the national forest came with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which evolved into a story of conservation politics, when environmentalists demanded Exxon pay to stop large-scale logging on private lands that threatened to further damage in the Sound. Logging had never occurred on national forest lands in the Sound. Ultimately, Exxon was forced to pay $1 billion to a recovery fund, half of which government trustees spent to buy back timber rights in the Sound and beyond, protecting the trees. Here and elsewhere in the spill region, the newly purchased protected lands include 1,419 miles of coastline and almost as much land as is in all of Yosemite National Park.