Adams' love for nature led him to work after college as an environmentalist, and he first came to Alaska in 1975, then permanently settled there in 1978. He participated in the campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and became executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. He also pursued his musical career, working in the 1980s as a timpanist and percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, all the while writing music in a wide variety of genres. He composed works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, voice, percussion, and electronics, and he created scores for film and television. Much of his music has been categorized as minimalist or new age, though the predominance of slow tempos and gradual changes of harmonies and sonorities shows a clear connection to ambient music.
Adams' music has been recorded by Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, Mode, New Albion, and New World. He is the author of Winter Music (2004), a collection of writings about his life and pursuits in Alaska. He has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. He was named a United States Artists Fellow in 2006. For his efforts on behalf of the environment, Adams was given the Heinz Award, and he received Northwestern University's Nemmers Prize for his "unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries."