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Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

by Roger Kaye

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is at the center of the conflict between America’s demand for oil and nature at its most pristine. Three decades before the battle over oil development began, a group of visionary conservationists launched a controversial campaign to preserve a remote corner of Alaska. Their goal was unprecedented—to protect an entire


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is at the center of the conflict between America’s demand for oil and nature at its most pristine. Three decades before the battle over oil development began, a group of visionary conservationists launched a controversial campaign to preserve a remote corner of Alaska. Their goal was unprecedented—to protect an entire ecosystem for future generations. Among these conservationists were Olaus and Margaret Murie, who became icons of the wilderness movement.

Last Great Wilderness chronicles their fight and that of their compatriots, tracing the transformation of this little-known expanse of mountains, forest, and tundra into a symbolic landscape embodying the ideals and aspirations that led to passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Editorial Reviews

Bill Meadows
"At once a great story and an authoritative history, documenting the power of wilderness values and the determination of those who fought to preserve a remarkable place."
Magill Book Reviews - David Peck
"Kaye tells a detailed story of idealism and politics, richly illustrated by maps, drawings, and stunning color photographs."

Product Details

University of Alaska Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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By Roger Kaye


Copyright © 2006 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-889963-83-9

Chapter One

Genesis of the Campaign

Perhaps we should give thought to our ancestors and feel humbly grateful for the beginnings of thoughtful regard and enjoyment for our land. -Olaus Murie

If there is a single event that could be considered the genesis of the Arctic Refuge, it is the publication of Bob Marshall's audacious proposal for a permanent wilderness frontier encompassing nearly all of Arctic Alaska. In 1937, the Forest Service had assigned Marshall, a forester, writer, and wilderness movement leader, to a multiagency committee directed by Congress to formulate a plan for developing the territory's resources. His responsibility for Alaska: Its Resources and Development (1938) was limited to making recommendations regarding recreation and tourism. But three trips to the Central Brooks Range in northern Alaska inspired the crusader to go far beyond his charge. After arguing that "in Alaska alone can the emotional values of the frontier be preserved," Marshall proposed that the nation "keep northern Alaska largely a wilderness."

As environmental historian Roderick Nash has noted, Marshall's proposal was "the first direct and specific call for preserving wilderness in Alaska." In fact, never before had wilderness-or any conservation designation-been seriously proposed on such a vast scale. Predictably, Marshall's idea stimulated angry charges of "federal lockup" and "stranglehold on progress"-rhetoric that would be aimed at the proponents of preserving northeast Alaska and subsequent wilderness initiatives for decades to come. Olaus Murie, who would later come to lead the campaign to preserve northeast Alaska, was probably not the only wilderness advocate who, at the time, felt his idealist friend's proposal was politically unwise. He believed that such a grandiose goal would be impossible to attain; the controversy it generated, he felt, would only provoke needless criticism of more realistic preservation efforts.

But years later, during the campaign to establish what became the Arctic National Wildlife Range, Murie came to realize that Marshall's stimulating idea had served to precondition conservationists to imagine landscape preservation in Alaska on a vast, ecosystem-wide scale. Perhaps it was supporters' reference to Marshall's proposal that brought Murie to understand that it had opened minds and expanded thinking about the unique opportunity that Arctic Alaska offered. Regardless of how improbable, Marshall's idea of a huge wilderness preserve was in the air when, in the early 1950s, two visionary Park Service employees launched a campaign for a Last Great Wilderness.

An Archetypal Wilderness

George L. Collins and Lowell Sumner's vision is now the 19.3-million-acre Arctic Refuge. The size of south Carolina, nearly nine Yellowstone parks could fit within its boundaries. It is located in, or more precisely, it is the northeast corner of Alaska. And it is remote. Fairbanks, the nearest city and jump-off point for most refuge trips, is 150 miles south. No roads penetrate the refuge boundaries, nor are there trails, save those of wildlife. Access is by small aircraft, by river, or, for the more adventurous, by foot. The refuge is bounded and protected to the south by the expansive boreal forest and wetlands of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Two hundred miles north of its southernmost point, the refuge meets the Arctic Ocean. Canada's Yukon Territory forms the eastern boundary; its Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks are adjacent to the refuge and assure that the international boundary does not also function as an ecological boundary. Two hundred forty miles to the west, the refuge extends to within a half mile of the Dalton Highway, which leads to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

The Arctic Refuge spans five subarctic and arctic ecological zones, encompassing a range of physiographic and ecological diversity unparalleled by any other protected circumpolar area. The southernmost boreal forest zone is a mosaic of spruce, broadleaf forest, and riverine communities dotted with lakes. The boreal forest merges into rolling taiga uplands where spruce becomes increasingly sparse and old with elevation. This foothill zone rises to the Brooks Range, a rugged extension of the Rocky Mountains and a continuation of the Continental Divide. Peaks from six thousand to nine thousand feet in elevation, scattered with ice caps and alpine glaciers and cut by broad valleys and narrow gorges, compose this seventy-mile-wide core of the refuge.

The north face of the Brooks Range drops abruptly onto the rolling plains of the arctic foothills zone, then transitions into the coastal plain. A level expanse of low shrubs, sedges, grasses, and mosses, this "arctic prairie," as proponents called it, is interspersed with shallow lakes and ponds. At the Beaufort sea, the plain becomes a varied and irregular 140-mile boundary of bluffs, salt marshes, estuaries, lagoons, barrier island beaches, and the wide deltas of several rivers.

The diverse fauna of these ecological zones includes forty-five species of land and marine mammals, ranging from the pigmy shrew to the bowhead whale. The best-known species include polar, grizzly, and black bears, the wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, moose, musk ox, and the animal that came to symbolize the area's wildness and ecological integrity: the caribou. Thirty-six species of fish occur in refuge waters, and more than 150 species of birds inhabit the refuge for at least some portion of their life cycles.

Slightly more than seven million acres of the refuge are designated "wilderness," and three rivers, the Sheenjek, Wind, and Ivishak, are designated "wild rivers." Because of distinctive geologic, paleontological, and scenic features, several rivers, valleys, canyons, lakes, and a rock mesa have been recommended as national natural landmarks. In recognition of their unique scientific value, two areas have been designated as research natural areas.

The distinguishing ecological aspect of the Arctic Refuge-and a major reason for its establishment-is that this single protected area encompasses an unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems, their unaltered landforms, and the full complement of their native life forms, with the exception of one bird, the extirpated Eskimo curlew. But the most unique feature of the refuge is an unseen presence. Natural processes-large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes-continue here, free of the human intention to control or manipulate. Perhaps more than anywhere else on U.S. soil, this area is sufficiently large, intact, and protected to exemplify the condition that, soon after its establishment, became the statutory definition of wilderness: an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

The Postwar Context, 1945-1960

One August afternoon a few years ago, I sat on the floor of the mountain-lined Jago River valley and listened to geophysicist Keith Echelmeyer explain the interacting processes that formed the Brooks Range. As the refuge pilot, I had flown the professor and his two research assistants in to resume studies on McCall Glacier, a benchmark site for the study of global climate change. Before beginning the arduous climb to their study area, Echelmeyer sat down to give his associates a short lecture on the natural processes that formed our surroundings. The dynamic processes that shaped the environment he was studying provide a metaphor for understanding how historical, cultural, and social forces shaped the perceptual landscape I was exploring.

Beginning in antiquity, Echelmeyer described the sedimentation processes that formed the Paleozoic seabed that lay beneath us. His geologic history progressed through dramatic collisions of tectonic plates; a series of upthrusts and subsidences; the bending, folding, faulting, and fracturing of rock layers; the glacial carvings of five ice ages; the freeze-thaw cycles of millions of seasons; and the erosion and deposition caused by the forces of wind, water, and pioneering plants.

Just as those ancient and continuing processes interact to shape what is seen here, continuing historical and cultural forces interact to shape how it is seen. Just as dramatic as those physical forces were the revolutions in thinking that unfolded, merged, and sometimes collided, resulting in layers of thought about nature and humans' relationship to it that a group of Americans in the 1950s drew upon to interpret the value of this place and give it meaning.

Indeed, as Murie's introductory statement reminds us, the evolution in thinking that underpins the Arctic campaign began over ten thousand years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, when the emerging distinction between areas humans were beginning to dominate through agriculture, and those governed by natural processes, gave rise to the campaign's underlying concept: wildness.

The concept passed through Samarian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman philosophy; Jewish and Christian theology; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; romanticism; and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. For this fascinating background of the wilderness concept's old-world roots, the treatments of historians Clarence Glacken, Max Oelschlaeger, and Roderick Nash provide great detail. Here we shall simply list the main developments in America that contributed to the wilderness movement, the wellspring of the Arctic campaign:

a growing body of reflective writings exploring the connection between human nature and wild nature;

a demographic shift from country to urban living, the development of scenic tourism, and a rising awareness of deforestation and other impacts on the environment;

a concern for the vanishing frontier associated with American identity and character;

the rapid expansion of scientific findings and technological developments;

an increased antimodernist sentiment;

a growing concern among hunters about decreasing game populations and the changing hunting tradition;

an interest in natural areas as settings for adventure and catharsis, brought to Alaska by Bob Marshall;

the formation of organizations to promote recreational interests and conservation;

the emergence of conservation as an element of national policy and the consequent establishment of national forest, park, and wildlife refuge systems;

and, in the development of management philosophies for those systems, an emerging conflict between utilitarian conservation and nature preservation.

The immediate social context of the 1951-1960 arctic campaign was what historian of this era Samuel Hayes describes as the post-World War II transformation of American society. More than in any previous period of history, postwar America was receptive to the idea of setting an area aside for a unique combination of tangible purposes and intangible values.

The prosperous postwar period brought unprecedented social, economic, and technological change and, consequently, environmental alteration. Natural areas were rapidly being converted to residential, commercial, industrial, and resource-extractive uses. A booming economy and rising income brought the world's highest standard of living, and its highest rate of consumption. A baby boom stimulated concern among some that the expanding population might outstrip the nation's supply of natural resources. Higher educational levels and a growing public health movement heightened awareness of worsening air and water pollution, as well as other environmental degradations. The awful power and after-effects of the atomic bomb contributed to doubts about the nation's technological imperative-its tendency to adopt new technologies with insufficient consideration of their potential consequences. Such factors led many to question previous assumptions about what constituted a better life. "Quality of life" became a significant social and political issue during this era, and many people were coming to realize that a quality life depended in large part on a quality environment.

At the same time, concerns similar to those underlying the growing historic preservation movement were being expressed, specifically about the need to preserve remnants of the nation's natural heritage before they were lost to "progress." Although reaction to these concerns probably never represented more than a countercurrent within mainstream society, among educated Americans there was a clear trend toward greater consideration of the environmental ramifications of the era's virtually unbridled progress.

Concurrently, a growing desire to escape the city-made possible by increasing income, leisure time, and automobile ownership-brought record numbers of vacationers along the expanding interstate highway system to parks and forests. As Alaskan economist Richard Cooley would testify at an Arctic Range Senate hearing, "Since World War II the demands of the American people for outdoor recreation have multiplied at an astonishing rate." This trend heightened public support for natural areas as sources of recreation, relief, and inspiration.

Predictions about future needs for recreation lands furthered support for preservation efforts. Cooley and other proponents cited findings of the national study "The Crisis in Outdoor Recreation" (1959), which suggested that by the year 2000 demand for recreation lands would increase by a factor of ten. Moreover, demand for lands of high scenic, wildlife, and wilderness value-which, Cooley noted, included the Arctic proposal-were predicted to increase by a factor of forty.

Concern about the impacts associated with the observed and projected escalation of recreational use increased public receptivity to the idea of preserving some of the remaining wildlands in their natural state. Cooley touched on a growing concern among postwar preservationists when he cited the study's suggestion that overuse could ruin the landscape's vulnerable "capacity to provide intellectual and emotional experience."

In response to growing concern about environmental degradation and the increased demand for outdoor recreation, membership in the leading conservation organizations-all of which would support the Arctic campaign-increased dramatically in the fifteen years following the end of World War II. Further, the range of issues that concerned them expanded in proportion to their growth.

Dominating the conservation movement prior to the campaign were the Izaak Walton League of America and the National Wildlife Federation. Their primary interests were in protecting opportunities for hunting and fishing and they came to support wilderness largely as a means of assuring opportunities for enjoying these activities in a primitive setting. The Audubon Society began to broaden its conservation interests in the late 1940s, and by the early 1950s its advocacy for bird protection was drawing upon the ecological values being incorporated into the fledgling wilderness movement.

Among the most influential organizations to fight for the Arctic proposal was the California-based Sierra Club. In 1945 it had just four thousand members largely concerned with protecting and facilitating backcountry recreation in their region. By 1960, its more widespread sixteen thousand members were defending wild areas across the nation, taking on issues such as pollution and population and, increasingly, arguing for the maintenance of ecological integrity. The Club's biennial wilderness conferences, begun in 1949, became primary venues for publicizing preservation efforts, including the arctic campaign. Conference agendas serve as an index of how the wilderness concept evolved and grew in importance through the 1950s.

Soon to lead the effort, the Wilderness Society's membership increased more than tenfold from the war's end to the conclusion of the campaign, totaling almost seventeen thousand in December 1960. Unlike the other organizations, the society had, since its inception in 1935, advocated for wilderness on ecological grounds as well as for recreational, therapeutic, and aesthetic purposes. Its founding platform recognized the value of wilderness for recreation, as a "mental resource," and as a living museum of "primeval" natural processes. "It is manifestly the duty of this generation to preserve under scientific care," it stated, "as many, as large, and as varied examples of the remaining primitive as possible." Although anthropocentric arguments would dominate the Wilderness Society's advocacy, ecological reasons for preserving wilderness were actually more important to the leaders who spearheaded the Arctic campaign.


Excerpted from LAST GREAT WILDERNESS by Roger Kaye Copyright © 2006 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Roger Kaye had been a wilderness specialist and airplane pilot with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for over twenty years. He is an affiliate professor of Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he teaches courses on environmental psychology and wilderness management.

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