Chapter Fourteen - William O. Douglas and New Deal Conservation


Sitting at his desk in his U.S. Supreme Court office, William O. Douglas was swamped with legal work, including writing decisions on such issues as why trees had standing and why wildlife deserved legal rights to protected habitats. During his tenure as an associate justice of the Court—which began on April 15, 1939, and extended until November 12, 1975—the great civil libertarian would also become the most historically significant pro-wilderness American political force since Theodore Roosevelt. From the Great Depression to Watergate, Douglas composed vivid prose sketches about the American valleys and mountain ranges that had stolen his heart. The Olympics, Wallowas, and Brooks Range consumed his imagination even when the Court was in session. A glint in his eye indicated to his colleagues that he was thinking about fly-fishing in the Middle Fork of the Salmon or on the Quillayute River. Douglas, who had climbed in the high Himalayas, encouraged groups like the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society—he was an active member of both nonprofit societies—to bring class-action suits against despoilers of the American landscape. When Douglas received the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club in June 1975, he noted that his “view” of “policy in environmental matters” came from the “powerful influences” of Buddhism, Gifford Pinchot, Clarence Darrow, and John Muir. “I thought so well of Muir and his works that in 1961 I wrote a book about him,” Douglas boasted, “Muir of the Mountains.1

In a series of books, articles, and letters, Douglas proudly argued that tramping around the unspoiled wilderness, as Muir had done, was part of a noble American tradition that dated back to the transcendentalists of Concord. What could be more American than rediscovering the natural world to offset urban angst? Wasn’t it essential to leave some areas unmapped, so that wanderers could get lost in the wild? Shouldn’t young Americans be encouraged to answer the “call to adventure” represented by white-water rivers, unbounded tundra, and dense forest reserves? Citizens needed retreats in the natural world from the degradation of city life. “The distant mountains make one want to go on and on and on,” Douglas wrote after exploring the Brooks Range of Alaska in 1956, “over the next ridge and over the one beyond.”2

Always an iron-willed individualist, Douglas was concerned that the freedom associated with exploring the wilderness, hitchhiking, backpacking, camping, and mountain climbing was being constricted by anti-vagrancy laws. (The novelist Kurt Vonnegut later supported this belief, saying that the Constitution protected our right to “fart around.”) During the Great Depression, Douglas had been a hobo, traveling the rails from Yakima to Chicago, west to east, living out of a rucksack. Disappearing down the open road and shedding the shackles of the nine-to-five workday was—to Douglas’s mind—an American right just as surely as free speech or equal education. Douglas worried that national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite were being corporatized. Visitors in the mid-twentieth century encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic, gift shops, asphalt parking lots, uniformed rangers, and firework displays—and at Yosemite, the Hetch Hetchy valley had been destroyed by the construction of a reservoir. As Thoreau had complained inWalden, many stouthearted Americans, seeking regeneration in wild places, were fleeing the “desperate city” only to arrive at the “desperate country.”3 What demon, Douglas asked, had possessed the National Park Service to turn natural wonders like Old Faithful into sites for gewgaw shops? What fools would hollow out a redwood tree in Mariposa Grove so automobiles could drive through it? “When roads supplant trails,” Douglas wrote, “the precious unique values of God’s wilderness disappear.”4

Although he admired Pinchot, Douglas dissented, as he matured, from the whole concept of “multiple use” of natural resources. He saw Americans’ mania for constructing roads in national parks and forests as “evidence of our decline as a people.” Habitats for wildlife, he argued, should be left alone. All the national forests, as far as he was concerned, should be redesignated as wildernesses. Douglas, agitated, predicted that the world of 2200 would be choking on concrete, smog, industrial blight, and the withered wastelands left by clear-cut forests and oil spills. If Americans were wise, he believed, they would understand the importance of preserving roadless wilderness for its own sake: wilderness was more valuable than all the gold bars in Fort Knox. Without the possibility of escaping into the noiseless backcountry, the United States would become merely a tacky version of tourist-packed Europe. “There is no possible way to open roadless areas to cars and retain a wilderness,” Douglas asserted. “This is one diabolic consequence of the ‘multiple use’ concept as applied. The Forest Service recognizes, of course, that the application of the ‘multiple use’ principle means that some areas must be devoted exclusively or predominantly to a single purpose. The difficulty is that, in the Pacific West, ‘multiple use’ in practical operation means that every canyon is usually put to as many uses as possible—lumber operations, roads, campsites, shelters, toilets, fireplaces, parking lots and so on.”5

Repeatedly, throughout his life, Douglas rallied to the defense of pristine Pacific Northwest and Alaskan landscapes. During the 1930s it was the Olympics; in the 1940s, the Cascades; in the 1950s, the Brooks Range; and in the 1960s, the redwoods of California. As his biographer Bruce Allen Murphy noted in Wild Bill, Douglas helped launch the modern environmental movement in 1960 by dissenting to a denial of certiorari in a dispute over DDT being sprayed in Long Island.6 Douglas, never idle, continually thought of legal ways to help save America from ruin. Later in Douglas’s legal career, following the oil spill near Santa Barbara of January 28, 1969, he stoutly refused to let Union Oil get away with impunity for fouling the Southern California coastline from Goleta to Rincon, and all of the northern Channel Islands. Since his young adulthood, Douglas had fought to protect American wilderness and coastlines. Now, in 1969, more than 10,000 birds had died because of a faulty blowout preventer on Union Oil’s platform A in Santa Barbara, and a furious Douglas wanted justice.

This oil spill impelled Douglas to put some of his long-held judicial beliefs into writing. He was, after all, the leading light of the wilderness movement. Douglas famously held, in a Supreme Court case, that trees, oceans, and rivers had legal standing. (Look up his dissenting opinion: Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 1972.) As a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Douglas had somehow found time to read an obscure essay by Christopher D. Stone in the Southern California Law Review: “Should Trees Have Standing?”7 Stone, a former Supreme Court clerk, thought the article was a breakthrough argument on behalf of the environment. Douglas used Stone’s argument to go after Walt Disney. In 1969, when Disney received approval to build a huge $35 million ski and swim resort at Mineral King Valley in Sierra Nevada courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, Douglas dissented. What infuriated Douglas was that the state of California was going to build a twenty-mile asphalt road through the heart of Sequoia National Park to reach Disney’s high-country resort.

Drawing on Aldo Leopold’s ennobling notion of a land ethic, Douglas firmly believed that a sequoia tree, a barrier island, or a sand beach should be allowed to be a litigant. He wrote that “inanimate objects” about to be “despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage” could fight for their constitutional rights. Excoriating the U.S. Forest Service for being a patsy of the timber industry, Douglas maintained that before these “priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.” What mattered to Douglas was that flora and fauna had rights: “Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of ‘progress’ will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard?”8

War against anything associated with Mickey Mouse had become a sport for Douglas. With typical brio, he called the “Disneyfication” of America a deleterious trend aimed at turning children into slaves of television. There was more magic in one’s backyard woods or fields, Douglas believed, than in all the rides at Frontierland, part of the Disney theme park in Anaheim, California. The thought that Disney might build a $35 million resort in the Sierra Nevada, the heart of John Muir country, next to Sequoia National Park, repulsed Douglas; he considered the very notion grotesque. And the fact that the resort was to be called Mineral King—in the land where redwoods ruled—added insult to injury. The Wilderness Society naturally concurred, deeming Douglas’s opinion as “important judicial history.”9

When the attorneys for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund adopted Stone’s concept of environmental law—that if sequoias were going to be cut down, then they could indeed be plaintiffs—Douglas did the same. Both as a Supreme Court justice and as a public intellectual, Douglas fought to protect the Mineral King area from Disney bulldozers. His colleagues on the conservative Burger Court, however, saw this situation far differently. The other eight justices decided that the Sierra Club didn’t have a genuine stake in the Mineral King resort and thus had no standing to sue.10

Douglas’s stirring opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton, in fact, became a distillation of his lifelong convictions about preserving nature. By the twenty-first century it had been adopted as a manifesto by nonprofit groups including the National Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., founder of Riverkeeper, recalled hiking, as a young boy, with Douglas along the C&O Canal in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. “Bill was legalistically way out in front in his dissent,” Kennedy said. “Sierra Club v. Morton has only grown in relevance. When the BP spill occurred, I immediately thought of that case.”11 Douglas’s carefully crafted dissent is taught in classes in environmental law from Harvard to Berkeley.

The corporation sole—a creature of ecclesiastical law—is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases. . . . So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. People who have a meaningful relation to that body of water—whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger—must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction. I do not know Mineral King. I have never seen it nor travelled it, though I have seen articles describing its proposed “development.” The Sierra Club in its complaint alleges that “one of the principal purposes of the Sierra Club is to protect and conserve the national resources of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” The District Court held that this uncontested allegation made the Sierra Club “sufficiently aggrieved” to have “standing” to sue on behalf of Mineral King. Mineral King is doubtless like other wonders of the Sierra Nevada such as Tuolomne Meadows and the John Muir Trail. Those who hike it, fish it, hunt it, camp in it, frequent it, or visit it merely to sit in solitude and wonderment are legitimate spokesmen for it, whether they may be few or many. Those who have that intimate relation with the inanimate object about to be injured, polluted, or otherwise despoiled are its legitimate spokesmen.12

From the 1920s to the 1970s, any reckless clear-cutting in the American West got Douglas’s dander up. He had seen the deep scars that this unsavory practice left on slopes: a mountaintop would be shaved bald and left with only debris; torrential runoffs of water then occurred, transforming a biosphere into a dead zone. Should the landscape surrounding Sequoia National Park be so cruelly scarred for the sake of a Disney park? The menace of hyperdevelopment was everywhere in the West. At a meeting of the U.S. Forest Service that Douglas once attended by happenstance in Wyoming, rangers were preparing to aerially spray chemicals to kill weeds growing on sagebrush land. “They roared with laughter when it was reported that a little old lady opposed the plan because the wild flowers would be destroyed,” Douglas recalled with incredulity. “Yet was not her right to search out a painted cup of a tiger lily as inalienable as the right of stockmen to search out grass or of a lumberman to claim a tree? The aesthetic values of the wilderness are as much our inheritance as the veins of copper and coal in our hills and the forests in our mountains.”13


Douglas was born in Maine, Minnesota, on October 16, 1898. His first name was Orville; when he grew up, he dropped it in favor of his middle name, William. When he was three years old his parents—Julia Fisk Douglas and the Reverend William Douglas (a Presbyterian minister) moved the family to Estrella, California. They had heard that the California sunshine was good for the nerves and the elder Douglas had vicious stomach ulcers. However, Douglas’s father died in 1904 from a botched ulcer operation. Julia moved her three children to Yakima, in the agricultural belt of south central Washington, to be near her sister. The Douglases moved into a tiny house a stone’s throw from the Columbia Grade School. Unfortunately, Julia invested her small inheritance in a scheme to irrigate the Yakima valley; it failed; and crushing poverty fell upon the family. William, only seven years old, had to scrounge in the industrial yards of Yakima, collecting scrap iron in burlap apple bags to sell at a market. No menial task was beneath him. Seasonally, he picked fruit and threshed wheat. His biographers have claimed that his hard youth poisoned his trust in companies, rich people, and class privilege. But Douglas himself rejected this theory in his 1974 autobiography Go East, Young Man, saying that he never felt “underprivileged.” In any case, though, at an early age he was an advocate for the underdog. (Douglas did admit that he sometimes felt wounded because God had placed him on the “wrong side of the railroad tracks.”)14

Douglas’s life was changed when he contracted polio as a child.* A doctor in Yakima predicted that he might be permanently paralyzed. All Douglas could do was soak his legs in warm saltwater and get lower-body massages. When he returned to school, other children mocked him mercilessly; he was a puny misfit. So he started venturing outside Yakima, hiking the sagebrush trails and lava rock and backcountry, hoping to develop physical vigor. Ten miles soon increased to twenty. Every day Douglas could walk beyond the outskirts of town, high up into the Cascades, away from schoolyard taunts, learning the calls of birds, chatting with subsistence farmers and woodchoppers, singing old hymns like “Shall We Gather at the River?” He hiked through broad valleys and past anxious watchdogs. His shock of brown hair was fine and unruly. The more Douglas walked, the stronger his legs got. “The physical world loomed large in my mind,” Douglas recalled. “I read what happened to cripples in the wilds. They were the weak strain that nature did not protect.”15

Happiness engulfed Douglas whenever he was outdoors. Believing that fresh air was a curative, he started writing secret odes to the high lakes of the Wallowa Mountains, giving each a distinctive personality as if it were a new friend. When Douglas discovered Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, he became devoted to fly-fishing for trout. “And of all fly-fishing, the dry fly is supreme,” Douglas said. “The dry fly floats lightly on the water, going with the current under overhanging willows or riding like a dainty sailor on the ruffled surface of a lake. It bounces saucily, armed for battle but looking as innocent as any winged insect that rises from underneath the surface or drops casually from a willow or sumac into a stream or pond.” The sight of a trout rising never failed to make Douglas’s heart stand still.16

Remembering his childhood fishing and the glory of sunshine, Douglas decided that his life, no matter what his employment was, would be centered on protecting America’s fishing streams and forests. Conservation became his electric wire, which would produce the brightest sparks throughout his storied intellectual career. “Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt were in my eyes romantic woodsmen,” Douglas wrote in Of Men and Mountains, his 1950 autobiography, the first of several. “I did not then know about Pinchot’s ‘multiple use’ philosophy, which, as construed, allowed timber companies, grazing interests, and even miners to destroy much of our forest heritage under the rationalization of ‘balanced use.’ I only knew that Pinchot was a driving force behind setting aside wilderness sanctuaries in an effort to save them from immediate destruction by reckless loggers. I was so thrilled by Pinchot’s example that I perhaps would have made forestry my career had the choice been made in my high school days.”17

Devoted to scholarship, Douglas received top grades at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, a first-rate liberal arts institution where he was on a full scholarship. Now he started coming into his own, intellectually. While at college, he joined the ROTC and Beta Theta Pi. But the clannishness of such outfits didn’t really appeal to him. He adopted the stance of an iconoclast, a lone mountaineer, a skirt-chaser, an impatient doer eager to see the great wide world. As a hobo, he traveled from hopyard to forest camp to orchard to earn money during the Great Depression.18He was a young man willing to take risks—a fact historians should not ignore.

Upon graduating from Whitman College in 1920 with a BA in English and economics, Douglas became a high school teacher and debate coach. Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir became his inspirations. Impressed by their transcendentalist philosophy, he wanted to chase the sky and learn about every part of the wild Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon. Pinchot stayed on his shoulder like a good angel, informing his views about the stewardship of forestlands. Douglas watched many of his friends in Yakima sinking into tedium, logging and mining for the minimum wage. Having licked polio, and having developed an iron will and newly strong legs, Douglas wanted much more out of life. Teaching English and Latin for two years at Yakima’s high schools bored him. “Finally,” he recalled, “I decided it was impossible to save enough money by teaching and I said to hell with it.”19

Distrustful of the timbering promoted by Weyerhaeuser Lumber and worried about becoming an obsolete teacher in the Rattlesnake Hills range, Douglas found liberation from Washington’s provincialism at Columbia University Law School. He was imbued with a Pacific Northwest belief in the power of mountains, stone, and rivers, and his train journey to New York City sounds like a drifter’s ballad. In the summer of 1922, Douglas signed up to escort 2,000 sheep by rail from Wenatchee, Washington, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Of Men and Mountains, he told of sleeping in a dirty caboose, meeting rascals in boxcars, rattling along with Montana’s fields and peaks flashing by outside the open train door. In Idaho he encountered a railroad strike. He feared the billy clubs of yard bulls, who were always trying to shake down the transients. Douglas had a vivid way of telling anecdotes about life along the train tracks and in the hobo jungles. “I needed a bath,” he matter-of-factly wrote of the adventure, “and a shave and food; above all else I needed sleep. Even flophouses cost money. And the oatmeal, hot cakes, ham and eggs and coffee—which I wanted desperately—would cost fifty or seventy-five cents.”20

Douglas unloaded the sheep from the railcars in the Minneapolis railroad yard, then bummed a train ride to Chicago, wanting to see Lake Michigan, He was appalled by the industrialization that had polluted the Illinois air. Chicago wasn’t the “City of the Big Shoulders” that the poet Carl Sandburg had described, but an urban cesspool: dilapidated buildings, noise, broken glass, and “dingy factories with chimneys pouring out a thick haze over the landscape.” Loneliness engulfed Douglas in sooty Chicago, where the decibel level was too high, transforming him overnight into an environmentalist. Hungry, exhausted, homesick, bruised, frightened, and confused, he now placed a higher value on Yakima and Walla Walla than ever before. “Never had I missed a snowcapped peak as much,” he recalled. “Never had I longed more to see a mountain meadow filled with heather and lupine and paintbrush.”21

Eventually Douglas made his way to New York and enrolled at Columbia, working at odd jobs to pay the big-city bills. After his first year at Columbia, he was appointed to the staff of the law review. Nobody else attacked the law books with the same fervent hunger as Douglas. Harlan Fiske Stone, a dean of Columbia University who would later serve with Douglas on the Supreme Court, recognized that Douglas was a nonstop worker. Imbued with a libertarian spirit and deeply committed to the Bill of Rights, Douglas staked his reputation at Columbia on defending misfits, outcasts, drifters, migrants, the unemployed, the homeless, and tramps. Lonesome, forsaken people had a special place in Douglas’s heart. What’s more, his experiences in Chicago and New York led him to conclude that country folk needed legal protection from city slickers. Douglas was an anomaly at Columbia because he was already claiming that clean air and clean water were a constitutional right. What right did Chicago have to despoil Lake Michigan? What right did General Motors have to pollute the Detroit River?

“It seemed that man had built a place of desolation and had corrupted the earth in doing so,” Douglas wrote of his arrival in New York City. “In corrupting the earth he had corrupted himself also, and built out of soot and dirt a malodorous place of foul air and grimy landscape in which to live and work and die. Here there were no green meadows wet with morning dew to examine for tracks of deer, no forest that a boy could explore to discover for himself the various species of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees; no shoulder of granite pushing against fleecy clouds and standing as a reminder to man of his puny character, of his inadequacies; no trace of the odor of pine or fir in the air.”22

Douglas, determined to succeed and always in need of cash, spent three years as a tutor at Columbia, helping high school students prepare for the Ivy League. According to the historian James O’Fallon, editor of Nature’s Justice, Douglas had “two criteria” for his ambitious pupils—that the “student be rich and stupid.”23 Regularly, when he was broke, he would borrow $10 or $20 dollars from friends; he never welched. Eventually Douglas, with only one year in law school remaining, had saved enough money—$1,000—to return to the Pacific Northwest. He needed the mountains and his mother needed him. Over the summer of 1923, he married Mildred Riddle in her hometown, La Grande, Oregon. For their honeymoon, the Douglases roughed it outdoors in the Wallowa range, catching trout, eating wild berries, horseback riding, and making love under the stars. And they went broke. “We blew,” Douglas boasted, “my thousand bucks.”24

One of Douglas’s abiding traits was his recklessness with money. Even as Supreme Court justice he often had a gritty hand-to-mouth lifestyle. His cupboards were often bare. Never did Douglas trust the New York Stock Exchange: investment banking was, to his mind, legalized gambling. Washingtonians never knew whether Douglas could afford to buy a restaurant dinner in Chevy Chase or take a weekend trip to Virginia. Impending bankruptcy was a condition he actually embraced, if it meant freedom to think, hike, and have fun. Poverty never made him sullen. No business venture appealed to him except writing books. “Douglas preferred to invest in only one stock,” his biographer James F. Simon wrote in Independent Journey: “William O. Douglas.”25

Back at Columbia, Douglas was on fire. All his professors—Underhill Moore chief among them—were astounded at his intelligence. You could see it in his eyes. He could revise commercial law casebooks or explain the Pleistocene epoch with equal ease. Douglas worked hardest when taking on a big company, defending the people against a fat cat. Mischievously Moore unleashed Douglas against a Portland cement company that had supposedly cooked its books. But Douglas’s belligerent attitude worried Dean Stone, who had just been confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court. The new justice selected Albert McCormack, a fine choice, to be his clerk, rather than the brilliant but wild Douglas. “The world was black,” Douglas said of this snub. “I was unspeakably depressed that for all those years and all that work, I had so little to show for it. The one opportunity I wanted had passed me by.”26

Douglas had a choice after graduating from Columbia: go back to Yakima to practice law or join a Wall Street firm. He did the latter. But Douglas was arrogant—and his voice was strained and defiant—when he was interviewing at New York firms. Famously, he was interviewed by John Foster Dulles, who would go on to become Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state. Dulles, who tended to be pompous, was condescending. So Douglas turned the tables on Dulles: the interviewee started interviewing the eminent establishment lawyer. According to Douglas, to irritate Dulles even more, on his way out of the interview he tipped Dulles a quarter for helping him on with his coat. The job went to somebody else. But Douglas was hired by the prestigious firm Cravath DeGersdoff, Swaine, and Wood (later Cravath, Swaine, and Moore).

After only four months at Cravath, confused, like an athlete with a mild concussion, Douglas left New York and moved back to Yakima. “The only bird I ever saw was a pigeon,” he complained of New York. “I longed for the call of the meadowlark, the noisy drilling of the pileated woodpecker, the drumming of the ruffed grouse.”27 He soon regretted the decision, however. Working his New York connections, he found a job teaching at Columbia. Douglas’s legal career now soared. Yale University Law School wisely poached him. He became an expert on commercial litigation and bankruptcy. By the time Douglas was forty-one, he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court. From 1929 to 1934 he wrote five legal casebooks and almost twenty articles. What gave Douglas such authority was his wizard-like expertise on corporate reorganization and bankruptcy law. If a U.S. corporation got too big, Douglas always prepared to break it down to size. Working on Wall Street had made Douglas feel that some investment bankers were truly pathetic, preferring money to “love, compassion, hiking, or sunsets.”28

With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, Douglas had an opening to positively affect the consciousness of his time. Main Street’s anger at Wall Street had deepened since the stock market crash of 1929. At Yale University, where Douglas was the distinguished Sterling Professor of Law, he had already earned a reputation for his no-nonsense approach and for insisting that the federal government regulate big business to achieve transparency. When Congress passed the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1933, granting the Federal Trade Commission regulatory power over security sales, Douglas was tapped by the Roosevelt administration to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had few ties with the WASP establishment, but he formed an alliance with the Catholic tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy.29 The entire Kennedy family liked the cut of Douglas’s jib. At long last he had a sponsor. Other New Dealers also took a shine to Douglas; they included Abe Fortas, Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran, and Lyndon Johnson.

Insiders in Washington, D.C., were soon astounded by Douglas’s love of the wilderness. Like a sudden storm, Douglas could take over a Georgetown cocktail party with his tales of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the only Washingtonian whom Douglas truly revered was the aging Gifford Pinchot. The new secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, and Pinchot were warring over policy for the national forests. Ickes was, in Douglas’s words, a “bulldog battler” who was “hungry for bureaucratic power.”30 By 1939, Ickes had brought into the Department of the Interior the Bituminous Coal Commission, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Fisheries, Bureau of Biological Survey, and Mount Rushmore Commission. Ickes now wanted to take control of the U.S. Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot objected, so Ickes went after him.

Years later, in his autobiography Go East, Young Man, Douglas attacked Ickes for reopening the feud between Ballinger and Pinchot of 1909–1910. It pained Douglas to think that Ickes had acted like a man motivated by envy and pettiness. “Ickes wrote that Ballinger had not been involved in a corrupt practice,” Douglas fumed. “That was never the issue. The issue was whether private interest through subterfuge could defeat the public land policy. Bulldog Ickes would have been the first to attack any Ballinger of his day. In 1940 he was defending Ballinger only to attack Pinchot.”31


The Alaskan wilderness movement thrived while Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House from 1933 to 1945. When the president toured Washington’s Olympics, in 1937, feasting on trout at the lodge and saying he never saw such grand trees in his life, he upgraded the designation from national monument to national park. FDR understood more keenly than ever before Douglas’s pleas for stricter wildlife protections in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Conservation wasn’t a mere slogan during FDR’s visionary presidency—it was a crucial part of the New Deal. Under FDR’s leadership the conservation movement was appropriated from the Republican Party, and its tenets became central to New Deal liberalism.32 From the outset the Roosevelt administration’s natural resource team was impressive. How could anyone be better than Harold Ickes as Secretary of the Interior or Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling as director of the Bureau of Biological Survey? The 2.5 million workers at the CCC planted more than 2 billion trees during its decade of existence.33 They also erected 3,470 fire towers and built 42,000 miles of fire roads. Roosevelt also helped individual farmers reclaim eroded land. Working with Roosevelt, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (shutting down the public domain and putting grasslands under sound management); the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 (initially a nationwide program of soil and moisture conservation); and the Act of July 22, 1937 (providing administration of the National Grasslands).34

Another aspect of the New Deal was the WPA’s sponsorship of painters to capture wild America on canvas. Edwin Boyd Johnson, an Alaskan designer and muralist originally from Tennessee, was one of these painters. He soon learned that painting wild Alaska was a daunting task. Mount Kimball, the highest mountain in the eastern Alaska Range between Isabel Pass and Mentasta, became for him what Mount McKinley had been to the artist Sydney Laurence. Johnson’s images of the bright orange-yellow Mount Kimball closely resembled the work of Marsden Hartley. By having the WPA pay Johnson to paint wild Alaska, the Roosevelt administration ingeniously promoted the protection of places like Mount Kimball.35 The WPA also worked to establish a hotel at Mount McKinley National Park. And grants were given to Skagway to help clean up the water system polluted by mining.36

Another important program by the Roosevelt administration in Alaska was having Charles Flory, a forester, restore totem poles in the Inside Passage. Flory had CCC workers begin an interpretive initiative on behalf of Tlingit art near Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Negotiations were made to have poles shipped to the restoration facility and then returned to the appropriate Alaskan communities (sometimes as new features to attract tourism). Indian villages such as New Kasaan, Hydaburg, and Klawock participated. Roosevelt also allocated funds for a totem pole in Tongass National Forest.37

Roosevelt’s concern for Alaskan wildlife—particularly marine species—was sincere. On April 18, 1939, the president had more than doubled the size of Glacier Bay National Monument, a tribute to John Muir. Professor William Skinner Cooper, one of the nation’s most eminent ecologists, was teaching at the University of Minnesota when he heard this news. Marine areas teeming with Dungeness, king, and Tanner crabs were finally made off-limits to fishermen. Whole subtidal benthic communities, along with schools of Pacific halibut, rockfish, lingcod, Pacific cod, sablefish, and pollock now had protected Alaskan nurseries (although a limited amount of fishing was allowed until the 1970s).38 Muir’s glaciers may have been receding, but federal protection was intensifying.

For Cooper, the doubling of Glacier Bay National Monument meant that the complexes of plant life thriving around the terminal of receding glaciers could be properly analyzed by biologists. Because Glacier Bay had more than 220 bird species—half of all American birds—the National Audubon Society considered Executive Proclamation 2330 Roosevelt’s grandest conservation effort yet. For the Sierra Club, it was the fulfillment of John Muir’s vision. The Alaskan communities of Haines and Gustavus now prospered as gateways to glaciers and wildlife. (People in Haines started boasting that their town—the Chilkat Indian community Muir wrote about in Travels to Alaska—was founded by the great naturalist.) All of Glacier Bay’s geographic provinces would remain protected, owing to Muir’s early advocacy and Cooper’s dogged lobbying.39 (But there was no guarantee that the glaciers wouldn’t melt.)

During the 1930s, while pushing for the Lake Clark region to become a national park or wilderness reserve, Frederick Vreeland, through the Camp Fire Club of America (CFCA), promoted the idea of allowing Native Alaskans exclusive reindeer breeding rights. Even since the missionary Sheldon Jackson imported a herd from Siberia to Amaknak Island, domesticated reindeer had been raised in Alaska to pull sleds and serve as a high-protein food source. By the 1930s they were a big business for Alaska (there were an estimated 640,000 reindeer in the territory). Vreeland hoped that if Alaskan Natives ate reindeer, as ranchers ate cattle in the Lower Forty-Eight, then the big game wouldn’t be shot out. On September 1, 1937, Congress, with the approval of the CFCA, passed the Reindeer Act. Not only were Natives given exclusive reindeer breeding rights, but in the future they would earn concession rights. The interbreeding of caribou (wild) and reindeer (domestic) sometimes caused disease, but Vreeland had succeeded in protecting the Lake Clark caribou from overhunting.40

One New Deal conservation program that significantly affected Alaska was the Duck Stamp Act (its official title was the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934). Ding Darling was a Republican, but his commitment to the biological conservation movement was not inhibited by his party affiliation. A Bull Moose at heart, Darling was brought into FDR’s administration to serve on the President’s Committee for Wild Life Restoration (along with Thomas Beck and Aldo Leopold). By 1935, Darling, a cartoonist who had won two Pulitzer Prizes, took over as head of the Biological Survey. Although he served for only eighteen months in this post, Darling was deemed the best friend that Alaskan ducks ever had.

With the Great Depression persisting, and with no signs of recovery on the horizon, Darling had to find creative ways to promote the protection of migratory birds. Putting aside his usual satirical wit, he designed an elegant blue-and-white duck stamp.41 Anybody age sixteen or older who wanted to legally hunt a duck was required to purchase a stamp. The stamps raised a lot of money, and just in the nick of time. In 1934, migratory waterfowl had reached a low of about 27 million. Alaska was a huge part of this problem. Market hunters were devastating Alaska’s largest migrant birds. Throughout the territory the prevalent attitude was “If it moves, shoot it.” Two-thirds of all trumpeter swans—the largest waterfowl in the world—nested in Alaska. In all the Lower Forty-Eight, only the Yellowstone ecosystem was a stronghold for swans. For hundreds of years trumpeter swans had been slaughtered for their feathers, which made the best quill pens in the world. The British royal crown, for instance, signed every document with a trumpeter swan pen.

To the surprise of President Roosevelt, the duck stamps designed by Darling were a hit with Congress and the private sector. Capitalizing on his celebrity as a cartoonist, Darling raised millions to help protect migratory birds. The term “duck stamp,” however, was misleading: Darling’s program also printed stamps of geese and swans. Although Darling designed the first stamps, an annual art contest was soon instituted. Every year new winners were chosen.

When scholars write histories of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the duck stamp program is usually considered ingenious, and a high-water mark. The stamps became coveted collectors’ items. During Darling’s tenure revenues from the duck stamp were $635,001 in 1934 and $448,204 in 1935. In 1953, long after Darling had retired from government, he reflected on why the duck stamp program had worked. “Of course you understand that I am not nearly so much interested in the preservation of migratory waterfowl as I am in the management of water resources and the crucial effects of such management upon human sustenance,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Wild ducks and geese and teeter-assed shore birds are only the delicate indicators for the prognosis for human existence, just as sure as God made little green apples.”42

Despite the fact that the nation was at war between 1941 and 1945, Roosevelt did his best to protect the flyways and nesting areas of Darling’s beloved American birdlife. Glacier Bay was just one of a number of examples. Around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when America was focused on military preparedness, he received a blueprint for a major new U.S. Army artillery range to be constructed in Idaho. A lifelong bird-watcher, Roosevelt rejected it. He sided with the bird-watchers over the army. “Please tell Major General Adams or whoever is in charge of this business that Henry Lake, Idaho, must immediately be struck from the Army planning list for any purposes,” he wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. “The verdict is for the trumpeter swan and against the Army. The Army must find a different nesting place.”43

Groups like the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, CFCA, and Izaak Walton League had an ally in Franklin Roosevelt. No longer was saving wild places considered fringe philanthropy. Also, John D. Rockefeller Jr. became the greatest conservationist capitalist of all time (only Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, comes close). Regularly, Rockefeller donated multimillion-dollar checks to help create Acadia National Park in Maine and the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. He considered this a Christian, gentlemanly thing to do. His family had taken something (oil) from mother Earth, and therefore he wanted to give something back to her.44 Working closely with Horace Albright of the National Park Service, Rockefeller would pay for cleaning up environmental eyesores and industrial blight. He wanted America’s special wilderness places to be roadless. “I never had any doubt about the existence of a divine being,” Rockefeller said. “To see a tree coming out in the spring was enough to impress me that the fact of God existed.”45

With impressive political acumen, FDR brought together Bob Marshall (a democratic socialist), Harold Ickes (a Bull Moose), Ira Gabrielson (a bird enthusiast), and John D. Rockefeller Jr. (a capitalist) to protect America despite the ordeals of the Great Depression and World War II. When Louis Brandeis retired from the Supreme Court in March 1939, Roosevelt appointed Douglas—the fierce environmentalist and opponent of Wall Street—to fill the seat. With Joseph Kennedy cheering him on, Douglas became the youngest justice in American history. When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, Douglas was profoundly grieved. He believed that Roosevelt had struck the right notes of progressivism with the New Deal programs.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s adroit conservationism was not continued by his successor, Harry S. Truman. Truman was indifferent to forestry and to protecting predators. Regarding Alaska, Truman time and again sided with miners—not with conservationists; he liked working people, not endangered species. Within a year after becoming president, Truman criticized Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes for being too radical a conservationist. Ickes had claimed that a California oilman, Edwin Pauley, who was then treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, had tried to bribe him with $300,000 to allow offshore drilling near Santa Barbara in 1944. The payoff was to be a campaign contribution for Truman. Ickes wrote defiantly in his diary, “I don’t intend to smear my record with oil at this stage of the game even to help win the reelection of the President.”46

Ickes’s resignation on February 13, 1946—in protest against Truman’s appointment of Pauley as undersecretary of the navy—was a severe setback to the wilderness movement. The announcement took place in the auditorium and was at the Department of the Interior at the time the largest press conference in U.S. history. Ickes was loved and trusted by reporters; Truman was not. “I don’t care to stay in an administration,” Ickes wrote in his diary, “where I am expected to commit perjury for the sake of the party.”

President Truman had first offered the post of secretary of the interior to William O. Douglas. From a conservationist’s perspective, Douglas would have been an outstanding choice. Undoubtedly, he would have promoted wilderness in Alaska; he was firmly opposed to the U.S. government’s poisoning of wolves; and he was averse to allowing domesticated animals to graze on public lands around Mount McKinley. For Douglas, in fact, Alaska was America’s “last opportunity” to “preserve vast wilderness areas intact.”47

By the time Truman had become president in April 1945, Douglas was a significant political presence. He had the tight-lipped look of a naval officer; some people said he resembled the pugnacious James Forrestal, or James Cagney. He was physically fit and had appealing wrinkles around his eyes. Douglas was so progressive-minded, his critics said, that he would have liked to be martyred in the Haymarket Riot. “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the I.W.W.’s who I saw being shot at by the police,” Douglas said. “I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”48

Not known for either understatement or reserve in his personal life, Douglas was a force to be reckoned with in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s. Waking up at the crack of dawn, Douglas, a prodigious worker, would leave his home—at 4852 Hutchins Place, in the Palisades neighborhood—for a walk along the C&O Canal. After feeding his border collie, Sandy, he would be off to Capitol Hill. Lawyers arguing cases at the Supreme Court dreaded his piercing blue eyes, which were as keen as those of a condor. Unlike most Supreme Court justices, Douglas kept his opinions short and readable by a layperson. He was proud of his northwestern upbringing, and socialites in Georgetown knew that he might very well wear hiking boots to a black-tie dinner. Given both his personal austerity and his judicial stature, it was quite a coup when The Wilderness Society recruited him to join the movement for roadless, primitive lands. Douglas, in fact, became a filter through which U.S. senators and congressmen first learned about the new idea of “leave it alone” conservation.

During the 1950s in Washington, D.C., a popular comment along the C&O Canal was “There goes Justice Douglas.” An article in the Living Wilderness called him “the most famous living American walker.”49 Wearing blue jeans and a work shirt, Douglas would walk along the canal daily, rain or shine, averaging ten to twenty miles a day, in protest against a motor parkway, which had been promoted by the Washington Post and the Times Herald. People would sometimes actually blink their eyes in disbelief: that was the nation’s most famous jurist over there, with a walking stick. The threat to the towpath had become for Douglas the symbol of what was wrong with American life, and the canal was being used for sewage. He challenged the editors of the Post and the Times Heraldto come and see wild nature there with him, to simply say no to motorized traffic. When the Potomac River was filled by spring rains, and young trees were blooming along its banks and birdlife was all around, Douglas believed that hikers could be transported back to the 1850s when horses and mules towed barges. “The river must be cleaned up and made pure again,” Douglas wrote in the Living Wilderness. “Then campsites, fireplaces, pure drinking water, and sanitary facilities can be provided under the auspices of the National Park Service. That will be the best use of the Canal and the Potomac—far better than needless water storage of high-priced electric power.”50

Douglas understood from his earlier long hikes in the Cascades that the richest Americans were those who had learned to let the nation’s most treasured landscapes alone. Douglas believed that hard work was good for the soul but that no person should become a machine. Nonconformity, now and then, was a sign of a healthy mind. Loafing in nature made the senses keen. Why lead a life of quiet desperation when you could reel in salmon from Puget Sound or see an owl in The Dalles? Good behavior, to Douglas, was overrated. Exhilaration and voluntary poverty were far preferable to the gilded cage of a life of dull comfort. While he perhaps went a bit far with some of his judicial opinions regarding conservation, Douglas wasn’t very different from a lot of Pacific northwesterners or the Depression-era boys who had a penchant for the outdoors. Perhaps because his father had been a minister, Douglas was quick to see all of life’s blessings. As he aged his skin became weathered. There was nothing mystical about Douglas’s outdoors world; unlike the Comanche he did not pray to buffalo, and unlike the Buddhists he did not meditate on mountains. He was simply the most brilliant person Yakima ever produced, and he lived to walk thousands of miles. Like Thoreau in Walden, he believed the “swiftest traveler” was one who “goes afoot.”51

In 1946 that other great hiker and forest lover, Gifford Pinchot, died at age eighty-one at Grey Towers, his home in Pennsylvania. If Douglas had his way, Pinchot’s face (along with John Muir’s) would have been carved on Mount Rushmore, but others in Washington, D.C., had long considered Pinchot an irrelevant relic. At the funeral, Douglas reassured Cornelia Pinchot, the widow, that he would continue fighting for America’s forestlands. She uttered the truest line ever about her husband: “Conservation to Gifford Pinchot was never a vague, fuzzy aspiration; it was concrete, exact, dynamic.”52

Douglas, who felt he could be most useful to the burgeoning environmental movement in the Supreme Court, declined Truman’s offer to make him secretary of the interior. He wrote his outdoors memoir Of Men and Mountains in 1950—a must-read for those in the up-and-coming field of environmental law. Working his back channels, he pushed for the National Park Service to take over vast areas of the Washington coast. All wildlife legislation of the era would cross his desk. Meanwhile Julius A. Krug—a Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin—became secretary of the interior.53 Krug quietly went about slowing the rapid pace at which the department had operated under Harold Ickes. Krug’s philosophy was based on the fact that people voted in elections—not wolves, cougars, or foxes. During the Truman administration, in fact, not a single national park was authorized.54 Nor was there any expansion of the area of existing national monuments in Alaska. Truman didn’t give a damn about nature. Douglas was the torchbearer for the Rooseveltian cause throughout the big debates of the 1950s over the Alaskan wilderness. “I’m ready to bend the law in favor of the environment,” Douglas would later admit, “and against the corporations.”55

Like many conservationists in the Pacific Northwest, Douglas viewed Alaska as an extension of Washington state. The Tongass and Chugach were sacred national places, steeped in Teddy Roosevelt’s and Gifford Pinchot’s lore, which weren’t going to be destroyed for the benefit of the extraction industries. Douglas was never going to let them be ruined—any man who could overcome polio could surely square off against polluters. The fact that Douglas had refused the post of secretary of the interior didn’t mean that he had relinquished his Muirian duty to protect America’s natural heritage. Never would he let Alaska become Chicago.56

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