Chapter Seventeen - The Arctic Range and Aldo Leopold

I

The Wilderness Society’s cofounder Aldo Leopold set the tone for saving Arctic Alaska. When Leopold died in 1948 while fighting a wildfire, A Sand County Almanac, his poetic meditation on protecting and renewing land, was not yet published; the typed manuscript remained on his desktop at his home in central Wisconsin. Luckily for the conservation movement, his son Luna, recognizing the importance of this work, had it published by Oxford University Press the following year. Sales were minimal, but conservationists immediately grasped that Leopold had written a tour de force. Rooting through his father’s file cabinets, Luna organized another volume of Aldo Leopold essays and journal entries as Round River. It was published in 1953. For conservationists during Eisenhower’s two-term presidency, these two texts were gems to be cherished. Leopold’s words were quoted throughout that decade to protest against the construction of unnecessary dams in the Pacific Basin region. Regarding Alaska, Leopold’s call to keep places “wild and free” was a rallying cry for the small band of determined conservationists.

Pragmatically recognizing that every farm woodland by necessity yielded lumber and fuel, Leopold urged his countrymen to recognize that what was on top of the land was more valuable than what was underneath the soil. “The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry,” Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. “The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on. In the marsh, long windy waves surge across the glassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind. On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh hawk, or gull but has sought refuge from the wind.”1

For Mardy Murie, reading A Sand County Almanac was a profound experience. Nowhere was the wind Leopold rhapsodized about purer or more forceful than in her own beloved Arctic Alaska. Like the northern goshawks, common redpolls and gulls, she felt invigorated by torrential gusts. The Arctic wind in springtime was her life force, her muse, her harmonic revelation of the cosmos. Sobering, enlivening, and somehow bitingly wise about the ancient universal secrets, wind velocity was the power source of the ages. And to Mardy the drafts in the Brooks Range were particularly intoxicating as they swept down chillingly from the North Pole, always making her spirit feel whole again. Although the Arctic Range was difficult to get to in the 1950s (transportation consisted mainly of small planes landing on gravel bars), it offered a monumental experience. A hiker by predisposition, Mardy knew that rivers like the Kongakut, the Canning, and the Hulahula would someday be popular with river runners.

In 1946, Mardy had spent time with the studious Aldo Leopold during a meeting of The Wilderness Society held at her home in Wyoming. When Leopold spoke, conservationists paid rapt attention, and Mardy knew he was the most far-seeing conservationist present—smoking cigarettes, wearing a white dress shirt with a pale necktie, squinting behind his rimless glasses while talking, calmly swapping information with Olaus about the biotic world. There was something noble about his low-key style. Leopold’s nerves were always steady; verbally, his passion was muted; a steely integrity emanated from his clear blue eyes. To have left behind, in dying, such an elegant meditation as A Sand County Almanac was an act so lovely that it seemed preordained.

Reading Leopold’s epitaph to the extinct passenger pigeon, Mardy thought of the fate of Arctic Alaska’s birds such as the snowy owl and the willow ptarmigan. To Leopold the passenger pigeon “was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and oxygen and air.” When Martha—the last passenger pigeon—died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1913, the Audubon Society mourned. “Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life,” Leopold wrote. “Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.”2

If the passenger pigeon, once 1 billion strong, could go extinct, what of Arctic Alaska’s polar bears, caribou, and willow ptarmigan? What of the shorebirds that bred along the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea: the American golden plover, semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), wandering tattler (Tringa incana), spotted sandpiper (Actitus macularius), whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), surfbird, least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Baird’s sandpiper (Calidris bairdii), Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata), and red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)? It wasn’t enough for Mardy and Olaus Murie merely to count caribou for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arctic Alaska. They would have to fight to save the Arctic Range along the Beaufort Sea, as Bob Marshall had done with the Gates of the Arctic and as Leopold had done in the Gila wilderness. They needed to lobby the Department of the Interior not to build roads in the Arctic, because changes in drainage patterns adversely affected habitats.3

What Leopold most admired about Mardy Murie was her confidence that someday U.S. citizens would stand up and say no to the obsession of the “harassed world” with industrialization. While other conservationists grew discouraged by toxic smokestacks and coal-burning power plants, Murie continued to simply marvel at the unmarked Arctic, where the aurora borealis beamed forth hope.4 Her touchstone place was the 200-mile Sheenjek River, which flowed south to the Porcupine River from the highest peaks of the eastern Brooks Range, joining the Porcupine just northeast of Fort Yukon, Alaska. Anybody rafting down the smooth Sheenjek—which had only a few Class II rapids—had a good chance of seeing some of the 123,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, because this herd often partly wintered in the Sheenjek valley. (The largest caribou herd was the 500,000-strong Western Arctic group, which ranged the National Petroleum Reserve.) Cradled by the Davidson Mountains, the Sheenjek was also the water’s edge for Dall sheep, grizzlies, moose, and beavers.

Among Olaus and Mardy Murie’s close friends, only Starker Leopold (Aldo Leopold’s son, a professor of zoology at the University of California), Lowell Sumner, and George Collins knew the Sheenjek River well. The Muries realized that Mardy herself would have to spread the word about it, as John Muir and Ansel Adams had done for Glacier Bay. Certainly, Alaska needed farms, paved highways, modern industries, and mineral development—but the wilderness that made the territory unique should also be protected. The Muries hoped that saving a vast portion of the Arctic along the Canadian border could be promoted by national conservation groups (the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, etc.) and by a new local nonprofit, the Alaska Conservation Society. The Muries felt that the Glacier Bay area was being overrun with tourists on cruise ships (which Mardy called “floating nursing homes”). The Arctic needed to be preserved for the Gwich’in people and for true “Leopoldian” outdoors types. “Thoughtful people both in and out of Alaska were concerned, for the Age of the Bulldozer had arrived,” Murie wrote in Two in the Far North. “Scientists like Starker Leopold, Lowell Sumner, F. Fraser Darling, and George Collins, who had recently traveled in Arctic Alaska, began writing and talking to Olaus.”5

II

Collins—taking advantage of the momentum created by the publication of Darling and Leopold’s Wildlife in Alaska—thought about how best to protect the Arctic from despoliation. His foot-numbing explorations in the region (frostbite was in fact a constant risk) weren’t holidays on the tundra, but despite the hardships he amassed reams of biological data for the Department of the Interior. Ideally, Collins concluded, the Gates of the Arctic area would become a national park. But the Arctic Range along the Canadian border—particularly the scenic Sheenjek River—should be designated a roadless wilderness where not even tourism would be promoted. There would be no gateway villages to the Arctic Refuge—nothing like Gatlinburg or Jackson Hole. The Wilderness Society’s concept of “roadlessness” would be established in Arctic Alaska. Otherwise, tracked vehicles would wreak havoc on the tundra.6 “While we were out in camp with Leopold and Darling, we had many discussions about this park idea,” Collins wrote to the Arctic archaeologist Louis Giddings. “Every one of us came to the same conclusion—that a national or international park is the only solution. No other form of land use is a sufficient guarantee of security in our opinion.”7

What the Arctic conservationists were proposing was a national park (or wilderness area) four times greater than Yellowstone. Flying over the Yukon Territory, both Collins and Sumner began thinking of a vast international park. As coauthors of a “Progress Report,” Collins and Sumner wrote that the Arctic Refuge had to remain free of “artificial disturbance,” and sportsmen’s activities there would need to be strictly controlled. Theodore Roosevelt had saved the Grand Canyon by means of the Antiquities Act of 1906 for “scientific reasons.” Similarly, the early cold war generation in Alaska, inspired by A Sand County Almanac, wanted a baseline virgin ecosystem to compare and contrast with other Arctic Circle lands damaged by the industrial order. The Sierra Club’s president, Benton MacKaye, wrote in Scientific Monthly that an “Arctic Park” would be a “reservoir of stored experiences in the ways of life before man.”8

If The Wilderness Society liked using the word wilderness, the National Park Service was invested in the notion of primeval lands. It was, at face value, a semantic issue. Wilderness seemed more commonplace than primeval, which harked back to efforts at the turn of the twentieth century to protect ruins such as Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The Oregon Caves had been saved in 1909 as a national monument, with local boosters calling themselves “cavemen.” The Izaak Walton League (the premier anglers club) and the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs both supported an “Arctic Wilderness” because it was based on honoring “primeval values.” Numerous Darwinian scientists and Arctic Eskimo leaders in the early 1950s used the term primeval to explain the evolution of Homo sapiens. “We hurt because we see the land being destroyed,” Trimble Gilbert, an Arctic chief, lamented. “We believe in the wild earth because it’s the religion we’re born with. After 10,000 years our land is still clean and pure. We believe we have something to teach the world about living a simpler life, about sharing, about protecting the land.”9

In November 1952 Collins and Sumner offered the Department of the Interior a twenty-three-page paper, titled “A Proposed Arctic Wilderness International Park” and illustrated with handsome photographs. A version of this report appeared in the Sierra Club Bulletin as “Northeast Alaska: The Last Great Wilderness.” “Unless an adequate portion of it can be preserved in its primitive state,” the report claimed, “the Arctic wilderness will soon disappear.”10 Because no single country owned the north pole, it made sense to the authors to form a collaborative agreement with Canada. After all, polar bears, caribou, and wolves didn’t recognize artificial borders. Ottawa hadn’t yet dealt in earnest with Washington, D.C., about the “one habitat” concept; but President Eisenhower was a hero in Canada for having staged the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-day during World War II. While he was not a conservationist himself, Eisenhower had a vision of working closely with Canada on building the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which would link the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean; and with regard to conservationist proposals, he was known to be cautious and slow, but not automatically opposed. Perhaps the Arctic International Park could be sold to Eisenhower as a bilateral initiative between two members of NATO?

Only half a year later, Collins and Sumner abruptly changed their minds about the international park. The Eisenhower administration was going to be pro-development in Alaska. The Department of the Interior might approve a Gates of the Arctic National Park—with extensive recreational facilities for visitors to the central Brooks Range—but it was unquestionably opposed to Bob Marshall’s concept of wilderness simply for the sake of wilderness. Aging New Dealers were being retired from Interior, and it became clear that Eisenhower was more friendly toward Humble Oil than Franklin D. Roosevelt had been—and that this attitude would affect Alaska’s wilderness. Advocates of wilderness at the Department of the Interior had been pampered by Harold Ickes. Now, greed and shortsightedness, two threats to conservationism, had returned to the forefront of the American public lands system, where they had been in the 1920s. The cold war was on, and the CCC had been dismantled. Minerals were in and mallards were out; and the president of General Motors, “Engine” Charlie Wilson, proclaimed that what is “good for General Motors is good for the country.”11

But President Eisenhower—who tremendously respected the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt—wasn’t an unreasonable man. That would prove vital for the conservation movement. There were murmurs at Interior that Eisenhower wanted to keep the cold war out of the Arctic and Antarctic, that he was considering international treaties to protect the poles. Also, Disney’s film White Wilderness, about the Crislers’ wolf pups, was being edited for release in 1958. Disney had also optioned Ernest Thompson Seton’s book Lobo, the King of Currampaw to be made into a pro-wolf documentary filmed in New Mexico.12

III

In the early 1950s, following the publication of A Sand County Almanac and Round River, the U.S. government, for the first time, earnestly pondered how to save Arctic Alaska. However, with the Korean War being fought and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin looking for communists under every bed, Alaska was a low-priority issue. But to conservationists the time seemed near, if it hadn’t exactly arrived, when millions of acres in the Arctic should receive permanent protected status. While the Crislers were making their film with Disney and Ansel Adams was measuring the light around Mount McKinley, many well-to-do conservation societies had a newfound interest in Arctic preservation. Photographs of the Brooks Range—impressive summits, monotone shoulders, and empty white spaces—appeared in the glossy pages of National Geographic. Readers could almost hear the booming wind. Robert Marshall’s Alaskan Wilderness became a cult work within the conservation community; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas handed out copies to office visitors as if the book were his business card.

Capped by the gaunt summits of the Brooks Range, the inviolate Arctic offered timeless permanence in a postwar era characterized by transience and consumerism. Sir Frank Fraser Darling, a Scotsman whom the Sierra Club called the “Einstein of ecology,” joined with the New York Zoological Society (which Theodore Roosevelt had helped found) to advocate protecting the Alaska-Yukon Arctic as a counterpart to Africa’s Serengeti, centered on the Porcupine caribou herd. Darling worked with Starker Leopold to publish the landmark Wildlife in Alaska: An Ecological Reconnaissance. Comprehensive in approach, this book explored the interconnectedness of caribou herds, wolf dens, snowy owls, brown bears, and the entire North Slope. Darling and Leopold believed that the U.S. Department of the Interior had a “national responsibility” to save this primeval animal range, marine sanctuary, and nourishing landscape. Each American generation since TR had its own rendezvous with the wilderness, and Arctic Alaska was suddenly the landscape of the moment. Because Alaska was still a territory, without influential U.S. senators to represent it, the Interior Department could be directed to parcel out vast wilderness reserves relatively easily. The big question was which agency would be the best steward of Arctic Alaska.

Collins, head of the Alaskan Recreation Survey, had traveled far and wide across the territory in the mid-1950s, being flown around the North Slope and island-hopping in the Aleutians. He was a walking field guide to Alaska, able to predict ice and virga. By plane, he surveyed 147 Alaskan sites, from Bristol Bay to Clark Mountain to the Beaufort Sea, for potential protection by the National Park Service. Sometimes in flight Collins encountered the mysterious fata morgana (a mirage caused by layering of intensely cold or cool air against the water, sea ice, or land). His comprehensive 1955 report—A Recreation Program for Alaska—was aimed at widening tourists’ opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, cross-country skiing, river rafting, and mountain climbing. According to the historian Roger Kaye in Last Great Wilderness, Collins—a career officer in the National Park Service from 1927 to 1960—envisioned a “fuller range of wildland values” through “transcendental and romantic concepts and new perspectives” promoted by conservationists such as Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and the Muries.13 Collins believed the postwar rush to over-timber, over-mine, and over-drill in Alaska had to be thwarted. Already the wildlife biologist Lowell Sumner was warning the Department of the Interior that spraying DDT would kill Alaskan lakes and forests as well as the insect hordes it was aimed at. Nature was under attack; there was an increased risk of species extinction and overexploitation of natural resources in Alaska.

Collins was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1903. Many of America’s most effective environmentalists came from the upper Midwest. Aldo Leopold and William Temple Hornaday were from Iowa. So, too, was Congressman John F. Lacey, who from 1892 to 1906 did more than any other U.S. politician except Theodore Roosevelt to protect wildlife by means of federal legislation. Besides the Muries, Sigurd Olson (a staunch wilderness advocate and biologist), Gaylord Nelson (a Democratic senator and founder of Earth Day), and Joseph Hickey (who served Wisconsin and the conservation cause as both state governor and senator), all came of age in Wisconsin. If you grew up in Wisconsin, you could explore Leopold’s shack in Sand County and Muir’s childhood home, Fountain Lake Farm, as historical landmarks of conservation. In photos of Collins as a young man growing up in Wisconsin, he has the look of Gene Autry, but with bushier sideburns. Usually Collins kept the top button of his checkered shirts fastened, as if he might want to attach a bolo tie at a moment’s notice. Collins was a master of surveying the public domain and offering plans for preservation. “George had a hilarious sense of humor,” Ginny Wood recalled. “And whatever he wrote about Alaskan lands was absolutely true, solid geography. He wasn’t a lot of hoey.”14

Encouraged by Horace Albright, head of the National Park Service, Collins had a conservationist résumé in the Lower Forty-Eight that helped make him highly effective in wild Alaska: serving as superintendent of Lassen Volcanic National Park in California; working as a ranger at the Grand Canyon from 1930 to 1935; running a CCC camp at Lake Mead (which had been created by Boulder Dam in 1936); establishing a district office for the National Park Service in Santa Fe; protecting the Channel Islands off the coast of Oxnard, California; and overseeing the survey that saved Point Reyes National Seashore. But Collins isn’t praised in college courses in environmental history, for a single reason: he supported the construction of Glen Canyon Dam.

Glen Canyon Dam was indeed folly. In 1956, the Upper Colorado River Storage Bill was introduced in Congress. For $756 million, a huge dam would be built near Page, Arizona. To environmentalists, damming the wild Colorado River was sacrilegious. The construction area—along the Arizona-Utah border—constituted some of the world’s most gorgeous canyon scenery. Governor J. Bracken Lee of Utah, however, declared that the Glen Canyon Dam was “just the beginning of a long range program that will build up the West.”15 Eventually the bill was passed, and construction began on one of the largest reclamation projects in American history. President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the official construction of Glen Canyon Dam—which formed Lake Powell—on October 15, 1956, by pushing a remote control at the White House, triggering an immense explosion in the Southwest. Huge hunks of Glen Canyon’s west wall tumbled down thunderously.16

The Sierra Club, which had stopped Echo Park Dam, was silent about Glen Canyon Dam, evidently influenced by people like Collins and cognizant that Arizona would get 6 percent and Utah 13 percent of the electricity generated by the blocked Colorado River. “Glen Canyon died in 1963, and I was partly responsible for its needless death,” the club’s executive director, David Brower, lamented in his autobiography, For Earth’s Sake. “Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out, it was too late.”17 But the feisty novelist Edward Abbey had known that Glen Canyon was the Colorado River’s “living heart.” For decades he protested against the dam—and against the men who promoted it, like Collins. Abbey’s novel of 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang, begins with protesters dropping a huge black plastic banner showing a lightning-like crack down the dam as if the concrete were ruptured and crumbling. And the local Navajo predicted that the sandstone holding the dam in place couldn’t last more than fifty years; nature would someday liberate the Colorado River.18

Still, Collins did a lot of good in Alaska. By drafting recreational plans for the territory he proved that there were ecologically responsible ways for tourism to be a boom industry in Alaska. His ordering of a biological survey of Katmai National Monument—known primarily for its volcanoes—led to new knowledge that the area was among the best brown bear refuges in the world. And his recognition that today’s Arctic NWR was, in fact, one of the greatest wildlife corridors in North America earned him a place on the Alaska Conservationist Hall of Fame honor roll.19 “That is the finest place of its kind I have ever seen,” Collins said of the Arctic Range. “It is a complete ecosystem, needs nothing men can take to it except complete protection from his own transgression.”20

Collins—who was famously photographed with his two Saint Bernard dogs at his side when he was in Alaska, and bundled up in fur-lined parkas for long Arctic treks—was enamored of the central Brooks Range. Looking eastward toward the Yukon Territory border, Collins pronounced his determination to create an “Arctic International Wildlife Range”—a pure wilderness zone not subjected to sabotage for the sake of oil, gas, or coal, but intended for “the everlasting benefit and enjoyment of man.”21 Collins obtained money from the National Park Service to prepare a survey on the potential boundaries of an Arctic park; his plea for restraint pertaining to oil development in the Arctic was being taken seriously in Washington, D.C.

Empowered by Marshall’s influential book Arctic Village (and Frank Dufresne’s Alaska’s Animals and Fishes, published in 1946), Collins was starting to think in the same long-range ecological terms as The Wilderness Society. Sumner was in full agreement with Collins, stating that Alaska’s Arctic Range needed to be protected “unhindered and forever,” like Mount McKinley or Glacier Bay. A lover of the great outdoors, Collins was becoming part of what the historian Roderick Nash called a “national intellectual revolution” to save the Alaskan wilderness at all costs.22 “We saw the fallout of having a Park, or whatever you want to call the area, divided by an international boundary when you had so many migratory species, both marine and terrestrial, that used both sides of the line,” Collins explained. “We didn’t know what to call it. We used such terms as ‘conservation area.’ Generally it was a park to us, always and still is. . . . The scenery was enthralling. It was simply stupendous, beyond description, absolutely magnificent.”23

The fact that The Wilderness Society was making progress in protecting Alaskan landscapes, however, didn’t mean that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was filled with leaders like Mardy, Olaus, and Adolph Murie. Unecologically-minded Alaskans still saw wolves as vermin and seal fur as desirable clothing; many government agents agreed with them. The wild salmon in the Copper River were running too thin for comfort; the Wrangell and Saint Elias mountains were in need of federal protection. Magical places like the Matanuska valley, of which the village of Chickaloon was the hub—were hell-bent on allowing surface coal mines.

North of the Brooks Range, there were signs within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Alaska’s territorial game wardens thought Bob Marshall had exaggerated the allure of the Arctic. An example was Clarence Rhode, the half-knowing, half-uncaring director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. Rhode mistakenly invited Sumner on a friendly trip to survey the Arctic. Sumner saw it as a fine opportunity to count caribou on the springtime tundra, but he soon found himself shocked and disgusted. Members of the service’s delegation shot at wolves from airplanes whenever they were lucky enough to spot four or six trotting across the permafrost. Because the Arctic was flat and sparsely wooded, shooting the wolves was relatively easy. And these biologists were killing simply for sport, and later, in camp, bragging about their kills. Sumner developed a deep enmity toward Rhode: Where was the fair chase ethos? How could men of science be so ignorant?

Sumner returned to Fairbanks and thereafter cast a cold, skeptical eye on the directives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His own view of the Arctic, he now realized, was more in line with that of the Inupiat Eskimos and Athabascan Indians than with that of the Truman administration. Clarence Rhode’s employees, he now knew, had outdated ideas about controlling predators. And Rhode himself, only marginally interested in wolf ecology, was especially proud that the stockmen’s associations, market hunters, and oil, coal, and ore developers of the Alaska territory considered him an ally in subordinating nature. That was a hard-won honor for a federal employee in Alaska. Sumner began a campaign against Rhode and in favor of creating a huge Arctic Range reserve—something that would far exceed Mount McKinley National Park in protected acreage. As a start, Sumner collaborated with Olaus Murie, the director of The Wilderness Society, about saving Arctic Alaska, saying he felt strongly that it was “one of the most spacious and beautiful wilderness areas in North America.”24 Throughout the early 1950s Sumner, who did not flinch from being a maverick, went after Rhode relentlessly. His journal is peppered with sharp, condescending remarks about Rhode’s ignorance of the biological sciences. Sumner was convinced that Rhode wanted wolves exterminated to placate the politicians in Juneau. “My impression is that F & W’s policies are those of game farming of all wildlife,” Sumner wrote. “It seems to me that at the hands of our Government the Arctic is a very perishable place.”25

So Sumner made his dissent and made it forcibly. And if he wasn’t changing bureaucrats’ minds, he was certainly galvanizing conservationists: he was admired by many wardens for courageously slapping Washington, D.C., awake. But this was clearly a rearguard action. Rhode boasted that in 1951 his service killed 287 Alaska wolves, and he promised that the number would rise. Furthermore, a future governor of Alaska, Jay Hammond, boasted that he had shot 300 wolves from his plane in a single month.26 An aggressive new effort to poison wolves was under way in the Brooks Range. Rhode had approved dropping strychnine-laced bait in the Arctic, and he saw no reason why cyanide charges—mines—shouldn’t be buried in springs near wolf birthing areas in the Brooks Range. Native Americans complained, but to little avail, that strychnine “bombs,” tossed from planes, were also devastating wildflowers, caribou, and so on. “The wolf is universally hated in Alaska,” Larry Meyers explained in the magazine Alaskan Sportsman. “It is hated with an intensity which seems to be handed down from our primordial ancestors—an instinctive hatred tinged with fear.”27

IV

Although they weren’t consulted about it in any meaningful way by the U.S. government, the Gwich’in Nation of Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada wanted the coastal plain along the Beaufort Range permanently protected. They called the area Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”). Boldly the Gwich’in Nation started standing up to oil companies, protesting against strychnine, and opposing the mining of the Arctic Range. The coastal plain they knew was the birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd (where 40,000 to 50,000 calves were born annually). Journeying across the range, maps in hand, Collins sought the best borders for his envisioned international park. Quietly he observed with field glasses a huge herd. The Gwich’in villages were located along the migratory route, and to the Gwich’in people the caribou represented life itself. They drew on the herds for clothing, tools, medicines, and food. These 8,000 Native people started demanding equal rights for Arctic residents in the 1950s.

What to do about the Gwich’in? That concerned both Collins and Sumner. There was a saying that if “Gwich’in retained a part of the caribou heart, then the caribou would, in turn, retain a part of the Gwich’in heart.”28 In other words, the people and the caribou had a symbiotic relationship: the fate of the Porcupine herd would determine whether the people’s distinctive culture survived. Creating a national or international park didn’t make sense to Collins. Glacier Bay National Monument had struggled with how to handle issues of hunting and fishing in a preservationist site. Collins knew he had to honor traditional Gwich’in subsistence living in whatever designation was chosen for the Arctic Range. “We had a tradition of hunting and prospecting,” Collins explained. “We had international interests to consider. . . . It was felt in the service and in the department, I think, that national park status wasn’t quite the thing for this one.”29

Environmental activists seldom have enough political power or money to make changes—but they often know how to write. And there is no question in reading the reports of Collins and Sumner about the Arctic—unofficial documents not cleared through the Department of the Interior—that the campaign for Arctic preservation was promoted in mid-1951. Collins and Sumner would seize every advantage, work both sides of the aisle, and be essentially shameless in pursuing the goal of saving the northernmost third of Alaska. All this effort, however, could take them only so far. In the end, the American people would have to demand that Arctic Alaska be saved. A coalition of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the National Park Association, and The Wilderness Society (among other nonprofits) would have to work for the Arctic Range. Operating in their favor was the fact that Alaska was still a territory. Around Anchorage, however, the movement for statehood was gaining momentum. Both Collins and Sumner now believed that conservationists could start lobbying Capitol Hill with a quid pro quo in mind: statehood for Alaska only if a sizable part of the Arctic became a nature reserve where the new wilderness philosophy would be honored.

Toward the end of his life even Theodore Roosevelt—the great hunter himself—wrote four or five essays on the advantages of wildlife photography over rifles. Ansel Adams wandered around Denali in 1948 taking amazing photos of Mount McKinley. Very few photographers, however, trekked up to the Arctic, because special equipment was needed in such cold country. On the North Slope the sun never set from May 10 to August 2. And from November 18 to January 23 the sun never rose. For visual artists, this meant that the sun didn’t get high over the horizon; so they got low-angle light with distinct shadows. Add to the situation nameless valleys, stark mountains, and needle-sharp rocks, and very few people volunteered for Arctic duty. Only a few hardy photographers, such as Richard Harrington and Bates Littlehales, have made art from the Arctic. But Walt Disney Productions had discovered Lois Crisler—the author of Arctic Wild, for whom the “wolf’s call” was so powerful that “nothing else would do but to look deeply into its eyes on its home ground”—and people were starting to think about Alaska. As Starker Leopold noted, Robert Marshall emphasized the topography of Brooks Range whereas Crisler focused on “a great living whole, with its proper animals going about their business.”30

The Crislers were smart to focus on Arctic wildlife. For unlike redwoods or oaks, waterlogged muskeg depressions, filled with mats of decayed vegetation and moss, hadn’t yet found defenders. While botanists might marvel about large areas of Arctic ground displaying arrays of geometric shapes called ice wedge polygons, it wasn’t the sort of ecosystem that garden clubs held raffles to help protect. While a few photographers snapped close-ups of birdlife along the Beaufort Sea, aerial shots of the Arctic showed that endless cycles of freezing and thawing had caused the ground to crack in patterns similar to dried mud. Clearly, in the “big cold” decomposition had outraced accumulation. While caribou roamed the valleys and arctic grayling overwintered in deep pools, it was thestillness that was the real natural attraction. North of the Yukon River was like Washington and Oregon combined, without many human footprints. And there were a lot of thermals in the ever-changing sky.

The bond that kept all the Arctic Alaskan activists together was Olaus Murie—and he was very sick. In 1954 he was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis (the disease his brother Martin had died of in 1922). Olaus headed to National Jewish Hospital in Denver—the best hospital in America for respiratory illnesses. For fifteen months he underwent experimental antibiotic treatment, determined to breathe without tubes. Never financially well off, constantly living hand-to-mouth, Mardy found employment as the secretary of the Denver office of the Izaak Walton League.31

All the pharmaceuticals in the world didn’t offer the curative power of fresh air. Once the Muries returned to Moose, Wyoming, they reconnected with friends in The Wilderness Society for a conference at Rainy Lake, Minnesota. They became preoccupied with protecting Arctic Alaska. Coughing constantly, clearing his throat of phlegm, Olaus believed that he had one great act left in him and that, with death knocking on his door, cautious activism no longer made sense. He also started looking for young recruits. The Muries now were going to help Herb and Lois Crisler get their “white wilderness” preservationist message to college students. Furthermore, the Muries would help organize expeditions to Arctic Alaska with employees of the Department of the Interior. Olaus believed that if U.S. politicians actually spent a week in Arctic Alaska in late summer, when the blueberries were ripe and the fireweed was blooming, camped along a gravel bar or in a field of wildflowers, they would never dream of opening up the Brooks Range or coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea for development by the extraction industries. The Muries’ ideals about the wilderness were now being translated into direct action as never before. And the Muries had the spirit of Aldo Leopold to bolster them.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!