Chapter Two - Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation Doctrine


Roosevelt would have given his eyeteeth to be an ornithologist on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, exploring what are today Glacier Bay National Park, Misty Fiords National Monument and Wilderness, and Chugach National Forest to observe bald eagles, whales, seals, bears, and more. But, alas, he was at that time governor of New York and couldn’t get away to a far-distant sphere. Albany seemed to him like an eddy in a stream where branches float backward and accumulate in the mud, a logjam of bureaucracy—not a free, wild place like southeastern Alaska. The rhythm of natural history discoveries was Roosevelt’s passion in life. Oh, to have been able to discuss the king eider (Somateria spectabilis) with John Burroughs and mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) with John Muir! Governor Roosevelt’s stars, however, did not align in 1899; he would have to wait for the future to see the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, and the Bering Sea land bridge site for himself. But Roosevelt was gearing up—like the twenty-eight prominent Americans documenting the natural world along 9,000 miles of Alaska’s coastline from the Elder’s deck—to make protecting the “great land” a key component of his conservationism.

An accomplished naturalist and adventurer, Roosevelt had eagerly read the scientific reports written by the faunal naturalists on the Harriman Expedition as they were periodically issued. He was especially impressed with the work of George Bird Grinnell (editor of Forest and Stream), Dr. C. Hart Merriam (chief of the U.S. Biological Survey), and William H. Dall (paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey and honorary curator of mollusks at the U.S. National Museum). Sometimes Roosevelt was envious of Dall, who had three species—the Dall porpoise, Dall sheep, and Dall limpet—named after him. By 1899 only the Olympic Range elk (Cervus roosevelti) had been named—by Merriam—in Roosevelt’s honor. The Harriman Expedition was Dall’s unprecedented fourteenth trip to wild Alaska; his first visit had been in 1865, to study the possibility of an intercontinental telegraph line. Dall had encyclopedic knowledge of all things Alaskan and was teasingly nicknamed “Inuit Dall.” His book Alaska and Its Resources (1870) was a bible to U.S. government agents traveling in the district after Seward’s purchase.1

Once Roosevelt started reading Dall on Alaska, he began thinking about ways to protect Alaska’s species (and their habitat) in perpetuity. Now, in 1899, as New York’s conservationist governor, he was setting the tone for the rest of America, including Alaska. The big-game hunter Dall DeWeese had also gone to Alaska in 1897 to shoot a trophy bull moose (Alces alces) on the Kenai Peninsula. He bagged an antler rack that set a record at the Boone and Crockett Club. Antlers of an adult moose in Alaska weighed around seventy-five pounds and had a seventy-two-inch spread. Most adult caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and moose shed their antlers by January, after the rut. Female caribou shed theirs in the springtime after calving (often not until June). Female moose have no antlers.

But when DeWeese went back the following summer, the moose population on the Kenai Peninsula had been severely diminished by market hunters working in the lowlands. Roosevelt was livid over DeWeese’s report—the Alaskan moose might soon go the way of the Great Plains bison. Roosevelt, working with the New York Conservation Society and the Boone and Crockett Club (which he had cofounded), started planning to create a moose refuge in Alaska, on Fire Island (the first in the world). To Roosevelt’s chagrin, the reports of the Harriman Alaska Expedition, of which he started getting advance copies in 1900, were short on moose biology. (That wouldn’t have happened if he had been a mammalogist on the Elder, along with Merriam and Grinnell.)

Roosevelt believed that, like bison on the Great Plains, moose added an alluring charm to the Alaskan landscape. He wanted a tough law that Alaskans had to get special permits to hunt moose only in season, when the antlers were biggest. His views weren’t far removed from those of the Koyukon people of Alaska, who claimed that wild animals weren’t property. “Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of those who are alive today,” Roosevelt said, “but the property of unknown generations whose belongings we have no right to squander.”2

Paradoxically, stories of the Harriman Expedition mooring off Kodiak Island to hunt bears fascinated Roosevelt no end. Back in the 1880s in the Bighorns of Wyoming, he had shot grizzly bears. It was an ambition of his to bag a Kodiak bear as E. H. Harriman had done in Alaska. (Harriman, in turn, had partially modeled his thirteen-volume report of the expedition on Roosevelt’s three outdoors memoirs about the Dakota Territory.) There was, however, a dissenter: Muir thought that Harriman, Merriam, and others stomping around Kodiak Island to bag bear trophies in the name of “science” were a childish and pathetic spectacle. To Muir, his cruise compatriots were cruel fools, idiotically abandoning the glories of Prince William Sound to become “gun laden” actors preparing “for war.”3 The excuse Merriam offered was that he was writing the definitive study of Kodiak bears; he needed an “old bruin” to study biologically. E. H. Harriman, the railroad tycoon, was the expedition member who shot the biggest brown bear. A Russian hunter, paid as a scout, had killed a second. The expedition taxidermist, Leon J. Cole, was dispatched from the Elder to skin the enormous bears and bring their furs back to the ship.4

Roosevelt’s attitude—that of a faunal naturalist—seemed to envelop the Harriman Expedition. A lot was accomplished in a short time. Roosevelt’s old friend, the illustrator Robert Swain Gifford, was chosen by Harriman to sketch scenes from the two-month voyage. Gifford had ably done the illustrations for Roosevelt’s book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, published in 1885. Burroughs, Roosevelt’s dear friend, promised to tell the governor about all the Alaskan birds when he returned to New York. Merriam had reviewed Roosevelt’s first book—a pamphlet, really—titled Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, back in 1878; they became fast friends. Merriam headed the Biological Survey and was the person Roosevelt corresponded with most often about North American mammals and birds. Then there was Grinnell, founder of the original Audubon Society in 1886, with whom Roosevelt had started the Boone and Crockett Club. Together with Grinnell, they saved the Lower Forty-Eight herds of bison, antelope, deer, elk, and moose from extinction. These cronies of Roosevelt, traveling together on the Elder, were determined now to save parts of wild Alaska just as they had done for Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Adirondacks.

E. H. Harriman was so rich in 1899 that he didn’t need a letter of introduction in Alaska. But Roosevelt was close to Governor James Brady of Alaska—they had a family connection—and saw to it that Brady rolled out the red carpet for the Harriman Expedition in Sitka, a fishing and forest town in the Alexander Archipelago. If they were going to save wild Alaska, including what birds and game weren’t shot-out, Brady would be a crucial ally. At this time, Harriman was fifty-one years old and, as chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, one of the richest and most powerful men in America. By the time of his death in 1909—when he was worth $100 million—Harriman had overseen the Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Saint Joseph and Grand Island, the Illinois Central, the Central of Georgia, the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company, and the Wells Fargo Express Company. Years afterward, however, it was his scientific expedition to Alaska that earned him his permanent place in history.5

When Roosevelt became governor of New York in January 1899, Alaska was very much in the news. While he formed the Rough Riders in San Antonio, Texas—the volunteer cavalry outfit—to fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Klondike gold rush was on. The U.S. Army had charted the upper 500 miles of the Yukon River in Alaska, inadvertently opening up the Klondike gold fields to placer mining. Prospectors and preachers, prostitutes and poachers, thieves and roustabouts—all came tumbling into Alaska in record numbers. While only a few men made fortunes in 1890, Alaska’s mineral production was estimated to be $800,000; by 1904, gold production alone had risen to $10 million.6 A few of these boomers, too, became millionaires; but most found themselves cursing the cold, inhospitable climate.

Because of his elite upbringing as a New York Knickerbocker, Roosevelt rejected the kind of get-rich-quick schemes that the novelist Knut Hamsun had condemned. Nor did Roosevelt believe that corporate monopoly should have a role in the Alaska district. What interested Roosevelt most about Alaska—besides the moose in the Kenai Peninsula—was that wholesome, God-fearing pioneer families were starting to put down permanent roots. The principal Christian denominations in the Lower Forty-Eight, through the Federal Council of Churches, had divided up zones in which to bring New Testament principles to the Native Alaskan people. Different sects sent missionaries to different regions: Fairbanks (Catholics); Kenai Peninsula (Baptists); Point Hope (Episcopalians); Brooks Range, Anaktuvuk Pass, Barrow, Wainwright, the Alexander Archipelago (Presbyterians); and Anchorage (Methodists). At their best, the missionaries taught sanitation, medicine, and math. At their worst, they prohibited dancing and frowned upon Native arts and crafts as perverse. Both benignly and purposefully, an erosion of Native Alaskan culture was under way.

One Presbyterian missionary hoping to Christianize the Chilkat Tlingit was John Brady (who served as governor of the district of Alaska from 1897 to 1906).7 Brady, living amid mile-long glaciers and shimmering coastal waters, would do anything for Roosevelt—literally anything—because he owed his life to Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (the president’s father). Brady was based in Sitka (on Baranof Island) with the Pacific Ocean serving as his backyard, and he was properly concerned that thirty-seven salmon canneries were operating at capacity around the Inside Passage, the glorious waterways that Muir had extolled in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. In 1894, for the first time, packers in the Alexander Archipelago had exceeded the million-case mark by late fall. Overfishing was becoming a menace. Grinnell had likewise complained in his report for the Harriman Expedition that Alaskan Natives were being swindled by the rapacious salmon industry. “For hundreds of years,” he wrote, “the Indians and Aleuts had held those fisheries with an actual ownership which was acknowledged by all and was never encroached upon. . . . No Indian would fish in a stream not his own.”8

Perhaps in repayment for having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. regularly found foster parents for homeless children in New York during the late nineteenth century. John Hay, a family friend, claimed that TR Senior had a “maniacal benevolence” to help slum children. He was a founder of the Children’s Aid Society; he paid support stipends for dozens of waifs through that society; and he spent every Sunday at the Newsboys Lodging House, offering counsel as a sort of father figure. One afternoon in 1854 TR Senior saw little John Brady, in ragged clothes and with disheveled hair, begging with a tin can around Chatham Square. Within a few weeks TR Senior had gotten the ragamuffin Brady, whose father was a drunken longshoreman, placed with a foster family in Indiana. He took personal pride in Brady’s graduation from Yale University in 1874. Next for Brady was a scholarship to Union Seminary; he excelled at ecclesiastical scholarship and was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Then Brady studied law, with a plan to help Native Americans get ahead in society. In 1878 he moved to Sitka, Alaska, and founded the Presbyterian mission school there. (This school, which later became the Sitka Indian Industrial Training School and still later Sheldon Jackson College, was an industrial vocational institution for Native Alaskans.) The words of Jesus had arrived on the panhandle.

When Muir was touring Glacier Bay in 1879 and 1880, Brady, the only serious rose horticulturist in Alaska, had been teaching Tlingit and Haida children how to speak English, and introducing them to the scriptures. The huge glacier where Muir and the dog Stickeen had almost died would be named after Brady. On July 15, 1897, after McKinley’s election as president, Brady became governor of Alaska. Brady was a protégé of Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who had been trained at Princeton University and who was pro-temperance, pro–Native American rights, and pro-conservation. Jackson, in fact, imported reindeer from Siberia on the cutter Bear and released them at Amaknak Island in the Aleutian chain. Reindeer—domesticated caribou—were then introduced near Port Clarence in Northwest Alaska, and Jackson hired Laplanders to teach Native peoples how to become reindeer herders.9 Much of Brady’s work, like Jackson’s, involved trying to properly educate Alaska’s Native populations—the Aleut, Athabascan, Tlingit, and other peoples—and insisting that they were equal to whites. Although Brady and Jackson meant well, their promotion of Christianity and of English as a first language led to the destruction of many Native American cultural mores.

Brady’s town, Sitka, once a peaceful village, was populated in the late 1890s by 40,000 non-Native argonauts trying to make a strike in the Klondike. Like the voyageurs of the fur companies in the Canadian northwest, they came hungry for wealth. Brady telegraphed the U.S. Army for immediate help; troops arrived with what might today be described as riot gear and dispersed the gold-seekers away from Sitka.10 Roosevelt had lobbied for him. “Your father picked me up on the streets of New York, a waif and an orphan, and sent me to a Western family, paying for my transportation and early care,” Brady reminded Governor Roosevelt when they met in 1900. “Years passed and I was able to repay the money which had given me my start in life, but I can never repay what he did for me, for it was through that early care and by giving me such a foster mother and father that I gradually rose in the world until I greet his son as a fellow governor of a part of our great country.”11

When Roosevelt suddenly became America’s twenty-sixth president in September 1901—after the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo, New York—the district of Alaska hadn’t yet earned U.S. territory status (until May 7, 1906, it was simply federal district property). With Brady serving as the leading light of Alaskan politics, Roosevelt called for Alaska’s representation in Congress (a half measure was adopted in late 1906, when Alaska was given a voteless delegate in Congress). While Alaska had executive and judicial officers, the district was without a legislative body until 1912. This gave Brady, as district governor, political clout in Alaskan affairs during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Harriman himself praised Brady’s hospitality and intelligence after spending time with Brady seeing the natural wonders around Sitka. Brady had taken Harriman, Burroughs, Merriam, and others swimming in a hot spring outside Sitka (at a camp frequented by the Sons of the Northwest). The bubbling waters, the smell of sulfur, and the steam hissing out of the little pond made the hot spring like a spa—and a curative for the cabin fever that had beset the passengers on the Elder. But Muir, the moralist, objected to the Sitkans’ hunting practices. Muir recalled that the overseer at the hot spring “murdered a mother deer and threw her over the ridge-pole of the shanty, then caught her pitiful baby fawn and tied it beneath the dead mother.”12 Such brutality to animals, including killing at point-blank range, always turned Muir’s stomach.

Until the advent of Roosevelt, officials in Washington, D.C., were baffled about what to do with Alaska’s soaring mountains, hidden caves, sumptuous forests, and extensive coastline. Extraction in all its many manifestations seemed wisest. The intimidating Alaskan landscape was so large that rivers just disappeared over horizons and mountain ranges unfolded in staggered rows toward a surreal blue infinity. Deeply influenced by the Harriman Expedition’s reports—the publishing venture overseen by Merriam, which grew into thirteen thick, illustrated volumes—Roosevelt knew that the U.S. government had to properly manage the remarkable forestlands, fisheries, and wildlife resources. These reports became his administration’s all-purpose reference points for Alaskan scientific research and management of public lands. A conservation ethos had to prevail in Alaska, to prevent the twentieth-century industrial order from turning the district into slagheaps, cesspools, and tracts of stumps. Important gold discoveries—Fairbanks (1902); Valdez Creek (1903); Kantishna (1905); Richardson, Chandalar, and Innoko (1906)—were becoming annual occurrences. Gold, however, wasn’t going to save Christian souls, help First Nation people prosper, or protect the forestlands of Alaska.

Besides reading the Harriman Expedition’s reports, Roosevelt received from a Seattle studio copies of images produced on the 1899 cruise. Edward Curtis’s black-and-white photographs of Alaska’s natural wonders floored the president. Curtis (born February 16, 1868, in Whitewater, Wisconsin) was well known to people interested in the Pacific Northwest wilderness for taking amazing landscape photos of Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains, and the island-dotted Puget Sound. Grinnell, an expert on Native American culture, met Curtis one afternoon at Mount Rainier. A fast friendship ensued. Curtis had just taken his first portrait of a Native American: Princess Angeline (the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle). Grinnell became an enthusiastic booster of the youthful thirty-year-old Curtis, who thus got the job with the Harriman Expedition.

Using a six-by-eight camera, developing his own film in the ship’s darkroom along the Alaskan coastline, Curtis brilliantly documented the surreal boldness of Alaska in 1899, using the high-latitude light to produce textured prints documenting glacial action. Regularly, Curtis explored glaciers with Muir, perfecting his photographic techniques. While Muir was sketching glaciers, Curtis recorded their advances and retreats. Scientists concerned about global warming in the early twenty-first century used Curtis’s prints as archival evidence of what used to be. Historians have a sense of Alaskan glaciers, icebergs, and fjords in 1899 because of Curtis’s devotion to his craft and to science.

When the expedition ended, Curtis was commissioned by Harriman to make the Souvenir Album of Alaska. Feverishly working overtime to get this volume ready by 1900, Curtis did a remarkable job of laying out what he saw as the two Alaskas—soaring nature and desolate poverty. His Native American portraits, soon to become his calling card, sadly display acculturation at work. Eskimos, seen through Curtis’s honest lens, were abysmally treated by whites as lowly servants. Curtis’s village images were a haunting testament to the ramshackle, dilapidated fishing communities of the Alaskan coast, which looked nothing like the happy cottages of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. In Curtis’s portfolio, sealing camps were slums where gutted whale carcasses and bloody dirt dominated the landscape. Curtis frowned on the vicious slaughter of walrus—strong animals, but defenseless against a harpoon or gun. Captains of the hunting schooners in the Bering Sea all seemed amused by a new cutthroat attitude: the idea that Alaska was like a ripe melon to be sliced and diced for profit by outsiders. Washington, D.C., was too far away to enforce anything. Curtis’s bold photographic images demonstrated that if overfishing continued, treasured places like Prince William Sound would become whale cemeteries. Curtis, always studying the light, started being referred to by Native Americans as a “shadow catcher.”13

But Curtis made nature in Alaska radiate with transcendent light and love. Prefiguring Ansel Adams’s Alaskan photographs by almost half a century, Curtis’s icebergs looked like marble sculptures by Henry Moore. Curtis’s photographs of volcanoes in the Aleutian Range, some people said, were as majestic as Frederic Church’s landscape paintings. Any connoisseur of natural wonders would be touched by Curtis’s elegiac Alaskan images, such as Muir Glacier, Orca Harbor, The Way to Nuntak, and Last View of the Pacific. His most enthusiastic fan of all, it seemed, was Theodore Roosevelt.14 Writing the introduction to Volume 1 of Curtis’s magisterial twenty-volume work The North American Indian, Roosevelt said, “In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. . . . Because of his extraordinary success in making and using opportunities, [he] has been able to do what no other man has ever done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis, in publishing this book, is rendering a real great service; a service not only to our people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.”15

President Roosevelt wanted to help Alaska—its nature and its Natives—prosper. Henry Gannett, the chief geographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, was his well-placed ally in drawing up new maps for the territory. After spending several amazing weeks on the Harriman Expedition, hiking along ice-cloaked fjords with Muir and Burroughs, marveling at the majesty of coastal rain forests and pendant-shaped waterfalls, Gannett realized that “nature tourism” would become a major Alaskan industry. He rejected outright the notion that Alaska should be tapped for gold, copper, coal, and other sources of extractable wealth. “There is one other asset of the Territory not yet enumerated, imponderable, difficult to appraise; yet one of the chief assets of Alaska, if not the greatest,” Gannett wrote. “This is the scenery. Its grandeur is more valuable than the gold or the fish or the timber, for it will never be exhausted. This value, measured by direct returns in money received from tourists, will be enormous, measured by health and pleasure it will be incalculable.”16 National Geographic echoed his sentiment in the coming years. “The Alaska coast is to become the showcase of the earth,” the magazine predicted in 1915. “Pilgrims, not only from the United States but from far beyond the seas, will throng in endless procession to see it.”17

Just as a Texan cattle rancher wouldn’t tolerate claim jumpers overrunning his pastures, President Roosevelt objected to California boomers racing up to Alaska and timbering and gold mining on public lands. Natural resource management wasn’t going to be a free-for-all under his administration. No matter how many gold discoveries were trumpeted in the Fairbanks Daily-Miner or the Yukon Press, Alaska belonged to the U.S. government, not to bonanza seekers—end of story. As landowner in chief, Roosevelt envisioned the Alaska district as a loosely knit fabric of well-run small towns surrounded by federal forest reserves and wildlife refuges.18 Mining and timbering would be localized. Over time, civic responsibility would emerge. Alaska would be America’s permanent wilderness zone. When asked by the Wall Street Journal if such an exercise of executive power might not hurt his popularity, Roosevelt scoffed at the idea, saying that he wasn’t a “college freshman” and that therefore he always acted on behalf of the long-term “public in- terest.”19

With the whole Harriman Expedition cheering him on, Roosevelt insisted that an honest court system had to be established in Alaska, one willing to take to trial a huge backlog of civil and criminal cases. The Aleutian Islands had virtually no courts, and the Yukon valley regularly delayed trials. Lawyers who could marshal pro-conservation arguments needed to be appointed and complemented by more honest judges, or else the 375 million acres of pristine Alaskan landscape would be ravaged. Disdainful of the disgraceful way the Russians had slaughtered seals on the Pribilofs, Roosevelt believed the judge’s gavel was needed in the territory, as much as Paul Bunyan’s ax. A better tax system had to be established. The Hamiltonian side of Roosevelt’s political personality wanted strong federal regulations for the Alaska district, from Point Barrow all the way down to Ketchikan. Meanwhile, in Juneau, Brady served as Roosevelt’s political watchdog over U.S. public lands that were being protected.


During the spring of 1903, President Roosevelt made a “great loop” tour of the American West, promoting conservation; it included stops in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. By the time he arrived in Seattle on the steamer Spokane, the president was on a conservationist mission to protect Alaskan lands from overmining, overfishing, market hunting, and deforestation. Dry-hole oil speculators were starting to drift to Alaska, motivated by the automobile craze, calling petroleum the new whale blubber. Parading through thirty-five blocks of downtown Seattle, Roosevelt eventually made his way to the original grounds of the University of Washington. He gave a thumbs-up to the totem pole in Pioneer Square. More than 50,000 people listened to him deliver a stem-winder about protecting the natural resources of places such as Prince William Sound, the Alexander Archipelago, and the Tongass. Behind him was a banner that read, “Alaska Greets the President.” Roosevelt was asserting the supremacy of federal law in the Alaska district. The great primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest and southeastern Alaska, he said, belonged to the American people. The highlight of Roosevelt’s three days in the Puget Sound area was his address to the Arctic Brotherhood, a fraternal organization founded in 1899 on board a steamer traveling from Seattle to Skagway. Perhaps mellowed by the free-flowing booze, Captain William Connell had suggested en route that a “Brotherhood of the North” be formed. Membership in what became the Arctic Brotherhood was restricted to white males over eighteen who lived in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territory, or parts of upper British Columbia—men who knew what it was to endure the severity and length of an Alaskan winter. The brotherhood’s mascot was the polar bear, and trudging off for getaway hikes and hunts was what its members did best. Accepting honorary membership in the brotherhood, Roosevelt warned the other members that conservation had to be part of their mission.20

“Most of the people of this country are wholly in error when they think of the mines as being the sole, or even the chief, permanent cause in Alaska’s future greatness,” Roosevelt said in his address in Seattle. “Let me tell you just exactly how I mean it. In the case of a mine, you get the metal out of the earth. You cannot leave any metal in there to produce other metal. In the case of a fishery, a salmon fishery, if we are wise—if you are wise—you will insist upon its being carried on under conditions which will make the salmon fishery as profitable in that river thirty years hence as now. Don’t take all of the salmon out and go away and leave the empty river to your children and your children’s children.” Then Roosevelt went after Pacific Northwestern timber companies that were already at the gates of southeastern Alaska, waiting to clear-cut vast stretches of forestlands. Limited logging was fine, Roosevelt said. But at all times, the “preservation of the forest for the settlers and the settlers’ children that are to come in and inherit the land” had to be the governing ethic.21*

As the Arctic Brotherhood learned, when it came to protecting Alaska’s natural wonders and wildlife resources, there was no gentleness or delicacy in Roosevelt’s manner. Whether you entered Alaska by the Copper River, the Kuskokwim delta, or the Yukon territory didn’t matter—the conservationist doctrine had to be followed. As a forest conservationist, fascinated by America’s different physiographic conditions, Roosevelt was particularly worried about the fate of Alaska’s boreal woodlands, which extended from the Kenai Peninsula to the Tanana valley near Fairbanks and stretched northward to the Brooks Range. Trees with high commercial value—white spruce, quaking aspen, paper birch, western balsam, poplar, and larch—blanketed Alaska in immense stands. Roosevelt knew that once the Klondike gold veins dried up, timber corporations such as Weyerhaeuser Lumber would be ready to speed up the logging of old-growth forests without even replanting, leaving places such as the exquisite Tongass barren. Roosevelt was determined to protect Alaska’s millions of forested acres from senseless destruction.

Roosevelt’s brain trust for Alaskan forestry was Gifford Pinchot. Born just after the Civil War in Simsbury, Connecticut, to a father who made a fortune in timbering and land speculating, Pinchot probably knew more about the perils of deforestation than anybody else of his generation. Over six feet tall with a handsome full mustache, Pinchot, Yale University’s silvicultural prodigy, was a mighty fighter for the cause of forest protection. Pinchot, in fact, was considered the father of the modern forestry movement. He became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, appointed by President Roosevelt in 1905.

A virtual fixture in Washington, D.C., society from 1890 to 1946, Pinchot could often be seen walking in the streets around Dupont Circle, noticeable in an instant by his broad-brimmed, floppy brown hat. A believer in the wise use of natural resources, Pinchot also devoted his life to preserving many of America’s pristine forestlands. Congress had passed legislation creating forest reserves in 1897, and this gave Pinchot his opening to make history. Working under Roosevelt, Pinchot helped save more than 150 million acres—mainly in the American West—as protected national forests between 1901 and 1909.

One problem Pinchot faced in Alaska was that surveys were scant. In 1902 he had dispatched William Langille—a Canadian-born Oregonian known in the Forest Service as Pinchot’s eyes and ears—to do reconnaissance in both the Chugach and the Tongass forests of Alaska. Using dogsleds and dugout canoes to get around, Langille immediately recognized that the Alexander Archipelago, Chugach, and Tongass were richer in trees than the entire Rockies of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana combined. “Special attention should be paid to species, age, and distribution of the forest bodies in different sections,” Pinchot had instructed Langille, “noting relative sizes, etc. in reference to geographical, physical, and altitudinal position.”22

According to people associated with Roosevelt and Pinchot, unless Forest Service rangers like Langille continually hiked or patrolled by canoe, timber trespassers around Puget Sound, backed by Wall Street capital, would swoop into Alaska, destroy forestlands, never replant, and leave the tiny timber communities to starve. Tree stumps, runaway unemployment, and silted rivers would be the legacy of “big timber.” Instead of sustainable communities built by pioneer families, ghost towns would spread from Homer to Seward to Ketchikan. Roosevelt had seen this trend all over the Wild West. Determined Rooseveltian conservationists like Langille envisioned the coastal forests of southeastern Alaska—an extension of the rain forests of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia—remaining as national forests. There would be no huge cities, no steel mills like those in Pittsburgh, no Tacoma cable running from hill to hill, no seal-skinning slums on the disappearing glaciers. Instead, little Alaskan fishing and lumber towns would be settled by permanent populations like those found in British Columbia, unencumbered by the gospel of greed. Langille, who kept scrupulous record books, would soon be tasked with arresting timber thieves, issuing occupancy permits, enforcing game laws, and working closely with the Biological Survey, Fish Commissions, and Geological Society.

When it came to Jack London’s tales of prospecting in Alaska and the Yukon, Roosevelt was a scold. Although he admired London’s heartiness, he hated The Call of the Wild, deeming it tacky “nature-faking.” Roosevelt—a cheerleader for the Harriman Expedition—wanted Alaska studied for its caribou herds, its grizzly and polar bears, the giant walrus, its seabirds. He was not interested in phony wolf stories. The heroes of Alaska, to Roosevelt, were the U.S. Forest Service agents like Langille, the conservationist law enforcers who arrested the dirty, unkempt gold seekers who thought Alaska was a casino to gamble their lives in. Roosevelt disdained “cheechakos,” avaricious miners flooding into southeastern Alaska who had no family values, no fashion, no manners, no code of ethics. To Roosevelt these gold seekers were like ice worms, digging into the land without any sense of community-building. London described prospectors on the California iron trail feeding Native Americans liquor, but this sad notion sickened Roosevelt. As a former police commissioner in New York City, who admired explorers, army officers, foresters, and biologists, he had zero tolerance for boozers, rabble-rousers, and malcontents, many so dirty that they stank, who didn’t know a snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) from a dusky shrew (Sorex monticolus). What he admired about cowboys was their work ethic, cleanliness, homestead lifestyle, and equestrian skills; none of these rancher qualities were apparent in the “let’s blow up a mountain” ice worms.

On public lands leased from the U.S. government in Alaska, Roosevelt preferred mining coal from the ground rather than dynamiting mountains in search of coal seams. When he could—as in the cheerful cases of designating Crater Lake (Oregon) and Mesa Verde (Colorado) as national parks—he worked in tandem with Congress. But if legislators resisted him, he steamrollered over them, invoking the new Antiquities Act to protect, for example, the Grand Canyon of Arizona or Devils Tower of Wyoming. The Antiquities Act gave any U.S. president the prerogative, on behalf of scientific investigation, to prevent public land from being exploited. On eighteen occasions Roosevelt used this act to set aside national monuments by means of executive orders. In addition, Roosevelt issued executive orders creating fifty-one federal bird reservations, four game preserves, and more than 150 national forests. Roosevelt had also introduced a host of modern wildlife protection laws. Calling in 1909 for a World Conservation Congress, Roosevelt wanted to protect the world’s oceans against overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution from oil and sewage. Because Alaska had so much shoreline, he saw it as an ideal place to usher in a new marine conservationism, one enlightened by the image of Earth as a single pulsating biological entity, in peril from industrialization. (As the historian T. J. Jackson Lears has argued in No Place of Grace, Roosevelt was antimodern in his belief that “country life” was superior to urbanization.23)

By the time of his address to the Arctic Brotherhood in 1903, Roosevelt had already made a first bold preservationist strike in Alaska. On August 20, 1902, he set aside the Alexander Archipelago, a 300-mile-long group of forested islands off the southeastern coast of mainland Alaska (named after a former head of a Russian fur-trading company). On that day more than 4.5 million acres of Alaska were protected in perpetuity. Muir, Merriam, Grinnell, and Burroughs had been eloquent about the Alexander Archipelago in the Harriman Expedition’s reports. These islands contained huge rugged mountains, high tundra, plunging valleys, and blindingly green rain forests. The fir-timbered islands in the Alexander Archipelago were an incubator for tens of thousands of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), pine siskins (Spinus pinus), harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus), northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis), black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani), and a large number of whale species. There was no such massing of wildlife anywhere else. In his memoir Travels in Alaska, Muir said that the Alexander Archipelago, whose melting glaciers were powerful enough to carry mountains to the sea, was his new “home” of “pure wilderness.”24 Native tribes called the archipelago the “Great Raven’s World” (the raven being considered cleverest of all animals). This lavishly diverse land was interlaced with spectacular inlets, fjords, glaciers, mountains, estuaries, thick meadows, muskegs, and high tundra.25

Roosevelt also saw this new Alaska reserve—modeled after the Thousand Islands reserve of upstate New York—as a preemptive strike against Great Britain and Japan, whose cold-blooded market hunters were still clubbing fur seals in American waters around the Pribilofs. “We have taken forward steps in learning that wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people alive to-day,” Roosevelt said, “but the property of the unborn generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.”26Roosevelt also wanted to make sure the land rights of the Native Alaskan peoples—the Inupiat (in the Arctic), the Tlingit, and the Haida (in the panhandle)—would be protected. On a map, the Alaska Panhandle looked like an extension of British Columbia. But now, owing to William Seward’s fine diplomacy of 1867, and to Roosevelt’s conservationist convictions, the Alexander Archipelago was permanently safeguarded. Accepting advice from Grinnell, Roosevelt hoped that the Tlingit and Haida would be his watchdog rangers around the islands, making sure the luxuriant stands of tall natural timber remained. Roosevelt encouraged the residents to be whistle-blowers for the U.S. Forest Service if any illegal activities were being pursued by canneries.

Because Roosevelt’s uncle Robert Barnwell Roosevelt had been the leading American ichthyologist from the 1860s to the 1910s, protecting fish populations and creating hatcheries was something of a family business. The Roosevelts were early believers in the idea of artificial fish propagation, useful in Alaska, where the salmon runs were getting thin. Roosevelt insisted that for every red salmon taken from Alaskan waters, at least four new fish had to hatch. This was a variation of his policy “Plant two trees for every one cut down.” In 1903 Roosevelt moved control of Alaskan fisheries from the U.S. Treasury Department to the recently founded U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, which was tasked with regulating the industry. Roosevelt wanted the Bureau of Fisheries to fund Alaska’s growing salmon propagation program. Tension rose between Alaskan citizens and the federal government. But Roosevelt, bypassing Congress, created two huge fish hatcheries in Alaska, which were vehemently opposed by fish packers. Toughening his regulation policies even more, Roosevelt wanted Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield to regulate the mouths of all Alaskan rivers, streams, and bays within a three-mile radius. A reluctant Congress grappled with Roosevelt’s scheme; in the end it changed the limit to 500 yards as a compro- mise.27


The notion of creating an Alexander Archipelago National Forest first came to George T. Emmons, a former naval lieutenant. Emmons gloried in Alaska’s wilderness; he supervised Alaska’s display at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition.28 At the time, Emmons was considered America’s reigning authority on Tlingit and Haida totem poles, and major museums worldwide collected Native pieces acquired by him. Nobody in the East, in fact, knew more about the islands, glaciers, and waterways of southeastern Alaska than Emmons (with the possible exception of John Muir). At a glance Emmons could distinguish edible plants like nagoonberry, fiddlehead fern, and wild celery from poisonous ones. Although he was based in Princeton, New Jersey, Emmons spent long summers in Sitka, studying everything from orcas (Orcinus orca) to short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea). A true Renaissance man, he also considered himself a novice cetacean (whale) biologist, polar authority, and climatologist.29 When the Harriman Expedition’s ship anchored in Sitka, he brought the members to a hunter who had brown bear skulls for Merriam to study properly. Emmons was a disciple of Robert Barnwell Roosevelt and considered the Gulf of Alaska one of the finest marine biological zones in the world. Serving as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears concerning fishing regulation, he was determined to make sure the Alaskan coastal waters weren’t overfished or degraded.

At Roosevelt’s request, Emmons wrote a cut-and-dried report—“The Woodlands of Alaska”—promoting the Alexander Archipelago as a national forest and protected waterway. Emmons’s knowledge of these southeastern Alaskan islands was based on personal exploration—a practice that always found favor with Roosevelt. Emmons’s report noted that much of Alaska’s wilderness was a patchwork of tundra, not suited to become a forest reserve. There were millions of acres of permafrost (frozen soil but not ice) in Arctic Alaska where thermometers regularly shattered in the severe cold. In the Arctic Ocean, there were solitary icebergs the size of Saint Louis or New Orleans. No cartographer had ever properly mapped the vast Brooks Range or coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea.30Anchorage wasn’t even a city yet. Emmons didn’t think the extraction industries could do much damage that far north. But he worried that in a generation the great primeval forests of southern Alaska would be clear-cut if the federal government did not intervene. And the offshore waters were teeming with marine life; the departments of Commerce and Labor needed to police Alaskan fishing villages like Sitka and Katalla to send a broad message: the U.S. government, not fish-packing companies, controlled the waters.

After careful scientific consideration, Emmons suggested that the Alexander Archipelago islets should remain “one immense forest of conifers,” a sacred place where the coast hemlock and Sitka spruce could thrive along protected coastlines.31 Only limited timbering would be allowed on the Alexander Archipelago islands, without the threat of the pulp industry’s sawmills. Emmons, in fact, concocted a plan for how the Roosevelt administration could work around fishing camps, sawmills, and canneries, and oversee a first-rate forest reserve.32

With his “dream of a national forest in Alaska” accomplished by way of the Alexander Archipelago, Roosevelt set his sights on protecting other forest ecosystems in the aftermath of the Harriman Expedition.33 Roosevelt boldly proclaimed the 4.9 million-acre Chugach National Forest—adjacent to Anchorage—in 1907. (The new forest reserve absorbed the Afognak.34) Vast stands of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), and Alaska cedar in south-central Alaska were saved by the U.S. Forest Service from the maw of the timber and coal industries. To Muir’s delight, more than 10,000 glaciers were also part of the Chugach; currents regularly broke off chunks of ice and carried them out to sea. Roosevelt was worried that the Chugach, if not managed by the federal government, would be destroyed by the pulp industry and by fish packers. Much of the federally protected ancient forest was located around Prince William Sound, which extended from the Copper River on the east to the Kenai Peninsula on the west.35

The Chugach National Forest—a subpolar rain forest—was perhaps Roosevelt’s most ambitious move with regard to conservation. Throughout the Chugach Mountains, which provided Anchorage with an ideal natural backdrop, rivers and creeks interlaced with snowfields, salmon wove their way to the Gulf of Alaska, wolverines (Gulo gulo) and bears were on the prowl, and explorers could easily get lost in whipping mists and rain squalls. Geographic features were named after animals: for example, Ptarmigan Lake and Caribou Creek. (All around the Kenai Peninsula, there were natural features eventually named after former U.S. presidents, such as Harding Icefield, Grant Lake, and Johnson Pass Trail.) Overnight the Chugach became the northernmost addition to the portfolio of the U.S. Forest Service; there were many gurgling creeks and milky blue-green rivers that nobody had yet named. All along Resurrection Creek, however, could be found the scars of mining. Heaped-up cobble and gravel marred the riverbanks.36

Nobody in the East—with the exception of the faculty of Harriman’s “floating university”—could have imagined the diversity of Chugach National Forest. Essentially there were three bioregions within its boundaries: the Copper River delta (site of the premier salmon run in the world), Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula. The mantles of glaciers—which Muir had described on the expedition of 1899—were world-class around Prince William Sound. The members of the Harriman Expedition, having a little fun, named glaciers they encountered after schools: Columbia, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Dartmouth, Holyoke, Barnard, Smith, Wellesley, Amherst, Williams, and Harvard among them.37 There were numerous tidewater glaciers calving into Prince William Sound. Other glaciers clung to mountains; Muir, poet of the Chugach wilderness, wrote about them in a journal: “The sail up this majestic fjord in the evening, sunshine, picturesquely varied glaciers coming successively to view, sweeping from high snowy foundations and discharging their thundering wave-raising icebergs, was, I think, the most exciting experience of the whole trip.”38

The Forest Service—the largest bureau within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—had its work cut out for it in policing the sprawling Chugach. Its rangers, emboldened by Pinchot’s esprit de corps, sometimes had sole responsibility for overseeing millions of acres of both land and sea. From 1903 to 1911 Langille worked like an FBI agent, hunting down timber scoundrels in the Chugach and illegal fishermen in Prince William Sound. Simultaneously, he kept pushing for more Alaskan lands to be run by the Forest Service. Locals thought the Alaskan wilderness should be clear-cut and turned over to the pulp and paper industry. Langille scoffed at the “corporate frontiersman,” interested only in exploiting land for a single generation and not in preserving it for the long run. Among all the places managed by the Forest Service, only the Philippines were as isolated from the Lower Forty-Eight as the Chugach. In 1909 the boundaries of the Chugach included all of Prince William Sound along with such landmarks as Montague Island, Controller Bay, and the thousands of unnamed glaciers that Muir treasured. Sometimes it seemed to Langille that all the non-Natives in Alaska were corruptible. Even Governor Brady, Roosevelt’s friend in Sitka, had been hoodwinked by a con man, Harry Reynolds, into investing in a sham home-rule railroad. Reynolds had persuaded Brady to be a member of the railroad board even though he was still governor. An embarrassed Roosevelt had Brady fired in 1906.39

Langille had made Yes Bay, a cannery village near Ketchikan, his Forest Service headquarters. Having grown up along the Hood River of Oregon, he was an expert skier. During the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s he had traveled from Dawson to Nome looking for gold. For a while Jack London had been his cabin roommate in the Yukon, and he had known the dog “Buck” from The Call of the Wild. Rough-hewn, as fit as a lumberjack, endowed with the guts of a pioneering Arctic explorer, Langille was the kind of rugged outdoorsman the Forest Service hired to oversee Alaska’s forestlands. While in Nome, prospecting for gold, Langille received a wire from Gifford Pinchot asking him to oversee federal forestry in Alaska. Langille, wearing his only suit, went to Washington, D.C., in 1902 to plot a strategy for Alaskan lands with President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. His annual salary would be around $2,000.

Upon returning to Alaska, Langille went on a reconnaissance mission all over the territory. Like a French-Canadian voyageur during the old days of fur trapping, Langille canoed up the Stikine River, inspecting sawmills, canneries, and Native villages. His reconnaissance was extensive. In April 1904, he traveled from Juneau to Controller Bay all across Prince William Sound and then onward to Norton Sound. Living off the land, Langille shot rabbits and ptarmigan with his .22 rifle, reeled in grayling with homemade flies, collected wildflowers to be studied back in the East, and mapped boundaries for potential forest reserves. Langille was a one-man Corps of Discovery operating in the twentieth century, watching over Alaska. Or, perhaps more accurately, Langille was Roosevelt’s top cop in the big woods.

Roosevelt, influenced by Langille, withdrew the Tongass National Forest in 1907; it consisted of nearly all of southeast Alaska from Dixon Strait (in the south) to the Yakutat forestlands (in the north). Within the forest were parcels of private land.40 Not long after the creation of the Tongass reserve came the great consolidation. In 1908, TR combined the Alexander Archipelago reserve (which he had saved in 1902) with the new Tongass reserve to form one huge entity of 6.7 million acres. The entirety was now designated the Tongass National Forest (named for the Tongass tribe of the Tlingit people).41 The Tongass—carved out of the public domain—stretched over 500 miles from north to south in Alaska and included more than 11,000 miles of rugged coastline (a figure equal to nearly 50 percent of the entire coastline of the Lower Forty-Eight). To look at it another way, the new national forest blanketed an area exceeding 61,000 square miles—about 80 percent of southeastern Alaska.42 Today it is one of the world’s largest surviving temperate rain forests, with a biomass comparable to tropical rain forests in Venezuela, Brazil, or Costa Rica.

While the Tongass was certainly a large landmass, it wasn’t all forestland; there were many glacial waterways as well as limestone rock and varied vegetation. What mattered was keeping all the elements of the Great North Forest ecosystem intact. Roosevelt knew that soon, with the statehood movement advancing, entrepreneurs would start imagining clear-cuts, smokestacks, and roads. He wanted only a few sawmills, locally run, to be licensed for timber. No huge outside companies would be allowed. “The history of the Alaska territory up to that time had been a history of exploitation,” Kathie Durbin wrote in Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest. “The exploiters had come in waves, seeking sea otter pelts, gold, salmon, and crabs from the Aleutians, and ivory from the Arctic coast. These raids had depleted Alaska’s bounty, producing brief booms and generating great wealth for a few.”43 Roosevelt believed that the U.S. Forest Service could protect the Tongass in perpetuity. An array of chartered fishing vessels—purse seiners, halibut boats, gill netters, and trawlers—were allowed, but there were highly regulated catch limits.44

With scores of high, tumbling waterfalls; five salmon species in the streams; and brown and black bears around every bend, the Tongass was a wilderness paradise, considered by many to be among America’s most beautiful national forests. There were eagles and ravens everywhere. Nearly one-third of the Earth’s old-growth temperate rain forest grew in the Tongass coastal ecosystem. The estuaries and coastal meadows in the Tongass have been called a “biological buffet” of marine life. Annually, anadromous wild salmon leave the ocean and return to their Tongass freshwater birth streams to perish. Every spring humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) journey nearly 3,000 miles from Hawaii to the waters around the Tongass to breed and calve. “The Tongass is a place where people live with salmon in their streams and bears in their backyards,” the naturalist Amy Gulick, granddaughter of Sierra Club’s founder Edgar Wayburn, wrote. “It’s a land of remarkable contrasts.”45 Like Muir, Roosevelt wanted these lands and waters to be a cherished part of the American heritage forever. To desecrate such islands of the Alexander Archipelago as Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof was akin to rape and unbefitting of a conservation-minded citizenry working to benefit future generations. The Forest Service would hold the line in the Tongass and the Chugach, refusing to lease land tracts to huge corporate extraction businesses.

Unfortunately, many Alaskans loathed Roosevelt’s two national forests, the Tongass and the Chugach. The prevailing sentiment in Juneau-Sitka was: How dare Washington, D.C., tie up so much land to prevent strip-mining and clear-cutting? Before long, the Alaska boomers and sourdoughs complained, the maniacal public land conservationists would even try to save worthless muskeg bogs and thaw lakes. First- and second-generation Alaskans, particularly those in extraction and cannery businesses, turned livid at what they considered two blasphemous words: national forest. Mentioning Roosevelt’s name at a flapjack shack in Seward or a general store in Valdez guaranteed a negative reaction. Wisely, Roosevelt kept Langille—a forester, scholar, and artist to boot—as his first federal forest officer in Alaska. Locals couldn’t help liking Langille for his self-effacing, honest demeanor; he was always ready with a corny joke, though his hand was never far from his holster. Langille recommended to Roosevelt that Admiralty and Montague islands—offshore from Cordova in Prince William Sound—become protected wildlife reserves. “There is room for the frontier settler and fisherman on the shore land,” Langille wrote, “but keep out the fire and wanton game destroyers.”46

To put Roosevelt’s Alaskan forest reserves into perspective, the Tongass National Forest was the size of West Virginia and the Chugach National Forest approximately equaled Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined in acreage. This was clearly not just a clump of trees (eventually 6 million acres of the Tongass would be designated a federally protected wilderness). It was a first-round knockout punch for the naturalist side of the feud over the “two Alaskas.” Only California held more acres of federal reserves than Alaska.47 Limited, regulated logging would be allowed in the Tongass and Chugach forests, as would licensed hunting and fishing. But the Roosevelt administration was opposed to wholesale clear-cutting. Alaskans could chop down trees in the Tongass and Chugach to build houses, but out-of-state corporations wouldn’t be allowed to annihilate the virgin forests for quick profit. Southeastern Alaskan sawmills had to be community-based, family-owned operations. Each stage of logging on U.S. federal property in Alaska—marking, cutting, skidding, transporting, and milling—would be carefully regulated. The diverse wildlife—including deer, bears, eagles, and salmon—in these national forests would likewise be managed. Logging in Alaska, Roosevelt declared, had to be consistent with wildlife protection objectives. Simply put, Roosevelt vehemently objected to the harvesting of these national forests by timber barons or giant multinational corporations. As he had told the Arctic Brotherhood in 1903, smaller localized pulp mills should instead get the land leases. The rest of Alaska belonged to Uncle Sam.

There was in Roosevelt’s Alaskan wilderness withdrawals an element of aristocratic and scientific elitism, which had arisen from the white-linen tablecloth on the luxurious Elder. While Roosevelt did consider the Chugach and the Tongass “people’s forests,” his aim was to create wildlife sanctuaries for his fellow Ivy League–educated outdoorsmen to enjoy. Roosevelt always believed that wildlife and forestry were among the noblest professions. He intuitively trusted science-minded people because they hadn’t built their lives around earning fortunes. There truly were two types of Alaskans: those who saw the Chugach and Wrangell mountains as coal, gold, lands, and oil, and those who wanted to hike in magical places like Bagley Icefield and Kayak Island (where Vitus Bering had landed in 1741).

Alaska was abuzz, during Roosevelt’s presidency, with the news that oil seeps had been found fifty miles southeast of Barrow near Cape Simpson (locals would cut out oil-soaked tundra to use as fuel). In the easternmost part of the Chugach National Forest, oil was discovered seeping out of the ground near Katalla. In 1896, a prospector, Thomas White, shouted oil, in a voice that was heard loud and clear in the nearby Prince William Sound community of Cordova. White filed the first petroleum claim in Alaska, at the time that McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became president. What concerned Roosevelt was that the Alaska Development Company started getting an oil flow in 1902. Well Number 1 had been successfully drilled at 366 feet. By declaring all the lands surrounding the Katalla well part of the Chugach National Forest, the U.S. government suddenly controlled the future of the area as an oil field. Alaskans saw Roosevelt’s action as a federal land grab and decidedly not as nature preservation.

Not all the president’s reasons for creating the Chugach and Tongass national forests were inspired by preservation. He also wanted to address the economic concerns of southeast Alaska. Plenty of exemptions and withdrawals were allowed for local settlers. Roosevelt also had continual concerns about Canadians raiding U.S. forestlands and smuggling timber across the international line. Rangers and fire wardens of the U.S. Forest Service would serve as border protectors. As president, Roosevelt had enforced a federal law prohibiting the export of timber boards harvested from the Chugach or Tongass to any non-American market. These trees—alive or chopped—belonged to the American people. Southeastern Alaskan businessmen, in particular, protested against what they perceived as a federal stranglehold on potential timber crops. Why should citizens of Sitka or Ketchikan be denied global free trade? Roosevelt—and his small cadre of Pinchotian forestry experts operating in Alaska—argued that the Tongass and Chugach national forests actually helped frontier enclaves become sustainable communities instead of boomtowns. The Chugach and the Tongass were an inheritance to be passed on to future generations like jewels, gifts for time immemorial.


Besides the Tongass and Chugach reserves, Roosevelt created gigantic bird refuges of inestimable merit in the Alaskan territory. Far from being an empty icebox, Alaska, Roosevelt knew, was green for half the year, owing to the long days of the Alaskan summer, and swarming with great flocks of birds in every direction. The various loons—common (Gavia immer), yellow-billed (G. adamsii), red-throated (G. stellata), Pacific (G. pacifica), arctic (G. arctica)—were so commonplace that their haunting call was heard even in the Brooks Range, and it came to symbolize the North Slope. The significant date for Alaskan wildlife protection was February 27, 1909, during Roosevelt’s last two weeks as president, while all the political pundits were focused on the appointees of the incoming Taft administration. In 1909, TR proclaimed six federal bird reservations in Alaska by means of executive orders: Tuxedni, Saint Lazaria, Yukon Delta, Bering, Pribilof, and Bogoslof. They were far bigger in scope than all of his administration’s previous bird reserves in places such as Florida, Oregon, and Louisiana. And the Alaskan reserves were unsurveyed. To Roosevelt, hunting game birds for sport or science wasn’t a sin, but as a die-hard member of the Audubon Society he believed that killing an American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) or black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) just for the hell of it was a crime against God.

First among Roosevelt’s Alaskan bird sanctuaries was the Yukon Delta Reservation (today known as Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge)—eventually more than 16 million acres of flat delta stitched with rivers (mainly the Yukon and Kuskokwim) and dotted with hundreds of lakes, creeks, sloughs, and ponds. Roaming this huge lake-spattered tundra along the Bering Sea—the second largest in the United States, after the Mississippi—were caribou, lynx (Lynx canadensis), bears, and wolves (Canis lupus). Roosevelt knew, from E. W. Nelson of the Biological Survey, that in terms of density and biological diversity, the Yukon Delta terrain, like the Sacramento Valley, was an essential shorebird nesting area in the United States, the size of South Carolina. In the 1870s Nelson had brought back to Washington, D.C., nests and eggs from the salmon-rich Yukon Delta, to study them more carefully than he could on the marshy tundra.48 The reserve Roosevelt created was the size of South Carolina.49

Birds from six major flyways—from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern coast of Asia—would nest on the Yukon Delta or stop to rest and feed on their way to farther-off nesting grounds. Almost the entire world populations of bristle-thighed curlews (Numenius tahitiensis) and black turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala) breed there. Sheets of white birds often blanketed the landscape, making it look like a cotton field in Dixieland. Clouds of geese and ducks regularly swept across the sky, headed for the vast marshland during the great rush of spring. (Two of the sea ducks that regularly visited the Yukon Delta—the spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri) and Steller’s eider—are now listed as threatened and are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act.50

On February 27, 1909, Roosevelt created the Tuxedni Federal Bird Reservation (consisting of Chisik Island and Duck Island) with Executive Order No. 1039. The order provided for the protection of the nesting habitat for the largest aggregation of seabirds in Cook Inlet. Pelagic birds that congregated on the gravel beaches in these reservations included black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, horned puffins, glaucous-winged gulls, double-crested cormorants, the common eider, tufted puffins, and black oystercatchers. A fair number of passerine birds and raptors also thrived on the islands. This executive order actually exceeded bird-lovers’ hopes.51 Roosevelt, like a trickster raven, was brazenly confronting the “malefactors of great wealth,” claiming that a smew (Mergellus albellus)—the smallest Arctic sawbill—had more intrinsic value than a pulp mill.52

Roosevelt had first learned about the birdlife on Chisik Island from Dall, who was tasked with mapping Cook Inlet for the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1895. Dall had published detailed field notes about Tuxedni Island for the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (these notes were complemented with numerous maps). Roosevelt was enthralled by the scientific exactitude of Dall’s prose pertaining to volcanoes, talus slopes, Mesozoic fossils, and glacial plains. But it was Dall’s vivid description of birdlife that got Roosevelt’s juices flowing. “Near the beaches the rocks are worn into cave arches and pillars,” Dall wrote, “about which circle innumerable multitudes of sea birds.”53 But still, there was a dearth of reliable ornithological information, owing to a lack of local records, about the birds of Alaska until the late 1950s.

Perhaps the most enduringly fascinating of the Alaskan places that Roosevelt saved as a federal bird reservation was Saint Lazaria, a sixty-five-acre islet in the middle of the Alexander Archipelago. It supported an astonishing 500,000 seabirds. Why did Saint Lazaria attract these birds when other nearby islets didn’t? Roosevelt wanted an answer from the ornithological community. He got one. First, Saint Lazaria was a good incubator because of an absence of ground predators: there were no foxes, raccoons, or wolves. Second, the soft soil was ideal for seabird burrows. A third factor was that the birds on Saint Lazaria had an endless supply of fish in the surrounding waters. Saving Saint Lazaria had been recommended to Roosevelt by Edward A. McIlhenny—founder of the company that makes Tabasco, a Louisiana hot sauce—who had donated Arctic birds (representing sixty-nine species) to be studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.54


What has often been overlooked when environmental scholars list Roosevelt’s conservationist accomplishments in Alaska is that they were often accompanied by a preservationist ethic. This point didn’t escape the notice of the ecologist, environmentalist, and writer Aldo Leopold, a former employee of the U.S. Forest Service, whose Game Management (1933) is still a classic book on methods of maintaining wildlife. Leopold dutifully noted that “conservation” was a “lowly word” until Roosevelt made wildlife and forest protection his “cause.” Suddenly, the game hogs, market hunters, and salmon depleters were on the run. Fire lookouts were created on top of mountains and men were trained as smoke chasers. To be selected by Roosevelt’s U.S. Department of Agriculture for forest duty—as William A. Langille was in Alaska—was a high honor. “Wild life, forests, ranges, and waterpower were conceived by him to be renewable organic resources, which might last forever if they were harvested scientifically, and not faster than they reproduced.”55 According to Leopold, Roosevelt’s doctrine of conservation had three primary tenets regarding game and forests, and these tenets were essential to preserving Alaska’s wilderness:

1. It recognized all these “outdoor” resources as one integral whole.

2. It recognized their “conservation through wise use” as a public responsibility, and their private ownership as a public trust.

3. It recognized science as a tool for discharging that responsibility.56

In his classic work A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, Leopold added a fourth tenet to the Roosevelt doctrine. To enjoy a wilderness, the nature lover didn’t need to invade it (as a corollary, to love a species like the snowy owl didn’t mean killing it for a taxidermy mount). To Leopold the blank spots on the map, places without roads or towns, needed to be left alone, untouched. There was already too much industrial-agricultural stress on the land. For example, one didn’t have to travel to Arctic Alaska to hunt a Dall sheep to prove one’s mettle as a sportsman or as a scientist.

“Is my share of Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there?” Leopold asked. “Do I need a road to show me the arctic prairies, the goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kodiak bear, the sheep meadow behind Mt. McKinley?” Leopold answered his own question: no. As the twentieth century progressed, the new land ethic wasn’t about building modern roads or hunting game in “lovely country.” It was about “building receptivity” for ecosystems in human thinking, so that treasured landscapes like the Chugach and Tongass, the Yukon Delta, and Saint Lazaria could survive industrialization.57

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