Chapter Ten - Warren G. Harding: Backlash


Oil—that was the new rush in Alaska. Between 1910 and 1920, huge oil and gas reserves had been discovered at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Appetites were whetted. Alaskan boomers believed that it was only a matter of time until oil was struck in their vast backyard, and that oil would make them as rich as John D. Rockefeller. Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, James Garfield, spoke for all ultra-conservationists when he described Rockefeller in his diary, now housed at the Library of Congress, as a cold-blooded reptile: “Never have I seen a more sinister, avaricious face—repulsive and deceitful. I disliked to shake his hand, but of course could not cause comment by not doing so. . . . I wonder if anyone—outside his family—really cares for him apart from his money.”1

The election of Warren G. Harding of Ohio as the twenty-ninth president of the United States, in November 1920, deeply depressed Leopold, Sheldon, and Merriam. Harding, who had owned a newspaper in Ohio, believed that the pro-business Republican old guard had received a mandate vote—which was certainly true. He felt duty-bound to act on Rockefeller’s principle that the only good oil field was a drilled one. No sooner had Harding been sworn in as president, on March 4, 1921, than he opened up public lands in Alaska for development. Taking aim at the Bull Moose conservationists, he issued Executive Order No. 3421, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture was to abolish the designation of Fire Island in Alaska as a national moose refuge.2

But the conservationists’ sense of muted desperation after Harding’s election in 1920 didn’t last long. Citizens in Wyoming, angered over corruption in government, demanded that Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, a known foe of the conservationist clique inside the U.S. Forest Service, be investigated for land fraud. Fall’s shady dealings became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. The courts eventually decided that the Harding administration had illegally leased the U.S. Navy’s petroleum reserve No. 3 in Wyoming (near a rock outcropping resembling a teapot) to Harry F. Sinclair of Standard Oil without competitive bidding. At that point Harding had been in office for barely a year. Teapot Dome was just another sleazy grab of public lands, like the Alaskan coal mines controversy of 1909 over which Pinchot and Ballinger feuded. The decent folks of Wyoming, however, wouldn’t tolerate it. In 1921, Fall was indicted for conspiracy and accepting bribes. He was fined $100,000 and sentenced to a year in prison, earning the ignominy of being the first U.S. cabinet officer in history to serve a prison term for misdeeds in office. The oil fields were restored to the U.S. government by court order, and Teapot Dome remained the symbol of political corruption until Watergate in the 1970s.3

Although Teapot Dome captured the newspaper headlines, Alaskan public lands also suffered under Harding’s pro-development administration. But plagued by various scandals, and looking for an escape from journalistic criticism in the spring of 1923, Harding scheduled a trip to Alaska. As the historian Thomas Fleming aptly put it in the New York Times, Harding wanted to “get [away] from the stench that was rising in Washington” over graft in his administration.4 Harding, accompanied by three members of his cabinet—Herbert Hoover (State), Henry Wallace (Agriculture), and Hubert Work (Interior)—and others in the administration, went aboard the SS Henderson, steaming northward from Tacoma, Washington. Harding would be the first U.S. president to visit the Alaska territory. Excitement ran high in the territory because on February 27, by Executive Order No. 3797-A, Harding had withdrawn 23 million acres, extending from the Arctic Ocean to the Brooks Range, as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. Although the Naval Petroleum Reserve was too remote to be drilled, there were reports of oil seepage, and Harding was encouraging private companies to make claims there.5

The Harding party arrived in Seward on July 13. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner called it “The Glory of the Coming.” The first lady, Florence Harding, had also come on the tour, and the rumor mill was full of speculation that Harding was trying to mend a break caused by his adultery. Following World War I the Republican Party had started encouraging non-Native settlement in Alaska, and now Harding immediately started preaching the doctrine of prosperity to Alaskans. After a rally in Anchorage, he headed out to inspect the Chicaloon coalfields. Starting in 1914, Alaska’s coalfields had been placed in public entry—a low bid would get an entrepreneur a lease for extraction. A gouging of Alaska was under way, particularly in the coal seams just north of Mount McKinley. Bored by the grand scenery, not even stopping to hear a bird trill when he visited the national park, Harding seemed indifferent to the blue skies and green woods of Alaska. No meetings with game or forest wardens were included in the itinerary. Even when a moose crossed the road, Harding yawned. Complaints from fishermen that the coal and timber industries were polluting the Gulf of Alaska fell on deaf ears. Harding never had any burning curiosity about the natural world. Talking to handpicked audiences, he implied that he wanted to hear the kaboom of dynamite across the last frontier. Someday Ketchikan would be bigger than Seattle and Fairbanks, a new Minneapolis at the top of the world. On July 15, Harding played the part of an engineer on a railroad run from Wasilla to Willow. And then he drove a golden spike with a maul at Nenana, a new railroad hub to symbolize the completion of the 470-mile line connecting Seward and Fairbanks.6

President Harding missed two hammer blows in driving the gold spike; but this event was actually a high accomplishment compared with his folly regarding his wardrobe. Listening to Admiral Hugh Rodman, a supposed climatologist, Harding told his entourage to wear heavy wool sweaters, parkas, galoshes, gloves—the whole array of winter clothing—even though it was mid-July. The temperature hit ninety-five degrees, and some members of Harding’s party collapsed from heat prostration and dehydration. Knowing nothing about Alaska except the profitability of drilling, timbering, and mining had its downside. Meanwhile, reports reached Harding, as he crossed Prince William Sound in a naval ship, that many of his “Ohio gang”—cronies who used a green house on K Street in Washington, D.C., as their headquarters—were being indicted. This was unsettling to the president.7

Nevertheless, Harding pressed on with his Alaskan junket. What he hoped to convey in Alaska was his desire for mechanized progress in this last frontier. No longer were a pick and shovel needed to look for gold. Technology had turned the search into a corporate endeavor complete with large-scale machines and hydraulic mining techniques.8 There was still wilderness to be conquered—lots of it. Harding, serving as a mouthpiece for big business, also announced his plan to take a ride on the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, owned by the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate. This seemed a deliberate insult to Pinchot, who was now governor of Pennsylvania but who remained an ardent opponent of the syndicate and its development efforts in Alaska. As it turned out, the ride was canceled at the last minute. The first lady, who was five years older than the president, had a bad stomach and fallen extremely ill. A few years earlier she had lost a kidney, and this had caused her health to deteriorate in general.

Harding’s Alaskan trip then took an awful turn. On the voyage back to San Francisco aboard the Henderson, he himself became gravely ill, possibly from shellfish poisoning. Severe stomach cramps overcame him. He felt clammy and dizzy. His usual ruddy complexion had gone sheet-white. Somehow the president managed to deliver a speech in Vancouver, British Columbia, before a crowd of 40,000 well-wishers. But once offstage he continued complaining of abdominal pains. He was not only sick but in a foul mood. When told that the ship had serious maintenance problems, and that water was flooding into a cargo compartment, Harding snapped, “I hope this boat sinks.”9

Conspiracy-minded Alaskan boomers suspected, crazily, that some associate of Pinchot’s, or a bitter fisherman, had deliberately poisoned the physically exhausted Harding. No evidence of such poisoning has ever been found; but a few days after becoming sick in Sitka, a spent Harding died in a San Francisco hotel suite on August 2. Reporters called it the “curse of Alaska.” The official diagnosis was a heart attack, but physicians said that the possible bout of food poisoning might, hypothetically, have triggered the infarction. Progressives had long called for American seafood to be inspected by the Food and Drug Administration so that people wouldn’t get sick from shellfish, but Harding and his associates had scoffed at the notion. A cross-country funeral procession took place, and then Harding’s flag-draped coffin was placed in the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda. A few days later Harding was buried in a mausoleum in Marion, Ohio. American conservationists were scathing in their assessment of Harding as a steward of the land. They believed that since the creation of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1849, Harding had been its poorest custodian. But many Americans loved Harding.


Replacing Harding as president was Calvin Coolidge, perhaps most remembered for his famous line “The business of America is business.”10 In terms of personality, the taciturn Coolidge seemed the polar opposite of Roosevelt. But Coolidge, even with his belief in limited government, recognized that Roosevelt had been a force of nature. He praised Roosevelt’s efforts to build the Panama Canal, the Great White Fleet, and reclamation dams throughout the West as great American work. As much as Coolidge abhorred Roosevelt’s penchant for what he considered excessive federal spending and overtaxing, he felt that his predecessor’s desire to protect America’s wildlife and create national parks wasn’t such a bad thing. Coolidge—despite his image of being as lifeless as a waxwork—was an avid fly fisherman; he spent much of the summers of 1926, 1927, and 1928 in waders, gleefully looking for trout.11

When, in 1924, Congress at last allowed Native Americans to become citizens, Coolidge had marked the event by wearing a feathered headdress; and he was glad when a Tlingit, William Paul Sr., became the first Native elected to the Alaskan territorial legislature. Coolidge thought natural resource management should be decentralized. He encouraged states to develop their own conservation plans. In a highly symbolic act, Coolidge worked to protect Alaska’s moose population, perhaps demonstrating with this small gesture that he cared about the natural world. And on a summer fishing vacation in the Black Hills (Custer State Park), President Coolidge suggested to the sculptor Gutzon Borglum that Roosevelt should be included on Mount Rushmore along with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.12

Somewhat surprisingly, and to his everlasting credit, Coolidge did create (with Congress) five spectacular new national parks—Bryce Canyon (Utah), Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee), Grand Teton (Wyoming), Shenandoah (Virginia), and Mammoth Cave (Kentucky). But he ultimately rubber-stamped Alaskan oil and gold development projects promoted by treasure seekers. Sportsmen’s clubs, such as the Boone and Crockett Club, hoping to protect wilderness in Alaska, would be marginalized by his administration. Much like wetlands, swamps, and deserts, Arctic tundra was considered a wasteland by Coolidge—devoid of aesthetic value. Besides the scenic new national parks, Coolidge’s most notable measure with regard, presumably, to conservation was changing the name of TR’s Reclamation Service (which had become an independent agency in 1907) to the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923.13

While the eminent ecologist William Skinner Cooper was fighting to have Glacier Bay saved as a national monument, in homage to John Muir,14 Charles Sheldon was still trying to shame Congress into being a good steward of Mount McKinley. In December 1920, Sheldon testified to a House Appropriations Committee that the national park desperately needed federal funding for more game wardens, more law enforcement, and tougher laws to prosecute poachers who hunted Dall sheep. His voice had an almost scolding quality, with no suggestion of humor. Once again Sheldon defended the idea of protecting brown bears in Alaska. For Sheldon, watching Harding and Coolidge try to undo so much preservationist work in Alaska was disheartening.

Sheldon died suddenly of a heart attack in Nova Scotia in 1928. He had been vacationing at his family’s summer cabin when he collapsed. It was a hard loss for the movement to absorb. Sheldon was buried in Rutland, Vermont. Besides his crusade for Mount McKinley, he had been lobbying to protect North American antelope on the eve of his death. The Boone and Crockett Club, always ready to memorialize its leaders, joined with the National Audubon Society in purchasing 4,000 acres of Nevada’s Great Basin and creating the Charles Sheldon Antelope Refuge in 1931. President Herbert Hoover, who admired Sheldon, had issued the executive order. Today the Nevada refuge has more than 575,000 acres administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protected land that constitutes one of the few intact sagebrush steppe ecosystems in America. The reserve was enhanced by the introduction of bighorn sheep in 1968.*

Dr. C. Hart Merriam, heartbroken at the loss of his dearest ally, made sure that Charles Scribner’s Sons posthumously published Charles Sheldon’s naturalist diaries as The Wilderness of Denali (1930). It became a classic of the “hook and bullet” genre. Denali’s rugged mountains, glacial streams, boggy plateaus, rushing rivers, and green-blue glaciers had found their most enduring chronicler in Sheldon. From the plaintive whistle of the golden plover (which flew from Central America to nest in Denali) to a lordly moose (with sixty-seven-inch antler spears), Sheldon had captured the drama of an entire ecosystem for posterity to ponder. The Wilderness of Denali was a gift to the nation. Its publication inspired a new wave of preservationist sentiment for Alaska’s mountain ranges, such as the Fairweather, the Saint Elias, and the Wrangell. Taken together, these Alaskan places formed a huge semicircle of more than 1,000 miles from the Sitka region to the end of the Alaska Peninsula. Inspired by The Wilderness of Denali, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sworn in as U.S. president in March 1933, immediately allocated federal funds to Mount McKinley National Park. From the grave, the “father of Denali National Park” had been heard.15


While 1928 was known in conservation circles as the year Sheldon died, the big national event was the election of Herbert Hoover as U.S. president that November. Hoover, from the outset, was a conundrum to conservationists. He was a Wall Street–big business Republican, and he believed strongly in deregulating business. His chamber-of-commerce attitude didn’t bode well for conservation- ists. But he was also an avid fly fisherman and an active leader in the Izaak Walton League. Hoover, in fact, was a true believer in “fish reservations.” To Hoover—unlike Harding—the outdoors mattered a great deal. As secretary of commerce, for example, Hoover had considered the very existence of dirty and polluted water barbaric. Pushing forward tough antipollution laws with the zeal of Gifford Pinchot, he had called for the Bureau of Fisheries to end the “steady degeneration” in “commercial fisheries in the Northwest of Alaska.” Speaking to the U.S. Fisheries Association in September 1924, Hoover said that he wanted to “cultivate a sense of national responsibility toward the fisheries and their maintenance . . . to make a vigorous attempt to restore the . . . littoral fisheries on the Atlantic Coast; to secure the prevention of pollution from sources other than ships both in coastal and inland waters; to undertake the reinforcement of stocks of game fish throughout the United States.”16

Sadly, as U.S. president, Hoover refused to put his idea of “fish reserves” forward in a meaningful way. The Republican Party had become a hostage to corporate interests. Looking for a way to promote his big business agenda in Alaska, Hoover focused on reindeer farming, believing that the territory needed more slaughterhouses and packing plants to compete with the cattle stockyards of Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City.


If there was a symbol of Alaska’s vanishing wildlife in the 1920s and 1930s, it was the bald eagle. When the Pilgrims first arrived on the curled toe of Cape Cod, 500,000 eagles soared in the American sky. But colonists blamed these raptors for disturbing livestock, and an open season commenced. “For my part,” Benjamin Franklin had stated, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he doesn’t get his living honestly. . . . Besides, he is a rank coward.”17 This anti-eagle attitude spread to Alaska, where half of America’s eagles lived. In 1917, the territorial legislature enacted a bounty on eagles in support of fishermen and fox farmers who claimed that the raptors were snatching their livelihood from streams, rivers, and lakes. “Our national symbol, sad to say,” Peter Matthiessen wrote inWildlife in America, “subsists largely upon carrion; its alleged depredations on the salmon of Alaska, like its other crimes, have been grossly exaggerated.”18

From 1920 to 1940, the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Alaska was intensely promoting the shooting of eagles. Aldo Leopold, who was conducting game surveys of midwestern states as a private consultant, later took the matter up with the NRA’s president, Karl T. Frederick. “We gun enthusiasts are constantly complaining of restrictive legislation on firearms,” Leopold wrote. “Is it likely that the public is going to accord us any more respect and consideration than we earn by our actions and attitudes? . . . I would infinitely rather shoot the vases off my mantelpiece than the eagles out of my Alaska. I have a part ownership in both. That the Alaska Game Commission elects to put a bounty on the eagle, and not on the vase, has nothing to do with the sportsmanship of either action.”19

In July 1933, Leopold accepted a new chair of game management in the Department of Agriculture and Economics at the University of Wisconsin. As the desolate news of eagle loss continued unabated, Leopold tried to stir public consciousness against bounty hunting of birds of prey in Alaska. Besides being glorious to look at, eagles were part of the web of life in Alaska. But those who considered eagles a nuisance continued slaughtering tens of thousands of these birds. To counter Benjamin Franklin’s negative view of eagles, Leopold quoted Ezekiel 17, telling how one of the raptors broke off the top of a cedar “and planted it high on another mountain, and it brought forth boughs, and bare fruit, and was a godly tree.” Although skeptical about Hebrew silviculture, Leopold used the Old Testament, when it was convenient, to give eagles a better image in the public mind.20

Coming to the rescue of the American bald eagles was the veteran women’s suffragist and raptor conservationist Rosalie Edge. Long before Rachel Carson described the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, her environmental manifesto of 1962, Edge, from her Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania—the first rehabilitation center for birds of prey—warned against the chemical companies, gun manufacturers, and logging conglomerates that were trying to exterminate these magnificent creatures. Edge was a fearless activist, a feisty, independent spirit who couldn’t accept the idea of America without eagles, hawks, and owls. A New York socialite reared with patrician values, Edge defended wildlife by writing stinging articles and giving lectures and speeches. When Roosevelt, Burroughs, and Muir died and the conservationist movement was losing its spirit, Edge came to the fore. In a fourteen-page profile, the New Yorker accurately described her as somehow resembling both Queen Mary and an excited pointer on the hunt (adding that her crusade to rehabilitate eagles was “widespread and monumental”).21

What concerned Edge in general, however, was the degradation of nature by industry. Without her activism, it’s doubtful that Congress would have created Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Park in California in 1940, or that developers would have been prevented from diverting Wyoming’s Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park. Stoop-shouldered, with a face remarkably like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, Edge refused to be complacent. She contended that huge companies and manufacturers were interested only in dollars. They weren’t to be trusted when it came to protecting nature. In the West they had to be tightly regulated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, but it was often in cahoots with the companies to which it was leasing land. Teapot Dome, Edge believed, was merely the tip of the iceberg with regard to corruption occurring between the U.S. federal government and private corporations.

Edge also believed that conservation began at home, and she led a crusade to ban the shooting of hawks and eagles in the Kittatinny Ridge of Pennsylvania. Every year these birds migrated from Canada to roost along fish-rich streams in Schuylkill County. She used the word “sanctuary” to connote that protecting birds of prey had a religious or missionary element. Edge was by 1920 the new William Temple Hornaday, an indomitable protector of species. She frequently claimed that killing bald eagles was as sacrilegious as slashing Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware would be. Every fall, Edge was disgusted by the annual sparbenbarich, a local term (derived from German) for a massacre of thousands of hawks. The unethical hunters, with dozens of dead hawks strewn about them, would proudly smile for photographers.

When Edge was in Paris, she received a provocative pamphlet written by Willard Van Name, W. Dewitt Miller, and Davis Quinn: “A Crisis in Conservation: Serious Danger of Extinction of Many North American Birds.” According to these authors, eagles, hawks, and owls were being systematically wiped out in the United States. Edge was repelled: Wasn’t the bald eagle our national emblem? Didn’t owls help farmers by eating small rodents? Having fought for women’s suffrage with Carrie Chapman Catt at her side, Edge knew something about grassroots activism and about winning battles. Dissatisfied with the Audubon Society, which was sitting on the sidelines, and critical of its active founder Gilbert Pearson, who seemed rather lackadaisical about protecting eagle, hawk, and owl populations and habitats, Edge founded the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC). There were about 300 species of raptors in the world—including hawks, eagles, and falcons—and the EEC wanted them protected.22

Edge marshaled a number of leading scientists to defend wildlife. She also sued the Audubon Society for misrepresenting itself as protecting birds. She believed that the society had become compromised by trophy hunters, timber barons, the pesticide industry, and government bureaucrats on the take. A lawyer for the Audubon Society tried to humiliate Edge by calling her “a common scold.” Years later, recalling how she had first learned of the insult, Edge scoffed, “Fancy how I trembled.”23 Edge’s lawsuit sent a wave of fear through conservation societies, impelling them to support her action. Roger Baldwin of the ACLU helped her as the plaintiff; the ornithologist Frank M. Chapman documented her claims; and a court ruled in favor of the ECC.

If only in terms of grit, Edge became the most effective reformist champion of national parks and wildlife habitat preservation of her era. Biodiversity and ecology informed her public dissent. Reporters loved to interview Edge, whose candor had become legendary by the time Herbert Hoover was president. She was called the “Hawk of Mercy,” and her Pennsylvania sanctuary for birds of prey attracted visitors from all over the world. She became a celebrity. Always beautifully dressed, with a silver dragonfly brooch on her lapel, Edge became the conservationist darling of progressives and inspired an outpouring of concern for the survival of birds of prey.

According to the biographer Dyana Z. Furmansky, the pamphlets that Rosalie Edge published for the ECC had a profound effect on both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harold Ickes. Here was the old Bull Moose conservation spirit being dispensed by a deeply informed woman whose wit matched that of TR’s first child, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. By representing her crusade as David versus Goliath, Edge easily won public sympathy. Smitten with her pluck, Ickes regularly summoned Edge to the Department of the Interior for friendly chats. A friendship developed between Ickes and Edge. “Their relationship became as uniquely symbiotic as the one she had developed with scientists and bureaucrats reluctant to advocate publicly on behalf of their unpopular views, and sometimes as secretive,” Furmansky writes. “Edge understood that for conservation’s new breed of national policy makers to stem the tide of nature’s destruction, they needed help from the ECC. Its pamphlets built ‘public support in advance of action,’ so that leaders could point to how they were fulfilling the informed will of the people. The policy makers needed the fresh input from the policy shapers, and fresh input is what the ECC would give them repeatedly.”24

But for most Americans of the 1920s, Alaska’s declining bald eagle populations—Edge’s widely disseminated ECC pamphlets notwithstanding—seemed very remote, of interest only to the conservation cult. Hawk Mountain was near New York City whereas Haines, Alaska, where eagles roosted by the thousands, might as well have been Greenland or Timbuktu. Once the Klondike gold rush had faded from memory, Alaska wasn’t much in the news in the East, except for Warren Harding’s fatal junket. The first motion picture ever filmed in Alaska, The Cheechakos, released in 1924 by the Alaska Motion Picture Corporation, bankrupted the company. To tourists, visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite seemed possible on a week’s vacation. Going to Mount McKinley, by contrast, seemed to be a summer-long endeavor for which an outfitter was needed.

Yet, thanks to National Geographic magazine, there was a growing public fascination with Alaska’s polar bears and snowy owls. The far north had its fans and produced some fads. Santa Claus had reindeer. Salmon was a favored dish in New York restaurants. The Isaly Dairy Company of Youngstown, Ohio, was marketing a square of vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate and wrapped in icy-looking silver foil: the logo for these Klondike bars was a smiling polar bear, as cuddly as a teddy bear. Walt Disney, the great cartoonist, also had an eye on Alaska, gearing up to make the Academy Award–winning documentary Winter Wilderness, which starred polar bear cubs and wolf pups.

And Rockwell Kent, as irascible as ever, continued promoting the far north with his expressive Alaskan paintings. Always pushing nearer to the north pole, Kent eventually wrote three books about his adventures in Greenland: N by E, Salamina, and Greenland Journal. Perilous treks with dogsled teams in below-zero weather became his persistent theme. His strongest supporter was Marie Ahnighito Peary, daughter of the great explorer Robert Peary. As Barry Lopez noted in Arctic Dreams, Kent found Alaska and Greenland holy shrines at which sojourners discovered “Godlike qualities” in themselves.25 To Kent, the gatekeepers of the Arctic paradise were bald eagles (the fact that Ben Franklin thought these prey birds had “questionable moral character” only increased Kent’s admiration for them).26 For the dust jacket of Salamina—the title was the name of his Eskimo housekeeper in Greenland—he drew an inspired portrait of a bald eagle defending the quiet world from industrialization and mechanized progress.27

Leopold, Edge, Kent, and other conservationists were continually infuriated from 1917 to 1953, because Alaska’s territorial legislature established a bounty system for eagles. It was originally 50 cents an eagle and rose to $2 over the years. The Biological Survey joined forces with the defenders of wildlife and pleaded with the territorial government to rescind its open season on eagles. During those years well over 128,000 bald eagles were shot or poisoned. The crux of the problem was that Alaskan fishermen believed bald eagles were gorging on salmon, depleting rivers, streams, and bays. Every eagle nest found by a professional Alaskan fisherman was destroyed or ransacked. According to the territorial governor Ernest Gruening—a Harvard graduate and a former managing editor of the New York Tribune—the mass slaughter of eagles had “become more or less an established custom.”28 The National Rifle Association (NRA) called shooting bald eagles the “purest of all rifle sports.”29

Giving scientific credence to the pleas of Leopold, Edge, and Kent was Olaus Murie of the Biological Survey, who had spent 1936 and 1937 writing detailed reports on the bald eagle populations of the Aleutian Islands. These Alaskan eagles courted in March and laid eggs in April. Hatching took place in June and fledglings emerged in late August. Most important, Murie (and Hosea Sarber) concluded from studying eagles’ stomachs that salmon weren’t essential to an eagle’s daily diet. Alaskan fishermen were grossly exaggerating the situation, just as Florida’s fishermen had exaggerated the situation with pelicans. Stepping up to defend the rights of bald eagles was Flying Strong Eagle of the American Indian Association. It was sacrilege, Flying Strong Eagle argued, to massacre the national emblem of America because of a dispute over fishing; eagles, he argued, were a sacred species. They were the embodiment of wilderness, freedom, and strength. “Although the evidence did not persuade Alaskan legislators,” the historian Morgan Sherwood wrote, “over the years the eagle’s case was heard sympathetically by a variety of outsiders.”30

Triumph came on June 8, 1940, with the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act. Congress at last recognized that eagles were essential to Alaska’s ecosystem. No longer could Lower Forty-Eighters pursue, shoot, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest, or disturb bald eagles for “any purpose.” But there seemed to be no attitude of self- congratulation in ornithological circles regarding the legislation. Congress, although it prohibited the destruction of eagles in the states, exempted the Alaskan territory from this ban.31

Eventually, killers of bald eagles could be fined up to $10,000. But by the 1960s chemicals such as DDT were starting to wipe out the species in the Lower Forty-Eight. Alaska was not an important agricultural area and, consequently, much less DDT was released there, so its bald eagle population held firm. However, the continued reckless clear-cutting of Alaska’s old-growth trees was troubling. Bald eagles built their nests up to eight feet across and seven feet deep on top of Sitka spruce and western hemlock. These trees continued to be timbered in the Tongass and Chugach at an unhealthy, even maniacal rate. This loss of habitat looked as though it might spell doom for the bald eagle. But committed activists started an effective campaign after World War II to rescue these magnificent birds from going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.

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