Chapter Eleven - Bob Marshall and the Gates of the Arctic


When it came to translating conservationist ideas into preservationist action, spreading the idea of wilderness across the North American continent, Robert Marshall had no peers. Born in New York City the year Theodore Roosevelt became president—1901—Marshall became the first university-trained forester to promote the urgent need to save Alaska’s Brooks Range and Arctic tundra from commercial despoliation. Marshall’s father, Louis, was a high-priced constitutional lawyer, regularly dining with the Manhattan social set, but young Bob became infatuated with “Knollwood,” the family’s summer camp at Lower Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondacks. During his childhood, his first heroes were Lewis and Clark, whose brave exploration into an “unbroken wilderness” he wanted to imitate in Arctic Alaska.1 Marshall’s boyhood hikes in the Adirondacks and his hero worship of James Fenimore Cooper’s buckskin-clad pathfinders were the genesis of what would eventually become the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And in 1935, four years before his death, Marshall cofounded with Aldo Leopold and six others The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit organization that has led the conservation movement in “battlinguncompromisingly” for wilderness protection, helping to save 56 million acres from commercial development in Alaska alone.2

Committed philanthropy came naturally to Bob Marshall, who was raised in Manhattan’s upper-class world of comfort and ease. His father had routinely doled out five-digit checks to New York–based nonprofits defending minority rights, including the American Jewish Committee. Infuriated by anti-Semitism, Louis Marshall led ferocious civil rights campaigns. With the U.S. Constitution as his sword, Marshall regularly sued institutions that barred Jews, in particular, from membership. He believed American Jews had an ancestral obligation to end their silence and confront anti-Semitism head-on. His most famous showdown against the WASP establishment was fought over the Adirondacks’ Lake Placid Club, founded by Melvil Dewey (originator of the Dewey decimal system and state librarian of New York). The club’s wealthy patrons had waged a surprisingly fierce campaign to bar Jews from membership in their exclusive 9,600-acre resort. After a bitter stalemate and under extreme legal pressure from Marshall, Dewey was eventually forced to capitulate. Dewey, in the end, admitted that in the United States exclusion of Jews from private clubs should always be forbidden. “I have succeeded in getting Dewey’s scalp,” Marshall bragged to a friend. “The result is most gratifying.”3

Impressed by Marshall’s legal prowess, the Jewish Tribune soon described him as the fourth most influential Jew in the world, after Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, and Israel Zangwill; Marshall was the only American among the top five.4 Like most Jews during the progressive era, Louis Marshall saw Theodore Roosevelt as a stalwart champion of their cause. In 1906 Roosevelt had become the first U.S. president to appoint a Jew to a cabinet position: Oscar S. Straus, as secretary of labor and commerce. Unusually for a politician of his era, Roosevelt supported a Zionist state around Jerusalem.5 Furthermore, when Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating in the Russo-Japanese War, he donated part of his cash award to the National Jewish Welfare Board. For his part, Louis Marshall backed many of Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives to protect state-owned forestlands in upstate New York. According to Marshall’s well-constructed argument, the cutting of oak, elm, and spruce to get logs for sawmills should be balanced by the formation of permanent wilderness reserves. “Blister, rust, canker, and insects are infinitely less dangerous thanHomo sapiens,” Marshall declared, “who, whether he takes the form of a lumberman, or a tax title exploiter, a vandal, or a commercial hotelkeeper, is the real enemy of the forest.”6

Young Bob Marshall—pleasant-mannered, funny, and enormously energetic—was a chip off the old block. A hyperactive, rugged athlete, Marshall wasn’t so much a bookish prodigy as a full-bodied, ravenous enthusiast for learning. He had a bubbling intensity that suggested pent-up steam. Marshall’s piercing eyes were certainly his most notable feature and helped distract attention from his protruding front teeth. As a second-grader (or thereabouts) he was already saying, parroting what adults had told him, that recklessly destroying a forest was akin to treason against humanity. He had an intense passion for the history of North American forests. He was able to quote the venerable John Burroughs verbatim. He declared that nature was a cure for the “strangling clutch of a mechanistic civilization.”7 He all but memorized Ralph Bonehill’s Pioneer Boys of the Great Northwest.8 And he even found Darwin’s principles of natural selection easy to grasp.

Marshall’s mother, Florence, died in 1916, leaving Bob in the hands of a succession of nannies and assorted help. He took emotional refuge in Knollwood, tramping around the deep woodlands with his brothers George and James, silently thinking in the mountain coolness. Like Meriwether Lewis at the Continental Divide, Marshall started naming places around Lower Saranac Lake: Found Knife Pass, Squashed Berry Valley, Hidden Heaven Rock.9 Routinely he examined tamarack, white spruce, and red spruce, peeling off their coarse bark for closer scrutiny. The Adirondacks encompassed a variety of forest communities including conifer swamp, lowland conifer, hardwood conifer, northern hardwood, mountain conifer, and alpine—ideal for an aspiring forester. After spending twenty-five summers at Knollwood, Marshall would consider himself an amateur expert on the Adirondacks State Park ecosystem. Sparrows chirruping, basins hollowed for clear lakes, engulfing solitude, the distant sound of timbering, the swarming insects—all were relished by Marshall. Influenced by his father, he emphasized the concept of reforestation. The interconnected Adirondacks ecosystem had a mystical harmony that made perfect sense. The sheer physicality of the great forestland molded Marshall into manhood.

Congress had passed the National Park Service Act in 1916 to protect America’s natural wonders. Under the leadership of Stephen Mather, the National Park Service launched a public outreach effort to engage young people with the outdoors. Marshall heard the call. Between 1918 and 1934 he climbed forty-two peaks, all over 3,000 feet, some days hiking more than thirty miles. Adopting Verplanck Colvin, a post–Civil War surveyor of coniferous forests, as his new role model, he pledged his life to the “Forever Wild” movement in the Adirondacks. Alaska became far more than facts to be memorized for a geography class. He began wanting to hear bears growling and lynx screeching. He imagined the slants of evening light around Mount McKinley. Preparing for the ordeal, he started getting into tip-top physical shape. In September 1901 Theodore Roosevelt (who was then the vice president) had climbed to the top of Mount Marcy (5,343 feet). Marshall naturally followed in his idol’s footsteps, camping atop the summit. “I love the woods and solitude,” Marshall wrote in a school essay. “I like the various forms of scientific work a forester must do. I would hate to spend the greater part of my lifetime in a stuffy office or crowded assembly, or even in a populous city.”10

Forgoing Ivy League schools, Marshall instead attended the New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse. (The environmental service school was founded, in large part, by his father.) Marshall aspired to the forestry skills of Pinchot, the all-seeing naturalist’s eyes of Muir, and the stiff spine of Roosevelt. Although Marshall was of average height, he gave the impression of being shorter because his shoulders were stooped from too much reading. What made Marshall unusual among forestry scientists was that the spirit of Thoreau stayed with him as he worked at experimental stations throughout the Rocky Mountains. Dutifully Marshall kept notebooks of his outdoor hikes. He wasn’t yet twenty when, during his free time, he developed a new trail system for the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Believing in the restorative qualities of the New York woods for city dwellers, he compiled a thirty-eight-page guidebook, The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, aimed at helping greenhorns enjoy boreal forests.

Upon graduating from Syracuse in 1924 with a BS in forestry (he was fourth in a class of fifty-eight), Marshall followed the Lewis and Clark Trail for a summer, up the Missouri River and across the Continental Divide to the Oregon coast. In letters home he extolled the beauty of Lolo Pass and The Dalles. He happily hiked around the Willamette Valley with bulging backpack and trusty compass. One look at the three great Pacific Northwest mountains—Hood, Baker, and Rainier—made him feel full of vitality.11Nature could, he understood anew, lord it over civilization. Everywhere Marshall rambled in the Cascades he tried to strike up conversations, saying, “Hello, I’m Bob Marshall” as if he were running for public office.12 With low mists in the dimples between the hills behind him, he set up his tent on a vacant beach. Although he never mastered the art of canoeing, Marshall became an early advocate of hiking as a sport, routinely marching thirty or forty miles a day. Often he wore tennis shoes instead of heavy leather boots for these long rambles; the tennis shoes provided far better traction.

Footsore, Marshall returned to the East in the fall of 1924 and headed for Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. In 1907, Harvard University—not wanting to be outshone by Yale University’s world-class Forestry School—acquired a 2,100-acre tract of woodlands in north-central Massachusetts. All the new modern forestry techniques were being taught at this experimental station in Worcester County.13 Approximately 1,000 types of trees grew in America, and Marshall was determined to study the seed-to-growth rate of them all. He could take classes in forest ecology, harvesting, and fire management, and he learned about a burgeoning field called forest recreation. He improved his skills with saw, wedge, and ax. Pine trees were examined as potential forest products for turpentine and resin. Thousands of Americans earned their living in the lumber industry. Timbering was big business. One common denominator of “big timber” and conservationists, Marshall learned at Harvard, was that both loathed the insatiably destructive bark beetle. But eradication of this common pest was about all the two feuding factions could agree on.

Marshall also learned about conservation land trusts, whose birthplace was in nearby Waverly, Massachusetts. In 1891 Charles Eliot, the son of Harvard University’s president, led a successful effort to save two dozen ancient white oaks in Waverly along the sand hills of Beaver Creek. His logic was simple. Just as libraries acquired rare books and museums collected fine art, communities should treat groves of trees as a local heritage. Under Eliot’s leadership, the United States’ first regional land trust was established (today it is referred to as the Trustees of Reservations). The Waverly oaks taught Marshall an important lesson: forestry preservation wasn’t just about large-scale national reserves. It must also be localized and community-based.14

Even though Marshall was studying at Harvard Forest, his life and attitude had been dramatically changed by the Cascade Range, the sweeping Columbia River, the volcanic mountains, and south-central Washington’s evergreen stands. Full of exciting tales about the Pacific Northwest, Marshall started presenting himself as an honorary Sierra Club type to his fellow students, who were enraptured by his stories of the utter solitude to be found in western forests. Several pursuits were simultaneously important to Marshall. Besides forestry, he was enamored with phenology, studying periodic biological phenomena such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to geology and climate. How the insect world damaged forests was another enduring interest. His friends in New York started calling him Mr. Silviculture or Little GP (after Gifford Pinchot).

Marshall earned his master of forestry degree at Harvard in the spring of 1925. To celebrate, he headed to his beloved Adirondacks backcountry to climb a few 4,000-foot peaks with stalwart friends. Shedding his suit of black broadcloth for alpine wear, he eventually ascended all forty-six mountains in the Adirondacks that were over 4,000 feet high. At the summits he studied unusual lichens and mosses. His high-altitude climbing also led to the creation of a New York mountaineers’ club, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers. Whenever Marshall hiked, he took careful notes about the health of thickets of spruce and balsam. The outdoors life became his theology. Refreshed and invigorated from climbing so high that even the treetops below were not distinguishable, Marshall reported for duty at the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. He asked to be dispatched to Fairbanks, Alaska, but found himself assigned to the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station in Missoula, Montana.

Missoula was an attractive college town with coffeehouses, outfitters’ shops, taprooms, and a giant stone M emblazoned on the west face of Sentinel Mountain. The forestry club at the University of Montana was considered one of the best in America. And everybody in town, it seemed, had harrowing stories to tell about March blizzards, sheep-thieving cougars, or a rampaging grizzly named Old Ephraim. Marshall found himself feeling strangely at home among the blue-collar hunters and no-nonsense ranchers. The aristocratic expression left his countenance, for in Montana he was a forest scientist, not merely a bright boy with a trust fund.

In Glacier National Park country, he learned that forestry was a hard taskmaster. Timbering had to be controlled along the Idaho-Montana alpine border, and forest fires were a menace to the thickly wooded region. Sparks from a fast-traveling train could cause more extensive fire damage than an arsonist. Ever since the “Big Burn” in 1910, fire lookouts had been constructed from Missoula to the Canadian border. In July 1925 Marshall was principally responsible for extinguishing more than 150 fires in Idaho’s Kaniksu National Forest. Watching mountainsides of ponderosa pine and sweet cedar burn like a “nebulous planet” taught Marshall a lesson about the “unconquerable, awful power of Nature.”15 All the firefighting supplies available were hauled up the Priest River. But they weren’t enough to save the western white pine forests of Mount Watson. More than 2,000 virgin acres were burned. Only after a “thousand man-days of labor” was the fire suppressed.16

From June 1925 to August 1928 Marshall ranged all over Montana and Idaho, in and out of every threadbare frontier outpost in the heart of the northern Rockies. Meticulously he applied his Harvard training to analyzing sensible methods for cutting and replanting. Wandering high into a jagged line of snow-covered peaks, he often would stay at a forlorn ranger shack or a lumber camp. The loggers gossiped about his long-distance hikes, which he took despite hailstorms and downpours; his adventures became local folklore. Because Marshall explored widely, he made a memorable impression. These were the days before Outside magazine; hiking forty miles a day just for fun was viewed as aberrant behavior. Many people thought Marshall must be engaged in a coming-of-age rite to prove his manhood. With his toothy smile, his young man’s beard, and his pack full of all-seasons gear, he seemed outlandish. He’d grow a mustache for a week, then shave it off, then let it grow again. With ropes around his waist and a boyish grin, he was a most arresting presence.

Further baffling hard-bitten Missoulans was Marshall’s pride in being an American Jew. Most Jews in Montana downplayed their identity; some changed their names. But no matter where Marshall was in the wild, he’d observe the Sabbath. In September 1925, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Marshall hiked into the backcountry. The glory of autumn was on display; the aspen leaves looked like gold coins. He believed that nature was a synagogue, that fasting in a virgin pine forest along the Continental Divide allowed him to clear his mind of frivolous thoughts. Being mindful of God’s wild creation was religious for Marshall. That observance of Yom Kippur, fittingly enough, made Marshall even more committed to devoting his life to forest preservation.

Throughout his months in alpine Montana Marshall corresponded with his family and friends about the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station. Nobody before or since has written about western Montana’s green-gold somnolence with as much grace as Marshall, who described everything from jackrabbits to larch needles. And his personality as a naturalist was gaining tangible professional benefits. Between 1925 and 1928 he wrote several articles on forestry, lumberjack culture, and wilderness preservation. Using the Forest Service’s national newsletter (the Service Bulletin) as his pulpit, Marshall sided with the case against roads that the young forester Aldo Leopold was making for Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Leopold and Marshall both wanted primitive areas of national forests to be declared roadless, free of all construction—vast tracts of public lands saved from the press of modern humanity.

Sometimes the death of one conservationist seemed to coincide with the birth of another. On September 21, 1928, Charles Sheldon died in Nova Scotia, Canada, leaving behind his voluminous unpublished Alaskan journals (known in the Boone and Crockett Club to be immensely rich in detail about the Denali wilderness). Sheldon had received modest public acclaim—he was called the father of Mount McKinley National Park. And he had a legion of friends, having served on the board of directors of the National Parks Association, the National Recreation Committee, and the National Geographic Society, and as chairman of the Commission on the Conservation of the Jackson Hole Elk. Indeed, his list of affiliations was so long that he probably lost track of them himself. Nobody, it seemed, had done more than Sheldon to save interior Alaska. The snowcapped mountains of the Alaska Range were his life story. There was a lyrical intensity to everything Sheldon did on behalf of Dall sheep and caribou. As when Muir died in 1914, Sheldon’s death left a void in the conservation movement, particularly in Alaska—a void that Bob Marshall would soon fill.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1928, Marshall enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s PhD program in plant physiology. His goal was nothing less than permanently altering the course of U.S. forest policy. Already, his landmark article in the U.S. Forest Service Bulletin—“Wilderness as a Minority Right”—was being acclaimed by nature enthusiasts of all stripes as a major intellectual breakthrough, a long-overdue articulation of the right to open space, miles upon miles in extent. Much of his time in Baltimore was spent in greenhouse laboratories conducting experiments with evergreen and conifer seeds. Companies such as Weyerhaeuser Lumber had destroyed great forestlands, and Marshall vowed to reverse this trend. Rising at five o’clock in the morning, Marshall would toil away until eleven at night, determined to learn the secrets of soil composition. Defining himself first and foremost as a conservationist, he believed scientists should engage in political advocacy: that is, more stringent federal regulation of “big timber.” He published articles in the Nation (“Forest Devastation Must Stop”) and in the Journal of Forestry (“A Proposed Remedy for Our Forestry Illness”).17 The League for Industrial Democracy issued a thirty-six-page pamphlet written by Marshall, promoting the undeniable virtues of public forests over private ones. Minimal impact became his creed.

Bored by his academic career but refusing to feel boxed in, the twenty-eight-year-old Marshall organized a scientific trip to the unmapped Brooks Range—named after Alfred Hulse Brooks, who served as chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1903 to 1924—to study the northern timberline. Independently wealthy, he was ready to leave academia and make a career as an iconoclast for wilderness preservation. He had been spending his downtime at Johns Hopkins poring over topographical maps of Alaska printed by the USGS. More than 100 million acres had not yet been mapped. The Arctic tundra held an immediate—and lifelong—fascination for Marshall. Wanting to work north of Fairbanks, Marshall set his sights on the central Brooks Range, which stretches west to east across northern Alaska and into Canada’s Yukon Territory. Any stream north of this range flowed into the Arctic Ocean. The meandering Yukon north of Denali and south of the Brooks Range flowed into the Bering Sea (technically an extension of the North Pacific). Marshall, the forester, was interested in how black spruce flourished even in subzero weather. He hoped to plant spruce seeds, wanting to prove exactly where the North American tree line ended.


In 1929 Marshall made his first trip to Alaska. Prior to this he had looked at a blank spot on a USGS map around the Koyukuk River and had wanted to fill in the vast white space. At long last, he got to see the northern lights. When he arrived in Fairbanks, wearing thick flannel shirts, insulated pants with suspenders, and a rainproof jacket, the bearded Marshall looked like an Amish model for an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. Eager to get to work, he bought a ride on a plane to Wiseman, a mining hamlet located along the middle fork of the Koyukuk River in the central Brooks Range. What an adventure! Marshall’s eyes popped in wonderment as he peered out the plane’s window at the awesome scenery. The Brooks Range had no central feature like Denali or Saint Elias, but it was nevertheless breathtakingly magnificent. Its beauty, however, was subtle. The size and remoteness of the Brooks Range—all those peaks without names and never climbed—made it the wildest roadless area in North America. Marshall was surprised that there was so much sedimentary rock, and so little metamorphic rock. Clearly, these peaks had once been under a sea. If you climbed any peak you’d be almost certain to find marine fossils. It astounded Marshall to think that the Brooks Range was the northernmost part of the Rocky Mountains.

Only 127 people lived in Wiseman when Marshall arrived. Dusty, ramshackle, and without modern conveniences, the place was lost to the world, with not even a railway connection or a decent road to somewhere else. The centerpiece of the town was Pioneer Hall, where trappers, Eskimos, and prospectors congregated to sing old Canadian folk songs or dance the Hesitation Waltz (a two-step-count, forward-and-back waltz with a prolonged pause) late into the night. Isolation wasn’t merely a part of living near the snow-blanketed Brooks Range; it was the all-encompassing reality. Nature was the reigning king in Wiseman, so remote from the daily rhythms of even Fairbanks that it might as well have been Tierra del Fuego. It was hard to make even a brief call out on a shortwave radio. But even though there was not a single railroad depot, not a single room wired for electricity, and not a single tin lizzie within 200 miles along a dogsled trail, and the closest accredited doctor was more than two hours away, with only a grudging concession made to modern medicine (pills), Wiseman was, in Marshall’s estimate, “the happiest civilization on earth,” a magical place where alcohol flowed freely to help people cope with the long dark winters.18

Wiseman had the appeal of a hillbilly moonshine hollow in Tennessee. The house joints were caulked with mud. The best one-room homes were made of hewn pine with rusty corrugated tin roofs. Everything looked haphazard and hurriedly constructed. West of town were the austere Endicott Mountains, an ideal wilderness. Hiking the range, Marshall felt elevated to previously unimagined spiritual and moral heights. In the wind-torn rawness, the desolate bleakness, he shed New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland to become, as far as possible, a primitive Alaskan. He hiked a lot. Building bonfires to stay warm, staring into the flames of resinous wood, Marshall thought of Baltimore as useless and mediocre compared with the north fork of the Koyukuk River.

Getting up at dawn, Marshall would camp around the Brooks Range with feelings of awe, disbelief, and tense excitement. He didn’t even mind the weather locals called “freeze-up.” Just as John Burroughs had the Catskills and John Muir the Sierra Nevada, Marshall now had the Brooks Range. With great preciseness he recorded every craggy ridge and glacier-carved valley in the notebook he always kept handy. Because so few outdoorsmen had actually lived in the Brooks Range, Marshall felt that he was discovering summits virgin to Euroamerican footprints. Being alone in the Brooks Range created a sense of total removal, a supernatural out-of-body experience, stripping his spirit from the body as in a Chagall painting. The Arctic terrain made him feel cosmically alone.19

Two imposing portals Marshall explored north of Wiseman—Frigid Crag and Boreal Mountain—soon became altars to him.20 Watching clouds clear off the summits seemed holier than a prayer. Incalculable geological forces had clearly been working here. Previously unexplored by conservationists, this unforgiving part of the Brooks Range had no equal in America for rugged beauty. It bore silent witness to a great cataclysm that geologists still didn’t quite understand. “His joy,” Marshall’s brother George recalled, “was complete when, standing on some peak, never before climbed, he beheld the magnificence of a wild timeless world extending the limit of sight filled with countless mountains and deep valleys previously unmapped, unnamed, and unknown.” Standing in a blowing wind, Marshall declared these towering portals the “Gates of the Arctic.” The name stuck. On December 1, 1978, Gates of the Arctic became a national monument. The four words—Gates of the Arctic—conveyed a sense of exploration, discovery, and freedom to conservationists all over the world. On December 1, 1980, 7.95 million acres of this majestic landscape were officially designated Gates of the Arctic National Park (the second largest in the U.S. system). In Gates of the Arctic country, Marshall said, an outdoorsman could “get away from the rat race.”21

Marshall’s intense explorations in the Gates of the Arctic region is legendary in Alaska. He saw the Brooks Range as unique among all recreational assets owned by the U.S. government because it was pristine wilderness, with scarcely an industrial imprint anywhere. All around were peaks and glaciers over 9,000 feet in elevation. Like Charles Sheldon before him, he tested himself against rising rivers, the midnight sun, and hungry bears. Wearing caribou-skin parkas, boots, socks, and mittens, he looked like a Nunamiut hunter. Hiking for Marshall became an aerobic endeavor that set his heart and lungs pumping. Caribou liver became his staple food, a marvelous source of iron and protein. He euphorically marveled at the abundance of Arctic birds such as the semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) and spotted sandpiper (Actitus macularius). While Louis Marshall was in Switzerland leading an effort for Jews to resettle in Palestine, Marshall was discovering the Gates of the Arctic. And when word reached him that his seventy-three-year-old father had died in Zurich, he took the news stoically.


A few weeks after Louis Marshall’s death came Black Tuesday: the New York Stock Exchange crashed. America was in a panic. The Great Depression had begun. For Marshall, who had been moving toward socialism since his days at Syracuse University, the economic downturn was proof that capitalism was a flawed system. Companies such as Weyerhaeuser, Long Bell, and Pacific Lumber didn’t give a damn about working families. The Great Depression—like World War I—strained the resources of the U.S. Forest Service in the West. Starting in the fall of 1929 the Hoover administration had the deteriorating economy as an excuse to dismantle the expansive federal reserves. The administration now argued that clear-cutting federal reserves brought jobs. The forest-products industry, predictably, agreed. Then Gifford Pinchot, now serving as governor of Pennsylvania, stepped in. Pinchot, who had considerable standing among foresters, called for an emergency meeting of America’s best and brightest conservationists—including Marshall. They were to convene at Pinchot’s home in Washington, D.C., in late January 1930. Pinchot was furious about a “wishy-washy” report issued by the Society of American Foresters pertaining to woodlands preservation.22 To Pinchot, the report was disingenuous and was actually aimed at opening up public lands. Although he had retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1910, Pinchot was not at all hesitant to oppose clear-cutting. Pulling an activist committee together, he tasked Bob Marshall and Ward Shepard with drafting “A Letter to Foresters.” Marshall, a master of invective, gleefully lambasted foresters as infected by capitalistic greed. It was sacrilegious, Marshall wrote, for anyreal forester to condone the “spiritual decay” of America’s forestlands. Later, Marshall would accurately describe this open letter as “the most radical action any forestry organization had ever taken.”23

Pinchot’s summit had an inspirational effect on Marshall. Clearly, Marshall was more socialist than Pinchot, but their political differences—romantic preservation versus utilitarian conservation—were inconsequential compared with the differences between them and the Hooverites they were fighting. Actually, Pinchot and Marshall were both visionaries, were both nature lovers, and were both undoubtedly among the most colorful figures in the history of U.S. forestry. “Governor Pinchot,” Marshall declared, “is one of the most amazing men I have ever met. After 35 years of forestry battles, instead of being discouraged and cynical, he is entering this new fight with as much enthusiasm and interest as a boy of 20.” Perhaps after the loss of his father, Marshall had found a surrogate in Pinchot. At the very least Marshall enjoyed sharing enemies with the legendary Pinchot. “He thinks Hoover, Hughes, and Mellon are all terrible,” Marshall said, “believes in government ownership of natural resources, is strong for civil liberties and really is interested in everything a liberal should be.”24

Energized by Pinchot, Marshall published a landmark conservationist article in the February 1930 issue of Scientific Monthly: “The Problem of the Wilderness.” It was an immediate hit among conservationists. Marshall, who was just about to earn his PhD from Johns Hopkins, offered the notion that wilderness should be preserved for its aesthetic and spiritual values alone. He sounded much like Aldo Leopold. His message had elements of both prophecy and doomsaying. Echoing Thoreau and Muir, Marshall asserted that places like Arctic Alaska were far more valuable than a Rembrandt painting or Brahms symphony. (This was in line with the reasoning in Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wild Life.) “The Problem of the Wilderness” article fitted nicely with a new initiative by the Forest Service. Matter-of-factly identified as Regulation L-20, it was a new policy aimed at establishing “primitive areas” within existing national forests.

Upon earning his PhD in the spring of 1930—his dissertation was “An Experimental Study of the Water Relations of Seedling Conifers with Special Reference to Wilting”—Marshall set his sights on the Arctic Alaska watershed. It was one thing to extol the virtues of wilderness in Scientific Monthly. It was quite another to demonstrate those virtues by analyzing the positive effects pristine nature had on people living in a remote Alaskan village. The single-minded Marshall wasn’t thinking about the Kenai Peninsula or the Alexander Archipelago. His mind was set on the land north of the Arctic Circle. Pulling together his interests in forestry and sociology, he decided to chronicle his firsthand experiences living among Eskimos and white settlers in Wiseman. He would escape the incessant noise of urban life and write a book titled Arctic Village. Marshall, a forester extraordinaire, was now poised to become the Margaret Mead of Arctic folk. By adopting the dual vocations of wilderness advocate and sociologist he would document how beneficial unspoiled wilderness was for nearby communities.

Like Fortune magazine’s reporter James Agee living among poor Alabama tenant farmers (an experience he recounted in his urgent and timely 1939 masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), Marshall hoped to dignify the people of Wiseman in his bookArctic Village. During the Great Depression, some Americans—even some aged southern tenant farmers—dreamed of moving to Alaska in order to survive the economic downturn. Why worry about grocery bills when, in Alaska, you could hunt moose and caribou? Drop a fishing line into any icy stream and reel in salmon, trout, and graylings. In industrial centers such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, workers were earning 20 to 30 cents an hour; many such cities were also brutally cold in winter. Might as well move to Alaska, where game was plentiful. Although Alaska wasn’t a hub of the New Deal, FDR would soon do a lot to help the territory prosper during hard times.

Marshall returned to Wiseman in 1930 and remained there for more than a year to gather firsthand observations for Arctic Village, making sure that even the most inarticulate resident wouldn’t stay tongue-tied for long. His book depended on everyone’s candor. Marshall was a careful listener. With their high cheekbones and pacific, far-seeing eyes, the Nunamiut Eskimos mesmerized Marshall. Speaking in near whispers, they told him how polar bears swam 200 miles for a fat seal, or why the ptarmigan was the hardiest bird alive (able to endure temperatures of minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit with apparent good cheer). Stories about dogsledding to the abandoned mining town of Coldfoot, once the largest community in Arctic Alaska, were favorites. Like all ghost towns, Coldfoot taught a lesson: that today’s boom is tomorrow’s bust. Marshall strongly believed that Alaska’s natural resources should be developed slowly. His Eskimo friends saw nothing noble about pillaging everything valuable in one big gulp. Alaska’s silver, gold, and copper were the result of aeons of natural processes. Modern man had no right to rape the land in a frenzy of greed and then leave open pits behind. Marshall had picked up a few suitable Eskimo colloquialisms and used them daily. But Inuit was difficult, and therefore Marshall’s speech was never more than three or four broken sentences strung together. Before interviewing village Nunamiuts, Marshall would practice a few lines, eager to prove that he valued their distinctive culture.

Wiseman was a collection of hard-core people. Without roads, travelers had to arrive by either dogsled or a steamship from the village of Bettles. Marshall was, in a sense, the first professional visitor. Less than 5 percent of Alaska’s population lived north of the Yukon River. It was different that far north. Residents all had a sense of being in touch with the base of life. The weather in Wiseman was coldest in January, but the darkest month was December (for thirty days there was no sunlight).

Luckily, Marshall had a lot of good books to keep him company during his twelve and a half months in Wiseman; his taste ranged from potboilers to law books to belles lettres. In his cabin, the complete works of Shakespeare, Plato, and Emerson shared space on the painted bookshelf. New nonfiction titles such as Joseph Wood Krutch’s Modern Temper, George P. Ahern’s Deforested America, and Gaston B. Means’s The Strange Death of President Harding sat on a shelf behind the makeshift Franklin stove. “There is not a trace of the usual chaos of papers, books, magazines, gloves, snowshoe straps, and the like,” Marshall wrote home, “but an immaculately clean oilcloth surface whereon I can spread the work of the moment without having first to shovel clear a simple space on which to set my papers.”25

The artist Thomas Hart Benton was painting huge murals about American life in the 1930s, receiving commissions from, for example, the Missouri state capitol and the Chicago World’s Fair. Marshall saw Arctic Village as his prose mural of one Alaskan frontier town, where everybody was his or her own master. Ancient peoples lived in perfect harmony with guys from Brooklyn and Philadelphia in search of freedom. Old sourdoughs from the Klondike gold rush of 1898 used to come over to Marshall’s cabin to drink beer and play records like “Ol’ Man River” and Hungarian Rhapsody on the turntable. Outside the wind might roar in seeming harmony with each crescendo. Moose stew and caribou steaks were favorite dishes. Homegrown turnips and potatoes were ladled out in heaping mounds from serving bowls. The midnight sun provided marvelous growing weather for certain vegetables, allowing farmers to produce giant cabbages weighing up to eighty or ninety pounds.

Political banter in Wiseman was usually aimed at the folly of Madison Avenue slicksters and the thieves at the House of Morgan. There were conversations about the Ku Klux Klan, the New York Yankees, agricultural prices, sexual escapades, and the mating habits of seals—nothing was off-limits. There was some decidedly populist bias against elites of any shape or form. There was an ingrained distrust of big government. “If them bastards would cut out some of their battleships and spend the money for aviation research,” the gold seeker Vernon Walts complained, “we wouldn’t have to finance people like the Guggenheims to give money to it.”26

To honor his friends in Wiseman, Marshall started naming topographical wonders after them. Over time, U.S. Geological Survey maps accepted 164 place-names that he had conjured up in the Koyukuk region. In a fit of community patriotism Marshall named beautiful features Big Joe Creek, Ernie Creek, Harvey Mountain, Holmes Creek, Jack Creek, Kupuk Creek, Snowden Creek, and so on. Whatever trepidation his newfound friends had about this PhD from Baltimore asking questions about their sex lives and hunting habits vanished when they learned of the permanent high honor Marshall had accorded them in the Rand McNally atlas.

But Marshall’s biotic journals from his expedition of July–August 1931 exploring the Alatna and John rivers are most treasured by outdoors types. Using a compass and old field guides, Marshall, accompanied by Ernie Johnson, carefully inventoried the mountain walls along the Arctic Divide. The serious-minded, scientific side of Marshall seemed to evaporate amid such magnificence. Pausing at Loon Lake—which he named because of the high concentration of Arctic loons—Marshall scribbled enthusiastic notes, which were published posthumously in Alaska Wilderness (1956). “Nothing I had seen, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or Mount McKinley rising from Susitna, had given me such a sense of immensity as this virgin lake lying in a great cleft in the surface of the earth with mountain slopes and waterfalls tumbling from beyond the limits of visibility,” he wrote. “We walked up the right shore among bare rocks intermingled with meadows of bright lichen, while large flocks of ducks bobbed peacefully and unmindful of us on the water of the lake, and four loons were singing that rich, wild music which they added to the beautiful melodies of earth. No sight or smell or feeling even remotely hinted of men or their creations. It seemed as if time had dropped away a million years and we were back in a primordial world.”27


Nobody has written about the beautiful desolation of the central Brooks Range with the love that Bob Marshall brought to Arctic Village (and later Alaska Wilderness). To Marshall, his time spent in the central Brooks Range, where clouds wrapped the serried peaks, was like witnessing all the snows of yesteryear in a single jaw-dropping glance. Even the best cameras couldn’t capture the wavy glow of the northern lights. The sky could turn from cold gray to a huge shimmering curtain of flashes within an hour. The air was rent with silence. The frosty dew along the Koyukuk River had a distinctive purity. Every gorgeous vista in the Brooks Range seemed like a mirage. To bring the industrial order into such an ethereal Alaskan landscape would be a ruinous mistake. All of his forestry studies reached their apex here. Marshall wrote that the Arctic Circle was an experience that brought the “joy of physical exploration” into “mental continents.” Just striking out across the flat tundra north of Wiseman in snowshoes, even in bitter subzero weather, exhilarated him. Every time he survived an avalanche or a washout, or was almost blown over by a cloud of snow, it made him understand how hardy the First Nation tribes were.

Marshall had found nirvana in the seeming nothingness around Wiseman. His sense of place, his affection for a specific locality, was focused on this serene Arctic region, where every quiet slope seemed to sing a hymn. Having adapted to the long Arctic winters, he felt privileged. The complete absence of machines gave Arctic life integrity. In a state of exaltation, Marshall declared Wiseman his enchanting community “200 miles beyond the edge of the 20th century.” How tame the Adirondacks were by comparison! Many townsfolk in the Arctic Divide were poor but simply didn’t know it. To Marshall the local elders had a dignity hard to find along the eastern seaboard. New Yorkers were self-centered by comparison. Broadening his source of names beyond Wiseman, Marshall started attaching Inuit terms to numerous sites he encountered in the Brooks Range: Yenituk (“white face”) Creek, Pinnyanatuk (“absolute perfection of beauty”), and Karillyukpuk (“very rugged”).28 It was a world that was drawn in vibrant, sharp colors—a humbling world where the low tundra fauna burst with fresh growth, undeterred by durable permafrost. When he was back in New York, Marshall could close his eyes and imagine Wiseman set against a wide background of snow and smiles. The memory of his designations in the Gates of the Arctic filled him with joy.

Using the village of Wiseman as a sociological laboratory, Marshall put forward a theory that being surrounded by raw wilderness led to a marvelous “amount of freedom, tolerance, beauty, and contentment such as few human beings are ever fortunate enough to achieve.” Where others saw desolation, Marshall saw Eden. Like many anthropological studies of the early 1930s, Arctic Village was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theory that it was unhealthy for humans to bottle up primal urges.29 Every chapter presented the amazing frankness of the people of the upper Koyukuk. The farther north one went in Alaska, nature became greater and greater and man became less and less. The virgin Arctic wilderness, Marshall now argued, offered the opportunity for a sojourner “craving for adventure” to break into “unpenetrated ground, venturing beyond the boundary of normal aptitude, exerting oneself to the limit of capacity.” His intimate sociological portrait of life in Wiseman—a hamlet on the edge of nowhere—was a pioneering work. As Roderick Frazier Nash pointed out in Wilderness and the American Mind, the words “nameless” and “trackless” and “unknown” were continually used to describe Alaskan landmasses north of the Arctic Divide.30 Marshall, embracing each word, wasn’t a member of America’s wilderness cult. He personified it.

The fact that Marshall was writing Arctic Village didn’t mean he had forgotten about upstate New York. On July 15, 1932, Marshall (along with his brother George) broke a world record, climbing fourteen Adirondack peaks in less than twenty hours. To Marshall, each peak was unique, with a personality of its own, sharp and green against the sky. There was something about Marshall’s exhausting feat, however, that hinted at mania. In The Adirondack Park: A Political History, Frank Graham Jr. wrote that he found “something a little disturbing in all this bustling from one mountain peak to another. . . . Pull up a pumpkin and sit down for awhile, one wants to say to Marshall.”31

Much as the novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote candidly about the citizens of Asheville, North Carolina, in You Can’t Go Home Again, Marshall wrote—uncensored—throughout 1932 about adultery, casual gossip, and random quarrels in Wiseman. When Marshall’s lawyer read an early draft ofArctic Village, the first word that came to his mind was libel. This clearly wasn’t a travelogue. To avoid lawsuits, pseudonyms were quickly assigned to a few of the residents, who were also slightly disguised. And, feeling somewhat guilty, Marshall gave $3,609—half of his royalties—to the residents of Wiseman. By the time Marshall wrote a check for $18 to every adult in the village upon publication—even the dissolute idlers and wastrels—all was forgiven. The predictable upshot was that the dollar talked, even in the Brooks Range.

Marshall had started writing Arctic Village in earnest in a Baltimore apartment during the fall of 1931. Early drafts of chapters with titles like “Wilderness of the Koyukuk” and “The Wilderness at Home” were delivered as papers to the Society of American Foresters; these weren’t vetted or bowdlerized by the U.S. Forest Service. Simultaneously, he continued to urge the U.S. Forest Service to understand that sport fishing, bird-watching, and hiking would, in the long run, bring in more money to local economies than manufacturing plywood or grazing Herefords. The U.S. government needed a long-term vision. With a first draft of Arctic Village completed, Marshall rented a room on C Street in Washington, D.C., and began writing a “recreation” report for the Forest Service. “One of the first things he did,” his biographer James M. Glover wrote, “was compile a list of roadless areas remaining in the United States.”32 Vision was never in short supply for Bob Marshall.

When Arctic Village was published in 1932, it received positive reviews: all 399 pages were considered a testimony to the power of ahimsa, the concept of honoring all living entities. Rockwell Kent said, in the New York Herald Tribune, that the intimate portrait of Wiseman was “a classic of our native literature.” In the American Mercury H. L. Mencken deemed the folks of the Koyukuk truly blessed because no theologians resided within 100 miles of the town center. Ruth Benedict of the Nation said that Marshall, in a low-key way, had written an “Arctic Middletown.” Meanwhile, academics praised the new statistical information about the central Brooks Range that Marshall had interspersed throughout the text.


When the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, Marshall believed his ideas about wilderness and forestry might actually be taken seriously by the Department of the Interior. The election was a milestone in U.S. conservationist history. Wild Alaska had its best friend in the White House since 1909. FDR, in fact, was such a forestry buff that he called himself a “tree farmer.”33 A master talent scout, Roosevelt was open to all sorts of new conservationist ideas percolating up from the U.S. Forest Service. Philosophically, FDR wanted corporations regulated and natural resources protected. Wisely, he chose Gifford Pinchot—who in 1934 ran an unsuccessful campaign to be a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania—to become his forestry adviser. Having an acknowledged arbiter of issues regarding public versus private lands on the New Deal team boded well for wild Alaska. Immediately, Pinchot asked Marshall to write a memo on the state of national forestry policy.34 Predictably, Marshall recommended a huge program to protect public lands in Alaska. In the controversial report Marshall stated flatly that private forestry had “failed the world over.”35

Although Franklin D. Roosevelt was only a distant cousin of TR’s, they shared a belief that conservation of natural resources was essential if America was to remain a great nation. Whereas TR’s primary interest was wildlife, the young FDR defined himself as a forester. Born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York, along the banks of the Hudson River, Franklin was enamored of all aspects of bucolic Dutchess County at a very young age. His 1,200 acres of green trees were his paradise. He learned how to nurture every square foot of his property. When the cornerstone was laid for his presidential library at Hyde Park in November 1939, FDR reflected on his abiding love for the Hudson River Valley.

“Half a century ago a small boy took especial delight in climbing an old tree, now unhappily gone, to pick and eat ripe seckel pears,” he said. “That was about one hundred feet to the west of where I am standing now. And just to the north he used to lie flat between the strawberries—the best in the world. In the spring of the year, in hip rubber boots, he sailed his first toy boat in the surface water formed by the melting snow. In the summer with his dogs he dug into woodchuck holes in this same field, and some of you are standing on top of those holes at this minute. Indeed, the descendents of those same woodchucks still inhabit this field and I hope that, under the auspices of the National Archivist, they will continue to do so for all time.”36

By the time FDR went to Harvard University in 1900 he presented himself as a tree farmer. In 1912 he started planting Norway spruce and Douglas fir all over Dutchess County as any good Bull Moose conservationist would do. Roosevelt, in fact, became chairman of the Forestry Committee of the New York state senate, personally planting 2,000 or 3,000 trees a year. As a hobby FDR would purchase land adjacent to his Hyde Park estate and play at being Gifford Pinchot. In 1929 he hired Nelson Brown, a professor at the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University, a program funded by Louis Marshall, to help transform Hyde Park into an arboretum. For his entire life, the deep glades of his hemlock woods were among his favorite places to contemplate political issues.

As governor of New York from January 1, 1929, to December 31, 1932, FDR put more than 10,000 unemployed men to work planting trees, managing forests, and stopping erosion. When Roosevelt won the presidential election in 1932, he asked Brown to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Roosevelt’s hobby was going to be an impetus for some elements of the New Deal. “F.D.R. saw the restoration of the land—the prevention of dust bowls and floods through soil conservation practices, the rotation of crops, the planting of trees,” the historian John Sears wrote, “as intimately bound up with restoring the livelihoods of the people living on the land.”37

When Roosevelt created the CCC on March 31, 1933, Bob Marshall celebrated. FDR had once told his aide Harry Hopkins that every boy should work for at least half a year in forestry; to Marshall, this was a very wise statement indeed. Within a few months 1,000 CCC camps were operational, offering employment to nearly 300,000 young men. A few weeks later FDR established the first CCC marine station in the southern Tongass National Forest; at long last TR’s greatest accomplishment in Alaska received ranger boats and increased protection by wardens.38

Marshall—who never looked for financial opportunities beyond the strictures of a government salary—was thrilled by all the New Deal efforts made in Alaska toward parks, wildlife management, rangeland, and soil and water conservation, but he was distressed that the reclamation ofwilderness didn’t grab the president’s attention. The Forest Service did continue to preserve “primitive areas” as stipulated in the L-20 regulations of 1929, but it wasn’t ardent about enforcing the laws or actually prohibiting development.39

Harold L. Ickes, however, feisty and belligerent, was drawn to the wilderness movement. He was, politically, a Bull Moose conservationist, a throwback to the turn of the century when TR claimed that the vast open spaces were the great incubator of American democracy. “We ought to keep as much wilderness area in this country as we can,” Ickes told a convention of CCC workers. “I am not in favor of building any more roads in the National Parks than we have to build. I am not in favor of doing anything along the line of so-called improvements that we do not have to do.”40

President Roosevelt also established the Kenai National Moose Range in Alaska with Executive Order No. 8979 (just a few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941).41 An editorial in Seward Gateway had called for a moose reserve on the Kenai Peninsula a decade earlier. And, in 1932, thirty-seven conservation-minded citizens from the village of Ninilchik petitioned Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde to create a new refuge like the one on Fire Island. In addition to lobbying to create a Kenai National Moose Range, the Alaska Game Commission had issued a number of new hunting regulations throughout the territory. But boomers in mining towns like Hope and Sunrise objected strongly to the federal government’s protection of moose. Moose was Alaska’s regional meat, prepared marinated, used in casseroles or stews, and eaten in burger buns.

From 1932 to 1941 boomers fought against the Biological Survey, opposing an executive order to save Alaska’s moose population. But when the Biological Survey was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior on July 1, 1939, the idea of a moose refuge gathered momentum. Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order the U.S. government started constructing military installations on Kodiak Island and at Dutch Harbor. As a trade-off, Ira N. Gabrielson, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, was able to persuade FDR to establish Kenai National Moose Range, encompassing 2 million acres. Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to allow limited hunting and land leasing in the refuge—leading important “hook and bullet” nonprofits to support the moose sanctuary. With World War II dominating all aspects of American life, the Kenai National Moose Range seemed like a fine way to protect wildlife. But life isn’t that simple. Richfield discovered oil on the Kenai Moose Range in the early 1950s and began demanding immediate exploitation of the field to obtain petroleum. A showdown over Alaskan moose was looming.42

Marshall continued to worry that the New Deal wasn’t socialist. He was opposed, for example, to the federal government’s building dams in wilderness areas of immense value as natural resources. But he cheered the Department of the Interior for saving such treasured landscapes as the Sonora Desert of Arizona, Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and Big Bend in Texas. Other national monuments—Zion, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Capitol Reef—were either expanded or upgraded to national park status later.43Besides the CCC, Marshall approved heartily of the Soil Conservation Service, whose aim was to stop erosion. Feeling that “big timber” was waning in the Pacific Northwest, Marshall tried to persuade his publisher to change the title of Arctic Village to Those Bastards, the Lumbermen (possibly he was joking). But his dedication never changed, from the first draft to the final proof. It read: “To the people of the Koyukuk who have made for themselves the happiest civilization of which I have knowledge.”

Arctic Village greatly enhanced Marshall’s career. Appointed by President Roosevelt as director of the Indian Forest Service, Marshall would travel around the country for about six months a year inspecting forests from Minnesota’s Lake Superior to Arizona’s Gila National Forest. Visiting reservations where pent-up frustration was increasing, he also helped Native American tribes reacquire forests stolen from them in the nineteenth century when treaties were broken. When presented with discrepancies in land title cases, he usually sided with the Indians. But he wasn’t helping all the Native tribes. Marshall confronted the Navajo over their overgrazing of stock on the Arizona range. Wearing an old cotton workshirt, faded dungarees, and a straw hat, he didn’t seem like a USDA Forest Service officer. Returning to his old hobby of collecting unique American place-names, the ever-studious Marshall learned fascinating words from various tribes. He marveled that the Chippewa in Minnesota, for example, had a particularly long word for cranberry pie: muskegmeenanboskominnasiganeetibasijigunbadingwaybaquazyshegun.44

Although Arctic Village sold only 3,000 copies, many people interested in Alaskan conservation read it, including the twenty-nine-year-old Mardy Murie. Olaus Murie, the husband of the buoyant, clear-minded Mardy, was considered the world’s leading biological expert on Arctic caribou, and she had been assisting him to better understand the 11,000-year relationship between people and caribou in northern Alaska. A careful, college-educated note-taker, Mardy eventually wrote an elegant memoir, Two in the Far North, as a tribute to Arctic Alaska and the frontier spirit of its people. Marshall, while staying at a hotel in Chicago, received a warmhearted fan letter from her. “Of course I heard of you often and your fame still lingers in the Koyukuk as the most beautiful woman who ever came to that region,” Marshall replied. “Jack Hood, Cone Frank, Pass Postlethwaite and Verne Watts each told me so, and they’ve seen them all come and go from Dirty Maude to Clara Carpenter. . . . Mr. Murie’s fame also lingers in the Koyukuk.”45

This exchange of letters was the beginning of a united front to preserve what would become the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As part of the New Deal conservationist program, Marshall soon held highly significant meetings with the Muries in Washington, D.C., and Moose, Wyoming. Following the death of Charles Sheldon, Olaus Murie—taking some time from the caribou—had also become the Biological Survey’s leading expert on the Jackson Hole elk herd. Mardy Murie continued assisting her husband with his study of the caribou herds of Alaska and the Yukon. The three conservationists believed in one crucial point: that in the aftermath of Hetch Hetchy, wild Alaska was now the environmental battleground.

Pleased with the success of Arctic Village, Marshall began working on a follow-up, The People’s Forest. Published in 1933, it was crammed with scientific data, and it charged that the reckless clear-cutting strategy of “big timber” was destroying American landscapes. The U.S. government’s halfway policies were failing to arrest this destruction. No longer, Marshall argued, should Americans tolerate tracts of tree stumps in their communities. Private companies, he feared, were bent on ruining landscapes for quick profit and were unconcerned about the environmental devastation they casually left behind. From Marshall’s perspective, it behooved the Roosevelt administration to acquire about 200 million additional acres of land. That would bring America’s public forestlands to well over 500 million acres. According to Marshall it was time to “discard the unsocial view” that our woods belonged to lumbermen. “Every acre of woodland in the country,” he insisted, “is rightly a part of the people’s forest.”46

As the historian James M. Glover noted, the publication of The People’s Forest had the unfortunate effect of leaving Marshall somewhat marginalized as a utopian socialist.47 There was a strain in the book that could be read as hostile to the whole capitalistic notion of land acquisition. Owners of large ranches in Wyoming and Texas considered Marshall as communistic as Leon Trotsky and as eccentric as Rockwell Kent. Bureaucrats didn’t respect his clarion calls or his pejorative language. Franklin Reed, editor of theJournal of Forestry, said The People’s Forest was “dangerous,” an irresponsible plea for huge U.S. government reserves with virtually no concern about how such a preservationist policy would affect jobs in depressed areas.48 Marshall then started a well-organized campaign to have Reed fired. In any case, by 1935 FDR started speaking in extremely eco-friendly terms. “It is an error to say we have ‘conquered Nature,’ ” Roosevelt told Congress. “We must, rather, start to shape our lives in a more harmonious relationship with Nature.”49 In Vermont’s Winoski River valley alone, more than 3,000 CCC workers were encamped for a “green” reforestation campaign.

Marshall proved to be a good bureaucrat, accounting for every penny spent; but his memorandums were often filled with belittling sarcasm and ridicule. Allan Harper, head of the Indian Bureau’s Organization Division, warned Marshall that if he didn’t want to be fired, he’d better consult a censor who would have the power to omit some particularly brutal phrases. What saved Marshall was the fact that Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes admired his vision and boldness. Cantankerous, judgmental, and deeply devoted to conservation, Ickes was nicknamed Donald Duck by FDR because of his cartoonish temper tantrums. Horace Albright, head of the National Park Service, said that Ickes was “the meanest man who ever sat in a Cabinet office in Washington” but also “the best Secretary of Interior we ever had.”50 Ickes shared Marshall’s foresight when it came to increasing primitive areas within America’s national forests. “I think we ought to keep as much wilderness area in this country of ours as we can,” Ickes told CCC workers. “I do not happen to favor the scarring of a wonderful mountainside just so we can have a skyline drive. It sounds poetical, but it may be an atrocity.”51

In the summer of 1934 Marshall was appointed by Ickes to represent the Department of the Interior in creating an international wilderness sanctuary with Canada along the Minnesota-Ontario border. Marshall hoped for a roadless national park. Visitors would instead paddle canoes like the voyageurs of old to get around the “land of 10,000 lakes.” Deeply disturbed because the National Park Service had been building turnpikes inside wonders like the Shenandoah Valley, Marshall worked overtime to develop a new roadless policy. From his perspective, the skyline drives built through the scenic center of Shenandoah National Park were a betrayal of the law of 1916 saying that both wildlife and scenery should remain “unimpaired.” Plans for concrete thoroughfares through Great Smoky Mountains National Park also incensed Marshall. Roads would facilitate logging, mining, dam construction, and oil drilling. By focusing on roadlessness Marshall knew he could eventually win the battle to preserve wilderness.52

Ickes dispatched Marshall to Tennessee to recommend routes for a proposed new highway from Shenandoah to the Smokies. Cleverly, Marshall wrote an urgent missive asking Benton MacKaye, the father of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail, to meet with him in Knoxville. Meanwhile, Mackaye had asked Harold C. Anderson, secretary of the Potomac Appalachian Trail, to come with him to Tennessee. Meeting at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Knoxville, the three conservationists, recognizing that there was no lobbying group aimed at keeping public lands roadless, started an open-ended dialogue. They wanted to found a new nonprofit group like the Izaak Walton League or the Sierra Club. To these men the idea of a highway in the Smokies reeked of “bad planning.” Marshall’s vocal dissent, however, was construed by some members of the National Park Service as an “improper and ungracious attack.”53

A few months later, in 1935, Marshall met in Washington, D.C., with Robert Sterling Yard (a creator of the National Park Service) and Mackaye to officially announce the founding of The Wilderness Society.

The nature photographer Ansel Adams once wrote that certain “noble areas” of the world should be left in as “close-to-primal condition” as possible.54 That was what Marshall wanted to happen in America. “All we desire to save from invasion,” he declared, “is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smell.”55 Aldo Leopold, the most eminent wildlife biologist of the twentieth century, was brought in to become a cofounder of The Wilderness Society.56 “It will be no longer a case of a few individuals fighting,” Marshall declared, “but a well organized and thoroughly earnest mass of wilderness lovers.”57

The Wilderness Society was officially created at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 1935. Professional, self-assured, and devoted to nature, these high priests of the wilderness planned to challenge huge corporations that were hungry for public lands to be opened up for lumbering, mining, and grazing. The Wilderness Society saw itself as focused on results. Saving roadless land areas was the binding motivation of this new nonprofit. The first paragraph of its four-page mission statement read as follows:

Primitive America is vanishing with appalling rapidity. Scarcely a month passes in which some highway does not invade an area which since the beginning of time had known only natural modes of travel; or some last remaining virgin timber tract is not shattered by the construction of an irrigation project into an expanding and contracting mud flat; or some quiet glade hitherto disturbed only by birds and insects and wind in the trees, does not bark out the merits of “Crazy Water Crystals” and the mushiness of “Cocktails for Two.”58

Under the enterprising leadership of Marshall and Yard, The Wilderness Society deliberately limited its membership. Approximately 500 dedicated fighters seemed about right. Compromisers weren’t welcomed. “We want no straddlers,” Marshall said. “For in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval forest which should never have been lost.”59 The headquarters for The Wilderness Society was Yard’s apartment at 1840 Mintwood Place in Washington, D.C. An advertisement-free magazine, theLiving Wilderness, was issued; its main feature was an attempt to stop road construction in Idaho’s Selway-Salmon river region and Washington’s North Cascades and Olympic Mountains. By October 1935 Marshall was in southeast Utah fighting to maintain 1million acres of roadless wilderness. A movement had begun.

Marshall was wise to cofound The Wilderness Society with seventy-four-year-old Robert “Bob” Sterling Yard. Born during the Civil War in Haverstraw, New York, Yard was an old-style gentleman, the kind of man who tipped his hat and never swore. He had graduated from Princeton University and become a leading journalist and editor in New York City. One of his closest friends had been Stephen Mather, a fine reporter who went on to become the founding director of the National Park Service. Yard quit his career as a journalist to become the vital advocate of protecting wild and scenic America. Unlike Marshall, he had a calming personality that never grated on anyone.

A ferocious worker, Yard started a letter-writing campaign on behalf of The Wilderness Society that was stunningly impressive. Membership drives, public photographs, and lyceums were all part of Yard’s programming agenda, based on the gospel of “wilderness salvation.” He became the first editor of the Living Wilderness, perhaps the most important circular promoting Alaska’s nature heritage in the Tongass and Chugach. “The spirit of the forest is American,” he wrote in 1936. “It moves indomitably against all obstructions.”60

With The Wilderness Society up and running, and Yard handling the daily logistics, Marshall advocated on behalf of Arctic Alaska. Capitalizing on his appointment as director of forestry for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1937, and later as head of recreation management for the U.S. Forest Service, Marshall kept asking this question: Why not have Alaska’s North Slope designated a wilderness area? In a report he wrote for the U.S. government in 1937, building on The Wilderness Society’s mandate, Marshall called for “all of Alaska north of the Yukon River” (minus a small area around Nome) to be officially declared wilderness. There should be no roads or congestion, just wilderness with caribou herds roaming free and birdlife thriving as if industrialization had never happened. It would be a sublime place with brilliant patches of tundra and wildflowers. An Arctic refuge would be cathartic for city dwellers, a vast treeless landscape uncompromised by jackhammers, smog, or bulldozers. In the future, someone like Thoreau could wander on snowshoes to the northernmost Arctic, camping along the Hulahula or Kongakut river in June, and warding off mosquitoes by a dwindling campfire as he witnessed the surreal spectacle of the aurora borealis. Such tramping was a wonderful part of the American intellectual tradition.

When Marshall visited California’s Sierra Nevada on a listening tour in 1937, he was appalled by what he saw: campgrounds filled with too many people and too much garbage. Many of the gorgeous places where John Muir had tramped were damaged by roads, commercialization, and pack stock. Brainstorming with the Sierra Club’s president, Joel Hildebrand, Marshall wondered whether certain parts of California couldn’t be preserved in “super-wilderness condition,”61 particularly the area around Kings Canyon.

Saving Arctic landscapes as wilderness became Marshall’s crusade in the late 1930s. The worth of Arctic Alaska, Marshall argued, was that “the emotional value of the frontier” could be preserved. In the Arctic, where rivers were made of ice, an explorer could have a mystical union with the creator. The Beaufort Sea coastal plain was still unknown to wildlife biologists. In the late evening Marshall, like another Clausewitz, plotted strategy for the wilderness. After flirting with various preservationist schemes for Alaska, he decided that even the unexciting fields of tufted cotton grass on the Brooks Range (“rock desert,” a topography inhospitable to plants or birds) should be off-limits to development. Although not a bird-watcher, he described the golden plovers (Pluvialis dominica)—mottled black and white with a rich golden tinge on the back—that flew annually from Wiseman all the way to Patagonia. Having earned three academic degrees (including the PhD in forestry at Johns Hopkins), he hoped people might listen to his persuasive argument about leaving the Arctic wilderness alone. Still, Marshall had few illusions that launching a political movement to create an Arctic refuge would be easy, and he wasn’t quixotic or overly romantic. Success, he knew, would come one bureaucratic step at a time. Independently wealthy since his father’s death, Marshall underwrote a new map, approved by the U.S. government, of more than forty wild roadless areas, surveying those forlorn areas himself. Because of his relentless, focused energy, Marshall had faith that he was making an impact from the fringe of the Roosevelt administration.

Marshall went back to Alaska in 1938 to map and explore the upper Koyukuk region anew, in part to settle a bet regarding the source of the Clean River.62 He carefully studied the calcium-rich soil of the tundra and also wanted to prove his theory about the effects of glaciation on the timberline. Spruce seeds he had planted eight or nine years earlier didn’t sprout. The climate was too harsh. “My experiment,” he wrote, “was a complete, dismal failure on both plots.”63 Stopping for lunch one afternoon at the side of a minor stream, Marshall marveled because nothing seemed to grow along its banks. Resorting to his habit of naming geographical landmarks off-the-cuff, he called it Barrenland Creek. He watched the aurora bolt like lightning across the sky, and this reenergized his campaign to save the Arctic refuge as wilderness. Somehow rivers like the Innoko (500 miles), Nowitna (250 miles), and Tanana (659 miles) had to escape the fate of becoming part of Harding’s petroleum reserve. He would devote his considerable energy in Washington, D.C., to making the Arctic refuge happen. It was a life mission.

After visiting the Brooks Range again in 1939, Marshall consolidated all his ideas about the wilderness into an airtight proposal, which he brilliantly presented to a congressional committee. Convinced that saving wilderness was as American as Lewis and Clark, Marshall used terms like “pioneer conditions” and “the emotional values of the frontier.” Boldly Marshall proposed all Alaskan lands north of the Yukon River be kept free of roads, pipelines, electrical wires, smokestack industry, and even farming. America was being given a rare second chance to establish something of permanent value: an American frontier. “Alaska is unique among all recreational areas belonging to the United States, because Alaska is yet largely a wilderness,” Marshall told the congressmen. “In the name of a balanced use of American resources, let’s keep northern Alaska largely a wilderness!”64

Owing to Marshall’s testimony, wilderness was now the new concept in serious land conservation circles. Nobody during the New Deal era was doing more than Marshall to persuade the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to preserve wilderness in the public lands they managed. Then, on November 11, 1939, Marshall died of heart failure on an overnight train trip from Washington, D.C., to New York. To have such a bright star vanish at only age thirty-eight was devastating. The prospect that he would write more books like Arctic Village and The People’s Forests had simply been assumed. Marshall, however, had known he had a serious heart problem. In preparation for sudden death he had made out a will bequeathing one-quarter of his $1.5 million estate to The Wilderness Society.

At Marshall’s burial service in Brooklyn, scores of foresters from the departments of the Interior and Agriculture came to pay final homage to the great man. They pledged to continue Marshall’s quest to protect Arctic Alaska. They agreed to devote their lives to protecting wild lands. A couple of lines that Marshall had written years earlier became the rallying cry for the burgeoning environmental movement. “As society becomes more and more mechanized,” Marshall warned, “it will be more and more difficult for many people to stand the nervous strain, the high pressure, and the drabness of their lives. To escape these abominations, constantly growing numbers will seek the primitive for the finest features of life.”65

The historical implications of Marshall’s conservationist philosophy were monumental. Twenty-five years after his death, largely owing to his advocacy, The Wilderness Society helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964. Such pristine locales as the Grand Tetons, Two Ocean Pass, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River region of central Idaho were designated by Congress as wilderness. And, lo and behold, the Clear Water Country in Montana where Marshall had been a forester in the 1920s was likewise declared roadless.Also in 1964, more than 1 million acres in Montana officially became the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Only a few administrative cabins for trail crews and fire rangers were allowed. With Glacier National Park bordering it on the north, the Bob Marshall Wilderness remained a protection zone for grizzlies.* And Montana was just one example. More than 109 million acres of America are now designated wilderness. One Adirondack wonder was named Mount Marshall in the state system—probably the most fitting tribute of all to the proud “forty-sixer.”

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