Chapter Twenty-Three - Selling the Arctic Refuge


Whether travelers approached Arctic Alaska by plane, boat, or dogsled, a hush fell over most of them. They seemed to be entering God’s no-trespassing zone. For much of the year, the Arctic was frozen off from outsiders, though the Gwich’in and Inupiat traveled the North Slope year-round. Visitors lucky enough to come in the summer months, particularly those trained to understand the flora and fauna seen on a day’s hike, were likely to return to civilization as prophets of the wilderness, reverent disciples of the quiet world. Arctic Alaska was God’s own altar on Earth, an undatable place so obviously hallowed that no human footprint should ever be too deeply imprinted in the frozen tundra or sea ice. In the delicate northeastern corner of Arctic Alaska that the Muries were trying to save, horrible ruts produced by U.S. Navy vehicles retained their depth for decades, slashing the permafrost as boldly as if they were freshly made. From above—from a bird’s-eye view—a traveler could see ancient caribou trails etched into the tundra. Those witnessing the actual migration were often overcome with a stabbing wave of exaltation. Other game trails followed stream corridors and hoof-beaten switchback paths up limestone hillsides. The question that American environmentalists of the mid-1950s were asking was: could the industrial order leave much of a treasured landscape free from development? Or, as Mardy Murie asked, “Will our society be wise enough to keep some of ‘The Great Country’ empty of technology and full of life?”1

Ever since the Sheenjek Expedition of 1956, Olaus and Mardy Murie had lobbied for an inviolate 8.9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from sixty miles east of Prudhoe Bay all the way to the Canadian border.* The proposed site was bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean (Beaufort Sea), on the east by Canada, and on the west by the Canning River, and led south to a point beyond the lovely crest of the Brooks Range. When discussing Arctic ecosystems, the Muries often used the word fragile to help laypersons understand the interconnectedness of the far north wilderness. The elimination of one species could cause a chain reaction affecting others. Lemmings and sparrows were as important to the Muries as polar bears. They had also studied twenty-three types of spiders found in the Arctic.2

Bursting with enthusiasm, convinced that Arctic Alaska could be saved, the Muries launched a comprehensive plan to convince Alaskans that the time for preservation was now. This seven-year push for the Arctic Refuge coincided exactly with the movement for Alaska’s statehood, which was under way following a 1955 constitutional convention in Fairbanks.3 To the Muries, the land forming the Arctic Alaska refuge was the most majestic panorama of wilderness in North America. It presented life in consummate ecological harmony. Winning the fight against the proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument emboldened the Muries to seek another victory in Arctic Alaska.

Bringing dozens of photographs they had taken with Justice Douglas while camping in the Brooks Range along the Sheenjek River, Olaus and Mardy Murie spent more than two weeks in Alaskan cities in the fall of 1956, talking about the Arctic with the Territorial Land Commission and local news organizations. Olaus’s Elk of North America was a classic study of the Jackson Hole elk herd, and many Alaskan outdoorsmen hoped he’d now fight for the preservation of caribou. In Juneau the Muries met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, garden clubs, and Alaskan politicians. Their lobbying culminated when Olaus Murie showed slides of Arctic Alaska to the Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association (TVSA) at a stag dinner in Fairbanks. Besides the great caribou herds and Dall sheep groupings, more than 300,000 snow geese (Chen caerulescens) fed on the Arctic tundra in autumn before migrating to their wintering grounds in California. The TVSA bird hunters wanted to be sure that this migration would continue for their children’s children to enjoy. “Afterward several came to me,” Murie wrote to George L. Collins, “and fervently promised their support, and greatly surprised me by giving me an honorary life membership in their organization.”4

Even though Olaus and Mardy Murie were ecologically-minded, they had no serious qualms about genuine hunters. Unlike some “faux hunters” who guzzled beer and then stomped into the autumn woods to kill deer for a trophy, many serious Alaskan hunters (both Native and Euro American) had an almost Paleolithic reverence for animals. These real hunters used their body and senses with a trained acuteness, actually getting into the thought processes of the stalked animals. Where would a grizzly be catching salmon today? What bog would a moose prefer in a cold drizzle? The poet Gary Snyder wrote about this kind of genuine hunter in Earth House Hold: “Hunting magic is designed to bring the game to you—the creature who has heard your song, witnessed your sincerity, and out of compassion comes within your range. Hunting magic is not only aimed at bringing beasts to their death, but to assist in their birth—to promote their fertility.”5

The Muries were convinced that there were members of TVSA who, like the Gwich’in, knew the magic of the animals they killed. Not that the sportsmen’s association didn’t also include “slob hunters” and “gun nuts” among its members. But the Muries were betting that a number of TVSA leaders—whom they knew as friends for decades—would join the Arctic preservation cause because they intuitively understood Rousseau’s theory of the noble savage: the ancient notion that humans still had a lot to learn from the primitive world. Congress had granted TVSA twenty acres of land along the Chena River (an unusual allocation for any sportsmen’s club) for two reasons: to teach Alaskan children how to safely use firearms, and to promote the “fair chase” ethics of Theodore Roosevelt’s wildlife conservation policies.

Almost like a theologian, Olaus Murie spoke to the TVSA about the spirituality of the Brooks Range and the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea. The 120,000-head Porcupine caribou herd was his best selling point. Pregnant female caribou came to the coastal plain to give birth in May and June. Since the Pleistocene age, the Muries’ proposed Arctic range was also home to the northernmost population of Dall sheep, whose curled horns TVSA hunters coveted. And Murie had preservationist selling points for anglers. America’s largest and most northerly alpine lakes—Peters and Schrader—were also located in the proposed 8.9 million-acre Arctic Refuge. As Justice Douglas had found out, the braided rivers were rife with grayling in the summer. Most important, northeastern Alaska was the home of the Gwich’in people, who considered themselves one with the caribou herds. Murie made it clear that the proposed Arctic Refuge was, as Rick Bass put it in Caribou Rising, “as wild as when it was first created.”6

Convincing the antigovernment types in the TVSA that withdrawing 8.9 million acres of Arctic tundra for either U.S. Fish and Wildlife or the National Park Service wasn’t easy, even for Olaus Murie. The U.S. Geological Survey had barely mapped Arctic Alaska. Who knew what riches lay under the permafrost? Oil seeps had been spotted between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay along the Beaufort Sea. Ore deposits were considered probable on the tundra. In fact, the Alaskan mineral extraction industries—both local and national—abounded with rumors that zinc, copper, nickel, and platinum were to be found in the Muries’ proposed Arctic Refuge. Naturalists like Olaus and Mardy were opposed to coal mining, oil drilling, and wolf hunting—activities that many TVSA members thought made Alaska great. “He was a mild-mannered fella,” Charles Gray, an unrepentant aerial wolf hunter, recalled of Murie’s attempts in the fall of 1956 to lobby the TVSA. “He was sincere and had facts.”7

A few days after lobbying the TVSA, Murie wrote to Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society explaining his firm conviction that to persuade fiercely antigovernment Alaskan residents to protect the Arctic for recreational and aesthetic reasons took patience: “a lot of psychological progress will have to be made before enough Alaskans favor further federal reserves, that is a phobia in Alaska.” Zahniser, operating from Washington, D.C., frustrated by the five-hour time difference with Fairbanks, didn’t have much patience for the hand-holding style of Olaus Murie. He didn’t believe in Snyder’s “hunting magic.” To Zahniser, who had suffered a heart attack in 1951 and understood the meaning of borrowed time, most Alaskans were shoot-em-up types, uneducated in modern principles of conservation and ecology, reckless stewards of the land whose own front yards resembled town dumps with rusted Chevrolets and broken bottles littering the unmowed lawns. Left to their own devices these north country fools, ready to do anything for a fast dollar, would foul the Arctic. Extolling the virtues of the Alaskan tundra, Zahniser, who had started drafting a wilderness bill, wanted the Arctic Refuge rammed down the territory’s throat while statehood was a pending issue. The time for the federal government to strike, Zahniser believed, was now. “Will the wilderness disappear,” Zahniser, who had never visited Alaska, asked Murie, “while we are waiting to be good psychologists?”8

Such exchanges between Murie and Zahniser were commonplace in the late 1950s. As a member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council, Murie worried that Zahniser’s in-your-face style was alienating congressmen and threatening the society’s tax-exempt status.9 Unlike Zahniser, Olaus and Mardy Murie were beloved in Alaska. Powerful friendships had been built up by the couple over the decades. Even though the Muries’ primary home was Moose, Wyoming—which had grown into a campus of seventeen ranch structures—they were embraced by the Fairbanks community, and Mardy had many childhood friends in town. Olaus had proudly received an honorary membership in the Pioneers of Alaska—the venerable sourdough club. “Some years ago I received in Alaska one of my most valuable treasures,” Olaus Murie wrote, “It was not a gold nugget. It was an honorary membership in the Pioneers of Alaska.”10

Deeply respectful of outback types who made a living in the far north, Olaus and Mardy were friendly toward Alaskan miners, hunters, and homesteaders; and this attitude made environmentalist fund-raisers in the Lower Forty-Eight uneasy. Olaus and Mardy Murie’s consensus-building style with Alaska’s NRA types took up a lot of precious time. But the Muries insisted that the Arctic movement needed Alaskan sportsmen as partners. Furthermore, they also wanted the Gwich’in who lived just outside the proposed Arctic Refuge to become allies. “While we were camped on the Sheenjeck River, a group of Indians came up and camped across the river on a hunting expedition,” Olaus Murie wrote in Living Wilderness. “We had some good visits with them. These represented the first human settlers of Alaska; they fit in with wilderness living, and our system of wilderness areas does not intend to interfere with hunting and trapping by such people.”

Searching for influential allies, Olaus turned to George L. Collins of NPS to explain why Brower’s confrontational activism wouldn’t work in Alaska. “George,” Murie explained to Collins in late 1956, “in this whole project I have adopted a go-easy method. As an old-timer up north said to me once: ‘Easy does it.’ I met with many people, from Fort Yukon to Juneau and I can’t remember a time when I came right out and said: ‘Support this wilderness proposal.’ I told them what our experience was, and I sincerely wanted them to make up their own minds. Without the sincere backing of people who have thought the thing through, I feel we can get nowhere.”11

Fairfield Osborn Jr.—who was president of the New York Zoological Society and whose 1948 book Our Plundered Planet was an eye-opening critique of humans’ reckless stewardship of Earth’s natural resources—was carefully monitoring the Muries’ advocacy of the Arctic Refuge. Osborn worried because the proposal to withdraw more than 8.9 million acres had no proper name, such as Yellowstone or Mount McKinley. “The Arctic Range” sounded like the entire north pole. Perhaps if the proposal was signed into law by Eisenhower, the land could be called the “Pioneers of Alaska Range,” maybe the “Theodore Roosevelt Refuge,” or the “William O. Douglas Reserve.” The problem with the name Arctic National Wildlife Range, it seemed, was that the acronym, ANWR, sounded like a Saudi oil field. Osborn, however, agreed with Olaus Murie that wilderness hunting be allowed on the Arctic Refuge, or Arctic NWR (whatever name was chosen), and that getting the 500-member TVSA on board was essential.

When Lois Crisler discovered that Olaus Murie (of The Wilderness Society) and Fairfield Osborn Jr. (of the New York Zoological Society) were promoting hunting—hunting of her beloved wolves!—in the proposed Arctic NWR, she felt betrayed. She wrote a searing letter to Murie denouncing the “hunting syndrome” as a manifestation of males’ cruelty to animals that shouldn’t be perpetuated in the modern era. Crisler was most disturbed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s predator control program as it affected wolves; it involved carnage unacceptable in the postmodern world. Crisler reminded Murie that he himself had written an article in Audubon magazine calling for a “wholesome impulse of generosity toward our fellow creature.” Using recent ecological studies to make her point, Crisler described hunting as “neurotic behavior,” which was “no longer rooted in the demands of reality.”12 Like Zahniser, she wasn’t impressed with the concept of “hunting magic” as an argument for killing wolves; in fact, the Alaskans she encountered in the Brooks Range when she was writing Arctic Wild were cold-blooded killers.

Because Olaus Murie had defended the Crislers’ and Disney’s Winter Wonderland from accusations of nature faking, Lois’s rebuke stung. Murie, who had devoted much of his life to helping Alaskan wildlife prosper, was now being painted by the Crislers and by Rachel Carson as having sold out to the hunting lobby. Frustrated, Murie wrote to Osborn, who had remained above the fray as a mediator in the dispute, that—unequivocally—environmentalists “should not bring into this wilderness project the controversial wolf question.”13 Killing Canis lupus was a traditional Alaskan ritual that would be stopped only by endangered species laws. By contrast, Alaskans who loved the land wanted the caribou herds to be permanently protected: the caribou were an embodiment of wild Alaska itself. Both Olaus and Mardy wanted to promote the Arctic NWR with Robert Service’s poetry, memorized in grade schools from Ketchikan to Nome—not scold Alaskans for believing that wolves were menacing predators.

Olaus Murie, whose views used to be in the avant-garde of wildlife biology, was now being denigrated as passé. Crisler and Carson represented the new, uncompromising voice of the environmental movement of the late 1950s. No longer were activists interested in making trade-offs with hunters about slaughtering animals for sport. The Crisler-Carson forces considered the Boone and Crockett Club, the Camp Fire Club of America, and the TVSA antiquated and the enemy, not much better than, say, Humble Oil. Destroying wildlife didn’t make any sense in the era of toxic chemicals, plastic, and DDT. They thought that debating the intricate rules of hunting licenses was an exercise for numbskulls. A new ecological consciousness had arrived. If the Gwich’in hunted caribou for subsistence and as a spiritual quest, that was one thing; the Crislers and Carson thought their traditions should be honored. But for sport hunters to shoot animals, and to pay NRA membership fees, was degenerate, murderous behavior.

In the essay “Where Wilderness Is Complete” in Living Wilderness magazine, Crisler—now a member of The Wilderness Society’s governing board—wrote poignantly about the immense complex called the Brooks Range. From Crisler’s perspective Arctic wonders such as Mount Michelson, Mount Chamberlin, and Togak Peak needed full protection: hunters should not be allowed to slaughter wolves indiscriminately or to kill migrating caribou for the antlers. The Brooks Range, Crisler wrote, was the “only authentic living wilderness left for humans to learn from—to learn something more important than scientific knowledge; to learn the feel of a full response to a total situation involving other lives.”14 Crisler said that Alaskan roughnecks were actually sick-minded cowards who would derive “great fun” from flying a plane in circles to terrify a “small furred animal veering and running beyond what the heart of flesh and blood can endure.” In Fairbanks when hunting season started, these “slob hunters” would celebrate by getting drunk in bars such as the Big-I Pub and Lounge on Turner Street. Sounding like Cassandra, Crisler warned that “tomorrow” would bring “that final sportsmen’s weapon the jet helicopter with silencer.”15

Crisler set up the debate over the Arctic Refuge in terms of evil versus good. God was telling businesses to weave their commercial webs elsewhere; here at the top of the world the environment should be left alone. Only a gambler infected with boom fever and willing to defy the odds would believe that oil could be safely drilled in the Arctic. The environmentalists and the Gwich’in and Inupiat (who considered themselves the “caribou people” because of their reliance on caribou for fundamental subsistence and socioreligious values) were David, while extraction corporations and hunters were Goliath. The Gwich’in lived in villages to the south of the Brooks Range and believed the coastal plain had to be protected because it was where the sacred Porcupine caribou thrived. These people needed caribou to make boots, sleeping robes, mittens, shirts, and tents. The Gwich’in used every part of the caribou: for example, rawhide (to make tambourine drums), antlers (to make knives), and skin bladders (to haul water).16 Crisler feared that in the long term, “big oil” would come to the calving grounds. Shortsighted, dollar-obsessed oil companies, she believed, would lay waste to the caribou and the landscape with rigs, roads, drills, and spills. “Here in the Brooks Range the biggest of all historical moments, man against nature, meets actual living wilderness making its last stand,” she wrote. “So far man has always won; living wilderness has always perished into desert or mere scenery.”17


Alaska’s North Slope in the mid-1950s was still a land of life that had not yet been depredated. Not much had changed in the Brooks Range since the first Alaskans arrived somewhere between 33,000 and 13,000 years ago across the Bering Strait from Siberia during the second stage of the Wisconsin glaciation. Native village elders in Point Hope and Wainwright, it seemed, had little interest in turning the serene Arctic tundra into oil fields like those in Texas or nuclear testing grounds like those in New Mexico. All the indigenous tribes had learned to survive in extremely low temperatures and to live in “peaceful intimacy with all the animals.”18 These humans had found ways to use everything from whale blubber to polar bear fur to stay warm. Some parts of Arctic Alaska (the Brooks Range, in particular) had experienced at least twenty periods of glaciation during the past 2.5 million years, and here as everywhere, the fittest species survived. In summer, hundreds of thousands of birds hatched on the Arctic tundra. Tens of thousands of caribou congregated, calved, and migrated along the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea, as they had done during the Pleistocene epoch. As Ernest Thompson Seton wrote in his 1911 book The Arctic Prairies: “The Caribou is a travelsome beast, always in a hurry going against the wind. When the wind is west all travel west, when it veers they veer . . . but they are ever on the move.”19

Olaus Murie, struggling against cancer (a melanoma), understood that there is no peace unto the wicked. Today’s wilderness could be a garbage dump a year later. An oil company, for example, would not hesitate to flout any scruple or ignore any communal value, for profit. The forces of light, the ecologically conscious people who were stewards of God’s land, had to make a public stand over Arctic Alaska. When you’re sick, as Murie was, surviving felt pointless unless there was a last act aimed at helping preserve beauty for tomorrow’s children. Murie knew life was transitory. All biologists understood this unalterable Darwinian fact. If the wilderness movement could establish a huge Arctic NWR, with no roads for hundreds of miles in all directions, where the evolutionary processes were left to continue their natural ebb and flow, then the 1950s generation of conservationists would be able to claim that they had stood up to the postwar industrial beast. By saving Arctic Alaska—or at least a swath of the Beaufort Sea coast, the tundra plain, the glacier-capped peaks of the Brooks Range, and the spruce and birch forests of the Yukon basin—Murie could die content.

Throughout 1957–1958 the proposed Arctic NWR was a bureaucratic conundrum, which the Muries wanted solved. Nobody knew for certain whether to push for withdrawal under the Antiquities Act, as Theodore Roosevelt had done with landscapes such as the Grand Canyon and Devils Tower from 1906 to 1909. Roosevelt’s approach tended to infuriate Congress. This mechanism of executive orders had helped the Alaskan wilderness movement establish Katmai National Monument in 1918, Glacier Bay National Monument in 1925, and Kenai Moose Range in 1941. Bypassing Congress had the virtue of avoiding brouhahas and filibusters. Obviously, this approach also had the appeal of quickness.20 But in the long term, working through Congress also had virtues. “The area will be safer for all time if Alaskans themselves are behind it,” Olaus Murie wrote to Osborn about the Arctic campaign. “That’s why I am so concerned over developing this general Alaskan attitude.”21

The Sierra Club entered the effort in March 1957 during the club’s Fifth Biennial Wilderness Conference, held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. George L. Collins of the NPS, serving as chair, spoke eloquently about the Arctic’s seemingly infinite space with his usual fullness and strength: its exultant grandeur, solemnity, forlornness, abundant wildlife, and dancing northern lights. To most of the conservationists in San Francisco, the Brooks Range was the last great wilderness. The conference served as a clearinghouse for all the best proposals for saving the Arctic. Lowell Sumner spoke about the Malthusian population explosion. Starker Leopold—who had written the fine introduction to Lois Crisler’s Arctic Wild—dealt with the morality of saying no to “big coal” and “big oil.” Howard Zahniser pushed forward his wilderness bill (which had just been introduced in the House and Senate). How amazed Bob Marshall would have been that his wilderness ethos—vast tracts of pristine land with no roads—had gathered so much momentum in the nearly twenty years since his death.

Because the gathering at San Francisco totaled more than 500 people, a small group of Marshall’s admirers reconvened after the event in a boardroom to definitively determine whether to promote the 8.9 million-acre Arctic reserve as ANP (Arctic National Park) or Arctic NWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Range). Time was precious. An appropriate name could make a huge difference in the long run. This smaller meeting brought insiders together—high-profile outdoors enthusiasts whose careers had taken them into national conservation politics. Representing the NPS were Collins, Sumner, and Conrad. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had Dan Janzen and Clarence Rhode (Rhode was an advocate of protecting Alaskan wildlife but nevertheless wanted wolves shot on sight). The Bureau of Land Management was represented by its director, Edward Woozley. The Sierra Club had the husband-and-wife team of Richard and Doris Leonard (best known in San Francisco for running the Cragmont Climbing Club, which promoted modern rappelling around Berkeley). But it was The Wilderness Society—represented by the Muries and Zahniser—that delivered the facts and the firepower to the discussions. In Alaska the Sierra Club deserved a lot of credit for pushing Glacier Bay forward to eventual national park status. But the Arctic NWR was the pet cause of The Wilderness Society. When, a couple years later, Zahniser testified before Congress about establishing the Arctic NWR, he claimed that in the Lower Forty-Eight true wilderness had been displaced by development.22

Oddly, the consensus at San Francisco was that collaborating with Secretary of the Interior Seaton made the most sense, and that the 8.9 million acres should be called the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Range was a designation given to areas with big-game animals. The words sanctuary andrefuge were rejected as sounding too “environmental,” in Crisler and Carson’s sense. Later, in 1980, range was replaced with refuge. Everybody present at San Francisco thought the Arctic Range (what became the Arctic NWR) would have made an ideal national park. But it was seriously doubted whether Secretary of the Interior Seaton would ever sign off on such a grand preservationist scheme. “The majority favored wildlife range designation, so we made it unanimous,” Collins explained. “The main thing was to get agreement on something.”23

Another important activist had also signed on for the effort to create the Arctic NWR; at the San Francisco meeting, Sigurd Olson entered the Arctic movement for the first time. His book The Singing Wilderness, published in April 1956, had found a cult readership for its promotion of the joy and wonder of the outdoors. There was much to recommend Olson, a Minnesotan environmentalist and canoeist who would later be credited with creating Voyageurs National Park in 1975. Never did Olson know a day of leisure when it came to protecting the American wilderness. The handsome, silver-haired Olson felt such oneness with the “boundary waters” of Minnesota that he called his state of mind a “wilderness theology.” A “great peace” engulfed Olson when he was in the outdoors. As the naturalist Roger Tory Peterson noted in the New York Herald Tribune, Olson wrote the best prose ever about the “northwoods country.”24 Unusually for a book about conservation, The Singing Wilderness appeared on the New York Times’ best-seller list (as number sixteen).

As president of the National Park Association, Olson, who also taught biology at Ely Junior College (now Vermilion Community College), made an appointment to see Seaton within weeks after Seaton’s confirmation as secretary of the interior. A fast friendship ensued. Olson, in fact, served as a consultant to the Department of the Interior and to the NPS from 1956 to 1961. If any pro-wilderness activist could be said to have Seaton’s ear, it was this deeply honest, soft-spoken Minnesotan, who epitomized generosity of spirit. Conservationists of all stripes, enthralled by The Singing Wilderness, were heartened when Olson pronounced Seaton a “fine chap” who “wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of McKay.”25

Fred Seaton was born in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 1909. His father, Fay Seaton, served as assistant to a progressive Kansas Republican, Senator Joseph Bristow (a Bull Moose in 1912). When Fred was a child, the Seatons moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where his father owned theManhattan Mercury (later the Manhattan Chronicle). Eventually the family had a financial stake in newspapers in Alliance, Nebraska; Sheridan, Wyoming; and Deadwood, South Dakota. Outgoing, friendly, and a solid B student, young Fred attended Kansas State Agricultural College (which later became Kansas State University) from 1927 to 1931; there, he held the post of director of sports publicity. But because he was nine science credits short, Seaton never officially graduated from college—although this situation was rectified when Kansas State University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1955. Fred’s father purchased the financially troubled Daily Tribune of Hastings, Nebraska. It was another newspaper trophy. In 1937 Fred moved to Hastings to run acquisitions. As the elder of two boys and the first out of college, Fred took over publishing responsibilities at the Daily Tribune. Seemingly overnight, he turned it into a profitable business. He went on to become city editor of the Manhattan Mercury. As a pioneering publisher, Seaton figured out how to develop the newspapers’ stories from the wire services.26

Of medium build, with grayish blond hair and sharp blue eyes, Seaton was a real white-shirt downtown Republican, proud to be in the party of Lincoln and TR. He was always meticulously groomed. During the 1936 presidential election Seaton served as the personal secretary of the Republican nominee Alfred Landon. Always a great team player, Seaton was a consistent Republican, never once casting a vote for a Democrat. As a political consultant, Seaton accumulated Republican jobs in both Kansas and Nebraska. While brash in temperament, he had fine manners. When he died in 1974, the New York Times noted: “It was said of him that no one in politics was wiser in the ways of not giving unnecessary offense.”27

When a legendary U.S. senator, Kenneth S. Wherry of Nebraska, died in December 1951, Seaton was selected by Governor Val Peterson to fill the sudden vacancy. Earnest, unflagging, and more cerebral than ideological, Seaton served only a little over a year in the Senate, just enough time to be called “senator” by constituents. But Eisenhower liked Seaton, considering him a fellow Midwesterner full of modest intensity. That wasn’t unusual. Everybody liked Fred because Fred liked everybody. In a long public career in the Great Plains, he never really received bad press. Now, Seaton’s career took off. When Seaton got married, Alf Landon attended the wedding. Seaton and his wife, Gladys, adopted four children. From 1945 to 1949 he was elected to the Nebraska unicameral legislature. His first real political hero was Harold Stassen, the boy wonder who had been elected governor of Minnesota at the age of thirty-one. In 1948, Seaton managed Stassen’s unsuccesful bid for the U.S. presidency.28

When Eisenhower became president in 1953, he appointed Seaton as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs (1953–1955), then as administrative assistant for congressional liaison (1955), and then as deputy assistant to the president (1955–1956). Like a utility infielder in baseball, he could fill various slots. When Secretary of the Interior McKay fell ill in 1957, Eisenhower asked the forty-six-year-old Seaton to be McKay’s successor. McKay’s tenure had been rocky; he had been accused of making sweetheart public land deals with industries. The deeply ethical Eisenhower didn’t like having a new Albert B. Fall on his hands. Seaton, who served as secretary of the interior from June 8, 1956, to January 11, 1961, proved to be an inspired choice.

Fair-minded, and not wanting to see America’s natural resources mismanaged, Seaton also had the all-important advantage of being extremely close friends with L. W. Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a fierce lobbyist for statehood. From 1956 to 1961, whatever Snedden thought needed to occur on the North Slope, Seaton concurred with him.29 And from the outset, Seaton was determined to take a fair and balanced approach to both industry in Alaska and conservation of natural resources. Whereas McKay had tried to avoid traveling around America, preferring to operate from his desk, Seaton did travel, and he delivered about sixty speeches per year.30

During Eisenhower’s second term, however, Herb and Lois Crisler were far greater celebrities than the Muries or Seaton, thanks to the Walt Disney Company’s magic. Expressing their belief in the value of keeping the Arctic Refuge undeveloped forever, the Crislers wrote to Seaton to urge saving the “only place left on the continent where great authentic wilderness can be reserved.”31 Their letter was filled with ecological buzzwords such as otherness, vanishing, and technical environment—rather pretentiously for a couple who had stolen wolf pups from a den for a Disney movie. Instead of answering the Crislers directly, Seaton had Assistant Secretary Ross Leffler write them a courtesy reply, informing them that if the Arctic NWR was created, then in all likelihood mining, hunting, and trapping would be permitted.32

If the Arctic NWR movement had an unsung hero, it was Snedden. He admired the “fair chase” ethics of the TVSA and loathed the new generation of aerial hunters and guides, whose activities were becoming a trend in the late 1950s. Using Super Cub bush planes, pilots would land in the middle of a caribou herd, and then the hunters would fire at the frightened animals. If this deplorable kind of hunting was allowed to continue unabated, the Arctic would be depopulated of game animals. “With American population—and world population—growing at an explosive rate,” Snedden warned, sounding like TR, “the natural pattern of life which existed in the area since the dawn of time . . . its game and primitive scenic beauty—could cease to exist.” With statehood pending, Snedden urged Alaskans to act “now” to “prevent the destruction and slaughter of game animals tomorrow.”33

Olaus and Mardy Murie were proud of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner for taking a pro-conservation stand. And they had another unexpected ally at U.S. Fish and Wildlife: Clarence Rhode, the aerial wolf hunter who nevertheless thought the Arctic should be a wilderness preserve. Rhode, an employee of U.S. Fish and Wildlife since 1935, had learned to respect the Arctic as a wilderness like none other. God, he believed, had made the Arctic perfect. According to Collins, Rhode had an “inside track” with Seaton on all issues concerning Alaskan lands.34

A law-and-order type, Rhode enjoyed busting salmon canneries around Bristol Bay and the Alexander Archipelago for overfishing. But animal rights activists such as Herb and Lois Crisler, who thought that wolves were cuddly dogs, left Rhode cold. Leftists, he believed, were hypocrites. “Raising a big moose crop,” he once declared, “is farming the land exactly as if [one] raised Hereford Cattle.”35

Nevertheless, Rhode had defended the integrity of Franklin Roosevelt’s Kenai National Moose Range. To Rhode, this moose range didn’t impede the economic advancement of the territory. The Bureau of U.S. Fish and Wildlife managed the range, from Rhode’s perspective, as if the Kenai moose (which had the biggest antlers of all the deer in the world) were a treasured species. That was a good thing. The Kenai Peninsula, however, was the best place to live in Alaska, and settlement there was being thwarted by the moose. When Richfield Oil Corporation of Los Angeles found petroleum in July 1957, the boomers in Anchorage turned against FDR’s moose range. Since World War II the Alaskan economy had been sagging. Now, with this discovery of oil, boomers anticipated a profitable new rush. “I have reports,” Seaton said, “that things are almost back to the gold rush days.”36

Rhode tried to prevent the Kenai Moose Range from being dismantled, and to persuade the TVSA to take up the preservationist cause. “There is much pressure in Anchorage, backed by the Chamber of Commerce and oil interests, to convince everyone oil exploration and development will not harm moose habitat in any way and might even enhance it on the Kenai Moose Range,” Rhode wrote to Olaus Murie. “Some of the proposals call for a road network in a grid fashion every quarter mile. I cannot agree that would be helpful in maintenance of the type of moose habitat, which appeals to me, but it is difficult to convince the hungry promoters. It even appeals to some moose hunters who feel they would have no difficulty with such a network or killing a moose where they could back up the car to load them.”37

The political dispute over moose became fierce. A real-estate developer in Anchorage, Marvin R. “Muktuk” Marston, circulated the slogan “Make these moose move over and make room for people.” In 1955 McKay, who was then still secretary of the interior, had granted Richfield operational drilling leases in the moose refuge. (During his tenure as secretary of the interior he had, however, created nine new wildlife refuges and had refused to let the U.S. Army take control of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a buffalo range created by TR in 1905, from the Department of the Interior even though the refuge was adjacent to an ever-growing Fort Sill.) The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) defended the Kenai moose population, but the Alaskan zeitgeist in general was drill- drill-drill. The Alaskan politician Walter Hickel, later to become President Richard Nixon’s secretary of the interior, was furious that sentimentality regarding moose was slowing down economic development. Hickel reminded Alaskans that in 1910 the defiant Cordova “Coal Party” had organized citizens to dump crates of coal into Prince William Sound to protest against Gifford Pinchot’s federal policy of tying up resources.

After congressional hearings in December 1957, Seaton sided with the oil industry. In August 1958 he opened up 50 percent of the Kenai Moose Range for oil exploration. This action directly contradicted his claim in the New York Times that oil and wildlife refuges didn’t mix. To Seaton, in the end, it made little sense to allow every moose its own 500 acres of prime Kenai real estate to browse.


Why Rhode allied himself with the Muries so zealously with regard to the Arctic NWR is a mystery. Keep in mind, however, that in 1957 oil hadn’t yet been discovered there. (Richfield’s discovery was at Swanson River on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.) Also, despite his tough pose, Rhode knew that the migratory caribou of the Arctic (unlike Kenai moose) indeed did need thousands of miles of rangeland to survive: the conservationists weren’t making that up. In addition, Rhode, whose views on conservation were like those of the old-style homesteaders, believed that the Brooks Range, as it unfurled closest to the Beaufort Sea, was, along with Bristol Bay and Kachemak, perhaps the most beautiful part of Alaska.

The Muries, now working with Rhode, Snedden, and Seaton, set about the task at hand: the Arctic NWR. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner wrote a powerful endorsement of the refuge in the fall of 1957: “We favor the proposal for the Arctic Wildlife Range,” its editorial read. “We think the complaint of those opposing it is akin to that of a small boy who has just been given a pie much larger than he can eat but who cries anyway when someone tries to cut a small sliver out of it. We ask those who would raise strong protest over reserving this comparatively small sliver to stop and ponder the fact that the 20,000,000 acres now being made available for development by Secretary Seaton’s action comprises an area which exceeds the total land area of five New England states combined.”38

The attitude toward the Arctic NWR in Anchorage, however, was decidedly negative; this was considered just another federal lockup of Alaskan land. If the Arctic NWR drew tourists, Fairbanks would become the hub city. After victory in the Kenai, developers weren’t inclined to forget about Arctic real estate. Rhode candidly wrote to Olaus Murie that Alaskans opposed “everything” proposed by the U.S. government except “immediate statehood”; they felt almost unanimously that “exploitation” of the land should always be the first principle.39 In Kaktovik—the coastal village that in 1923 became a trading post for the Arctic NWR area—some Natives wanted assurances that their own tradition of caribou hunting would be preserved.

Once again, Olaus flew into Anchorage from Moose, Wyoming, to start working toward acceptance of the Arctic NWR. Osborn’s New York Zoological Society, along with its affiliate, the Conservation Foundation, financed Murie’s promotional and educational tour around Alaska. (Osborn also had his Conservation Foundation pay for a nine-minute film, Letter from the Brooks Range, which was narrated by Olaus and Mardy Murie.)40 Meanwhile, Olaus Murie’s little book A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, published in 1954, had become extremely popular with American outdoorsmen. That field guide—part of a series edited by Roger Tory Peterson for Houghton Mifflin—enabled Olaus to get interviews into which he slipped promotions for the Arctic NWR. Impressively, Murie had done all the intricate drawings of paw prints in Animal Tracks himself. From 1956 to 1960 a succession of radio interviews were set up for Olaus in Alaska so that he could discuss both his book and saving the Arctic NWR. Working in Olaus’s favor was the Inuit belief that nanook (the polar bear) had human intelligence—this anthropomorphic notion was the inspiration for a number of children’s books. Every souvenir shop in Anchorage or Fairbanks promoted the Arctic polar bears as lords of the last great wilderness. “The trip was evangelism, not adventure,” Mardy wrote, “Olaus was speaking and showing slides of the north country before every possible organization.”41

Olaus Murie struck paydirt when he lobbied the TVSA in Fairbanks for the second time. Never mentioning the issue of killing wolves, and refusing to grovel, Murie showed slides of caribou herds, white ptarmigan, and beautiful streams rich with grayling. Murie was subtly presenting The Wilderness Society’s plan for the Arctic NWR (“wilderness as wilderness”) with a few sportsmen’s provisions for mass “recreational use” that allowed non-airplane, non-helicopter hunting. That evening TVSA members voted on supporting the Arctic NWR, and Murie won, forty-three to five. Murie had been right to fight for the Arctic NWR on this level. As Mardy Murie later noted, her husband had “a natural ability” to deal with Alaskan outdoors types.42

With the TVSA on board, Rhode moved quickly with the “Suggested Plan of Administration of Regulations” (the first of many U.S. Fish and Wildlife withdrawal documents). Zahniser’s imprint—a lot of cunning legal work—was obvious in this initial document. Murie now met with the Alaska Federation of Women’s Clubs and three garden clubs. His slides of caribou on their spring migration (photos that did not show the swarms of mosquitoes) were awe-inspiring. Many of the clubwomen were fascinated to learn that caribou were the only deer in which both sexes grew antlers.43 They unhesitatingly signed the Arctic NWR resolution. Murie also procured the support of the Izaak Walton League’s influential Anchorage chapter. Momentum was building for the Arctic NWR. Rhode started receiving supportive letters from conservation-minded clubs all over the territory. Bob Marshall’s dream of a roadless Arctic was finally becoming reality.

Besides pushing for the Arctic NWR, wildlife enthusiasts, such as “Sea Otter” Jones in Cold Bay, were pushing hard for federal protection for the Kuskokwim and Izembek refuges (brackish wetlands that were extremely important for the Pacific black brant.44Overseeing the Aleutian district for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Jones wanted the federal government to better protect otters and birdlife. The word was that President Eisenhower, who was negotiating with twelve other nations a complicated international treaty not to develop Antarctica, thought Alaska, which was seeking statehood, might be a good place to create a few additional wildlife refuges to burnish his conservation legacy. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner thought so, too. All three of the major refuges—Arctic (14,000 square miles), Kuskokwim (2,924 square miles), and Izembek (680 square miles)—made sense to the News-Miner. Unlike those on the Kenai Peninsula, none of these proposed lands were thought to be rich in timber, oil, or coal. As Eisenhower reluctantly moved toward admitting Alaska as the forty-ninth state, it made sense for the Department of the Interior to have these national wildlife refuge proposals drawn up, detailed, ironed out, perhaps ready for Congress to debate, and—it was hoped—signed into law.

With most Alaskans wanting statehood, arguments about letting U.S. Fish and Wildlife save 8.9 million acres of the Arctic had a low priority. If Alaska had already been a state in the spring of 1957, the opposition to the Arctic NWR would probably have carried far greater weight. Now, even the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce supported the Arctic NWR. The assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife, Ross Leffler, toured the proposed Arctic Range site in July 1957. Rhode piloted Leffler all around the Brooks Range, exploring the immense world of extremes, contrasts, enlightenment, and wonder as best he could. Leffler was awed by the presentation. The Department of the Interior issued a press release announcing its hope of establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Range. On July 13 the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner ran the headline “Arctic Wildlife Area Is Proposed.”*

For the Muries, Leffler’s announcement was a godsend (as was the Times’ story). The federal government was now fighting on their side to protect hallowed ground. In the dispute over the dam at Dinosaur National Monument, some 175 organizations had worked against a U.S. government project that threatened to destroy the environment. By contrast, the Arctic NWR had the Department of the Interior on its side.45 Still, the department wanted Alaskans to see the project. And the terms of engagement were now clear: congressional authority instead of executive order. The Muries didn’t get a pure wilderness: there was a provision that allowed “limited mineral entry” at the “secretary’s discretion,”46 and this clause worried Olaus and Mardy. But a deal had to be made. By approving the Arctic NWR, Eisenhower had suddenly become a friend of The Wilderness Society (at least for the duration of this particular fight). Having Fred Seaton as secretary of the interior was proving to be a boon to conservationists, as Sigurd Olson had promised. The Muries were acutely aware that there could be many more plot twists, but victory was in sight.

Working for Seaton at the time was Ted Stevens, a former Fairbanks district attorney and legal consultant to the News-Miner. Stevens, in his mid-thirties, had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II with the Army Air Corps, for heroism in the China-Burma-India theater. There was no limit to his enterprise. He was known as Mr. Alaska. Now, in 1957, wanting to rise quickly in the bureaucracy, Stevens was responsible for tweaking the legal intricacies of the Arctic NWR agreement. Ironically, Stevens, when he was a U.S. senator from 1968 to 2009 (at forty-one years, the longest Senate stint by a Republican in U.S. history), fought hard to open the Arctic NWR for drilling. But in 1957 nobody knew that there might be a lot of oil in the northeastern part of Arctic Alaska. And Stevens, an up-and-coming Republican, was glad to be working closely with President Eisenhower, creating alliances aimed at withdrawing lands for the Arctic NWR.

The U.S. government paper “Establishment of Arctic Wildlife Range” (released in November 1957) included the language of Olaus Murie, Zahniser, Collins, and Sumner, and also a lot of paraphrasing. The most significant statement was that the Arctic NWR offered the “ideal opportunity” for the United States to save an “undisturbed portion of the Arctic large enough to be biologically self-sufficient.”47 For the holiday season, Murie returned to Washington, D.C., with slides from his Sheenjek River Expedition of 1956 (including photos of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was busy writing up his stories about the Brooks Range for a memoir to be titled My Wilderness). Douglas, decidedly skeptical about technology, became a promoter of the Arctic NWR in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. “Here were pools never touched by man,” he wrote of the Arctic, “except perhaps by the awful fall-out from the atomic bombs that slowly disseminate [over] the whole earth.”48

As a clever strategy, a group of fifty-five Alaskan leaders—forty-nine men and six women—assembled at Constitution Hall on the campus of the University of Alaska near Fairbanks to draft a constitution. The event was modeled on the 1787 convention in Philadelphia where the Constitution of the United States was written. Tired of waiting for statehood, Alaskans were taking matters into their own hands. The constitution drafted at these sessions demonstrated that Alaskans were more than ready to become the forty-ninth state.49

But problems were brewing for Arctic Alaska. In the spirit of a quid pro quo, Seaton announced that Public Land Order (PLO) 82 of 1943 (FDR’s executive withdrawal of 48 million acres north of the Brooks Range from civilian exploitation or development) would be modified. The land withdrawn by this order had included Harding’s 23 million-acre Naval Petroleum Reserve plus about 26 million acres more. Seaton was in effect saying: allow the Arctic NWR to be saved for conservation and we’ll open other federal Arctic lands up for mining or drilling. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner applauded this, and on November 20, 1957, 20 million acres of PLO 82 land were opened for Alaskans to develop. Snedden, who was allied with Seaton, ran a 144-page edition of hisFairbanks Daily News-Miner extolling the decision: “Seaton Opens Arctic Gas Oil.” The 8.9 million-acre Arctic NWR was buried deep in the story as a secondary event.

Olaus and Mardy Murie were worried about PLO 82. They now understood that when the Department of the Interior endorsed the Arctic NWR, this was merely the first step along a tortuous road toward making it permanent. The whole effort could still be obstructed. They warned Osborn and Zahniser to be realistic and keep the champagne corked: premature celebration was a curse of political novices. Charles Sheldon, for example, thought he had saved Mount McKinley in 1906, but it took him until 1916 to get the job done in Congress—a full decade of nonstop lobbying. Alaska’s Territorial Department of Mines wasn’t going to allow the Arctic NWR without a hellacious fight. Vague language about allowing mining in the Arctic NWR wouldn’t placate developers and speculators. Once the Arctic NWR became America’s largest national wildlife refuge, they understood, drilling, trenching, and dynamiting wouldn’t ever be allowed. The miner Douglas Colp spoke for many when he described the Arctic NWR as a “preposterous fantasy” of New Dealers and wilderness fanatics of the 1930s, now suddenly being embraced by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. The Alaska Miners Association flatly rejected the idea of giving caribou herds and seagulls priority over people’s jobs.

Sensing that public opinion in Alaska was turning against the Arctic NWR, Snedden once again rallied to the side of the Department of the Interior. On January 29, 1958, his Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published another editorial in favor of the Arctic NWR. The newspaper said that the Arctic Range was “one of the most magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas in North America . . . undisturbed as God made it,” and that in coming decades tourists from all over the world would come to see the caribou herds, polar bears, and snow-white owls: “Thousands of tourists with cameras and fishing gear will leave many millions of dollars in Alaska, on trips to visit the Arctic Wildlife Range, the only one of its kind in the world.”50

While the Arctic NWR was hotly debated in Fairbanks, the big story in Alaska was statehood. President Eisenhower, it seemed, was lukewarm about admitting Alaska into the union as the forty-ninth state. A lot of Republican donors—particularly in the canned salmon industry—worried that statehood would mean higher taxes and stricter regulation of fishing. Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop of Fairbanks, Alaska’s only business tycoon, threatened to shut down operations if statehood came about. Lathrop was paying hardly any taxes on his coal mine, bank, theater, and other operations.51“To my mind,” Eisenhower said in 1953 about statehood, “not yet has the Alaskan case been completely proved.” In his 1954 State of the Union address, Eisenhower championed statehood for Hawaii butnot for Alaska. With the cold war on, Eisenhower thought Alaska should be fortified as a national defense headquarters. Why cede federal land to create a state after the U.S. government had poured so much money for infrastructure into Alaska during World War II? Politically, Eisenhower feared that admitting Alaska as a state would mean two new Democratic senators.52

Eventually, on July 7, 1958, Eisenhower reluctantly and unenthusiastically signed the statehood bill. The deed was done in the privacy of the White House; no Democrats were in sight, and only a couple of reporters were allowed to witness the historic event. “OK,” Eisenhower said, sounding almost disgusted, “now that’s forty-nine.” Alaskans threw a Statehood Day party. The Anchorage Daily News ran a huge headline: “We’re In.” Suddenly, Alaska was in the glare of the media. A lot of upbeat stories were published under headings such as “Visit Wild Alaska.” There were also upbeat stories about Alaska’s four producing oil wells and the further exploration that was under way. And Japanese companies were now interested in procuring Alaska’s raw minerals.53 Much was made of all the roads and infrastructure that had been built during World War II and had opened Alaska for commerce.

In late August 1958, with statehood being finalized, the proposed Arctic NWR was jarring front-page news throughout Alaska because of an aviation disaster. Clarence Rhode, his twenty-two-year-old son Jack, and the federal wildlife enforcement agent Stanley Frederickson flew their twin-engine “Grumman Goose” on a roundtrip mission around the Brooks Range on a law-enforcement patrol, in part to locate caribou herds exactly so that these herds could be shown to a group of conservationists in the coming days. The Rhodes and Frederickson were also going to check up on Dall sheep in the Porcupine Lake area.54

But then tragedy struck Rhode. The plane crashed somewhere in the vast Brooks Range. For weeks search-and-rescue missions were ordered, but nobody could find the wreckage. The search involved 260 people in almost thirty geographic zones. Rescuers traveled up and down the Koyukuk, Alatna, Chandalar, Porcupine, and Old Crow rivers by plane, all to no avail.55 Plane wreckage was almost impossible to find in the forbidding Brooks Range in 1958, without modern radio links, flight black boxes, or downed-plane tracking devices. After months of failure, the men were at last pronounced dead. The wreckage was not found until 1979. “He died on the divide of his beloved mountains on the eve of what would become the national environmental movement of the 1960s,” Debbie S. Miller wrote in Midnight Wilderness after personally seeing the wreckage. “His life ended at the very time the battle began to establish his northeastern corner of Alaska as a wildlife range.”56

What concerned conservationists like the photographer Ansel Adams about the movement for statehood was that the Department of the Interior was willing to make deals with big oil-gas and mining concerns. Instead of trying to cultivate a cozy relationship with Seaton, as Sigurd Olson had done, Adams thought the Sierra Club should hold out until after the 1960 presidential election, in which Lyndon Johnson or John F. Kennedy—both Democrats, and both far more in favor of national parks than Eisenhower was—had a good chance of beating Vice President Richard Nixon (the likely Republican nominee). “I think,” Adams wrote to the environmentalist J. F. Carithers on December 19, 1959, “the conservation organizations are too scared of Uncle Sammy’s briefcase men for their own good.” Adams was sickened by the way the U.S. Forest Service, in particular, was trying to “milk wilderness for all it is worth.”57

On January 3, 1959, Eisenhower signed the official proclamation transforming Alaska from a territory to a state. This time Eisenhower stood with a number of Alaskan dignitaries—senators-elect E. L. Bartlett and Ernest Gruening; representative-elect Ralph Rivers; the former territorial governor Mike Stepovich; the acting governor, Wayne Hendrickson; and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times. Also present, and beaming with joy, was Fred Seaton. Signing pens were handed out by the handful. An American flag with forty-nine stars was unfurled—now a collector’s item because Hawaii became the fiftieth state on August 21, 1959. As Eisenhower had feared, Alaska’s first two U.S. senators were indeed Democrats. The first two senators from Hawaii were Oren E. Long (a Democrat) and Hiram Fong (a Republican), so the addition of the two new states brought three Democrats and only one Republican to the Senate.

What nobody knew for certain throughout 1959 was what Alaskan statehood meant for the wilderness movement. But Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society and Ira Gabrielson of the Wildlife Management Institute kept up the intense lobbying effort. In May they got a big break. Senator Warren G. Magnuson of Washington, a Democrat, introduced legislation to create the Arctic NWR. The Department of the Interior would be the administrator of the refuge, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Predictably, Senator E. L. Bartlett denounced the legislation as a federal land grab in the new state. A fight was under way.

To ecologists of the late 1950s, something larger was at stake in the debate over the Arctic NWR: the planet Earth. If the last great wilderness was wrecked by humans, exploited for profit, what did that say about the future of the Amazon, Serengeti, or the Yangtze River? Shouldn’t some places remain inviolate? The politics of the Arctic NWR fight coalesced in such a way that if the environmental movement suffered a loss, a dozen growing wilderness nonprofits would lose the momentum they had achieved in the controversy over Dinosaur National Monument. With the world population predicted to be 7 billion by 2010, wouldn’t some truly wild places be needed as ecological buffers? Hadn’t Eisenhower done the right thing by declaring Antarctica a free zone? Shouldn’t the same type of global preservation take place in the Arctic?

Was the Atomic Energy Commisson’s Project Chariot really going to explode approximately 2.3 megatons of nuclear bombs and other nuclear devices—equivalent to about half of all the explosives of World War II—to construct an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson on the North Slope? Was Edward Teller so committed to nuclear weapons that he didn’t care about radioactive contamination from the blast? It was the threat of Project Chariot that impelled Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter—the two WASP pilots from Washington State—into grassroots conservationism in 1960. If Seaton needed petitions for the Arctic NWR signed by Alaskans to deflect criticism that the Eisenhower administration had turned as soft as the Sierra Club, they could gather the signatures. They would do anything to prevent Arctic Alaska from becoming an atomic test range or an American version of a Saudi oil field.

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