Epilogue: Arctic Forever

This is the place for man turned scientist and explorer, poet and artist. Here he can experience a new reverence for life that is outside his own and yet a vital and joyous part of it.



For anybody planning a trip to what became the Arctic NWR, William O. Douglas’s engrossing My Wilderness, published in early 1960, should be mandatory reading. When he was north of the Brooks Range—the great watershed dividing the Arctic from the Alaskan interior region—Douglas felt as if a time machine had taken him back to the beginning of the world. Everything was primordial, uncontaminated, and fresh. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that the “world laughs in flowers.” Nowhere was this metaphor truer than in the Arctic, where primroses and forget-me-nots bloom in the summer along the Sheenjek River, suffusing its banks with pink and purple. Botany and animal life fill every page of My Wilderness. In the chapter on the Brooks Range, Douglas wrote about seeing caribou hooves crush grass, befriending an arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii), and watching grizzlies dig hummocks. There are scenes of golden eagles nesting near his base camp, and happy-go-lucky pintail ducks scouring for food in the velvety hummocks of the range. To Douglas, Arctic Alaska—like Antarctica—was too precious to permit destructive oil-gas and mining activity, particularly since the future would bring clean energy.

Douglas made clear in My Wilderness not only that the Eisenhower administration should create the Arctic NWR, but that its 8.9 million acres should remain untouched by civilization. It would be a laboratory for biologists intent on discovering the natural order before man changed the rhythm of creation. Douglas had done the math in 1960 and had learned that only 2 percent of American land was roadless or a wilderness. Fuming at utility corporations, federal agencies, stockmen, timber barons, and oil-gas executives—“the modern Ahabs” who saw a cliff and thought in “terms of gravel”—Douglas insisted that the Arctic must remain a living wilderness for both scientific observation and aesthetic wonderment.1 “Potbellied men smoking black cigars, who never could climb a hundred feet,” Douglas said, referring to the intrusion of corporate developers into the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, “were now in the sacred precincts of a great mountain.”2

My Wilderness was illuminating about Arctic life and, considered simply as literature, elegantly written. Douglas wrote about 300-year-old white spruces, about wild cranberry, and about measuring a wolf’s paw print (six inches by 5.1 inches). At an Arctic campsite in the upper reaches of the Sheenjek River alongside Last Lake (the latter designation credited to the Muries), Douglas went fly-fishing and recorded the experience. The reader could almost feel the grayling tug at the line. As camp chef for a few nights, Douglas cooked grayling for dinner on the creek-side grill for fellow members of the Sheenjek Expedition of 1956. There was also a sense of urgency in My Wilderness regarding alternative sources of energy. Fossil fuels, he worried, were choking the planet to death. My Wilderness was also clearly the work of an erudite globetrotter. Without showing off, Douglas compared the wolves of Sheenjek Valley to wolves he had previously studied in Afghanistan and Persia. Alaskan wolves, in fact, found a very effective defender in Douglas. “The sight of a wolf loping across a hillside,” Douglas wrote, “is as moving as a symphony.”3

Ethel Kennedy—whose husband, Robert F. Kennedy, was murdered in 1968 while running for U.S. president—fondly remembered Douglas’s nonstop promotion of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. To Douglas, the region from Big Sur in California to Homer, Alaska, 3,000 miles away, was an ecotopia. When he talked about the lush green zones along the Pacific coast, he would also promote the notion of a “wilderness bill of rights” to protect “the region’s rivers and lakes, the valleys and ridges,” from “mechanized society.”4 In 1962 Robert and Ethel Kennedy had joined Douglas and his wife Mercedes for a week of camping in the Olympics. Douglas loved cooking rainbow trout for the Kennedy party and gave his recipe as follows: “Set rock at 45 degree angle, and heat upper side with fire; salt and pepper trout and roll in flour and place on heated face on rock; do not turn; rock will cook underside and campfire will cook topside; serve when trout is deep brown.”5

“Bill had an enormously open mind around the campfire, talking about the world,” Ethel recalled. “He didn’t pontificate. He was refreshing. He took us to the rain forests—which, I might add, are appropriately named. We all got soaked on the trail, day in and day out, but Bill didn’t seem to notice. He was serious about us seeing his wilderness. A lot was made of the fact that Bill had gotten Mercedes a special gift for their anniversary. Our group, a few couples, kept speculating what it was: a diamond brooch or necklace. When the big moment came, Bill presented her with her own ax for chopping wood. That was the big romantic gift.”6

The Kennedys learned on the trail just how devoted Douglas was to deep silence and utter seclusion. To Douglas, the great American outdoors was quiet medicine for the shattered urban soul. Douglas, in fact, knew a lot of U.S. veterans who ended up staying in Alaska because the open land offered healing and solace. In a marvelous extended essay published by the Orion Society, the poet Terry Tempest Williams called Alaska’s wildlife refuges, with their liberating effects, the “open space of democracy”; Douglas would have liked that phrase.7 Men who had seen combat in World War II—such as Morton Wood, who ran the Denali Lodge with his wife, Ginny Wood—needed the Alaskan wilderness to spiritually heal after seeing so much blood spilled. Wild areas such as the proposed Arctic NWR, Douglas believed, could bring God back into the lives of disillusioned ex-soldiers like Wood. These war veterans would backpack for days, weeks, or even months. Fresh air was the real curative for a soldier. The clean air off the Arctic Ocean, for example, was far more healthful than the psychotherapeutic drugs or morphine distributed at a dozen facilities similar to Walter Reed Hospital. A profound sense of humility fell over people on the tundra. The soul became whole again. Many veterans of World War II and the Korean War were proud that so much of Alaska was public land—it was wild America for the people.

With regard to the politics of wilderness, however, Douglas was a pragmatist, not a dreamer. He understood that with regard to conservation, no important cause was ever permanently won or lost. The combat always had to be renewed and the rationale for preservation reiterated. Every time America went to war, opportunistic companies, capitalizing on national fears and anxieties, claimed that the Tongass should be clear-cut or that Cook Inlet should become an oil field. Executive orders and legislation, once so potent, would over decades become dim and faded documents with none of their original preservationist passion. Thus Sitka National Historic Park—America’s great totem pole field—was seized in 1942 by the U.S. military, which removed huge quantities of gravel from the park’s shoreline, devastating the environment. No part of wild America was safe when an economic crisis arose. Every new generation would have to fight for the integrity of the Denali wilderness or Glacier Bay. The money-grubbers, Douglasbelieved—those who couldn’t recognize God’s artistry—were always going to swarm like a plague of locusts onto the land, destroying its splendor. The mistake conservationists made was believing in total victory. No wild place was ever safe from Moloch.

To the Muries the fight for the Arctic NWR was about the Brooks Range and coastal plain, caribou calving areas, and polar bears’ denning. Douglas concurred with these sentiments. But he also saw the preservation of those 8.9 million acres as a victory of the quiet world over the sonic boom. He wanted corporate noise polluters regulated, fined for selfishly stealing people’s right to quiet so that their boards of directors could become multimillionaires. In his opinion in United States v. Causby, Douglas agreed with a chicken farmer who claimed that noise from U.S. military airplanes had caused his poultry to die of panic. Douglas also felt that he personally had a God-given right to ride horseback on a “precarious mountain trail” without a sonic boom or the roar of jet engines frightening his mount and putting himself in danger of being tossed.8


On February 26, 1960, just a few weeks after My Wilderness was published, the Alaska Conservation Society (ACS) was founded. Realizing that Olaus and Mardy Murie needed local help with their campaign for the Arctic NWR, a group of activists in Fairbanks began a policy assault that continued throughout 1960—and worked. The goal of the ACS was to marshal local opinion for the Arctic NWR and thereby help Secretary of the Interior Seaton get the job done in Washington, D.C. The driving forces were Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, the women who had been WASP pilots during World War II and who were now committed to what would come to be called ecotourism. If Costa Rica could attract tourists to its tropical rain forests, then, logically, Alaska could promote temperate rain forests. Spiritual reward, however, not profit from tourism, was the primary motivation for creating the ACS.

To Wood and Hunter, the Arctic was unlike any other place they had flown over in Alaska. The light, the sedge, and even the soil were different. When Hunter flew from Fairbanks to Kotzebue in late August and early September, the flaming yellow birch and aspen combined with reddish brown meadows and blue waterways to form a patchwork of dramatically mixed Arctic habitats. She would see hawks circling overhead, identifiable by the multibanded tail with a broad, blackish subterminal stripe. Ice fog would roll in for hours, causing strand bands.

The harsh country outside Fairbanks had always attracted women of fortitude, with an appreciative eye for the land’s expansiveness and courage enough to heed its summons, in sync with the power of the Alaskan wilderness. Both Wood and Hunter were part of this frontier tradition. On clear days, toiling at her desk in Fairbanks during the first months of 1960, Wood could see the distant mountains outside her kitchen window, through the towering birches. Since World War II, she had flown all over that range; she knew every peak like the palm of her hand. She had landed on runways and gravel bars. Along the way she had made a lot of friends in the North Slope.

The Alaska of the pioneer days was always part of Wood and Hunter’s consciousness—the Klondike gold rush, aviation in the 1920s, Mount McKinley and Gates of the Arctic, the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, and, stretched out north of Fairbanks, beyond the Arctic Divide, the Brooks Range, which Robert Marshall had written about in Alaskan Wilderness. Having organized tours from Camp Denali from 1954 to 1959, Hunter and Wood were determined to help create the Arctic NWR before President Eisenhower left the White House. Closing Denali Lodge for the winter season from October to May, Hunter and Wood, taking advantage of their freedom during the off-season, started to organize from Fairbanks on behalf of their beloved Arctic Range. Their headquarters was a birch log home in the Dogpatch area of Fairbanks (not far from the university), and the ACS was from the beginning a typical small, personal nonprofit organization. Aspens surrounded the handsome cabin; at their Dogpatch headquarters, Hunter and Wood felt at one with nature. An owl nesting box was hung in a nearby tree, to attract wisdom.

Because Camp Denali was a seasonal business, taking people to see Wonder Lake only from April to November, Hunter relocated the office mimeograph machine to Dogpatch, and installed it on the cabin’s second floor. At that time, the low-cost mimeograph, which worked by squirting ink through a stencil onto paper, was a common way to disseminate gossip and news. Ginny Wood, in fact, lived at the Dogpatch headquarters with her husband; she was always on call. Just one house over, down the dirt road, resided Celia Hunter. Both women were beloved in Fairbanks. Ginny emerged as the dauntless workhorse of the ACS, forming alliances and recruiting an impressive mélange of volunteers, networking all over the state to knit the conservation community together so that the Eisenhower administration would be forced to take the Arctic NWR seriously. Hunting guides, fishing charters, glacier tours, kayak retailers, outdoor gear shops, organic food stores—all joined the cause of the Arctic NWR because it promoted wild Alaska, the business they were all in. With regard to promoting state tourism, Hunter had an address file filled with all the right people, lovers of the wilderness who gladly signed petitions to save the Arctic NWR.

Celia Hunter testified on October 20, 1959, before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce in Ketchikan, and had made a series of arguments that deeply influenced the acceptance of the Arctic NWR by ordinary Alaskans. Quite convincingly, she showed how tourism had supplanted mining as Alaska’s second-biggest revenue-generating industry. (Military construction was still first.) There was more long-term economic benefit to be gained from tourism than from hiring, say, 100 temporary tie pickers or timber testers. “The years 1958 and 1959 have seen tourist income at least double,” she said, “and estimates as high as triple the figures have been given by the tourist industry. And, yet, in spite of the decline in importance of mining, and the increasing emphasis on tourism, the whole tone of our state administration is set by the mining interests.”9

As with all successful new nonprofits, a hierarchy was quickly established at the ACS. Ginny Wood collected dues and wrote hundreds of recruitment letters. Her work ethic meant a lot of envelope licking and a lot of work through the night and into the morning hours. Conservation politics, she soon learned, involved nonstop paperwork. Throughout 1960 Wood corresponded daily with state senators, college students, restaurateurs, small business owners, outfitters, and travel agents, and, most important, kept the mimeograph machine humming. She pored over territorial records, land deeds, and loads of newspapers to extract information about the Arctic. Wood’s motto, printed on the first newsletter bulletin, was “Alaskans Organize.” And at the Dogpatch headquarters, caulked against winter weather, various funny, quirky aphorisms were taped to the wall: “For God’s sake don’t let them make any more progress!” and “Next week we gotta get organized!”

Wood preferred typing letters to calling people on the telephone; for one thing, letters were cheaper. There were hardly any exceptions to this preference, but whenever Lowell Sumner of the Department of the Interior called, Ginny Wood felt cheerful. She liked robust men who appreciated life to the fullest. Along with the Muries, he always offered the soundest counsel on how to make the principal issues—like saving 8.9 million acres of the Arctic—heard in the right way by the powers that be in Washington, D.C. “We both loved our airplanes as much as the Arctic,” Wood explained about her friendship with Sumner. “Whenever I’d be in the most remote Arctic places like Nome or Barrow or Coldfoot, I’d invariably bump into Lowell. Olaus was very mellow, always taking his biology seriously. Lowell liked to see things from the sky . . . like me.”10

Wood called the ACS newsletter, which began getting mimeographed in March 1960, the by-product of a “subversive” press.11 Because Hunter also did serious fund-raising for The Wilderness Society, she added a wider conservationist net to the homemade newsletter from Dogpatch. By contrast, Wood tended to fill the ACS newsletter with folksy woodlore. Visually, the five-page newsletter was like a church bulletin. People in Fairbanks committed to Ginny Wood were known as Friends of Ginny, or FOGs. The acronym was a perfect fit because Wood flew her Cessna even in the worst weather imaginable, feeling responsible for linking North Slope bush communities to Fairbanks when an emergency occurred. If, say, a physician or funeral director was needed in an Arctic town, Wood always volunteered her pilot services pro bono to fly the person out from Fairbanks. Locally, she was known as an ace bush pilot, an all-around good Samaritan, and an Arctic activist. Nobody ever accused Ginny of harboring any confusion on issues related to conservation.

Hunter and Wood did a few clever things when creating the ACS. Like Edna Ferber in Ice Palace, they boisterously touted Alaska’s unequaled greatness. In particular, they bragged about how abundant Alaskan wildlife was, compared with the depleted wildlife of Oregon; how superior their air quality was to that of smoggy California; and how many more vodka-clear lakes Alaska had, compared with those in Minnesota. “Fortunately, we came into statehood with our natural resources relatively intact and we have the chance to profit by the mistakes made by other states,” the first newsletter read. “Whether we choose to learn by the mistakes of others, or to learn by making them over again ourselves was up to the individual citizens as well as our representatives in government and the professionals in public service. In most other fields of endeavor, mistakes may cost time or money, but they can be corrected. With wilderness and with wildlife resources, you don’t get a second chance. When they are gone, they are gone.”12

Nobody ever sold the idea of saving 8.9 million acres with quite the gusto of Ginny Wood circa 1959–1960. Whether she was writing in the ACS newsletter or testifying before a congressional committee, Wood insisted that saving the Arctic Refuge was in the tradition of Daniel Boone. Both Hunter and Wood knew the right buzzwords to use for Alaska: individual and wilderness. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, established in 1903, set the tone with its motto: “Independent in All Things . . . Neutral in None.” The ACS appealed to Alaska’s chauvinistic sense of being the last frontier. Harking back to the days of 1898, when the Klondike gold rush transformed Alaska into a boom land, Wood claimed that the descendants of the early pioneers now had a sacred preservationist obligation to uphold the traditions:

We Alaskans must reconcile our pioneering philosophy and move on to the realization that the wild country that lies now in Alaska is all there is left under our flag. Those who see the wildlife range as a threat to their individual rights refuse to face the fact that unless we preserve some of our wild land and wild animals now, the Alaska of the tundra expanses, silent forests, and nameless peaks inhabited only by caribou, moose, bear, sheep, wolf, and other wilderness creatures can become a myth found only in books, movies, and small boys’ imaginations as the Wild West is now. And I regret as much as anyone that the frontier, by its very definition, can only be a transitory thing. The wilderness that we have conquered and squandered in our conquest of new lands has produced the traditions of the pioneer that we want to think still prevail: freedom, opportunity, adventure, and resourceful, rugged individuals. These qualities can still be nurtured in generations of the future if we are farsighted and wise enough to set aside this wild country immediately and spare it from the exploitations of a few for the lasting benefit of the many.13

There was another factor in the debate of 1960 over the Arctic NWR. In Alaska—with a population of only 250,000—politics were personal. For more than a decade Wood and Hunter had done neighborly favors for people living in Nome, Cold Bay, and all points between. Few Alaskans trusted the federal government much—with the notable exception of the armed forces. Wood and Hunter’s notion of having the U.S. Department of the Interior control the 8.9 million acres of Arctic Alaska wasn’t something the average citizen of Juneau, Anchorage, or Fairbanks would automatically approve of. But doing a favor for Ginny Wood or Celia Hunter—that was a different matter entirely. Cashing in all their chips, recruiting friends to join the ACS, Wood and Hunter started circulating the pro–Arctic NWR newsletter all around Alaska.

Another obvious step for ACS was lobbying in tandem with Alaska’s premier conservationist groups—the Alaska Sportsman’s Council, Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association, Fairbanks Garden Club, and others—to keep the movement for the Arctic NWR going. There was power in unity. Everything was so hurried for the ACS during the first months of scurrying to line up allies during 1960 that there wasn’t a minute to be bored. The next step for the “Arctic Forever” cause involved ensuring that the national conservation societies, such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, would not feel poached upon by an upstart outfit like the ACS. All these organizations had worked for the Arctic for years. Hunter and Wood reassured their allies that the ACS wasn’t going to eclipse them or compete with them. The ACS never urged anyone to defect from other groups; but additional financial support for their Dogpatch operation was welcomed.

Tourists from other states, particularly those who had been at Camp Denali with Wood and Hunter, would be tapped for both moral and financial support. To give the ACS immediate credibility, Les Viereck (a veteran of World War II who had become a biology teacher at the University of Alaska) was the unanimous choice for president. The treasurer was John Thomson, an information specialist with the Agricultural Extension Service at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, who had climbed Mount Michelson in the Brooks Range in April 1957. He would be responsible for paying the bills. In truth, the ACS was a shoestring operation, tasked with getting the disagreeable business of haggling over the Arctic NWR finished and done with.

But it was Sigurd Olson’s visit to the Arctic Refuge over the summer of 1960 that seemed to influence Seaton the most. Seldom has a reconnaissance trip by a conservationist produced such fruitful results as Olson’s whirlwind trip to Alaska, at the behest of the Department of the Interior. Olson was awed by the idea of the proposed Arctic NWR. He quickly understood that as with Antarctica, saving this living wilderness would make the world happy forever; if you lived in crowded Beijing or overpopulated Mexico City, you would want to be assured that the polar cap regions were flourishing. “I stood on one plateau one morning and could see 75 to 100 miles in all directions to four immense mountain ranges with snow-capped peaks,” he wrote to friends. “Such a sense of immensity and distance, I had never known before.”14

Olson—“Captain Wilderness”—reported on Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay national parks and recommended that the Mission 66 road plans be downsized. After counting 161 Dall sheep and reaching a better understanding of Charles Sheldon’s rigorous legacy, Olson promoted the Wrangell Mountains of south-central Alaska as a potential new national park. (They became one in 1980.) At the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes he experienced the immediate aftermath of a volcanic eruption: the stench of acrid sulfur nearly suffocated him, and gray ash blew in the air like snow.15 As the author of The Singing Wilderness, Olson raved about “big, bold, beautiful” Alaska. “I’ve been traveling for three or four days,” he wrote to his son, “and it’s just been one national park after another.”16

Olson hadn’t been as important as the Muries in getting the movement for the Arctic NWR started, but the fact that Seaton trusted him mattered tremendously in 1960. Olson came back to Washington, D.C., that summer with three policy recommendations: sign executive orders creating the Arctic, Izembek, and Kuskokwim wildlife refuges. If Congress did not take up these crucial proposals, Olson recommended that Seaton implement them by an executive order.

Also helping with the ACS lobbying was Mardy Murie. Many women would have wanted the glory of being credited in history with saving a treasured landscape like the Arctic NWR. But Mardy was different. She considered Olson, Hunter, and Wood heroes of conservation. Ever since her honeymoon in 1926, when a dogsled had pulled her over the tundra once gouged by glaciers, she had dreamed of a Brooks Range wilderness park including the coastal areas. Sharing credit with Wood and Hunter wasn’t an issue for her. In 1958 Mardy had sailed with Olaus across the Atlantic Ocean to attend Finland’s International Ornithological Conference. Besides marveling at how much better Scandinavians treated their landscapes than Americans, the Muries recalled the old days when Alaska didn’t even have a major road.

Another shrewd organizational maneuver by the ACS was getting accredited as a nonprofit only thirteen months after Alaska achieved statehood. That single strategic decision, which took a lot of hustle to accomplish, proved crucial as the ACS sought federal protection for the Arctic NWR. On February 15, 1960, after Congressman Ralph Rivers—Alaska’s only representative—withdrew his opposition, the House passed HR 7045. Rivers had proved to be a tricky ally, changing his vote continually, depending on who he was talking to. However, the Arctic Range bill—S 1899—was now in the hands of the Senate. And this was problematic. Both Democratic Alaskan senators—Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening—seriously objected to the establishment of the Arctic NWR. A battle was developing. It was doubtful that the Senate would pass S 1899. Therefore, the ACS knew it needed to have its ducks in a row before the arrival of Seaton, who was scheduled to speak at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks on March 3.

The audience inside the New Bunnell Building auditorium that evening included members of the ACS and supporters of the Arctic NWR who would inveigh against oil, gas, and coal development on the proposed refuge land. It was like walking into a trap. These were the Alaska intelligentsia, able to quote from A Sand County Almanac and identify a bird species from a distance with just a single glance. If Seaton believed that real everyday Alaskans like Wood and Hunter were pro-refuge, this would influence him mightily. “I had voted for Eisenhower in 1956,” Wood recalled. “I thought his new Interior Secretary [Seaton] would do the right thing for the Arctic.”17 Seaton was impressed that the ACS had led Alaskans in backing the Arctic NWR even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thought it was a terrible idea. When asked in Fairbanks what would happen if the Senate didn’t pass S 1899, Seaton snapped, “I could withdraw the wildlife range this afternoon if I choose to do so.”18*

Throughout the fall of 1960, the fate of the Arctic NWR remained undecided. The presidential election—Kennedy versus Nixon—was preoccupying the nation. Seaton, campaigning for Nixon, postponed the decision on the Alaskan lands until after November 4. Governor William A. Eagan of Alaska made a last-ditch effort to have the Eisenhower administration turn the proposed Arctic NWR over to the state. Eagan believed that the 8.9 million acres could easily be opened to both mining and nature preservation. That meant the “big three” politicians in Alaska—all Democratic—were against it. “It is my conviction,” Eagan said on September 26, 1960, “that conservation needs of the Nation and the State for an unspoiled Arctic Wildlife management area can only be achieved under State Management.”19 In a misleading letter to Seaton the governor threatened that the Arctic NWR, if established by the Eisenhower administration, would be a gross violation of state law.20

Sensing a threat from Eagan, Gruening, and Bartlett, the ACS attacked the governor in a press release. The ACS mocked the governor’s notion that mining conglomerates had wilderness values. Seaton refused to respond to Eagan’s plea. This snub infuriated Eagan. When Kennedy won the presidential election, Seaton knew his days were numbered. After Thanksgiving, he started clearing out his desk and preparing to move back to Nebraska.

Luckily for the wilderness movement, Sigurd Olson was invited to visit Seaton at the Department of the Interior on C Street one afternoon in early December to say hello. Olson brought up the Arctic NWR. Was Seaton at long last ready to sign off on the 8.9 million acres? To Olson’s astonishment, Seaton was still of two minds. He was preparing to head back to Nebraska to run for governor in 1962. He didn’t want to be vilified by the mining industry. But his heart was with Olson and the ACS. Owing to their smaller acreage, Seaton was ready to establish national wildlife refuges at Izembek and Kuskokwim. But Seaton was up in the air about the Arctic NWR, asking, “What will the Alaskans think?” Mustering all the conviction he could, looking straight at the apprehensive outgoing secretary, Olson assured his trusted friend that the smart folks in Alaska “would fall into line.”21

Olson wasn’t alone in gently pushing Seaton to do the right thing regarding the Arctic NWR in November–December 1960. Although Douglas didn’t write a letter to Seaton about the Arctic NWR, two of his former wives—Mercedes Eicholz and Cathy Stone—both thought it was “highly likely” that he had lobbied the secretary of the interior. Everybody in Washington officialdom had heard Douglas hold forth on the Brooks Range, insisting that U.S. Fish and Wildlife had to protect the Serengeti of America, including its profusion of wildflowers. “The vast, open spaces of the Arctic are special risks to grizzlies, moose, caribou and wolves,” Douglas would tell anybody who would listen. “Men with field glasses and high-powered rifles, hunting from planes, can well-nigh wipe them out. In this land of tundra, big game has few places to hide. That is another reason why this last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct.”22

One legitimate concern Seaton had was the fact that Alaska’s leading Democrats—Senator Bartlett and Senator Gruening, in particular—weren’t enthusiastic about the Arctic NWR. What if the Kennedy administration overturned it? Why should Eisenhower establish it with an executive order only to have the Democrats reverse him? That was a paralyzing thought for Seaton, but this is where Douglas reentered the drama. Extremely close to the Kennedys, Douglas hoped he might be chosen as Kennedy’s secretary of state. Nobody knew whether Douglas would step down from the Supreme Court to take over the State Department, but it was a persistent rumor circulating around Washington that December. When Robert Kennedy asked Douglas whom his brother should nominate as secretary of the interior in November 1960, the justice had an immediate answer: Stewart Udall. “Douglas was one of my biggest promoters,” Udall recalled. “We didn’t see each other much, but we were clearly on the same conservationist team.”23

Douglas was wise to recommend Udall. Raised on an Arizona ranch, a Mormon, Udall was a civil rights activist with a deep love for wild America. Udall was elected to Congress from Arizona’s second district in November 1956. A gifted raconteur and a true outdoors enthusiast, soon to be an indispensable member of Kennedy’s cabinet, Udall was both poet and politician. One of his closest friends was Robert Frost. The Alaskan wilderness movement was lucky to get him involved to start off the new decade of the 1960s. During his years as secretary of the interior, from 1961 to 1969, Udall would lead the heroic effort to get four national parks, six national monuments, seventeen seashores and lakeshores, and scores of new recreation areas established. His book The Quiet Crisis (1962) galvanized opposition against the desultory stewardship of land, sea, and air by irresponsible corporations and uncaring consumers.


Olaus Murie was not well in early December 1960; he was still recovering from a recent lymph gland operation that he had undergone in Denver. Sometimes it seemed that his urgent work for The Wilderness Society was keeping him alive. Mardy had prayed that Olaus would live long enough for them to experience the Sheenjek River together one last time; and in 1961, just before he died, they did. Olaus, however, didn’t live long enough to see his dream of a Wilderness Act—born out of Bob Marshall’s Gates of the Arctic explorations of the 1920s—come to fruition in 1964. That December 1960, however, Olaus was proud that the Murie Ranch—which became part of Grand Teton National Park in 1960—had become the “heart” of the wilderness movement. It was a salon where many conservation ideas had been developed. The mimeograph machine at Dogpatch and the Muries’ P.O. box in Wyoming were the cables charging the battery of the Arctic NWR movement at the decade’s end. Mardy Murie would take on the role of watchdog of the Arctic NWR until her death in 2003 at the age of 101.

Nobody in the Alaskan wilderness movement knew exactly when President Eisenhower would formally issue a public land order designating the Arctic NWR. All the proper paperwork had been filed. Seaton, with renewed force around Thanksgiving, had signaled to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that it would happen soon. Still, it came as something of a surprise when on December 7, bright and early, Mardy Murie walked to the Moose post office and was handed a telegram by the postmaster. It was a press release from the previous day, issued by Seaton. The Muries had been testifying in Idaho against the damming of the Snake River and missed the historic moment; their home had no telephone service, and so they had not received the news about the Arctic NWR the night before. “I floated back that half mile through the woods on a cloud, burst through the front door,” she recalled in her memoir Two in the Far North. “Oh darling, there’s wonderful news today!”24

Beaming like the Cheshire cat, her eyes flashing with the excitement of a glorious achievement, Mardy waved proof that their steady, protracted effort to save the Arctic had succeeded. The press release by the Department of the Interior read: “Secretary Seaton Establishes New Arctic National Wildlife Range.”25 To Mardy it was a dream come true. Also, both Izembek and Kuskokwim (later renamed for Clarence Rhode) were designated national wildlife ranges. “Olaus was at his table at the back of the room, writing,” Mardy wrote. “I held out the telegram to him; he read it and stood and took me in his arms and we both wept. The day before, December 6, Secretary Seaton had by Executive Order established the Arctic National Wildlife Range!”26*

Why did President Eisenhower approve it? This can only be conjectured, since the paper trail is so thin; but for one reason, Eisenhower trusted Seaton’s instinct on Alaskan land issues. And since Eisenhower had worked so gallantly to demilitarize Antarctica, his doing something for conservation in the Arctic made sense. It’s impossible, however, to measure the degree of sympathy Eisenhower felt for the Arctic NWR. There is virtually no paper trail of his views. The only public mentions that Eisenhower ever made about the Arctic NWR—his administration’s crowning conservationist legacy—were minor, a notice in his “Public Papers of the President,” and a bureaucratic line in his 1961 budget address.27 Yet Eisenhower, though his rationale is unrecorded, approved the establishment of what became America’s largest national wildlife refuge. Saving those 8.9 million acres was perfectly consistent with his signing of the Antarctic treaty. Few individuals had done more to preserve polar environments than Eisenhower. “Seaton told me that he didn’t want to make a big deal about the Arctic Refuge because it would create a backlash with the incoming Kennedy Democrats,” the incoming secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, later recalled. “Governor Eagan was squawking about it being unconstitutional. Somehow because I was from the west, Eagan thought I’d side with him and turn what became known as ANWR over to the state.”28

When Udall was asked if he had ever considered buckling under Eagan’s pressure, he said, “The thought never crossed my mind. All the Arctic Refuge meant to me when I became secretary of the interior was that our [Kennedy’s] administration could do big things. If Eisenhower and Seaton could create an Arctic Refuge, then we could do similar preservationist deals in California’s redwoods country and the Ozarks and Utah. All those places were of real excitement to me. They hadn’t yet been completely ruined.”29

The circumstances of Eisenhower’s approval of Public Land Order 2214, during his last days in the White House, officially designating the Arctic NWR, weren’t entirely unusual for an outgoing president. (It should be noted that Eisenhower did not sign PLO 2214; Seaton did.) Theodore Roosevelt, for example, had saved the Olympics just forty-eight hours before leaving the White House in 1909. Such public lands acts offered an opportunity for a timely gesture. What was odd, however, was the farewell address that Eisenhower delivered on January 17, 1961—the most memorable since George Washington’s in 1796. Clearing his throat and shuffling his pages behind a pair of old paper clip–shaped radio microphones on his desk in the Oval Office, Eisenhower said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”30

The journalist Carl Rowan, who carefully studied the president’s second term, thought that Eisenhower had a deeply ingrained skepticism about technology and its effects on the environment. Rowan—who interviewed members of the administration associated with Team Seaton—believed that Eisenhower’s protection of Antarctica and the Arctic NWR was part and parcel of this speech. “Second-term Eisenhower was a surprise,” Rowan says. “Just like he helped boost civil rights—sending federal protection to Little Rock, appointing anti–Jim Crow federal judges throughout the South—he became a conservationist, too. Not enough of one to want to push through wilderness bills and the like. Not enough of one to stop nuclear testing. But he thought the Arctic and Antarctica shouldn’t be destroyed. They were sanctuaries for all people.”31

Rowan had a point. Eisenhower did help save Antarctica and Arctic Alaska from potential industrial ruin. On the other hand, a truly ecologically-minded president would never have dreamed of allowing the Atomic Energy Commission to detonate nuclear devices around Point Hope. Perhaps the best way to understand the Arctic NWR, then, is through Eisenhower’s initial skepticism about Alaska’s statehood. Eisenhower saw Alaska, in a sense, as a possession of the federal government: a site where the Pentagon could conduct defense exercises, the USDA could experiment with harvesting seafood, and the Department of the Interior could create national parks and wildlife refuges. Eisenhower was, it seems, skeptical about big oil, coal, timber, and the antitax movement. As Eisenhower intimated in his farewell address, huge corporations like Standard Oil, Boeing, and McDonnell-Douglas served their shareholders’ interests. The U.S. government shouldn’t ever be bought off with corporate dollars. Also, science, as Douglas used to say, had its drawbacks. “Science has produced instruments that make man lazier and less inclined to explore woods, valleys, ridges,” Douglas would complain, in a sense echoing Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. “The machine is almost a leash that keeps man from adventure.”32

Regardless of his motivation, Eisenhower’s creation of the Arctic NWR for “the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values” was a peak moment for conservationists in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. In Alaskan history this was the first time a federal unit was preserved as a national heirloom by the application of ecological principles. The founding purpose of the Arctic NWR was to preserve a wilderness, so this was a legislative harbinger for the Wilderness Act of 1964 that the Muries, Zahniser, and Douglas had been diligently working on throughout the 1950s.33 “Wilderness,” Leopold had written, “is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.”34

Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter were giddy with joy. Lois Crisler said that the wolves had also won, giving “heart and hope” to lovers of wildlife. Walt Disney wondered if there was a movie in all this. Mardy Murie, remembering that Fairfield Osborn had really started the Arctic NWR movement in 1956 by sponsoring the Sheenjek Expedition, wrote him a letter of thanks: “Sometimes it’s good to have a little victory, isn’t it? Even though we know also that there still has to be watchfulness, thinking and persuasion to keep the area natural, not ‘developed’—a treasure for the sensitive ones, the vigorous ones, the searchers for knowledge, for all the years to come. Surely there should be a few such places on this plundered planet!”35

When Justice Douglas heard about the Arctic NWR, he was elated. His dream of a National Wilderness Preservation System was coming to fruition. Nobody knows what he thought that December day as rain turned to snow.* After performing his duties at the Supreme Court, he retreated to his low-ceilinged study on Hutchins Place to work on his new book for young readers, Muir of the Mountains. If My Wilderness could help save the Brooks Range, imagine how the wilderness movement could flourish with John Kennedy in the White House and old John Muir reintroduced to a new generation of readers. Also, receiving bigger headlines than the Arctic NWR that December 7 was the news that Douglas’s friend Stewart Udall had been officially chosen to replace Seaton as secretary of the interior. “Stewart and Bill were extremely close,” Cathy Stone, Douglas’s fourth wife, recalled. “They hiked the C&O Canal together. They’d wear old clothes and just take off down the towpath. Once they got soaked in the rain and were mistaken for hoboes.”36

That Christmas season, while other insiders in Washington, D.C., were attending parties, Douglas sat quietly at his desk composing Muir of the Mountains (to be published in June 1961 by the Sierra Club). Working with the children’s illustrator Daniel San Souci, Douglas reviewed Muir’s life from the Scottish Highlands to his death from pneumonia in Los Angeles on Christmas eve 1914 (around the time Hetch Hetchy was turned into a reservoir). He gave great attention to Muir’s memoir Travels in Alaska. Douglas, in fact, had broadened his own knowledge of glaciation with Muir as his teacher. Writing a chapter about Muir’s “short-legged, rather houndish, and shaggy” dog, Stickeen, Douglas was comforted that his own best friend—Sandy, the border collie—was curled up by his side. “Muir learned much about glaciers on this trip with Stickeen,” Douglas wrote. “What he saw of the workings of these gigantic Alaskan icefields confirmed many of his theories about glaciation in the Sierra. Yet he learned more than this. He now knew how warm and joyous the friendship between a man and a dog can be. He learned that dogs as well as men can rise to heroic heights when danger threatens. He learned that a man and his dog, working as a team, can sometimes make a contribution to human knowledge.”37

If Douglas had a philosophy, it was his dauntless belief that freedom of thought and freedom of expression were unalienable rights of all Americans. He tirelessly stated that at all costs these fundamental principles of individual freedom, protected by the Constitution, had to be preserved. Against all odds, bucking huge powerful blocs like the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate, the Harding administration, McCarthyism, and the industrial-military complex, the wilderness movement had doggedly persevered. Some battles—a lot, actually—had been lost. But in Alaska the land skinners and despoilers had been checkmated in a number of important instances. Like trickster ravens, the Muirian preservationists often outwitted big business. The enlightened pro-wilderness minority, promoting kinship with all animal life, had a knack for pulling rabbits out of hats. Groups like the ACS, Douglas believed, were essential in a democracy. “We need Committees of Correspondence to coordinate the efforts of diverse groups to keep America beautiful and to preserve the few wilderness alcoves we have left,” Douglas wrote. “We used such committees in the days of our Revolution, and through them helped bolster the efforts of people everywhere in the common cause. Our common cause today is to preserve our country’s natural beauty and keep our wilderness areas sacrosanct. The threats are everywhere; and the most serious ones are often made in unobtrusive beginnings under the banner of ‘progress.’ ”38

Starting with Muir, a noble band of conservationist revolutionaries—TR, Hornaday, Pinchot, Leopold, Marshall, FDR, the Muries, the Crislers, and Carson among them—stood up and said no to the exploiters of Alaska’s wilderness kingdom. Their mythos was becoming popular on college campuses in 1960. Some places, such as the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea or Mount McKinley, were simply too awesome to molest. The illustrator Rockwell Kent; the WASPs; the forest beatniks like Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac—Douglas was proud to be in their victorious ranks that December. Refusing to be a cloistered justice, Douglas crisscrossed America dissenting against reckless oil drilling, clear-cutting, strip-mining, and superhighways. He worried that the Arctic NWR and other tracts of wilderness were going to fall victim to legal clauses allowing mining and timbering on federal property. “After they gutted and ruined the forests, then the rest of us could use them—to find campsites among stumps, to look for fish in waters heavy with silt from erosion, to search for game on rivers pounded to dust by sheep.”39

But because of the Arctic NWR Douglas felt a strong current of optimism in the air. With Kennedy coming into the White House, the stage seemed to be set for a new environmental movement. Ecological consciousness was becoming mainstream. Rachel Carson was near finishing Silent Spring, and Stewart Udall was tapping talents like the novelist Wallace Stegner to help him write the classic ecological manifesto The Quiet Crisis. The new “green” movement was spreading worldwide. The legacy of John Muir was still strong; his name was becoming almost as well known as that of Paul Revere or Betsy Ross in schoolrooms. “Knowing of people’s love of beauty and their great need for it, Muir gave his life to help them discover beauty in the earth around them, and to arouse their desire to protect,” Douglas wrote in Muir of the Mountains. “The Machine, Muir knew, could easily level the woods and make the land desolate. Humankind’s mission on earth is not to destroy: it is to protect and conserve all living things. There is a place for trees and flowers and birds, as well as for people. Never should we try to crowd them out of the universe.”40

Muir, who preached the gospel of glaciers, surely would have said, “Amen.”


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