A review of historian Douglas Brinkley's new book, "The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960," which documents the conservation movement's struggle to preserve Alaska's wilderness lands, an ongoing effort best described as two steps forward, one step back. Brinkley discusses his book Friday at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library.
‘The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960’
by Douglas Brinkley
HarperCollins, 576 pp., $29.99
The word “saving” in the title of historian Douglas Brinkley’s new book should be printed in boldface capital letters. That reference to the necessity of ongoing action is the strongest impression to come out of “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960.”
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The Alaska wilderness saved by the writings of John Muir and the executive actions of President Theodore Roosevelt? Not hardly, when their efforts were followed by the presidencies of William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson, who said in his first state of the Union message in 1913: “We must use the resources of the country, not lock them up.”
And so it goes as Brinkley traces the efforts to save — or “lock up,” depending on your point of view — the untouched lands of Alaska for future generations. Two steps forward, one step back. After years of effort, Charles Sheldon, with his writing and work with the U.S. Biological Survey, succeeds in getting Wilson to sign a bill creating Mount McKinley National Park. But Congress refuses to appropriate money to protect it from poachers and loggers.
That back and forth continues throughout the book, as Brinkley chronicles the lives and work of “a noble bank of conservationist revolutionaries:” Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Rachel Carson.
Add to that others perhaps not as well known: Seattle native Mardy Murie (known as the “mother of American conservation movement”), her husband Olaus, an expert on Arctic Alaskan wildlife and his brother, Adolph, a wildlife biologist instrumental in getting a ban on killing wolves in Mount McKinley National Park; two Washington state natives, Virginia Hill and Celia Hunter, who became pilots in the Alaska outback and led a lobbying effort in 1960 to convince Alaskans that setting aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be a good idea.
Brinkley includes some names in his chronicles that may come as a surprise. But it would be hard to argue with him that Walt Disney’s “Bambi” has done more to promote wildlife protection than any other film. Beat writer Jack Kerouac and poet Gary Snyder also show up as bringing the wilderness movement to a new generation.
None of these conservationists devoted their lives solely to Alaska, and the book does not neglect their work elsewhere, making it a very readable history of the preservationist movement across the nation.
But while there may be justifications for extracting resources from Alaska, they won’t be found here. Brinkley says little about the foes of the conservation movement, at one point dismissing them as not “worth a lot of ink.” In this, the second volume of his Wilderness Cycle (the first was “Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America”), Brinkley spends only enough ink on those who see the wilds of Alaska as “dollarable” to make them easily recognized: the Morgan-Guggenheim mining-timber-petroleum interests, the industrial-military complex and administrations such as that of Warren G. Harding, who created the 23 million-acre Naval Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope. Harding’s further plans to open up Alaska lands for development were foiled by the adverse public reaction to land-fraud charges against his secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, and by Harding’s sudden death just a little more than two years into his term — in San Francisco, headed back from a visit to Alaska.
What is clear from Brinkley’s book is that development pressures will be ongoing. Despite preservation successes in the past (including President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1960 public order that protected 8.9 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, later expanded to 19.3 million acres), conservationists will need to continue their vigilance in the fight to save Alaska’s wilderness.
Supreme Court Justice William Douglas serves as a bookend to Theodore Roosevelt in Brinkley’s library of notable conservationists through 1960, and Brinkley sums up the Goose Prairie bard’s pragmatic understanding that “every new generation would have to fight for the integrity of the Denali wilderness or Glacier Bay,” that the “victory of the quiet world over the sonic boom” is not forever.