The history of Alaska is a story of pioneering, hunting, exploring, discovering, trapping, tramping, painting and preserving in a land that is inspiring but freezing. All that, plus one more activity, performed indoors: lobbying.
Now Douglas Brinkley, the prolific Rice University historian, has produced “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960,” a history that is really a love poem to what he calls “the sheer poetic depth of the Alaskan wilderness” -- the home of the polar bear and the snowy owl, the Tlingit and Aleut people, wild rivers and frosty islands, timber and minerals, gas and oil.
Alaska has long been the destination of nomadic hunters and camera-snapping tourists, adventurers, naturalists and wildcatters. All this complexity and all these contradictions, played out on the wildest permanently frozen landscape in the world -- 586,000 square miles purchased by the U.S. from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867 -- produced conflict from the start.
“Whereas American settlers saw the wilderness as an adversary, an obstacle to overcome,” Brinkley writes, “Alaskan Natives saw nature as something they belonged to.”
From the first day the Stars and Stripes flew over this vast land, the struggle was on between those who wanted to tame it and those who wanted to preserve it. The irony is that the central figure in this drama is a man who never visited Alaska, Theodore Roosevelt (the subject of Brinkley’s last book, “The Wilderness Warrior,” a lyrical volume on TR and nature).
Roosevelt pressed for controls on development and growth, working to set aside land and to create refuges and reserves, preserving the salmon and the bear and the endless vistas, even as oil was being discovered and began to flow. He was determined to protect the territory, especially Arctic Alaska, down to the last Sitka deer.
But TR wasn’t the only figure in this fight. This is also the story of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, John Burroughs, Ansel Adams, Rachel Carson, Peter Matthiessen and even Allen Ginsberg, all of whom, in ways eclectic and eccentric, sought to keep others from loving, or exploiting, Alaska to death. Typical was Rockwell Kent, who wrote: “I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern Sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins.”
But the threats to Alaska’s natural state were always there, posed in Roosevelt’s time by Woodrow Wilson, who saw Alaska as “a storehouse” that “should be unlocked,” and in the decades that followed from business magnates who saw Alaska as a giant smorgasbord of resources.
World War II
It was World War II that transformed Alaska most profoundly. American troops poured in; docks, wharves and breakwaters were constructed; commercial air service was instituted; new pressures to drill for oil became more difficult to resist -- even as the fight, freighted with emotion, heated up over whether to protect the territory’s storied wolves.
At this time, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas began to emerge as a crusading environmentalist, eventually to become what Brinkley calls “the most historically significant pro-wilderness American political force since Theodore Roosevelt.” The climax of this volume is the achievement, at the end of the Eisenhower years, of one of Douglas’s greatest causes, the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The book ends before some of the more colorful aspects of Alaska’s history, including fights over oil pipelines, the “bridge to nowhere” and the improbable rise of former Governor Sarah Palin. Brinkley, the author of a dozen previous books, says he considers this volume his favorite. Even the most casual reader can see why.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at email@example.com.