Refuge Part 1 -- Legacy of Wilderness

In late August 2001, my son Tom and I were heading to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with our friends and guides, Brian and Diane Okonek.  Little did we realize that a few weeks later all airplane traffic in America, including bush flights in the wilds of Alaska, would be grounded for several days.  September 11, 2001, was seared into our collective consciousness when the Twin Towers fell in New York, the Pentagon was attacked, and patriots brought down Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field.

We didn’t know it then, of course, but the tragic events of September 11, 2001 would prompt Richard Nelson to write the essay, Patriots for the American Land, that I quoted in my very first blog post, Welcome to Northern Passages.  In doing so, he fit himself squarely within a tradition of environmental patriotism that runs deep in American history.  The arctic regions of Alaska have often been at the forefront of this movement.

Probably second in importance only to The Wilderness Act of 1964 -- which was signed by President Lyndon Johnson exactly fifty years ago today! -- one of the most consequential pieces of conservation legislation in our history was the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.  ANILCA was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  It created or significantly expanded virtually every major wilderness area in America, including national parks, refuges, preserves and forests throughout Alaska:  such as Denali, the Gates of the Arctic, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Glacier Bay, Tongass, and Bering Land Bridge.

No part of the ANILCA legislation is more famous, or more hotly debated, than its creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeastern corner of Alaska, adjacent to Canada’s Yukon Territory.  Prior to ANILCA, this area had more limited protection, much of it having been designated as a National Wildlife Range by order of President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton, in 1960.

Historians such as Douglas Brinkley, in The Quiet World and other volumes, have amply described the lengthy campaigns and debates that led to the creation of the Wildlife Range and its successor, the Arctic Refuge.   The Refuge touches me deeply as a symbol, a last chance to get conservation right the first time.  And even as a corporate lawyer resident in the Midwest and then the mid-Atlantic states, I have felt a personal connection to at least a couple of the champions who have fought for this land. 

One is Robert Marshall, a passionate conservationist and explorer who was a founding member of The Wilderness Society, which more than any other organization led the original fight to establish the Refuge.  In 1935, Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold and six other visionaries formed The Wilderness Society over lunch at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC.

Through my volunteer engagement with The Wilderness Society, I have had the pleasure to get know its long-time chief executive, now retired, Bill Meadows.  One day, Bill and I happened to have lunch together at the Cosmos Club.  With a twinkle in his eye, Bill pointed to a large round table in a corner of the dining room and said he had been informed in solemn tones on many occasions that the table was the very one, in the very spot, where TWS had sprung to life all those years ago.  It is a great story, to be sure, but is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Club has occupied various locations over the years and did not move to its current premises until 1952.

One of Bill’s predecessors as President of The Wilderness Society was Olaus Murie.  Together with his wife, Margaret, known as Mardy, Olaus traveled extensively in the arctic and was one of the leading proponents for creation of the Wildlife Range.  Among the very best reads in the extensive canon of Alaskan adventure literature is Mardy’s memoir, Two in the Far North, which recounts her honeymoon adventure with Olaus as they trekked across the arctic by dogsled as well as the subsequent journeys they undertook with their young child in areas that are now within the boundaries of the Refuge. 

Those initial travels took place in the mid-1920s.  The Muries subsequently settled at a ranch in the shadow of the Grand Teton in Wyoming, but they never lost their passion for protecting wilderness and its wild inhabitants in Alaska.  Mardy’s book tells of her return to the arctic with Olaus and others in 1956, when they explored the valley of the Sheenjek River.  As noted in my post titled Legacy of the Muries, their purpose was to call attention to the land that The Wilderness Society and other conservation organizations were campaigning to protect.

It was with mounting excitement that I was thinking about the historical context of the Refuge as I flew out of Fairbanks with Tom, Diane and Brian one August morning in 2001.  It would be my first visit to the Refuge and we were blissfully unaware of the devastating attacks that would occur just a few weeks later.

A personal note:  The next several blog posts will recount aspects of my trip in 2001.  I have since revisited the Refuge several times, including a few weeks ago on the Kongakut raft trip described in Nurturing the Land Ethic, Part 2.  For today, however, please join me in celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act, a monument of the American spirit.  I will have the honor of participating in a wilderness discussion later today at the Murie Ranch in Wyoming, within what is now Grand Teton National Park, which certainly seems like an appropriate way to mark the anniversary.  Cheers to the foresight and patriotism that led to this landmark legislation!

This is the first in a series of 5 posts about a trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in late August 2001.