No other place in America better symbolizes the fight to protect unspoiled wilderness than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Yet many of us know all too little about the long, hard-fought campaign to first establish the refuge, and how that struggle informs our own today. That will now change with publication of Roger Kaye's absorbing new book, Last Great Wilderness, the first in-depth examination of that epic conflict.
Kaye documents the important roles that Wilderness Society president Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy played, as well as the work of Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser, Sigurd Olson, Stewart Brandborg, Conservation Foundation president Fairfield Osborn, and even Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. They struggled throughout the 1950s to protect this vast corner of Arctic Alaska against those, like Alaska U.S. Senator Bob Bartlett, who saw the idea of wilderness as threatening to the dominant, unsustainable notion of "progress."
After Alaska's politicians blocked establishing legislation, conservationists convinced Interior Secretary Fred Seaton in the outgoing Eisenhower Administration to create the Arctic Range in December of 1960 by secretarial order. The Range was, of course, later expanded and renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, the monumental conservation law that had been in part inspired by "the beliefs and values, the ideas and idealism, and the hopes and concerns for the future" that propelled the original campaign.
Last Great Wilderness shows how the struggle to establish the Refuge influenced other national wilderness battles at the time, including the effort to block dams in Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and especially the eight-year struggle to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act. Many conservation leaders, like the Muries and Zahniser, worked on all three efforts. The Arctic campaign infused the wilderness movement with a great sense of idealism and symbolism, and enriched the national wilderness movement. Its success bolstered those working to enact the Wilderness Act. Part of that idealism and symbolism lay in the realization that northeast Alaska offered an unparalleled opportunity to protect an entire ecosystem from development and inappropriate management, a nine-million-acre wilderness landscape and adventuring ground unprecedented in scale and purpose. That expansive ecosystem view imbued the wilderness movement with a far broader vision and richer symbolism than had earlier been the case.
Roger Kaye is well-suited to tell this story. He has worked as a wilderness specialist and pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Arctic Refuge for over twenty years. A Ph.D in wilderness studies, he has extensively researched and written about the Arctic Refuge and the wilderness concept. Richly illustrated, his account is at once a highly readable story and an authoritative history of the wilderness movement during the postwar era.
Last Great Wilderness tells an important story for today. The values symbolized by the Arctic Refuge has come to represent--cultural, recreational, spiritual, and ecological--are as meaningful for us as they were a half-century ago. The importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the national wilderness movement is as strong if not stronger today than in 1960. Last Great Wilderness will inspire all of us and better equip today's defenders of the Arctic Refuge and other wild places.