Legacy of conservation

The values that led to establishment of the Arctic Refuge, and its emergence as a symbolic landscape of national significance.

[Numbers within the text refer to the references at the bottom of this page.]

Robert Marshall gazes at mountainsIt was visionary forester Robert Marshall’s controversial 1938 proposal for a “permanent American frontier” that first opened minds to the idea of preserving some of arctic Alaska on a vast, landscape scale.

Fifteen years later, National Park Service scientists George Collins and Lowell Sumner explored the eastern Brooks Range. Inspired by its natural values, they published an article that launched the campaign to permanently protect the area: Northeast Arctic: The Last Great Wilderness. [1]

Wilderness Society President Olaus Murie and his wife Margaret took the lead. They were joined by other prominent conservationists, including scientists Starker Leopold, Frank F. Darling, Sigurd Olson, and Stewart Brandborg, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser. The activism of these and thousands of other conservationists through a hard-fought campaign led to establishment of the Arctic Refuge in 1960.

Few of those who wrote, spoke, and testified for the area’s preservation had any notion of journeying to its remote expanses. Then, as now, only a small minority of its supporters planned to backpack, camp, hunt, or raft within it, or even catch a first-hand glimpse of its wildlife or scenery.

What then was their motivation? What possibilities for its future captured their imagination and galvanized the support necessary to establish the Arctic Refuge? For a nation engrossed in the post-war economic, development, and technological boom of the 1950s, what promise could this far-away place have held?

Fortunately, the Refuge founders left eloquent descriptions of the range of values the area embodied and should perpetuate. Numerous publications, testimonies, correspondence, and interviews reveal that an interwoven set of both intangible and tangible values – cultural, symbolic, and spiritual values as well as wildlife, ecological, scenic, and recreational values – formed the underpinning of the campaign to establish the Arctic Refuge.

This was to be . . .

A Place of Wildness

mountians and river valley within the Wilderness Area“[The Refuge] symbolizes freedom . . . freedom to continue, unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth unfolding here . . . where its native creatures can still have freedom to pursue their future, so distant, mysterious . . .” (Lowell Sumner [1])

The overarching feature, providing the context of all Refuge values, is an unseen presence. Natural processes – large scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue here, free of human control or manipulation. This was to remain, as John Milton wrote, an area where we “allow some of the earth to go its own way.” Nowhere else and never again would the nation find an area so large, so ecologically whole so as to exemplify what became the statutory definition of wilderness - an area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

A Place of Scientific Value

biologist using spotting scope to view peregrine falcons“. . . the Arctic Range should be kept for basic scientific study, for observation, as a help to us for our understanding of the natural processes in the universe . . .” (Olaus Murie [5])

This area was to serve as Aldo Leopold’s “base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.” As proponent Virginia Wood told a Senate Committee, the Refuge would be “of the highest importance to science as a standard of reference – a natural laboratory where biologists of today and the future can study to find the answers to the recurring question: What was the natural order before man changed it?”

A Place for Wildlife

caribou along the coast

“The beauty is in part the glory of seeing moose, caribou, and wolves living in a natural state, untouched by civilization.” (Justice William O. Douglas [2])

Because of their unbounded, wandering nature, caribou soon became the symbolic representation of the area’s wildlife. While the Refuge was to protect habitat for its many charismatic mammals, its larger purpose was to preserve a system of biotic communities in which all lifeforms are of equal value.

A Place for Recreation

“For those who are willing to exert themselves for this experience, there is a great gift to be won . . . a gift to be had nowadays in very few remaining parts of our plundered planet – the gift of personal satisfaction, the personal well-being purchased by striving . . .” (Margaret Murie [3])

Whether one comes to hike, hunt, or float, this was to be an adventuring ground, a place of challenge and exploration and discovery. It was to remain a place where the wild would not be taken out of the wilderness, where the sense of the unknown, of horizons unexplored, of nameless valleys remains alive. But too, it was to be a place of restraint, where the visitor comes on the land’s terms.

A Connection to American Cultural Heritage

“This area offers what is virtually America’s last chance to preserve an adequate sample of the pioneer frontier, the Stateside counterpart of which has vanished.” (George Collins [1])

Wilderness was a defining element in development of American character. Prominent in the writings of Refuge founders was the idea that this place would serve as a living museum of our national heritage and identity. Here one can experience something of the conditions our ancestors encountered and that formed and shaped us as a nation.

A Connection to the Natural World

gazing at mountains and river valley“Perhaps we should give thought to our ancestors and feel humbly grateful for the beginnings of thoughtful regard for our land . . . ” (Olaus Murie [6])

Deeper than recreation and beyond history, this was a place where the visitor could know and appreciate the conditions that formed and shaped us as a species, where one could experience the world as it was known for 99 percent of human history. As a remnant of our world that remains natural, wild, and free, this area was to serve that remnant of ourselves that seeks connection and rootedness within that world.

A Bequest to the Future

Olaus and Margaret Murie in the Arctic Refuge, 1956“I feel so sure that, if we are big enough to save this bit of loveliness on our earth, the future citizens of Alaska and of all the world will be deeply grateful. This is a time for a long look ahead.” (Margaret Murie [4]

This area was to provide critical habitat for endangered experiences – experiences that should be the right of every generation. But its greater contributions to the future may be symbolic: an encouraging legacy of restraint. The Arctic Refuge stands as the commitment of the past generations to all succeeding generations - that America’s finest example of the world we did not alter or control will be passed on, undiminished.

A Sacred Place

sunset over an icy river“. . . this last American living wilderness must remain sacrosanct.” (Justice William O. Douglas [2])

The pronouncement of this Supreme Court Justice echos the recurring sentiment that, more than a repository of natural values, this was also to be a place set apart as the embodiment of intangible values. For those who come, and the millions more who find inspiration and hope in just knowing it is here, the Arctic Refuge serves as a connection to the natural world and to something larger, more enduring, and beyond ourselves.

The founders’ vision . . .
a wilderness area, a little portion of our planet left alone”
(Olaus Murie [5])

The quotes on this page are from the following sources:

[1] George Collins & Lowell Sumner, "Northeast Alaska: The Last Great Wilderness." Sierra Club Bulletin, (October, 1953)

[2] William O. Douglas, My Wilderness: the Pacific West. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co. Inc. 1960)

[3] Margaret Murie, Two in the Far North. (Anchorage, AK: Alaska Northwest Publ., 1957) Third Edition.

[4] Margaret Murie, Testimony before the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Subcommittee on S. 1899, A Bill to Establish the Arctic Refuge. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, S. 1899, 86th Congress, 1st session, part 1, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1960)

[5] Olaus Murie, "Wilderness Philosophy, Science, and the Arctic National Wildlife Range." In Proceedings, Twelfth Alaskan Science Conference. Alaska Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1961) G. Gahlgren Jr. (Ed.) College, AK

[6] Olaus Murie, Journeys to the Far North. (Palo Alto, CA: The Wilderness Society and American West Publ., 1973)