Arctic Refuge and the Wilderness Act: There’s a Connection

Mountain and lake 512x219

Arctic Refuge was established in 1960, but it didn’t happen easily. Throughout the 1950s, powerful interests opposed the proposed conservation area, while many others worked in support of its creation. Eventually, widespread public support persuaded the Eisenhower administration to establish the 9-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Range in northeast Alaska. The executive order explained that the purpose was “to preserve unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values.” (In 1980 the Range was redesignated as part of the larger Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)

This 1960 protection of the land and its wildlife in Alaska was a momentous achievement, but there was another purpose in the minds of those who worked to create a refuge in the Arctic, and it has to do with the second “value” mentioned—wilderness.

To understand this, we should understand the situation at mid-century. By the 1950s, many Americans had serious concerns about the environmental threats they saw all around—the rapid loss of natural landscapes; the destructive logging, mining, and agricultural practices; the spread of pollution and pesticides; and the awesome power and fallout of the atomic bomb.

Two of the most active and influential proponents for creating a northern refuge were Olaus Murie, long-time Alaska biologist and director of The Wilderness Society, and his wife Mardy. While they worked toward establishment of the refuge, they were also working with Olaus’s partner at The Wilderness Society, Howard Zahniser, to enact new legislation that would eventually become the 1964 Wilderness Act.

1956 group at sheenjek 512x339
[1956 expedition members and visitors in the Sheenjek valley. Left to right: Robert Krear, Olaus Murie, Noel Wien, Mercedes and Justice William O. Douglas, Mardy Murie, and George Collins. Pioneer bush pilot Noel Wien had just flown George Collins in to confer with the Muries on campaign strategy. Photo by George Schaller.]

In 1956, the Muries led a five-member, summer-long biological research expedition to the heart of the proposed northern refuge—the mountains and river of the Sheenjek valley. The Muries gained more than just biological results, however. Their experiences were a physical expression of their ongoing deliberations about the meanings of wilderness. They recognized the free-roaming caribou as a symbol of the area’s unrestricted natural processes, while the wolf came to represent for them a freedom from human control and subjugation.

They appreciated that in northeast Alaska they’d found ecological systems fully intact and large enough for the scientific study of how nature functions when left alone. They also realized that such a landscape, outside of human control, provided unique recreational opportunities for freedom of exploration and discovery, where visitors could experience solitude, challenge, and self-reliance.

The Muries and Zahniser recognized that the Arctic landscape exemplified the natural qualities—and the opportunities for discovery, solitude and challenge—they and others hoped to protect in Wilderness Act legislation. It’s no accident, therefore, that the establishing legislation for what is now part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge includes “wilderness” as one of its core values: “wildlife, wilderness and recreation.” The Act and the Refuge were birthed together.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
wilderness 50th logo