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Frontier Prophets
To mark the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 50th anniversary, historian and writer Douglas Brinkley tells the inspiring story of Teddy Roosevelt and the many other pioneers whose vision and hard work led to its creation.


Adapted from The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960, by Douglas Brinkley (Harper). The book will be for sale in January 2011.

CAUTION: Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.


When America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wild- life Refuge on December 6, it’s important to remember that it was the preservation of migrating herds of caribou—the refuge’s signature species—that jump-started the land withdrawal movement. As president from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt crusaded on behalf of big game protection. He created national reserves for buffalo, elk, and antelope. After leaving the White House, he traveled to British East Africa at the behest of the Smithsonian Institution. There he marveled at the savannahs teeming with eland, zebra, and antelope. Upon his return to the United States, in June 1910, he decided that more attention should be paid to protecting Alaska’s Dall sheep, caribou, and northern fur seals.

Coinciding with Roosevelt’s crusade to protect Alaska’s big game were explorer Charles Sheldon’s riveting reports of his Mount KcKinley expedition, and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton’s 1911 book, The Arctic Prairies. “The Caribou is a travelsome beast, always in a hurry, going against the wind,” Seton wrote. “When the wind is west, all travel west; when it veers, they veer . . . but they are ever on the move. When you see a Caribou that does not move, you know at once it is not a Caribou, it’s a rock.”

As president, Roosevelt had created the spectacular Chugach National Forest in Alaska. He was dismayed to learn that his hand-chosen White House successor, William Howard Taft, was allowing the Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate to undermine the integrity of the forest. Taft ended up firing Roosevelt’s beloved U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot, who had whistle-blown against the syndicate’s abusive land despoiling. A fierce battle ensued over Alaska between Roosevelt’s wilderness kingdom view and Taft’s hyper-development philosophy. Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party in 1912—the 20th century’s most successful third-party movement—in part over Alaskan land rights. He ended up losing the 1912 presidential election but came in second, defeating Taft, the Republican. Wildlife protection had been an important plank of the Bull Moose effort. America’s various Audubon societies had cheered Roosevelt onward. A movement was now under way to keep Alaska wild—and that meant the caribou that roamed the treeless tundra along the Arctic Ocean.


Losing the presidential election only turned Roosevelt into an even more revolutionary conservationist. In January of 1913 he wrote a landmark book review in the progressive and highly influential opinion journal The Outlook that prompted a bullwhip of condemnation of Americans’ societal indifference to wildlife protection and habitat preservation. The review, which served as Roosevelt’s own manifesto on behalf of endangered species, was of zoologist William Temple Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wild Life, a scientific consideration of the “appalling rapidity” of global species destruction. What Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had been for meatpacking reform, Our Vanishing Wild Life was for championing disappearing creatures like prairie chickens, whooping cranes, and roseate spoonbills. Devastation of marine mammals in Alaskan waters proved particularly frightful to Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo for 30 years. In his manifesto, Hornaday surveyed a century of reckless exploitation of American wildlife. A tombstone was drawn in the book, listing 11 North American bird species that had been “exterminated by civilized man” between 1840 and 1910, including the great auk, the passenger pigeon, and the Eskimo curlew. Dedicated to William Dutcher, president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, Our Vanishing Wild Life was a mournful alarm bell intended to educate the public about a continent, if not a world, in biological peril.

Bent on shaking up the status quo, Our Vanishing Wild Life was published in the reformer tradition of investigative journalists Lincoln Steffens (urban politics), Ida Tarbell (Standard Oil), and Ray Stannard Baker (coal miners’ union)—a take-no-prisoners polemic aimed at saving buffalo, otters, flamingos, and hundreds of other creatures. Every page was laden with exact zoological facts. Every page was a constant harassment, a humane cry to abolish coyote wagons, steel traps, and “slob” hunting. Biological reports, for example, had taught Hornaday that the Bering Sea had once been populated with Steller’s sea cows, twenty-five-foot-long marine mammals weighing eight to ten tons. By 1768, however, these sea cows, sluggish vegetarians that fed on the Aleutian Islands’ great kelp pastures, were extinct, wiped out wholesale by irresponsible Russian market hunters. Because of Hornaday’s alarm bell, the Boone and Crockett Club appointed a committee for the protection of Alaska’s walrus, fur seals, sea otters, and other marine mammals. The Pribilof Islands, the club believed, needed to remain a wildlife reserve without the threat of market slaughter of seals, otters, and blue foxes. Hornaday conceived Our Vanishing Wild Life as a Roosevelt-endorsed STOP sign to the reckless way Americans were treating their most cherished animal sanctuaries. Full of grave assertions, Hornaday had serious conservationist scores to settle with the American industrial order. Building on court battles won on behalf of animal-rights groups such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Audubon Society, Hornaday played a prophetic John the Baptist for the Endangered Species Act that was finally enacted in 1966, 1969, and 1973. “We are weary,” his argument went, “of witnessing the greed, selfishness, and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage. It is time for a sweeping Reformation; and that is precisely what we now demand.”


Where Roosevelt and Hornaday really got into sync was protecting the northern fur seal of the Pribilofs and other Alaska rookeries. Calling Taft’s U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and Fur Commission Board beehives of “pelagic pirates,” the Roosevelt–Hornaday axis forced the U.S. Congress to ban the slaughter of seals. It disgusted the Camp Fire Club of America, of which Roosevelt and Hornaday were leaders, that American women, rejecting farm-bred mink, made seal fur coats the fashion rage. How grotesquely Russian of them! What stirred the two men to battle even more was the Taft administration’s complicity as what Hornaday described as “murderers” of Alaskan seals.

At the Congressional hearings in 1911 and 1912, the Camp Fire Club scored a victory. Due to Hornaday’s high-octane lobbying, the Seal Treaty of 1911 was forged between the United States, Britain, Russia, and Japan. It not only saved Alaska’s northern fur seal from extinction, it helped save the sea otter as well. “The treaty produced a significant dividend: almost as an afterthought it prohibited the killing of sea otters,” historian Frank Graham Jr. explained in Man’s Dominion. “At that time they were considered extinct or nearly so on our shores. Under protection, that delightful little animal has reappeared, to the nation’s aesthetic profit, in some numbers off the coast of California.” And there was a healthy, noisy colony of them on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians; the natives had fled the Bering Sea island, worried about a volcano blow. This gave the sea otters undisturbed waters, kelp, and shellfish to prosper. Amchitka was the greatest sea otter sanctuary left in the world.

Following that Congressional victory, the Roosevelt and Hornaday team delivered the knockout punch as a result of their intense lobbying on Capitol Hill—concluding a 28-year conservationist fight—when Congress agreed to ban the slaughter of all seals and otters in all American waters. The New York Times declared the 1912 victory a triumph for the Camp Fire Club. “This battle against animal murder for profit was won,” the Times noted. “Congress ordered that no man should kill a seal on American territory for five years. The friends of the seal wanted a ten-year close season, but they were pretty well satisfied with what they got, for the reason that now the seal-slaughterers are on the run, and it will not be hard in 1917 to get Congress to give a five-year extension.”

Although Hornaday had been a hunter all his life, the Alaska seal campaign caused him to drop his gun. Nobody in the Camp Fire Club—which was filled with sportsmen—held it against him, although there were plenty of murmurs that Hornaday had turned animal-rights soft. In Hornaday’s mind, rifle companies like Winchester and Springfield donating money to wildlife protection groups was hypocritical corporatism gone wrong. Putting the seal slaughterers out of business encouraged Hornaday to try to save Dall sheep and caribou in Alaska. “All large hoofed animals have a weak hold on life,” Hornaday wrote. “This is because it is so difficult for them to hide and so very easy for man to creep up within the killing range of modern, high-power, long-range rifles. Is it not pitiful to think of animals like the caribou, moose, white sheep, and bear trying to survive on the named ridges and old mountains of Yukon Territory and Alaska! With a modern rifle, the neatest duffer on earth can creep up within killing distance of any of the big game of the North.” Hornaday went on to say, “I have been a sportsman myself, but times have changed, and we must change also.”

Hornaday gloried in being an Outsider, forcing “backwards” Alaskans and the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor to end their grotesque market slaughter practices. Hornaday also warned that the canned salmon industry was robbing both non-Native and Native fisheries of a priceless food resource in Alaska. When James A. Carroll was only 17, for example, he left Aitkin, Minnesota, for Alaska’s North Slope, and ended up settling in Fort Yukon (located 140 miles north of Fairbanks and 200 river miles from Canada). In his Alaska Journals of 1911–1922 Carroll told of how locals used fishing wheels to catch over 400 king salmon each day. After an assembly line was set up to cut the fish lengthwise and crosswise, they were strung up on long log racks to dry. No thought was ever given to replenishing the rivers and lakes around Fort Yukon. In photographs, the salmon catches resembled the way buffalo skulls were once piled high on the Great Plains.


Enter Roosevelt again. Following his siding with Hornaday on the knock-out-drag-out seal fight of 1911–1912, Roosevelt now favorably reviewed Our Vanishing Wild Life in The Outlook. Its publication created quite a stir, putting wildlife protection in the vanguard of the Progressive Movement. The Colonel blamed the disinterested American people—yes, the people themselves—for the loathsome fact that such birds as the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, great auk, Labrador duck, and sandhill crane were nearing (or had reached) extinction. An incensed Roosevelt challenged citizens to change their antiquated mindsets, to more fully comprehend the farmyard fact that songbirds gobbled up noxious insects and that raptors devoured rodents. As a member of the Camp Fire Club of America, Roo-sevelt was duty-bound to rid Alaska of its awful overfishing practices. He wanted the traditional salmon grounds of the Haida and Tlingit of Alaska–Canada protected from San Francisco canneries. Therefore the dams and barricades erected across rivers had to be stopped to protect the salmon runs. “The United States at this moment occupies a lamentable position as being perhaps the chief offender among civilized nations in permitting the destruction and pollution of nature,” Roosevelt lamented in The Outlook. “Our whole modern civilization is at fault in the matter. But we in America are probably most at fault.”

Roosevelt’s Outlook book review revealed the maturation of his wilderness philosophy. Writing from his editor’s command center at the United Charities Building in Manhattan, where his enormous desk was considered the Grand Central Station of the Progressive Movement, Roosevelt saw blood-stained evidence of his old enemies (the market-hunter mafia, scorch-and-burn developers, corporate trusts, anti-conservationists, free marketers, predatory rich, and corporate despoilers interested only in making money) behind the rapid decline of wildlife hotspots in places like the Alaska Range, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Pribilof Islands. Insisting that the U.S. conservation movement was largely about the preservation of “noble and beautiful forms of wildlife,” Roosevelt wrote that it was “wickedness” to allow companies to “destroy” animals and birds in willy-nilly fashion. 

One example was the preservation of the Alaska walrus, highly gregarious pinnipeds whose extremely thick, loose hides were coveted by Eskimos, Japanese, and Russians alike in circumpolar regions. The walrus had breeding grounds in the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea (including Wrangel Island). During the spring months walrus were found on the pack ice. But come summer they hauled themselves onto shore to molt, thereby making easy targets for market hunters. With the introduction of semi-automatic weapons, hunters in pursuit of walrus hides and blubber were now slaughtering herds throughout the year, even during breeding season in the Aleutian Islands. Because walrus were both colonial and highly social, they liked congregating together rather than seeking their own space. A male’s tusk averaged between 25 and 30 inches long; they were coveted all around the world. Tusks were often used to make holes in the ice. Roosevelt now demanded national laws to prohibit blubber and tusk hunting of walrus. In fact, he wanted to eliminate market hunting (i.e., the commercial killing and selling of wildlife, as opposed to the sport of hunting) altogether.

Likewise, Roosevelt reaffirmed his desire for huge national wildlife refuges, like the Yukon Delta in Alaska, aimed at protecting aggregations of birds. “We need drastic action,” Roosevelt declared. “Songbird slaughter should be stopped absolutely, of course, and so should the slaughter of water birds. For game, the bags should be strictly limited by law, all spring shooting should be stopped, and in most places there should be long closed seasons and, as regards to many birds and mammals, absolute prohibition of killing at all. Congress should protect all migratory birds.”

It was now time for Alaska to make permanent advances in protecting its myriad species. The moose season in Alaska, a famed October event, lured scores of hunters from the Lower Forty-eight, and as winter drew closer, they’d trudge across the autumnal spaces and slay lumbering herds all in the name of sport. Roosevelt and Hornaday wanted the bag limit on moose immediately slashed in half. They even wanted the Tlingit, Tanaina, and Ahtna to reform their ancient hunting ways. “The indolent and often extortionate Indians of Alaska—who now demand ‘big money’ for every service they perform—are not so valuable as citizens that they should be permitted to feed riotously upon moose, and cow moose at that,” Hornaday fumed, “until that species is exterminated.”

To members of the Sierra Club, Camp Fire Club of America, New York Zoological Society, and the National Audubon Society, Roosevelt’s charged critique of American indifference to wild animals was a heady wine. Hornaday’s prescient book, in fact, had given Roosevelt an army of devastating statistics for making his conservationist case. But to the Republican regulars, still bitter that Roosevelt had wreaked havoc on the party in 1912, T.R.’s review was another indication that the 26th president had become a wild man. “Crazy Teddy” was more interested in sea otters having Alexander Archipelago clam beds to raid than in hard-working Cordova coal miners trying to be family breadwinners. Roosevelt shot back that at least he wasn’t “guilty of a crime against our children,” the handing down of a “wasted heritage.”

Roosevelt applauded the isolated efforts of some states to protect wildlife populations, such as Montana’s attempts to save the bison and Florida’s efforts to protect bird rookeries. According to Roosevelt, Vermont had been heroic in managing its white-tailed deer population. But, as a whole, the United States had a woeful record with regard to big game preservation. To Roosevelt’s dismay, Territorial Governor Walter Eli Clark of Alaska, a trigger-happy boomer without an iota of conservationist ethics in his bones, was trying to abolish the law on Kodiak Island protecting brown bears, for the supposed benefit of settlers. If bears were a problem, control them, Rooseveltians insisted. Don’t market slaughter them for trade profits.

Alaskans who loved the outdoor life needed to wage a relentless war against air polluters, land degraders, and market hunters. “The wild antelope and the prairie chicken are on the point of following the wild bison and the passenger pigeon into memory,” Roosevelt complained. “Our rich men should realize that to import a Rembrandt or Raphael into the country is in no shape or way such a service at this moment as to spend the money which such a picture costs in helping either the missionary movement as a whole, or else parts of it, such as the preservation of the prongbuck [pronghorn antelope] or the activities of the Audubon Society on behalf of gulls and terns.”

Roosevelt mourned the decline of the whooping crane, bald eagle, and California condor. New York had recently passed the Audubon Plumage Law of 1910, banning the sale of plumes of all native birds for the millinery trade. Roosevelt was nevertheless concerned that the Atlantic puffins off the Maine coast, sporting their distinctive black-and-white plumage and colorful, almost clownlike beaks, had been extirpated. Americans, he argued, shouldn’t have to travel to Newfoundland or Labrador to see a puffin breeding ground. Roosevelt called for “international agreements” among all the Western Hemisphere nations to “put down the iniquitous feather trade.” This was a direct jab at now ex-president Taft for having canceled the World Conservation Congress. As Roosevelt put it in The Outlook, it was “inconceivable” that “civilized people should permit [this feather trade] to exist.” To Roosevelt the “Bird Cities” in the 1,200-mile Aleutian chain, where three species of cormorants existed along with colonies of murres, auklets, kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gulls, constituted one of God’s great spectacles.


As a result of the Roosevelt-Hornaday crusade, wildlife protection in Alaska became a passionate calling for conservationists of all stripes from 1913 and beyond. It was Our Vanishing Wild Life that inspired Aldo Leopold to look at ecosystems from a whole new perspective. Starting in the 1920s, U.S. government biologist Olaus Murie, in fact, often credited Hornaday for opening up America’s eyes to the reckless slaughter of Alaskan game. Murie, along with his wife, Margaret, spearheaded the efforts to save the Arctic as an enduring wilderness. Following in the Roosevelt–Hornaday tradition, the Muries become the frontline foot soldiers in protecting the Porcupine caribou herd on its sacred grounds. Throughout the 1950s they educated sportsmen, students, and government officials about Alaska’s timeless beauty. In 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the withdrawal of nine million acres in northeastern Alaska to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This marked the culmination of the Roosevelt–Hornaday wildlife crusade in Alaska. What Roosevelt and Hornaday cemented in the public imagination was that caribou, seabirds, seals, and polar bears had rights. Without their vision, we would not be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Refuge, one of earth’s richest biological treasures.

Douglas Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University and the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

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Audubon in Action
Why Not Wilderness?

Tucked into Alaska’s northeast corner, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the closest thing the United States has to East Africa’s famed Serengeti. One of the biggest migrations on earth ends here for 123,000 barren-ground caribou. Hundreds of polar bears prowl for prey, and snowy owls soar. Below the permafrost lies another American treasure: vast stores of crude oil. For a quarter-century a debate has raged about the best use of the refuge’s unprotected northernmost section, the coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report due for completion in 2012 may well shape the refuge's fate. Although it will have no binding authority, the Comprehensive Conservation Plan, as it’s called, gives the public its say in government decisions and could recommend the coastal plain be designated as pristine wilderness, the highest form of federal protection. If Congress acted on such a recommendation by passing a wilderness bill, all development would be banned.

“We really have a historic opportunity to provide wilderness protection to one of the most intact and untouched Arctic ecosystems in America,” says Audubon’s Taldi Walter, who works on Alaska policy issues in Washington, D.C. The 1.5-million-acre area in dispute, Section 1002, represents seven percent of the entire 19.6-million-acre refuge, and is the only part where drilling could occur. Most of Alaska’s northern slope outside the refuge has already been opened to oil and gas development.

The South Carolina-sized wildlife refuge is divided into three parts: a 10-million-acre refuge in the south; an 8-million-acre mountainous wilderness area in the middle; and the coastal plain in the north, an area that was reserved for research in 1980. Based on current estimates, there are 4.3 billion to 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable crude in that area, enough to supply the United States for anywhere from seven to 19 months.

Even though it’s unclear what will be proposed, the mere idea is generating fierce opposition in Alaska. “The Obama administration is wrong to pursue new wilderness,” Mark Begich, Alaska's Democratic U.S. senator, fumed in a statement. “I’ll fight any effort to block development of the enormous oil and gas likely beneath the Arctic Refuge.”

But allowing energy companies access could harm the wildlife and subsistence hunters that depend on the land for survival, counters Audubon Alaska executive director Nils Warnock. He adds that it would also ruin the feeling of untouched nature. “It’s kind of like putting your non-smoking section in the middle of these smoking sections,” he says. “Even though the companies minimize their footprint on the lands where they extract oil, there’s still smoke coming out of flare pits, there’s noise pollution, and there’s light pollution that carries a long, long way.”

The public comment period will open in the spring. Congress, however, can award wilderness designation at any time, and last January Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill to do just that. Click here to submit your remarks on the review during the comment period or contact your local member of Congress.

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