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The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960

Development or conservation? Douglas Brinkley traces the debate over Alaska's riches.

By Todd Wilkinson / January 19, 2011

The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom 1879-1960 By Douglas Brinkley Harper Collins 592 pp.

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In The Quiet World, historian Douglas Brinkley pens an epic about America’s Far North – you know, the place Sarah Palin is from. But just as book covers can sometimes be misleading, so, too, are subtitles, and the subtitle for Brinkley’s volume is: “Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960.”

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Based on that description, a reader might expect a backward-looking narrative, long on soporific tree-hugger reflection and short on contemporary relevance.

Instead, “The Quiet World” is an homage to the wisdom of recent ancestors – avowed capitalists and preservationists – who fought for restraint against brazen attempts to conquer nature. And that is precisely what makes this book a poignant cautionary tale for policymakers considering quick get-rich fixes to long-term problems with ecological implications.

In 2010, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge celebrated its 50th anniversary. Dramatic 20th-century events leading up to the sanctuary being created in 1960 represent a crescendo in Brinkley’s plot development over nearly 600 pages.

But despite that landmark victory half a century ago, no protection is permanent. Soon debates will start anew on Capitol Hill as lawmakers decide again whether to allow oil and gas companies to invade the refuge premises.

Former Alaska governor, reality TV star, and possible presidential candidate Palin may cry “drill, baby, drill,” but polls show that a preponderance of Americans, who have a romantic fascination with Alaska, disagree.

Up in Alaska right now, energy issues, climate change, and a looming biodiversity crisis linked to the burning of fossil fuels are converging in a rugged mosaic of salmon-rich rain forest; tundra populated by polar bears, caribou, and musk oxen; and iconic mountains like McKinley (known as Denali to native peoples) sheathed in melting glaciers.

In Brinkley’s hands, the still-raging battle to save Alaska’s wild character is riveting. In contrast to the word “quiet” in the book’s title, a noisy racket has been raised by a number of prominent Americans across generations who believe their country’s destiny depends, in part, on how it stewards the state closest to the North Pole.

They know that something important about America will perish if free enterprise trumps the ability to set aside nature for nature’s sake. Among those inspired by Alaska’s grandeur have been – in Brinkley’s words – “a noble band of conservationist revolutionaries” ranging from John Muir, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and poet Robert Service to US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Rachel Carson, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.

It’s fascinating that a member of the high court could find spiritual kindredness with Beat poets. And it’s equally fascinating that it was conservative Republicans who first rose zealously to prevent Alaska from being overrun by the greed of Gilded Age tycoons.

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