The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960
Development or conservation? Douglas Brinkley traces the debate over Alaska's riches.
(Page 2 of 2)
“The Quiet World” isn’t a book frozen in time; rather, it was conceived by the author as the second in a trilogy. The first was Brinkley’s critically acclaimed “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America,” the story of how TR brought a green ethic to the White House and stood up to robber barons. The third and final book will come out in 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act being passed (also led by citizen activists with ties to Alaska).Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As John McPhee did so eloquently with “Coming Into The Country,” Brinkley in “The Quiet World” reminds us why Alaska matters to the national psyche. In the arc of his storytelling, he covers 81 years of history that really serve as a foundational subtext to the birth of the modern environmental movement in America.
While Alaska’s sheer geographical size – it is twice as big as Texas – continues to captivate the imagination, Brinkley does an excellent job of revealing how it has also attracted its fair share of plunderers and hairbrained schemes. Perhaps the most audacious was a government plan, Project Chariot, concocted during the Eisenhower Administration, to set off a nuclear blast near the native village of Point Hope as part of an engineering feat to create a new commercial ocean port. Fortunately, calmer minds prevailed over lobbying by Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb.”
Alaska remains a symbol for conflicting values. Shattering the myth of inexhaustible resources, Brinkley notes how settlement patterns prior to Alaska achieving statehood copied many of the same mistakes made on the American frontier in the Lower 48. The state has survived bouts of overfishing and devastating logging practices on the Tongass National Forest, and is still engaged in ferocious clashes over the aerial gunning of wolves and plans to tap Alaska’s wealth of minerals and fossil fuels.
Through it all, citizen conservationists have proved to be brave, effective defenders, though the federal government has played a more heroic role. Coming to Alaska’s rescue, presidents and congresses alike have demonstrated an ability to consider horizons far broader than election cycles, states’ desires to industrialize more pristine areas, and the quarterly profit-loss statements of multinational companies.
Should Alaska follow the model of resource extraction that created economic wealth and boom times and yet left behind a multitude of serious environmental problems in the contiguous US, or should it be zealously safeguarded? For readers, there is no doubt which side Brinkley is on. But as “The Quiet World” reminds us, the future of Alaska is a story still being written. Every American is a stakeholder, whether we ever set foot there or not.
Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Mont.