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

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

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

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.”

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.

“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).

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.

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