Archive for September, 2012

Aerial View of Port Alsworth, Alaska

Moving from the general to the specific on the issue of wilderness, the third book on my reading list was One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith and Dick Proenneke. The authorship of this book is somewhat complicated; basically, it was based on the journals Proenneke kept in the late 1960s while building a cabin at Twin Lakes in what later became Lake Clark National Park and reworked into a book by Keith, a writer who was a friend of Proenneke. Keith’s influence can be seen especially in some of the earlier passages where Proenneke describes at length events that took place over the course of weeks. This part doesn’t seem much like a diary. Most of the book, however, does feel like it has been taken mostly verbatim from Proenneke’s journals. The time period covered is roughly one year, during which Proenneke built his cabin almost entirely from scratch, using only hand tools.

This is a classic work in the Alaska wilderness literature. Proenneke filmed himself building the cabin, and the footage he produced later became the basis for an accompanying PBS documentary called Alone in the Wildnerness. Between the book and the documentary, Proenneke has become a household name among the sorts of people who know about wilderness and national parks in Alaska. It’s an interesting read just to see what it took for him to survive in the rather harsh conditions he encountered with very few resources at his disposal. From the time period covered by the book it’s not apparent what would happen to Proenneke (it ends as he leaves Alaska to care for his sick father back in Iowa), but he ended up returning to the cabin and living there for over 30 years, until he got too old for the rigorous lifestyle. When Twin Lakes became part of the newly created Lake Clark National Park in 1980 Proenneke was allowed to stay, and his cabin is now one of the most popular sites in the park.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are some odd things about this book. Unlike most other people who have come to the Alaska wilderness from elsewhere, Proenneke was not seeking gold, furs, or any other material gain. He came to Twin Lakes to retire after having worked as a ranch hand and laborer for many years, most recently in Kodiak. There is therefore a certain lack of grounding to his account of building the cabin and all of his daily activities. It’s interesting to read about everything he had to do to live out there, but it’s never clear just why he’s there. Ultimately he seems to just be there because he loves the wilderness so much, but still, that’s a hell of a commitment to wilderness making him do all that work for that alone.

It’s also noteworthy, in the context of the story John Miles tells about wilderness and the national parks, that Proenneke’s idea of wilderness doesn’t really match up with the concept of wilderness enshrined in the Wilderness Act, promoting by organizations like The Wilderness Society, and now protected by the National Park Service and other agencies. Proenneke didn’t just visit the wilderness; he lived there. Indeed, he moved there and built a cabin, which is in some ways the diametric opposite of the wilderness ideal of a land untouched by human activity. And yet, rather than a villain appropriating the wilderness for his own use, Proenneke is seen today by wilderness advocates primarily as a hero and a role model. There’s a definite tension here that I don’t think has ever been resolved.

Also, it’s worth noting that for all his rhetoric about getting away from it all and rejecting the modern world Proenneke arrived at Twin Lakes in an airplane. That plane was piloted by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot who moved to the shores of Lake Clark in the 1940s and founded what would become the community of Port Alsworth, which is now totally surrounded by Lake Clark National Park and the site of the park’s field headquarters. Alsworth continued to bring Proenneke’s mail (including supplies he had ordered) and to stop by from time to time to check on him. Proenneke did live off the land to a considerable degree, but he was nowhere close to self-sufficient. He talks about all of this in the book, but he never discusses how he paid for it. He must have saved up quite a bit of money in his working days.

Proenneke also doesn’t really put his own effort into the context of the times. To be fair, there’s no particular reason to expect him to do so, but it’s worth noting what else was going on at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when many people (often called “rusticators”) were flocking to Alaska to live in cabins in the wilderness, and Proenneke was both part of this movement and an inspiration for later stages of it, largely through Keith’s book, which was originally published in 1973. The people John McPhee saw living like this on the Yukon near Eagle in the mid-1970s were also part of the general trend. Proenneke knew many of the other rusticators in his area, but they don’t show up in the book, and the impression it gives is that he was completely alone out there aside from Babe Alsworth’s occasional visits. That may well have been true for that first year, but it definitely was not for thirty years after that during which Proenneke remained a fixture of the region.

Overall, this is a good book, and a short and entertaining account of the Alaska wilderness and what it takes to live there. I didn’t make it out to Proenneke’s cabin while I was working for the Park Service, but I did get to Port Alsworth and other parts of the park. It’s a beautiful area, well worth a visit for those who can afford the (substantial) cost of getting there. This book definitely only gives a narrow perspective on Alaska and excludes a lot of important things, but taken for what it is it’s a good read.

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Crescent Lake, Lake Clark National Park

The second book on my reading list was Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve by John C. Miles. This book is pretty different from all the other books on the list in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s an academic monograph rather than a work of popular nonfiction. In addition, it’s not exclusively about Alaska, but is instead a general history of the concept of “wilderness” in relation to the National Park Service. Alaska is an important part of this story, so Miles devotes two whole chapters to it, along with occasional mentions of Alaska parks in other chapters, but this is definitely a general work rather than a specifically Alaska-focused one. For both of these reasons, it wouldn’t be high on the list of books I would recommend to someone looking to learn about Alaska in general.

It was, however, a very useful book for me to read while working for the Park Service. The issues Miles discusses are at the heart of National Park management in Alaska (more so than in many other parts of the country), and the history he describes is crucial to understanding why Alaska parks are the way they are and why the NPS manages them the way it does.

The crucial idea to keep in mind in any discussion of wilderness and National Parks is that “wilderness” has a very specific meaning in the context of federal land management. While in popular usage it generally refers to land that is simply undeveloped and has a vaguely “wild” feel to it, for federal agencies it refers specifically to land designated by Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System following the specifications in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Designation as wilderness adds a number of restrictions to what a federal agency can do with a specific area of land. It only affects federal land already managed by one of the land management agencies: National Park Service (NPS), Forest Service (FS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The exact restrictions vary by agency, but in general they are intended to keep the agency from building roads or permanent structures, and for some agencies they also restrict what sorts of activities the agency can permit outside entities to do. For example, the FWS is generally able to permit mining on National Wildlife Refuges subject to various conditions, but no mining is permitted in the parts of refuges designated as wilderness. (Mining is prohibited in National Parks in general, so wilderness doesn’t add any additional protection to park lands in this case.)

Because the mission of the NPS is fairly narrow and oriented toward preserving natural conditions, wilderness designation does not have as much effect on National Parks as it does on other federal lands managed by agencies with missions that can at time conflict with preservation. The main effect it has on NPS lands is to prevent the Park Service itself from developing roads and visitor facilities, as well as limiting the methods park managers can use to carry out certain operations. Miles chronicles the way this came about, which includes the extensive development of roads and facilities in the early decades of the agency’s operation and the resulting backlash among many conservation organizations which eventually led to the push for the Wilderness Act, which the NPS strenuously opposed at the time. Despite the Park Service argument that it was doing a good job of preserving wilderness in parks and that additional protection was unnecessary, the act eventually passed, and the agency grudgingly carried out the evaluations of park lands for wilderness designation that it mandated.

Where Alaska comes into this story is that in the aftermath of the Wilderness Act and the designation of wilderness in many existing parks attention in conservation circles turned to Alaska and the potential for designation of wilderness areas on a scale unimaginable anywhere else. There were a few National Parks already in existence in Alaska before statehood in 1959, but a series of events following statehood led to a major push in the 1970s to establish many more, and to make them primarily wilderness parks.

First, the Alaska Statehood Act provided for the federal government to convey a huge amount of land to the State of Alaska. The state began to make its selections of land it wanted, but as this process went forward in the 1960s concern began to rise among both conservationists and Alaska Natives that the state was selecting lands that each group considered important for its own purposes, and it was likely that the state’s ultimate plans for these lands would conflict with those purposes. The discovery of vast oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope in 1968 added a heightened urgency to the settlement of land claims, which was a necessary condition for building the pipeline that would be essential for getting the oil to market. The Natives were in the strongest position to negotiate at this point, and the result was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), which settled Native claims in an unprecedented way that involved the setting up of a series of for-profit corporations to provide a continuing income for Native groups. These corporations, like the state, were entitled to designated amounts of hitherto federal land, and they began making their selections just as the state had.

ANCSA also contained some provisions for certain lands to be withdrawn from selection to be studied for their potential to remain in federal ownership as conservation areas. Many conservationists thought these provisions were overly weak, but studies went forward over the course of the 1970s. (The river trip McPhee took in the Arctic and described in his book was part of this effort.) The culmination of this effort, and a continuing lobbying effort by conservationists, was another law, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA). This act designated many new National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, expanded the boundaries of some of the existing ones, and additionally designated much of this land as wilderness.

Miles devotes a lot of attention to ANILCA and the periods both before and after its passage because this was a new direction for wilderness in the parks. Instead of trying to stave off development of the few remaining remnants of wilderness in Lower 48 parks, ANILCA designated intact, pristine areas of wilderness in blocks of millions of acres each. (Of course, none of this land was quite as pristine as wilderness advocates sometimes implied, but it was still much less impacted by human activity than almost any parkland anywhere else in the country.) The scale of this effort was unprecedented, and the people who came to Alaska to work on it were quite sincerely devoted to the wilderness ideology and enthusiastic about their achievements. That helped set the tone for park management in Alaska, which has continued to have a strong wilderness focus and to strenuously avoid talk of development or increasing opportunities for visitor access.

Needless to say, this makes planning for the parks in Alaska a rather different enterprise than planning for parks elsewhere. Mostly it consists of planning to do nothing, which leads to the inevitable question of why plan at all. In the rare cases when there is a compelling reason to plan for physical changes in the parks, the number of bureaucratic obstacles to navigate is impressive. This was one of the biggest frustrations of doing this work for me, and one of the main reasons I think that job was not the best fit for me. I’m glad these lands are being protected as wilderness, and I’m glad someone is working on continuing to keep them that way (at least most of the time), but I’m also glad that someone is no longer me.

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Talkeetna Roadhouse, Talkeetna, Alaska

The first book on my reading list a year ago was Coming into the Country by John McPhee. This is actually a collection of three separate essays about Alaska, originally published in the New Yorker in the mid-1970s, and it shows. The book is quite interesting as a whole, and still probably the best one-volume introduction to Alaska and its peculiarities, but the three sections are quite different from each other in tone and content, and they are likely to be of varying degrees of interest to different readers.

The main reason this book is still very relevant, despite now being 35 years old, is that it happened to be written at a time of immense change in Alaska. Decisions made at that time, some of which are documented by McPhee as they were being made, have been enormously important in shaping the character of the state to this day. One of the most fascinating things about reading this book today with some knowledge of how things turned out is seeing how McPhee presents the events he describes, given that he could not of course have known which would end up being major turning points for the state and which would be dead ends. He doesn’t always guess right about which would be which, so some parts of the book are like glimpses into an alternate reality. Others seem remarkably prescient about what was to come.

The first part of the book is a description of a canoe trip McPhee took with representatives of various federal and state agencies who were evaluating public lands in Alaska to decide which should be recommended for designation as federal conservation units of various kinds. The specific trip McPhee went on was on the Salmon River in what later became Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. Most of the text is devoted to describing the trip in detail, but towards the end of the section McPhee does get around to discussing the background to the trip and the reasons they were there. This is probably the part of the book that was most useful for me to read when I was working for the Park Service; among other reasons for this, it’s apparently still the most detailed description of the Salmon ever published, since the trip was apparently never described in a formal report by any of the agency representatives.

As this fact implies, however, vanishingly few people have ever been to the Salmon River or to Kobuk Valley National Park at all. This is a very isolated area that is extremely difficult to get to. As it turned out, the area was designated as a national park, and the Salmon was designated as a national Wild River, so it’s all still pretty much as McPhee described it. Knowing this adds an interesting dimension to reading McPhee’s account, which includes a certain amount of concern about what might happen if development came to the area. Reading this really emphasizes the extent to which the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) was a major victory for the conservation movement. There have of course been concerns about impacts to lands protected by ANILCA in subsequent years (oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being the most famous), but overall the act has been enormously successful in setting aside a huge amount of land and preserving it in something resembling a natural state.

The second part of the book discusses areas that are familiar to vastly more people: the major urbanized areas of the state. It describes the movement to move the state capital from Juneau to a new site between Anchorage and Fairbanks. McPhee tags along on a day of visits to potential sites in the Susitna Valley, and he also discusses his conversations with people in Anchorage, Juneau, and Talkeetna (near some of the potential sites) about the issue. This is all of primarily historical interest today, as the capital was ultimately not moved, and it remains in Juneau. It’s pretty fascinating, though, to see what people were saying about the issue in the 1970s, when it came very close to happening.

The third part of the book is longer than the other two put together, and in my opinion it’s the weakest. It describes in detail the community of Eagle on the upper Yukon, near the Canadian border, including the young people who were at the time settling on the river in the same area and attempting to live off the land. McPhee describes a huge number of these people in detail, and as a result this section tends to drag. Most of these people are just not that interesting. The section as a whole, however, is fairly interesting as a snapshot of a particular part of rural Alaska during this period of change. McPhee’s attention seems to be primarily captured by the hippies and similar types on the Yukon, but as it turns out it was the libertarian gold miners on various smaller tributaries and the born-again Christians in Eagle proper who carried the day and helped turn Alaska into the very conservative state it is now.

The overall context for this book is that the 1970s saw a massive change in the economic and political scene in Alaska. When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Alaska was a liberal Democratic state, less than ten years removed from the territorial era when big fishing and logging companies based in Seattle and San Francisco had extracted its resources on a huge scale with local residents seeing little or no benefit. The statehood movement was in large part a reaction against these excesses, and in its early years the state government enacted a number of laws intended to ensure that development benefited the people.

The oil boom of the early 1980s changed all that, with a massive influx of Texans and other oilmen leading to a sharp turn to the right in the state’s politics which has lasted to this day. Looking back, it’s clear that the 1970s, when the pipeline was under construction and it was not yet clear how beneficial this oil stuff was going to be to the state, was a crucial transitional period when the state lurched to the right. For McPhee, however, writing in the middle of all this, it was not all clear how things were going to turn out. He describes the election of Jay Hammond as governor in 1974 as a potential harbinger of a more conservation-oriented approach to state government, which had previously been dominated by New Deal liberals like Ernest Gruening and William Egan who were focused on economic development and relatively indifferent to environmental protection.

As it turned out, however, Hammond’s administration was less the beginning of a new era of environmental awareness and more the last gasp of Alaska’s traditional liberalism, with Hammond’s signature achievement being the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund to ensure that the expected revenue from oil drilling would benefit the citizens of the state. ANILCA was enacted in 1980 over the strenuous objections of the state’s congressional delegation, and since that time Alaska has become more and more identified with a hard-line conservatism represented most recently on the national stage by Sarah Palin.

This is a very interesting book, then, primarily because it is a snapshot of a moment in time that, unbeknownst to the author, turned out to be very important in shaping the state’s future in ways that no one could have predicted. It is also a pleasant read because of McPhee’s talent as a writer. Despite some portions that I thought dragged, and some quibbles with the way McPhee represents certain things, this is definitely the one book I would recommend above all others for a one-volume introduction to Alaska. I can see why my supervisor (who was born and raised in Alaska) put it at the top of my reading list.

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