Who Gets to Destroy Alaska?
Overlooked in the struggle between business interests and environmentalists, Alaska's rugged individualists are fighting for survival.
Jack Boone has a sign posted on the outside of his homemade log cabin: "Welcome to those who wish us well and the rest of you can go to hell." It is a notorious sign. A few years ago, writer John McPhee mentioned it in Coming into the Country, a perceptive bestseller about Alaska.
Lately, Boone and his neighbors have been composing and posting signs that have not come close to achieving commensurate notoriety, despite the unusual urgency of their message. "War Zone…," one of the signs says. Right now, the "war" is cold. But Boone expects violence in Eagle, a minuscule community in a compellingly beautiful wilderness not far from what is recognized elsewhere as Yukon-Charley National Monument.
"Eagle rejects Yukon-Charley," another of the signs says. "It is not a fact unless it is accepted."
Yukon-Charley is a proposed national park, one of 13 in Alaska, and part of a land-conservation issue that is justifiably referred to as one of the most important in the history of the country. Late in 1979 the US House passed the Alaska Lands Bill, and the Senate is expected to vote on the matter soon. The Carter administration regards the issue as its "highest environmental priority." If the bill passes, more than 100 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska—an area the size of California—will become new parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and wild and scenic riverways. Alaska already has 12.5 percent of its 375 million acres set aside for such purposes; the Lands Bill would boost that figure to 39 percent.
Obviously, the land in question is of immense national interest, not only for its wild quality and the purity of its beauty, but also for its commercial potential. Alaska is hardly the "sucked orange" the New York World called it in 1867. Its boundaries enclose the country's last remaining stretches of true wilderness. They also contain valuable reserves of gas and oil, lumber, gold, silver, uranium, coal, and other natural resources required by an industrial economy.
Somewhat logically, then, the issue has been represented by the national media as a classic confrontation of environmentalist and businessman, of bleeding-heart conservationist and hard-nosed pragmatist, of land preserver and land destroyer. Both "sides," in fact, still are engaged in the battle for Alaska's lands. Powerful lobbies oppose each other in Washington, DC. But while these polarized and monied special-interest groups compete for attention in the halls of Congress, the people of Eagle and other bush communities in Alaska believe they have been neither listened to nor understood, and they are very disturbed about it.
"The real fight," Jack Boone says, "is over which politically powerful group gets the ability to destroy the land.…The individual comes off very poorly in this whole thing." The state of Alaska agrees with him. "Let Alaskans continue their traditional lifestyles," says one of the state's ads (part of a $110,000 campaign) urging people across the nation to put pressure on their senators to turn down the measure.
THE UNBRIDLED LIFE The lure of Alaska has been strong over the years to those who find the restrictions of modern society hard to bear. Alaska is the last American frontier. With its population of less than half a million and its vast stretches of wilderness, Alaska offers freedom of a sort impossible where the confluence of humanity results in the imposition of societal rules and regulations.
The unusual liberties Alaska's wilderness permits are not taken lightly in most quarters of the state. They are cherished. In many cases, the opportunity for independence is precisely what lured settlers to the land in the first place.
Eagle rests gracefully along the banks of the Yukon River about 12 miles from the area proposed as Yukon-Charley National Park. Historically, that land has been open and free. During the era of the gold rush, miners panned for colors in the same streams where a new generation of miners still seeks the same fortune. Hunters and trappers strong enough to confront the anarchic terrain and the fiercely cold winters have traditionally sought the caribou, the wolf, the grizzly, and the moose that still roam this deeply wild land.
For a century, men and women have come to the Yukon and the surrounding wilderness seeking sanctuary from the concoctions of civilization. For a century, the land has been open and available, stretching over the spruce-covered mountains like a tremendous personal opportunity—the opportunity to live freely in the heart of nature, to practice self-reliance of the truest sort, to evolve with the simple force of the seasons, to purify the city-battered spirit.
Obviously, a legislative conclusion dealing with the "protection" of more than 100 million acres will diminish the scope of that traditional opportunity. Right now, for instance, the few people living in Yukon-Charley are being told by the Interior Department to get out.
Of course, not all of Alaska is going to be set aside. But that's not the point, say some Alaskans; a legislative conclusion will diminish the opportunity for frontier-style freedom more than statistics suggest.
Boone, for instance, claims that one can succeed in the Alaskan frontier only on the best land. There must be water and wood and fish and game in relative abundance. Naturally, the best land is also sought by the federal government for parks and wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and wild and scenic riverways.
"They are shutting off the only practical land for this type of life," Boone says. "They're taking 100 million acres of the best land in the state.…We can live on it for the same reasons they want to make it parkland. This is it. There is nowhere else in this country."
THE BIGGEST DEVELOPER Hostility toward the National Park Service is all but tangible in Eagle. Signs posted in 25 sites about the town (population 120) indicate that the prospect of Yukon-Charley is not taken lightly.
"Due to a low popularity rating, the Park Service show in Eagle has been permanently cancelled," one sign says. "Don't let Park Service into the country," says another.
If the creation of a new national park seems like a certain way to preserve a wild environment in the vicinity of most cities, it seems just the opposite in Eagle, where residents fear that development and restrictions will ultimately follow.
"If they made a park here it would completely ruin our lifestyle," says Jeff Austin, Eagle's mayor. "I was overjoyed when I came to Alaska. It felt like home.…Now they want to turn it into a commercial Disneyland or something.…The Park Service is like a big corporation, a big development company, and this is one area they'll start promoting.…Why can't they leave some place for people who want to get away?"
Austin and others familiar with the tourist facilities and the development of central Alaska's Mt. McKinley National Park worry that similar development will evolve near Eagle if Yukon-Charley becomes a national park.
"Visitors are always welcome," Austin says. "But if they make a park here, people will start expecting things. They'll want restaurants and parking lots.…Then, once the river is full of people they'll tell us 'no firearms.' Park Service people won't want to sit in outhouses when it's 30 below. They'll want fancy houses, sewers, and all of that just like at McKinley.…A park here would totally destroy what we came here for.…Don't we have the right to be left alone?"
Environmentalists, of course, have no desire to destroy lifestyles. Their interest is to protect forever tracts of wilderness from what some believe to be the inevitable onslaught of commercial development.
US Rep. Morris Udall (D.–Ariz.), a leader of the environmentalist approach to Alaska's lands, put it this way: "Have we been sufficiently enlightened by our past mistakes in the 'lower 48'? Or have we forgotten the lessons of Appalachia, the devastated landscapes, the 500,000 miles of once pristine rivers now rendered useless? Have we forgotten the timber barons of another era who left us with millions of acres of denuded forests? Have we forgotten the buffalo whose limitless number were decimated to the brink of extinction in one short decade?…I would like to think that we have learned."
Eagle residents, however, are quick to dispute the premise that what happened in the rest of the country is bound to happen in Alaska, where many came to live intimately with nature. They are also quick to dispute the premise that only land "protected" by the federal government will survive destruction.
"Outsiders look at it as 'development' or 'park' with no in-between," Austin said. "For 100 years people have been living on this river and it's still good enough to be considered for a national park. We've proved we're not hurting the land.…The Park Service will turn over more ground for parking lots than any of us here ever have for anything. Why can't they leave us alone?"
To oppose Yukon-Charley, the Eagle City Council has voted unanimously not to recognize any new national monument in Alaska. (There are 17, created in December 1978 by presidential proclamation.)
Letters of protest have been sent to Paul Harvey, Time magazine, the Associated Press, and President Carter. "We consider ourselves an important minority," one letter to Carter states. "We feel that Americans who live in a manner as we do are more nearly extinct than many species of protected animals."
NOT TO SURRENDER Boone predicts violence. It may be awhile before anyone is shot, he said, but if the Park Service tries to establish headquarters in town, someone is likely to burn the building down.
"Definitely there will be violence," he said. "You don't take away somebody's lifestyle for no good reason and then expect support for your program. It's inevitable."
Of course, Eagle is not the only community in Alaska whose residents regard legislative proposals as direct threats to their freedom and their way of life. Hostility toward the Park Service is common. People vow to disobey Park Service rules, and Boone is not the only one to predict violence.
Bob Gilbertson lives in Cantwell, a small town adjacent to the proposed addition to Mt. McKinley National Park. Gilbertson, president of a group called FORCE (Federally Oppressed Rural Citizens for Emancipation) also believes violence is likely.
"You don't live in Alaska without being a conservationist," Gilbertson said. "We take responsibility for our lifestyles up here. We are not ready to take orders from any son of a bitch who doesn't know a damn about the way we live. We are just not going to put up with it.…If Congress doesn't come to its senses, it is probable this will end up in an armed rebellion.…We are just not going to get pushed any farther."
In Betties, a community near the proposed Gates of the Arctic National Park, residents asked all Park Service employees to leave town.
Vernon Wickham, an organizer of a protest that drew an estimated 3,000 people to Cantwell last January, believes Alaskans will not abide by the rules and regulations expected to follow an act of Congress that will intimately affect one-third of their state.
"We're going to use that land just like we always have," Wickham said. "Hunting, fishing, cutting our firewood. And it's going to be that way all over the whole damn state."
The issue of Alaska's land is a complex matter that obviously arouses strong feelings. To many, Alaska represents America's last chance to protect a truly wild land. To business, of course, Alaska is a state of untold material wealth that one day may be needed by a country already running short of natural resources. But to others—the people of the bush—Alaska represents an opportunity for freedom that Americans must never surrender.
Chuck House is a former reporter and editor for newspapers in Wisconsin and Texas. He is now a free-lance writer. He traveled in Alaska with free-lance photographer Richard St. Clair while working on this story.