Dave Hickok was an early friend of the environment

Steve Haycox

The death of Dave Hickok last month, which came within a few days of the anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (its original name), confirms the passing of an era in Alaska and in modern environmentalism. Nan Elliott, dedicated Alaska writer and enthusiast, commemorated Hickok's life in these pages, noting his expansive, enabling spirit that gave opportunity and encouragement to a host of young people who wanted to work for Alaska and its future.

But in a broader historical sweep, Hickok will be remembered as a friend of the environmental community in Alaska, as one who understood the wilderness idea, and as one of the many architects of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980.

It seems little short of astonishing today that the wilderness idea should have triumphed as quickly as it did after World War II. Up until the 1950s the principal notion of nature management was utilitarian. Conservation meant managing public resources for a variety of uses, first and foremost scientific harvest of wildlife, forest, water and mineral deposits to benefit economic development. Bob Marshall, one of four founders of the Wilderness Society in 1935, has often been credited with originating the wilderness idea, but in fact, the idea that some land unmanipulated by human instrumentality should be preserved, both for study and inspiration now, and for future generations, was at least as old as the country. As the historian Samuel P. Hays has noted, spiraling American affluence after the war allowed many more people to get out into nature and generated growing support for the wilderness idea.

By the mid-1950s popularizing work by the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and others had raised public consciousness of America's natural and wild places and generated broad support for wilderness preservation. Preservation became a competitor idea regarding the management of the public lands, as it still is.

In 1962, the same year Rachael Carson published her shattering book "Silent Spring," calling attention to the disappearance of American songbirds as a result of DDT spraying, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall published a paean to and plea for wilderness titled "The Quiet Crisis." Udall argued that if the wilderness idea was valid, the country had best act quickly to protect some of it because it was rapidly disappearing. Two years later Congress passed the landmark Wilderness Act, providing for the preservation of 50 million acres of American wilderness land.

At the same time, in Alaska, Dave Hickok and others already had recognized that, inevitably, the wilderness idea would deeply impact the new state. Having come to Alaska with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he and his wife, Mark Ganopole, worked after hours with people from his own and other land use management agencies to develop a reliable database and maps for Alaska lands that might be preserved for the future. Their work provided policy makers with the scientific information necessary to make meaningful land use designations in Alaska.

Relying on environmental science and representations by the private conservation groups, Congress applied a radical and ultimately unsustainable concept in the Wilderness Act. The act defines wilderness as "land that does not show the permanent imprint of man." Already in Alaska Hickok and his colleagues knew this idea was faulty. Man, in the sense of humans, has always been a part of nature; human life is unsustainable without the harvest of natural resources.

The idea was particularly inappropriate in Alaska where perhaps 60,000 Natives depended on harvest of traditional resources to subsist. But in 1964, in their initial embrace of the wilderness idea, the community of environmental scientists and writers did not yet understand its complexity. Policy makers came face to face with that complexity when formulating the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act in 1971 and found it so thorny that they postponed dealing with it until 1980.

Most Alaskans are now very familiar with the reality that wilderness cannot wholly exclude human activity. ANILCA made provision for harvest of traditional subsistence resources in wilderness areas. After its passage, many national environmental writers began to catch on. Dave Hickok and his colleagues had tried to tell them long before.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox