Conservation in Alaska: If It Sounds Familiar…

by |March 8, 2011

It occurred to me while reading noted historian Douglas Brinkley’s new book The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom 1879-1960 that some things don’t seem to change. Brinkley’s book chronicles the efforts of the Federal government to save wild Alaska from the extraction industries, mining, timber and fisheries primarily. The notion over one hundred years ago that the Alaska wilderness belonged to present AND future generations was deeply felt (for different reasons) by the likes of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and, most significantly, Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1907, Roosevelt led the charge while President to carve out the Tongass National Forest, a unique parcel of (at the time) 6.7 million acres of temperate rain forest, noted, according to Brinkley, for its “scores of high, tumbling waterfalls, five salmon species in the streams and brown and black bears around every bend.” While not an opponent of economic development, Roosevelt wished to insure that the U.S. government, not private concerns and interests, control the resources of Alaska. He leaned toward small, local business development as opposed to facilitating big business. His vision and concern for the future was evident: “Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of those who are alive today but the property of unknown generations whose belongings we have no right to squander.” His efforts were met with an outcry from big business, who “…sought jobs, jobs, jobs, and quick money over long-term land management.”

No sooner did Roosevelt leave the White House for William Howard Taft in 1909 that the real tug of war began… a contest that to this day pits, in the extreme, extraction and stewardship, private versus public and short term versus long.

The conflict continues.  As reported in the March 8th New York Times, Federal District Judge John Sedwick has reinstated a Clinton-era ban on logging of old stands in the Tongass, a ban that had been reversed by the Bush administration. The State of Alaska weighed in on the side of open access for logging citing, you guessed it, the potential loss of jobs, jobs, jobs, even though logging in southeastern Alaska has been in decline. The opposition was led by the village of Kake, served by a Federally Recognized Tribal Government, which sought to preserve the forest for recreational use.

We need to change the bi-polar discourse in this country, even in difficult economic times, from focusing on the purely expedient to include what is best for the long haul. From interests based on hyper-consumerism to those of a comfortable and balanced existence. From a frenetic “every man and woman for self” motivation to one of collective well-being and fairness. From an “our generation” perspective to a thought for the future. Roosevelt’s ‘simple’ guideline in 1903 was: “Don’t take all of the salmon out and leave the empty river to your children and your children’s children.”

Something tells me that, even after one hundred years or so of the metaphor that is Tongass, the battle isn’t over!

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