The Arctic captures the imagination of anyone-give or take a few oil company execs-who
visits it. Among the first proponents of a protected Arctic was forester Robert Marshall,
who wrote about his adventures in the central Brooks Range in the 1930s: "In Alaska
alone can the emotional value of frontier be preserved." In 1938 Marshall, who was
one of The Wilderness Society's eight founders, boldly proposed that almost all of Alaska
north of the Yukon River-about half of the state-be permanently set aside.
The public campaign to permanently protect Alaska's Arctic began, we're proud to
report, in the Sierra Club Bulletin. In an October 1953 article, National Park Service
biologist Lowell Sumner raved about the Kongakut River in a manner that, remarkably, could
easily be written today. "The wilderness is big enough and wild enough to make you
feel like one of the old-time explorers," Sumner wrote, "knowing that each camp
you place, each mountain climbed, each adventure with the boats, is in untouched
country." The time warp is possible only because Sumner and his colleagues were
successful in protecting what is today America's largest wildlife refuge-with the notable
exception of the coastal plain calving grounds now under contention.
Sumner's appeal appeared during one of the headiest periods of American conservation.
Aldo Leopold's seminal A Sand County Almanac, which urged the creation of a land ethic,
had been published just four years earlier. Biologists and conservationists were
embracing, as Leopold put it, "values as yet uncaptured by language"-the
intangible resources of the landscape.
Among Leopold's friends and colleagues were biologist Olaus Murie, who would go on to
serve as president of the Wilderness Society for 17 years, and his wife Mardy, who would
pen her Alaskan memoir Two in the Far North in 1962. The Muries were among the first
recruits in the nascent effort to protect the Arctic. (The couple had Alaska in their
blood: Mardy was the first female graduate of the University of Alaska, in 1924, and the
two had spent part of their honeymoon traveling by dogsled studying the movement of
caribou.) The Muries defended wilderness in Alaska, Wyoming, and elsewhere with passion.
("A poetic appreciation of life, combined with a knowledge of nature, creates
humility, which in turn becomes the greatness of man," Olaus wrote in his Journeys to
the Far North.)
Mardy Murie is the subject of the documentary film Arctic Dance-The Mardy Murie
Story, a Sierra Club presentation by Wyoming filmmaker Bonnie Kreps, co-produced with
Charlie Craighead. For information, call Sierra Club Productions at (323) 850-2780.