Vanity Fair contributing editor Brinkley (History/Rice Univ.; The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 2009, etc.) delivers a vigorous, thorough survey of Alaska’s natural splendors, from John Muir’s first treks into Glacier Bay in 1879 to President Eisenhower’s establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960.
“Seward’s Folly” was acquired from the Russians under President Andrew Johnson in 1867 and would soon prove itself much more than a frozen wasteland, as the lucrative markets in coal, minerals, seal and mammal fur, gold and oil would unfurl. However, another trend by eager admirers of the land’s natural beauty and abundant wildlife evolved into a powerful preservation movement, thanks to Muir’s early writings and the founding of the Sierra Club; the 1899 scientific expedition to Alaska sponsored by Union Pacific Railroad owner E.H. Harriman (many in Alaska were already alarmed by the stripping of its natural resources for industry); and the advocacy for the land and its natives by amateur naturalist Theodore Roosevelt, among numerous others. As president, Roosevelt was the first to articulate a doctrine of conservation, as sketched later by the great environmentalist and writer Aldo Leopold, involving the “wise use” of the land and resources, the necessity of “public responsibility” for their care and the need for science to maintain them. Roosevelt’s Bull Moose agenda inspired other progressives like Charles Sheldon, who fought to save the Denali wilderness as part of his work for the U.S. Biological Survey, and William Temple Hornaday, head of the Bronx Zoo and author of Our Vanishing Wild Life (1913). Brinkley systematically works through the milestones of Alaskan preservation, including the moving paintings by Rockwell Kent and photographs by Ansel Adams, Adolph Murie’s fight for the wolves, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ position as the “leading light of the wilderness movement” during the New Deal, and writings by the Beats such as Gary Snyder.
Brinkley skillfully conveys how the natural beauty of Alaska worked its magic.