Justice for the Arctic

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Wilderness Magazine, our annual publication that features in-depth coverage and features about the day’s most pressing conservation issues. Become a member to receive a copy as well as quarterly newsletters.

Justice for the Arctic

An essay by historian Douglas Brinkley

For two decades the controversy over whether to let the oil industry drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been one of the nation’s most intense environmental battles. But in the 1950s almost no one knew anything about the place. The acclaimed biologist Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy did. And they knew it should be permanently protected from molestation by mining concerns or oil and gas outfits.

Though he was a U.S. government biologist for most of his career, Murie was the director of The Wilderness Society and understood a few things about what turned the wheels in the nation’s capital. The Muries organized a five person expedition to explore the area in the summer of 1956. They had the scientific brains lined up, but needed a big name, and finally they got one when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas confirmed that he would join the expedition on June 29 with his wife, Mercedes Hester Davidson.

Justice William O. Douglas. Photo by Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress.Olaus Murie had hiked the C & O Canal—the 180-mile long waterway from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland—with Douglas in 1954 during a successful campaign to prevent the towpath from becoming a highway. Murie had been amazed by the justice’s exact knowledge of birds, astounding stamina, and conservationist conviction. Murie knew that the Arctic would satisfy Douglas’s burning desire to escape Washington, D.C., during the humid summer. Moreover, to the brilliant jurist, nature hikes were productive think time away from the noise pollution of urban America.

The Muries believed that Douglas might hold the key to convincing President Eisenhower to sign an executive order protecting the area. Whenever Douglas asked, “You want to go for a walk?” power-brokers quickly grabbed their hats. Only Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg had more celebrated tramping credentials than Douglas in 1956.

Every chance he got, Douglas crusaded for protecting treasured landscapes. Preservation coursed through his body like red blood cells. Effectively using The New York Times and The Washington Post as his bully pulpits, Douglas argued that conservationists had to battle with both fists flying to save forests, lakes, canyons, and rivers from the maw of hyper-industrialization. Scolding, steely-eyed, and intolerant when polluters came to the highest court in the land, Douglas was always willing to be a lone Supreme Court vote when it came to protecting America’s natural heirlooms.

The Sheenjek Expedition of 1956 (named for the Sheenjek River Valley) was one of those trips where party members found even cones of dried mud and cotton grass worth discussing. Everybody was measuring each other’s depth of spirit—not their accoutrements of success. There was never a pecking order of power when Douglas was in the wilderness. He had no higher rank than tin-plate cleaner after supper. Through decades of hiking, warding off the demon polio, Douglas learned a basic outdoors lesson: Be humble and do your proper chores.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS Headquarters.Early in the expedition Mardy Murie, wanting to be gracious, said, “Justice Douglas, will you have some soup?” Furrow-browed, the prodigious hiker glowered at Mardy, as if insulted, and said coldly: “Bill.” A little while later Mardy innocently asked, in her cheeriest voice, “Justice Douglas, can I make you a cup of cocoa?” Clearly perturbed that she hadn’t gotten the message the first time, he gave her the blue-gaze treatment and a single syllable: “Bill.” On some of the cooler evenings Douglas would pour a little bourbon in his hot chocolate to stay extra warm.

With field glasses he scoured the landscape looking for the great bull caribou and watched a fox fatten itself on blueberries. Down on his hands and knees, Douglas examined lilies, buffalo bush berries, and poppies. He picked tiny bog cranberries and turned them into jam and caught grayling that he smoked with alderwood. “What impressed me most,” Mardy Murie recalled in her memoir Two in the Far North, “was the far-ranging interests of this man of the law. What a divine thing curiosity is!”

The Living Wilderness, the quarterly magazine of The Wilderness Society, published a detailed account of the Sheenjek Expedition of 1956 under the heading “Alaska with O.J. Murie.” While Murie praised Dr. Brina Kessel of the University of Alaska for documenting 85 birds on their summer trip at the article’s outset, it was the spirit of William O. Douglas that energized this account. “I feel fortunate in having on our Supreme Court a man of his honest outlook, and one who so loves the mountains and virile outdoor living.”

Douglas had left the Sheenjek Valley convinced that it needed to be preserved as a primitive park with full federal protection. It was an Arctic Eden. “This is—and must forever remain—a roadless, primitive area,” Douglas said, “where all food chains are unbroken, where the ancient ecological balance provided by nature is maintained.”

Once back in the capital, he started writing My Wilderness: The Pacific West, with an opening chapter titled “Brooks Range” about the Sheenjek Expedition. “The Arctic has strange stillness that no other wilderness knows,” Douglas wrote. “It has loneliness too—a feeling of isolation and remoteness born of vast spaces, the rolling tundra, and the barren domes of limestone mountains. This is a loneliness that is joyous and exhilarating. All the noises of civilization have been left behind; now the music of the wilderness can be heard….

“The beauty is in part the glory of seeing moose, caribou, and wolves living in a natural habitat, untouched by civilization. It is the thrill of seeing birds come thousands of miles to nest and raise their young…. The Arctic has a call that is compelling. The distant mountains make one want to go on and on over the next ridge and over the one beyond. The call is that of a wilderness known only to a few. It is a call to adventure.”

The campaign worked. Douglas’s upbeat report on the Arctic as a wilderness area had a seismic effect on the entire conservationist community. Olaus Murie had taken photographs and movies to show the splendor of the land and its wildlife, and they were put to work on college campuses, with sportsmen’s clubs, and elsewhere. Minnesota ecologist Sigurd Olson, a future Wilderness Society president, was dispatched by Secretary of Interior Fred Seaton during the summer of 1960 to make sure the Arctic Range plan made practical sense. On December 6, a few weeks before leaving office, Eisenhower—on Seaton’s recommendation—signed the executive order designating 8,900,000 acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range (changed to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1980).

Douglas Brinkley. Photo by Danny Turner.Twenty years later President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation changing the name of the Arctic Range to the William O. Douglas Arctic Wildlife Range. However, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) vowed that the Alaska Lands Act, a landmark bill then being debated by Congress, would not be passed with Douglas’s name on that sanctuary. As it turned out, friends of Douglas had written Carter saying that Douglas himself would object to placing a human name on this great area. Reportedly, at a campfire discussion during the Sheenjek Expedition, everyone, including Douglas, had agreed that a human name on wilderness would “degrade the area and detract from its intended significance.”

After leaving the White House, Carter had a chance to lay eyes on the place that had so inspired the Muries, Douglas, and their companions. “The closest thing I’ve seen to this is Africa’s Serengeti Plain,” he said. “Oil development can never be allowed here.”


Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, is the author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and the forthcoming The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960, which features Wilderness Society leaders in its account of the struggle to save Alaska’s wilderness. 

- Justice William O. Douglas. Photo by Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress.
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS Headquarters.

- Douglas Brinkley. Photo by Danny Turner.