SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
January 16, 1961
As civilization invades the Alaskan wilderness, scientists like Biologist Jim Brooks (above) are fighting hard to save the land and game herds
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January 16, 1961

The Savers Vs. The Spoilers

As civilization invades the Alaskan wilderness, scientists like Biologist Jim Brooks (above) are fighting hard to save the land and game herds

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Two hundred years ago, before bigger ideas were thrust upon them, the Indians of southeast Alaska believed that the creator of all things was a large black raven. If by chance a Great Raven does have the final say when this world ends, the human race will be in for it. The raven is by nature tidy and efficient, gregarious but still free, living from day to day raucously confident that when one carcass is picked clean, another will turn up. No Alaskan raven would ever, like a man or beaver, spend its short life gnawing and toiling for the future, stockpiling surpluses in untidy hummocks about the land. Most of the world has been appropriated for human use so that more and more men can be packed into large urban wallows, like brood sows on a collective farm. No raven in its right mind would approve of this. Unless men mend their ways, on Judgment Day the Great Raven will consign most of the human species to one of the lower levels of hell, along with the beavers and ground squirrels.

There have been a few men the Great Raven could accept—perhaps among the acceptable would be Kublai Khan and James Audubon, because they cared for birds; possibly also the poet Poe (he understood ravens), and quite possibly Biologist James Brooks, age 38, chief of the Game Division of the State of Alaska. In the confusion of the 20th century, it is doubtful whether Biologist Jim Brooks, or any one of his 19 widely scattered assistants, will ever achieve historical distinction as a conservationist, but they all deserve some reward in the hereafter, for they are responsible for a wilderness as challenging as any the great khans ruled or Audubon ever saw.

The alluvial plains, the volcanoes and hoary, rumpled Cordilleras of the Alaskan wilderness—even the tides along the drowned coast and the winds aloft—all are on a heroic scale. Alaska's outlying islands alone exceed Iowa in size, and Rhode Island could ride on the back of a single glacier. One blast of the cold, wet wind that scours the Aleutians would be enough to scatter all the industrial stink of greater Los Angeles and wither the beard of every false prophet in it.

Because of its size and its elemental hostility to the casual advances of man, Alaska is today the last true U.S. wilderness, the last chance for man to prosper intelligently in free association with companion species. There is no doubt that with the increasing pressure of human population, the Alaskan wilderness, too, will go. Given the motive, the technicians will find a way to tame Alaska and cut it down to size. When the U.S. Army needs an interplanetary missile base on top of Mount McKinley, the Army will take McKinley. When it is profitable to build a putty factory on the Kuskokwim River flats, a putty factory will be built there, with roads connecting it to putty consumers. The ducks and brant of the Kuskokwim flats will have no place to go, but they will have to go. And when they go, they will be gone forever.

The certain way to insure the future of wildlife is to forbid any further advances by man. There is no wildlife manager with the authority—and few with the inclination—to do that. This is particularly true in Alaska, where Brooks and his aides do not live in spruce trees but, like all Alaskans, must pay dearly for modest homes, for powdered milk and processed eggs, with no hope of lower prices until industry gets a bigger grip on the land.

Spokesman for the wolf

The biologist in Alaska is the representative of the caribou and moose and wolf, of the Sitka deer, the sheep, goats, bears, beavers, mice and shrews, but he is likewise the paid delegate of the people. If Jim Brooks can tactfully show his people that they can live with the moose, the mouse and the wolf, and prosper without botching the land as grossly as it has been botched in the lower states, he will have succeeded at a job where success is rare.

Biologists generally concur that 90% of any wildlife management job is managing people. In this respect, Brooks is fit for the job in Alaska. He is an average-size, 170-pound, dark-haired man with a custom of speaking carefully and observing with a steady eye that at times—like the eye of a wolf—seems capable of penetrating several layers of man's thoughts. He has the proper academic degrees and has led a varied life that qualifies him to understand the diverse character of the animals and the 224,000 people of Alaska. In the 20 years since he shipped steerage class to Ketchikan, Brooks has washed dishes, farmed, cut timber, mined gold, fished for salmon, worked as a gandy dancer, a bush pilot and an air corps pilot, operated a bulldozer and a weather station. In 1942 he spent a lonely winter working trap lines, breaking trail for his sled team 20 and 30 miles a day in the snows of the Kantishna drainage north of the Alaska Range.

The varied character of the land and people is a mixed blessing for Brooks and his staff. The land is primitive, and at the same time a vital partner in the red-hot present. The greatest herds of caribou on the Arctic tundra—some 250,000 head—are affected little by men or guns, but the antlers of the caribou now carry five times the normal radioactive load. Rodents eat the annual crop of discarded antlers, and thus a remote land with barely a man for every 20 square miles already pulses with the hot breath of science. Some quadrants of the Alaskan wilderness are not yet perfectly mapped, but, like outposts on the moon, the domes and strange configurations of microwave stations and early warning sites stand in the mist on the mountain balds.

Outside the large towns the Alaskan people—the Eskimos, Aleuts, Indians and all later arrivals—live in the present and past, counting heavily on the Piper Super-Cub and the husky dog, the Evinrude motor and the skin bidarka, mail-order underwear and homemade boots. Like the rest, the biologist lives with the past and present. Year round, Alaska maintains about as many miles of road as Delaware. The biologist of necessity flies about 40,000 miles a year surveying remote populations and ranges. His Super-Cub must be able to let him down safely almost anywhere and jump back into the air off a 400-foot beach like a frightened mallard. When he leaves home, the biologist files a flight plan, tests for water in his airplane gas and puts his trust in God, in the weather advisory and selected crystal frequencies. In case these fail him, he also carries a knife, a revolver, a survival kit and life insurance.

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