SI Vault
Pat Ryan
May 04, 1970
In Fairbanks on April 22 Secretary Walter Hickel called for a shift in man's thinking from military defense toward the environment
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 04, 1970

The Earth As Seen From Alaska

In Fairbanks on April 22 Secretary Walter Hickel called for a shift in man's thinking from military defense toward the environment

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The first, last and maybe forever Earth Day bloomed last week as a pastiche of 1970 Americana. There were balloons, buttons, flowers, folksongs, young and earnest talk—a hodgepodge of expression on the state of the environment. What serious lessons were learned or harsh truths assimilated will be measured, perhaps litterly, in due time. If Earth Day was an occasion for examining commitment to the environmental cause, nobody's commitment was as worthy of exploration as that of Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel, the man charged by the Federal Government with the safekeeping of the nation's parks, wildlife, water and natural resources. And Walter J. Hickel revealed some surprising attitudes on Earth Day.

Hickel chose to spend this day in his home state of Alaska, being photographed up a polluted river, with paddle, giving a mood-testing address to students at the only university in America that deepfreezes caribou out its dormitory windows and talking privately, in his highly personalized manner, of environmental issues and problems.

Before Hickel's Pan Am flight finally took off for Fairbanks it squatted on the runway at New York's Kennedy airport for more than an hour, jet to jet in a traffic jam. The smell of burning fuel seeped into the cabin where he sat polishing the speech he would deliver that evening at the University of Alaska. Accompanying him were his wife, Ermalee; Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens; a former Alaskan Senator and Governor, Ernest Gruening; one aide and one reporter. Hickel had received more than 200 invitations to speak and chose the one farthest away—and the smallness of his retinue showed how well he had succeeded in keeping his profile low.

That Hickel ventured onto any college campus to take part in Earth Day observances, and encouraged 500 Interior Department employees to do likewise, is said to have caused discontent in the more conservative reaches of the White House. But in spite of the chill from above, Hickel publicly praised the concept of educating people about the environment. "Not only have the Earth Day sponsors aroused the interest of the student community," he said, "they have enlisted the support of the established conservation organizations, women's clubs, teachers, civic groups and individuals. They truly have sought to bring us together in a common cause." With that Hickel recognized the Earth Day people as members of his and the Interior Department's constituency.

Hickel took the precaution, however, of not appearing, as an aide put it, at a "Beatle campus." The University of Alaska was perfect for his purposes. Not only was the state home to Hickel, but the discovery of oil on the North Slope tundra had caused clamor and concern among environmentalists, and the oil issue would provide an opportunity for him to expound his essential conservation doctrine, "wise use without abuse."

Finally, University of Alaska students are not given to impulsive or radical action, not that student uproar fazes Hickel. He stood up under a severe and boorish heckling at Princeton while attempting to speak there a few months ago, and was the only Cabinet member willing to talk before a convention of college newspaper editors in Washington, where he plowed through his speech despite a continuous, obscene and raucous effort by the audience to make him quit.

In Fairbanks the students, by and large, are a different breed, even if they have come, as they call it, from the "southern 48." One student put it this way: "We have our own rebellion. We go out in the woods, build a cabin and live there for years." It is not an idyllic escape, but a Spartan test. There are long weeks during a Fairbanks winter when it is 55° below; 20° below is normal. Cars will not run, so people walk. The oil discovery in the north has caused rents to soar, so students often build cabins, put in wood stoves, use the floor as a refrigerator and eat fish and game. "I remember weeks on end last winter when all we had was caribou," one undergraduate said, "creamed, sliced, fried, burgered." If a person survives one Fairbanks winter, he or she is accepted in the confraternity.

Despite their reputation for tranquillity, Alaska students aroused some community ire last week by observing Earth Day. A local miner took advertisements in the city newspaper pointing out the ominous background of the April 22 date—Lenin's birthday—and requesting all unemployed men to report to him for a counterdemonstration. A University of Alaska professor suggested in retort that Earth Day might have been April 20—Hitler's birthday. A Fairbanks radio announcer declared the campus Earth Day committee had been "infiltrated," and word was sent to Hickel in Washington that there might be demonstrations after all. But no student protest had been planned, and none occurred. Nor was it just the students who were causing concern. Hickel's delay—for conservation reasons—in approving the installation of an 800-mile Alaskan pipeline across the tundra had disgruntled the oil companies and especially their workers, who have congregated in the state to cash in on a bonanza.

Hickel's first public appearance on Earth Day was a two-mile canoe trip down the Chena River, which runs through the heart of Fairbanks. To the north the Chena is a sparkling white-water stream, but as it flows toward the city its banks become slag. Rusted pipes poke out everywhere through the gravel banks, spilling their poisons into the current. At the point where Hickel's canoe and a flotilla of 10 others pushed off for the half-hour inspection, the river was not clear but, to the uninformed eye at least, not visibly polluted. Within a mile or so the water turned pitch-colored and an unearthly stench rose from it. As he floated downstream, Hickel was told what Fairbanks had done to the Chena. When the boats nosed ashore a student paddler remarked, "This is like taking an agricultural inspector to a healthy pasture. They should take him around the bend, and down to where the raw sewage floats."

The tour was pro forma, like 1,000 other Earth Day inspections, but still striking—another river ruined. "Thank you. That was fun," Mrs. Hickel called as she and the Secretary got into their car, a confusion of courtesy for which she should be excused.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4