Tales of pioneer conservationists

Museum collects oral history of Alaska's conservation movement

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2001

Juneau naturalist Rich Gordon remembers when he was threatened with a beating one night after a public meeting because of his work to protect the Mendenhall Wetlands.

At about the same time, in the late 1960s, the roadside meadow near Brotherhood Bridge was slated for residential and commercial development. Juneau artist Sharron Lobaugh and her husband Cliff worked with other Juneau conservationists to preserve the area for its scenic value.

"Now the buses and all the tourists stop there all the time to take pictures of the glacier and fireweed," she said.

These and other stories are part of a statewide history project documenting the work of Alaska conservation pioneers active from the late 1950s through the early 1980s. About 55 hours of interviews with 17 conservationists were recently transcribed and are now available to the public. The stories are archived and accessible through the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Gordon, now 69, came to Juneau as a biologist in 1966. Planning was underway to transform Glacier Highway into Egan Drive, and Gordon said the proposed route ran right through the Mendenhall Wetlands. Gordon and others lobbied for a more wildlife and habitat-friendly upland route.

"That became a pretty bitter battle," he said. "I can remember one meeting I went to, one big bruising guy threatened me with physical violence. He actually got me in the back and got his fists against my face. It was on this issue of the road location."

Gordon worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the time. Gordon's boss told him during that period that a prominent U.S. Forest Service official in Juneau was pressuring Gordon's superiors to fire him as punishment for his off-duty conservation activities.

Jim Stratton, now the director of Alaska State Parks in Anchorage, developed the oral history project in 1992 with writer Hilary Hilscher. Hilscher had written two books on natural and cultural history in Alaska, and the two felt it was important to document environmental conservation in Alaska.

"We were losing our history," Stratton said. "Some of the early conservation pioneers were starting to die."

Stratton said Alaska had conservationists prior to the 1960s, but the 1960s marked a time when activists throughout the state formally organized. Juneau's Steller Society, the statewide Alaska Conservation Society and other groups formed. They evolved into organizations that are still active today.

Stratton said he and Hilscher compiled a list of 15 or 20 activists from Ketchikan to Fairbanks. Stratton worked with the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and with support from that group and The Nature Conservancy of Alaska, Hilscher conducted the interviews and photographed all the participants.

Included were Orvel and Carmen Holum of Ketchikan, who helped found the Tongass Conservation Society - a group so unpopular the members met in secret after dark; Mark Hickok of Anchorage, who helped create Alaska's first state parks and founded the state's first Sierra Club chapter; and Chuck and Alice Johnstone of Sitka, who worked to establish wilderness status for areas of Yakobi and West Chichagof islands.

Sharron Lobaugh served as one of the first paid lobbyists working to advance conservation causes with the Alaska legislature. Lobaugh lobbied the legislature for a clean water act, protection of Katchemak Bay, a state parks bill and a bill establishing standards for oil tankers - a bill that passed but which was later overturned in the courts, she said.

Others conservationists interviewed recalled their efforts to protect areas of the Tongass National Forest, the Arctic and the Kenai Peninsula. Some had fought Project Chariot, a plan to detonate nuclear weapons in the Arctic to create a harbor, and the Rampart Dam, a massive hydroelectric project proposed on the Yukon River.

Their work shaped policies affecting fish and game management and helped establish federal and state protection for Alaska lands, Stratton said. Hilscher said they charted a course for all the individuals and organizations that followed in their wake.

Stratton said anyone doing any kind of research can go to the archives and hear or read the stories. Mina Jacobs, acting archivist at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, said she is preparing a CD-ROM version of the transcripts as well.

Stratton made use of the archives last week. She drew on transcribed interviews to write a presentation for an Anchorage ceremony at which Fairbanks conservationists Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood received lifetime achievement awards by the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

"I went right to those interviews - what were they thinking, what was it like, what was their philosophy of the relationships between humans and nature," he said.

Stratton said having a sense of history is critical to any culture.

"You need to know where you came from, where the beliefs and traditions of the organization came from," he said. "You can learn a lot looking at what people did who came before us."

Gordon said regardless of one's involvement in conservation, the work is an interesting and important chapter of history.

"In the long run, it gives you a picture to understand how things started," he said. "It also helps people who want to get involved to see the early steps and the steps that preceded them.

"It tells you how things happened that are now taken for granted - and things that are now appreciated by the community," he said.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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