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The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - dra­belled@wash­ Den­nis Dra­belle is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of Book World.

THE QUIET WORLD Sav­ing Alaska’s Wilder­ness King­dom, 1879-1960 By Dou­glas Brink­ley Harper. 576 pp. $29.99

Dou­glas Brink­ley calls this his­tory of Alaskan con­ser­va­tion (the sec­ond vol­ume of his pro­jected Wilder­ness Cy­cle) “The Quiet World,” but the book it­self is any­thing but quiet. Like some­one who stands too close and keeps grab­bing you by the el­bow at a party, “ The Quiet World” brims over with in­for­ma­tion and in­sight, pas­sion and in­sis­tence — and some care­less­ness. In fact, it’s a bit like Alaska it­self: large, for­mi­da­ble, raw and ul­ti­mately un­for­get­table.

As Brink­ley re­minds us early on, Alaska is a land of won­der­ful ver­biage — a place where glaciers “calve” (shed hunks of ice), where the coun­try­side is “ the bush,” where you can visit Misty Fiords and Gates of the Arc­tic, the Val­ley of Ten Thou­sand Smokes and the Is­land of the Stand­ing Stone. It’s also a place where state parks can be more spec­tac­u­lar than many a na­tional park in the lower 48; where a vis­i­tor de­ter­mined to see a griz­zly bear in the wild will not go away empty-eyed; where the North­ern Lights make fre­quent and sump­tu­ous ap­pear­ances; where light-starved win­ter days and elon­gated sum­mer nights can mess with your mind.

For Brink­ley and his he­roes, how­ever, Alaska is above all a place to be de­fended. Late in the book, some­thing that he says about two of his fa­vorite char­ac­ters, bi­ol­o­gist Olaus Murie and his wife, Mardy, could ap­ply equally well to vir­tu­ally ev­ery fired-up con­ser­va­tion­ist and soul­stir­ring pris­tine area in the book: “ To the Muries, the land form­ing the Arc­tic Alaska refuge was the most ma­jes­tic panorama of wilder­ness in North Amer­ica. It pre­sented life in con­sum­mate eco­log­i­cal har­mony.” From John Muir to Ansel Adams to Wil­liam O. Dou­glas to Peter Matthiessen, Brink­ley fol­lows the torch of ad­vo­cacy as its bear­ers try to wake up the pub­lic to Alaska’s grandeur so that it can be saved from ru­inous devel­op­ment.

Even when he cov­ers well­known con­tro­ver­sies, Brink­ley’s force­ful sto­ry­telling can add new in­sights. Take, for ex­am­ple, ex-pres­i­dent Teddy Roo­sevelt’s dis­ap­point­ment in his suc­ces­sor, Wil­liam Howard Taft. Taft was more con­ser­va­tive than Roo­sevelt across the board, but Brink­ley be­lieves that there was a crys­tal­liz­ing is­sue: Taft’s sup­port of ef­forts to open up pris­tine pub­lic land in Alaska to min­ing and log­ging syn­di­cates. Al­though Roo­sevelt never vis­ited Alaska, he’d taken steps to block such in­cur­sions be­fore leav­ing of­fice. The re­sult­ing feud split the Repub­li­can Party, prompt­ing Roo­sevelt to run for pres­i­dent in 1912 on the Pro­gres­sive ticket and lead­ing to the elec­tion of a Demo­crat, Woodrow Wil­son.

More ob­scure fig­ures also make dra­matic ap­pear­ances. One of them is Charles Shel­don, a suave Easterner whose stud­ies of birds and mam­mals taught him that life is so hard in Alaska that some species re­quire what Brink­ley calls “ huge tracts of habi­tat” to sur­vive. An anec­dote from Shel­don’s col­lege days at Yale in the 1880s gives you an idea of how strong-willed he could be. Af­ter a trav­el­ing sales­man vis­ited Shel­don’s dorm room, “Shel­don no­ticed that his flute had been stolen. . . . Im­me­di­ately he turned de­tec­tive. For a long day he vis­ited all of New Haven’s and New York’s pawn­shops, hop­ing to find his flute. His de­ter­mi­na­tion paid off. At one of the Man­hat­tan shops, Shel­don stum­bled on the petty thief, the flute stick­ing out of his suit coat pocket. With­out hes­i­ta­tion, Shel­don, like a linebacker, tack­led him to the ground. He then made a cit­i­zen’s ar­rest. The sales­man went to jail and Shel­don re­turned to Yale with his trea­sured in­stru­ment.”

Walt Dis­ney, of course, is hardly ob­scure, but Brink­ley elu­ci­dates a lit­tle-known as­pect of his ca­reer: con­ser­va­tion­ist. Dis­ney’s na­ture doc­u­men­taries ed­u­cated the pub­lic, and his pri­vate ad­vo­cacy in­flu­enced a fel­low Repub­li­can, Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower. Speak­ing of Ike, Brink­ley has a canny ex­pla­na­tion for why what is now called the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge was cre­ated dur­ing the last days of the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1960, de­spite near-unan­i­mous op­po­si­tion from Alaska’s politi­cians. A year ear­lier, Ike doubted that Alaska was ready for state­hood when he re­luc­tantly signed its state­hood procla­ma­tion. For that rea­son, Brink­ley the­o­rizes, he was not un­will­ing to set the course for what was, af­ter all, fed­eral land within Alaska’s bound­aries, re­gard­less of what the new state’s sen­a­tors and con­gress­man might say.

Read­ers staunchly in fa­vor of devel­op­ment may want to skip “ The Quiet World.” It doesn’t even pur­port to give their side equal time. In Brink­ley’s telling, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are al­ways white-hat­ted, and Alaska’s na­tive peo­ples are on their side. Some­times, the book will try any­one’s pa­tience, as when twice in the same para­graph we are told that the Yukon Delta is “ the size of South Carolina.” The writ­ing can run to cliches (“end of story,” trav­el­ing through swamps is “no pic­nic”), and there are some ob­scure ref­er­ences: “Roo­sevelt re­jected the kind of get-rich-schemes that the nov­el­ist Knut Ham­sun had con­demned.” Could we have a hint as to what those Nor­we­gian plots might have been?

But if, like me, you en­joy read­ing brac­ing ac­counts of con­ser­va­tion bat­tles won against great odds by im­pas­sioned ac­tivists, writ­ers and artists, you should find “ The Quiet World” en­gross­ing, de­spite its faults.

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