The Marshall Plan

Aerial of the Koyukuk river in the Brooks Range mountains near the town of Wiseman.

Marshall might well have been a trained sociologist, for chapters of Arctic Village cover transportation—with great praise for sled dogs—relations between the Eskimos and whites, eating habits, clothing, alcohol (in these Prohibition years) and child rearing. He also covered sexual mores. For example, in marriage, the Eskimos simply separated if either party thought their relationship was over, and promiscuity and prostitution were considered a fact of life.

Marshall recorded the thoughts of many of his neighbors about life in Wiseman versus life Outside. One said, “Outside it’s a rush and a push and a jam all the time, and if you drop something someone else is going to pick it up. Here you’ve got time to read and to think and to enjoy yourself. And anyway, I like these hills and I’ve lived around here thirty-three years, and no place else could ever seem like home.”

Why such happiness in a place and time where so many would have thought life a harsh, never-ending grind? First, Marshall concluded, “There are so few people in the Koyukuk, the individual takes on a particular importance. Every person can really feel he is a vital element in the world in which he lives.” Second, “I believe that the happiness of the Koyukuker is greatly enhanced and his entire life is made richer by the overpowering loveliness of the Arctic wilderness.”

(photo courtesy of Alaska State Library, Robert Marshall Photograph Collection (p197-02)

Marshall’s enthusiasm for adventuring in wild places had been shaped by spending long summers in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, but in Alaska he obtained a virtual graduate education in the relationship between wilderness and people. In his mind and later in his actions, the protection of wilderness became more than a conservation ideal—it became a social imperative. Today, the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana bears his name, but he left his mark in Alaska too. During one of his many exploratory trips into the bush, he and Retzlaf had taken packhorses into the North Koyukuk drainage. From a pass they saw two mountains on the horizon. Marshall named the individual peaks Boreal and Frigid Crags but called the two of them together the Gates of the Arctic. He is credited for the name given to the vast, 8,472,506-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve just west of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the Dalton Highway.

Bob Marshall died suddenly in 1939. He was only 38. In his final years he had taken the lead in organizing The Wilderness Society (and bankrolled it for many years beyond his lifetime) and been the chief of the U.S. Forest Service-Division of Recreation and Lands, where he promoted recreational opportunities to lower-income Americans and wilderness areas within forest service lands.

In no small part owing to his Alaska adventures in the early 1930s, Bob Marshall exercised an unmatched influence in preserving a huge slice of our wild heritage across America, encompassing 110,000,000 acres—and growing—in 765 wilderness areas spread across America, including 48 Alaska wilderness areas that protect 56,585,992 acres.


Recommended for further reading: Arctic Village: A 1930’s Portrait of Wiseman, Alaska and Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range, both by Robert Marshall

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