Ptarmigan Tracks

The Newsletter of Camp Denali

Online Version 2023

Looking Back - 60 Years Ago

Camp Denali’s Conservation Legacy

On July 1st through 5th 1963, Camp Denali hosted a convening of The Wilderness Society’s executive council, an illustrious group of conservation visionaries, wildlife scientists, writers, and environmentalists. Among the attendees were three founding members, Ernest Oberholstzer, Bernard Frank and Harvey Broome. Howard Zahniser, widely recognized as the author of the Wilderness Act, was also in attendance. Margaret and Olaus Murie and Adolf and Louise Murie, Alaskan conservation and wildlife advocates with deep connections to Denali and Arctic Alaska, and American writer and environmentalist, Sigurd Olson, were also guests.

The session was the highlight of the summer, according to the 1963 Tundra Telegram, Camp’s annual newsletter. The group spent five days meeting in Camp’s log lodge and exploring the wilderness of Denali. To the relief of Camp staff, “...the weather cooperated and so did the caribou migration.” In Thorofare Pass one of the days, “... hikers scattered in all directions, following caribou bands or simply exploring the canyons, ridges and [...] river bar.” Most meaningful perhaps was the council’s welcoming of Camp guests and staff, “...for open discussions of conservation problems.”

The passage of The Wilderness Act the very next year in 1964 was a pivotal moment for conservation in the U.S., but also a complicated one. According to the Act, “ contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, [wilderness] is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain...” Arguably, the Act served to further a conservation ethic that excluded Indigenous people, whose intimate relationship with nature and careful stewardship had resulted in the very intact ecosystems American conservationists aimed to protect.

Some of the underpinnings of the Wilderness Act, however, had to do with a recognition of modern society’s disconnection with the natural world and our need to rebuild a relationship with nature, much like that of North America’s Indigenous stewards. Framers recognized a societal need to forge a respectful relationship with nature – one based on spiritual value and inspiration rather than land “use” and extraction. Just as it did 60 years ago, Camp Denali continues to provide an oasis of hospitality from which we can reacquaint with nature by experiencing the wilderness and wildlife of Denali. As Howard Zahniser wrote in the 1956-57 issue of The Wilderness Society’s journal, The Living Wilderness, “wilderness vacations [...] are more likely to be joyous than merry, more refreshing than exciting, more engrossing than diverting. Their rewards are satisfactions.”

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