• U.S.

Natural Resources: The Education of Wally Hickel

6 minute read

Senators, editorial writers and conservationists were aghast last winter when the Nixon Administration nominated Alaska’s Governor Walter J. Hickel to succeed Stewart L. Udall as Secretary of the Interior — a job that Udall had performed with such ecological sensitivity that many thought he should be called Secretary of the Environment. At first glance, Hickel was so depressingly different that some reacted as if Satan had been promoted to guard St. Peter’s gate.

A roughhewn go-getter of 49, Hickel was the 1938 Golden Gloves welter weight champion of Kansas and never went to college. During his 29 years in Alaska, where he arrived with 370, Hickel amassed a fortune of more than $14 million in hotels, land and natural-gas holdings. After he became Governor in 1967, his friendliness to oil companies gave him a reputation for putting industrial development before everything else — a reputation that was enhanced when he freely scorned “conservation for conservation’s sake.” At the Senate hearings preceding his confirmation, Hickel even seemed deaf to the fact that industrial pollution threatens not only trees and lakes but man himself.

Yet Hickel’s performance so far has startled his critics.

Unlimited Liability. As his under secretary in charge of legislation, he appointed Russell E. Train, a noted conservationist. Hickel stopped developers from wiping out Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, habitat of the Paiute Indians. He blocked a builder’s plan that threatened to further pollute the Potomac. He sponsored a pilot project uniting three seashore areas around New York Harbor, the first of a series of urban national parks. He dreams of combatting auto fumes with 150-m.p.h. commuter trains: “From five miles out, you’d be downtown quicker than if you drove.”

Last week Hickel announced a long-term financing plan to help municipalities control water pollution by building up-to-date sewage plants. He has plunged into the Santa Barbara oil-leak fiasco and ruled that offshore drillers must bear unlimited liability for causing pollution and harming marine life—a big surprise from an alleged pawn of the oil companies. A year ago, Hickel was spurring exploitation of Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope. Now he calls for forced-draft studies on how to “protect the fragile Arctic environment from the processes of exploitation.”

Green Belt. Hickel has obviously learned that the environment is becoming a hot political issue. By his lights, though, he has always been a conservationist. As he sees it, using natural resources wisely requires different approaches in different areas. He backs development in Alaska, where huge forests rot for lack of logging. He backs land preservation near cities where trees are vanishing. In an interview with TIME Correspondent Richard Saltonstall, he outlined his evolving ideas:

“When I said I didn’t believe in conservation for conservation’s sake, I meant you can’t just lock up something and continue to sustain its value. A man can be a genius, but if you set him aside from society, put him in a corner, he’ll vegetate. It’s the same with natural resources like grazing lands or forests. The Federal Government has an obligation as a great landowner. I think we can find land, in addition to our great scenic or wild areas, which can be utilized to a higher degree, and we can improve on nature by reclamation, irrigation and flood-control projects. With the right management, we might graze a cow on half the land it takes now. Maybe we can improve on the time it takes to grow and harvest forests. Maybe we should conserve natural beauty not just for viewing but for putting oxygen back into the air and all the necessary things a green belt can do.”

New Methods. “Some company might say that it has a responsibility to many thousands of stockholders, but the Secretary of the Interior has 200 million stockholders. We can’t simply stop all development. You’d have utter chaos. But Government must move faster to enlighten and encourage industry to keep the problems of the environment uppermost in their minds. I think that responsible business management is trying to keep the problem of environment uppermost, especially in new developments. The Government should encourage measures to prevent air and water pollution through tax incentives or just by showing how a good environment helps make money. This is something I really believe in. Take a factory that’s sitting in greenery. It’s clean. Its people are happy. They’ll make more money than if it were cluttered up and no one cared.

“Petroleum is a good example of where we could set direction and give incentives—like the oil industry’s depletion allowance, for instance. Maybe rather than cut depletion or raise it or whatever, we should tie it more strongly to exploration and research, for example, into new methods of cutting down on pollution. Maybe we could give a similar advantage to other industries and tie it to how they use it. Let’s say the automobile industry has some kind of tax incentive to look into other kinds of transportation like steam or electric cars. That might be the best way to solve the problem of auto-exhaust pollution.

“When we emerged from an agricultural to an industrial society at the turn of the century, we literally busted out all over. There were no guidelines for development, there was desecration of the earth and abuse of raw materials. Nobody wants to go back to that. But we have to decide what we want. If we want open spaces, fresh water and clean air, we should be willing to sacrifice the concentration of industry. When you put ten massive industries side by side on one river, even if you scientifically eliminate the pollution problem, you still have the environmental problem of unsightliness.

“But I’d like to say this: there’s so much room left. Get in an airplane and go up 30,000 feet and see America. Fly across it. There are clusters of people on the coasts, a few clusters in the heartland. But there are thousands and thousands of square miles in which you see nothing. The challenges are still great. We haven’t even started.”

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