Celebrating a century of wildlife refuges
Outrageous bird hats led to more conservation efforts
By Naomi Klouda
Photo provided - U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt created the nation’s first wildlife refuges, the U.S. Forestry Service and state parks. In 1909, he declared 10 percent of the refuges in Alaska.
By the end of the 1800s, it became quite fashionable for a woman to not only don hats bearing feather plumes from a variety of exotic bird species, but also to wear the entire bobbing bird atop her head.
“They hunted birds by the tens of thousands and wanted the breeding plumage because those feathers were the coolest,” said Debbie Corbett, an archeologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “They were killing them while they sat on their nests. The heads would bob and the wings would flop.”
A famous account has it that an ornithologist had only to stand on a busy New York City street corner to count dozens of bird species in a single day.
At the time, even far-flung Alaska had its own wanton waste of wildlife. By the time of the scientific 1899 Harriman Expedition, a rare polar bear species living on Saint Matthew Island in the middle of the Bering Sea was no longer being sighted.
It was around this time concerned naturalists and others began to advocate for wildlife protections by establishing refuges. President Teddy Roosevelt – an avid hunter and birder – responded by creating the first national wildlife refuges in 1909. They included Alaska’s National Marine Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.
To help Homer celebrate the centennial of refuges, well-known author Douglas Brinkley will discuss his most recent work, “Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.” Brinkley will begin speaking at 7 p.m. at Islands and Ocean Visitor Center Saturday.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and seating is limited. A reception and book-signing will follow the presentation.
Photo provided - A woman wears “bird” fashion; a custom that contributed to the decline of several bird species.
Brinkley is a professor at Rice University and the author of dozens of books. Six of his books have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
As documented by Brinkley, part of President Roosevelt’s Alaska legacy is the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. After additions and some changes, it now stretches from its furthest point south at Forester Island, near Canada, all the way to Point Hope. The refuge is based out of Homer for a total of some 3.4 million acres.
Still, it has not been an easy century of assured protections on the Alaska refuges, noted Poppy Benson, public programs specialist with the Alaska Maritime Refuge.
The idea to establish refuges – especially when the vast territory appeared mostly unpopulated – was revolutionary thinking at the time, Benson said. It all started with the Harriman Expedition, which brought an array of the country’s foremost naturalists on a long voyage.
“How we ended up with 10 percent of the nation’s refuges in Alaska in 1909 was due to the findings of the Harriman Expedition. He (Harriman) was the Bill Gates of his time, and was ordered to go on a vacation by his doctor,” Benson said. “What does he do? He puts together a floating salon of the most interesting thinkers and they stopped in all these places that became refuges later.”
The noted naturalists wrote papers, and submitted drawings and photos documenting incredible wildlife as a cautionary tale. This ultimately gained the nation’s attention, as well as the attention of Teddy Roosevelt – who never came to Alaska.
“They discovered there was more going on in terms of development,” Benson explained. “You would think it would be totally untouched. That was reasonable to expect in 1899.”
Instead, they found fish traps, mining, logging and more impacts than they originally thought.
Throughout the century, the simple designation of being a refuge didn’t necessarily protect the land. During World War II, the Aleutian Islands were invaded by the Japanese, and battles there gave way to military bases. For a time, the military also conducted nuclear testing on Amchikta Island.
“Our refuge has had this amazing human history, and of course, before it was a refuge, the Native history was fascinating,” Benson said. “Teddy Roosevelt’s role in Alaska was amazing.”
Author Brinkley weaves these stories together for modern readers in his 700-page book about the nation’s refuges. With such a high-caliber speaker coming to Homer, Benson said they were uncertain if the auditorium at Islands and Ocean’s would be large enough.
People are encouraged to come early to find a seat.