The first, last and maybe forever Earth Day bloomed last week as a pastiche of 1970 Americana. There were balloons, buttons, flowers, folksongs, young and earnest talk—a hodgepodge of expression on the state of the environment. What serious lessons were learned or harsh truths assimilated will be measured, perhaps litterly, in due time. If Earth Day was an occasion for examining commitment to the environmental cause, nobody's commitment was as worthy of exploration as that of Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel, the man charged by the Federal Government with the safekeeping of the nation's parks, wildlife, water and natural resources. And Walter J. Hickel revealed some surprising attitudes on Earth Day.
Hickel chose to spend this day in his home state of Alaska, being photographed up a polluted river, with paddle, giving a mood-testing address to students at the only university in America that deepfreezes caribou out its dormitory windows and talking privately, in his highly personalized manner, of environmental issues and problems.
Before Hickel's Pan Am flight finally took off for Fairbanks it squatted on the runway at New York's Kennedy airport for more than an hour, jet to jet in a traffic jam. The smell of burning fuel seeped into the cabin where he sat polishing the speech he would deliver that evening at the University of Alaska. Accompanying him were his wife, Ermalee; Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens; a former Alaskan Senator and Governor, Ernest Gruening; one aide and one reporter. Hickel had received more than 200 invitations to speak and chose the one farthest away—and the smallness of his retinue showed how well he had succeeded in keeping his profile low.
That Hickel ventured onto any college campus to take part in Earth Day observances, and encouraged 500 Interior Department employees to do likewise, is said to have caused discontent in the more conservative reaches of the White House. But in spite of the chill from above, Hickel publicly praised the concept of educating people about the environment. "Not only have the Earth Day sponsors aroused the interest of the student community," he said, "they have enlisted the support of the established conservation organizations, women's clubs, teachers, civic groups and individuals. They truly have sought to bring us together in a common cause." With that Hickel recognized the Earth Day people as members of his and the Interior Department's constituency.
Hickel took the precaution, however, of not appearing, as an aide put it, at a "Beatle campus." The University of Alaska was perfect for his purposes. Not only was the state home to Hickel, but the discovery of oil on the North Slope tundra had caused clamor and concern among environmentalists, and the oil issue would provide an opportunity for him to expound his essential conservation doctrine, "wise use without abuse."
Finally, University of Alaska students are not given to impulsive or radical action, not that student uproar fazes Hickel. He stood up under a severe and boorish heckling at Princeton while attempting to speak there a few months ago, and was the only Cabinet member willing to talk before a convention of college newspaper editors in Washington, where he plowed through his speech despite a continuous, obscene and raucous effort by the audience to make him quit.
In Fairbanks the students, by and large, are a different breed, even if they have come, as they call it, from the "southern 48." One student put it this way: "We have our own rebellion. We go out in the woods, build a cabin and live there for years." It is not an idyllic escape, but a Spartan test. There are long weeks during a Fairbanks winter when it is 55° below; 20° below is normal. Cars will not run, so people walk. The oil discovery in the north has caused rents to soar, so students often build cabins, put in wood stoves, use the floor as a refrigerator and eat fish and game. "I remember weeks on end last winter when all we had was caribou," one undergraduate said, "creamed, sliced, fried, burgered." If a person survives one Fairbanks winter, he or she is accepted in the confraternity.
Despite their reputation for tranquillity, Alaska students aroused some community ire last week by observing Earth Day. A local miner took advertisements in the city newspaper pointing out the ominous background of the April 22 date—Lenin's birthday—and requesting all unemployed men to report to him for a counterdemonstration. A University of Alaska professor suggested in retort that Earth Day might have been April 20—Hitler's birthday. A Fairbanks radio announcer declared the campus Earth Day committee had been "infiltrated," and word was sent to Hickel in Washington that there might be demonstrations after all. But no student protest had been planned, and none occurred. Nor was it just the students who were causing concern. Hickel's delay—for conservation reasons—in approving the installation of an 800-mile Alaskan pipeline across the tundra had disgruntled the oil companies and especially their workers, who have congregated in the state to cash in on a bonanza.
Hickel's first public appearance on Earth Day was a two-mile canoe trip down the Chena River, which runs through the heart of Fairbanks. To the north the Chena is a sparkling white-water stream, but as it flows toward the city its banks become slag. Rusted pipes poke out everywhere through the gravel banks, spilling their poisons into the current. At the point where Hickel's canoe and a flotilla of 10 others pushed off for the half-hour inspection, the river was not clear but, to the uninformed eye at least, not visibly polluted. Within a mile or so the water turned pitch-colored and an unearthly stench rose from it. As he floated downstream, Hickel was told what Fairbanks had done to the Chena. When the boats nosed ashore a student paddler remarked, "This is like taking an agricultural inspector to a healthy pasture. They should take him around the bend, and down to where the raw sewage floats."
The tour was pro forma, like 1,000 other Earth Day inspections, but still striking—another river ruined. "Thank you. That was fun," Mrs. Hickel called as she and the Secretary got into their car, a confusion of courtesy for which she should be excused.
The inspection had been watched by a sparse gathering along the riverbank—a few children ran alongside the boats on the ice, a handful of town folk and old Hickel friends called out in the stillness, "Hey, Wally, how are you? Glad you're back." Hickel cheerfully acknowledged each greeting.
The crowd that came that night to the university gym to hear the Secretary speak numbered perhaps 800, not enough to fill the building but a good gathering considering the college has just 1,800 students. Not a sign waved in the bleachers; nor was there one catcall all evening; and though many students sported beards they were close-cropped and trimmed—the kind that men of the North have long worn.
The mayor spoke of the city's anti-pollution efforts. He ended with a stanza of Tennyson, and received a solid clap of applause. The next speaker, Stanford University physics professor Dr. Donald Aitken, was identified as a founding director of the organization known as Friends of the Earth. He is one of the young conservation priesthood, and his creed is fire and brimstone. He is idealistic, learned and yet facile, chiding and witty. Aitken was not long launched when Secretary Hickel's smile tightened. Aitken spoke of eco-crimes, the new concern with eco-image, the eco-Senators, eco-Congressmen. "The new rhetoric of ecology," he declared, "is being felt everywhere except by the environment." He produced a newspaper picture of Secretary Hickel kissing a girl from Juneau who had been named Queen of Washington's Cherry Blossom Festival. "This shows me that the Secretary is capable of dedicated concentration and forthright action in the face of extreme adversity," Aitken told the audience. "The adversity in this case is the girl's mother, who is kissing the girl's other cheek but obviously looking at Walter out of the corner of her eye." The audience laughed. Hickel looked a bit more uncomfortable. At the conclusion of his speech, which centered on Alaska as the scene for eco-crime, Aitken received a standing ovation.
Now it was Hickel's turn. He is not totally at case on a podium, and his speech sometimes wallowed in political vagueness. However, he aroused more than a little interest in his student audience when he called for "a shift in man's thinking...a new age, as different as the Industrial Age was from the Stone Age." He said, "When man appeared on earth he was relatively helpless, in a hostile environment. His primary need was security—for himself and his family—and security has remained our main concern right up to 1970. Although the average citizen spends very little time defending himself, personally, a large percentage of his wealth is still dedicated to that end. But now we are at a point where we must move beyond this fortress thinking. Let's get on with the job of learning to live, instead of just developing our capacity to destroy." It was a new approach, and, considering the source, a surprisingly direct challenge to the military-industrial interests. He went on in his speech to discuss other matters. The Alaskan pipeline would be built, he declared; only the details of how to do it remained to be solved. He spoke of other Interior programs, condemned the prevalent notion among youth that all government was a lost cause, and asked particularly for their help in providing realistic solutions to clean up the country's mess.
At the end of nickel's remarks, a front row of dignitaries stood, heartily applauding. A hundred or so of the students followed their lead; but the remainder stayed seated while clapping, the eco-rhetoric still fresh in their minds. These would wait and see just what Hickel meant, and the Nixon Administration would do, about making any new age a reality.
"The speech was blah," a student said later. "But there were good signs among the platitudes."
The Secretary left the campus, his car tailed by a white sedan and G-men who had rifles on the floor. At the Fairbanks airport troopers stood on the Tarmac, feet apart, tall silhouettes against the deep blue night sky. Hickel's car stopped some distance from the Aero Commander that was taking him to his home in Anchorage. He turned to a trooper nearby: "Will you walk me to the plane, officer?" he asked.
Hickel wedged into the dark cabin, and began to discuss his speech. He was clearly pleased with the reception he had received. "If you don't have a message kids get out of hand," he said. "This was a thoughtful, considerate, balanced crowd. Six months ago I think they would have been unruly, but I believe we're getting credibility with them. It's the first time I have spoken of the notion of a new age, of the end to the security and fortress thinking. I want to develop that concept more, to refine it, to talk more about it."
The engine strained and roared as the plane headed southwest over the Alaskan landscape—stunted spindly virgin spruce, land tortured by glacier and earthquake, frozen rivers that run tormented, rickrack paths and mountains that crest in unreal spires.
It was now more than 20 hours since Hickel had left his Washington home at the dawn of Earth Day and he was still clicking away. An oilman once said of the Secretary that his mouth is going 20 miles an hour before his brain starts. The comment was too caustic, but his ideas and words do sometimes fall in tangled heaps. His hands move restlessly, punching out points. He was once a boxer—winner of a Golden Gloves welterweight championship in Salina, Kans. in 1938, where he was raised dirt-poor—and his hands move tat-tat-tat at a listener.
Before taking public office, Hickel was an Alaskan entrepreneur and he still speaks in the terminology of a successful businessman. He calls his department a conglomerate, which it is, since along with conservation Interior is responsible for supervising Indian affairs, oil, gas, minerals and the governments of U.S. territorial possessions. He refers to the American public as his 200 million stockholders. Words like "utilizing" and "developing" come readily in his conversation and he talks of the necessity of a national inventory of resources and public land. Wally Hickel is still in business, even if he is dealing in roseate spoonbills instead of subdevelopments.
How bad is the present state of the environment, he is asked.
"Bad, but we've obviously caught it in time. We have to take fast action. Government and industry are going to work. The desire is there and basically the money in industry. There has to be a national commitment to work. Technology can and will solve our environmental problems. For example, I think a time will come perhaps soon when we will dispose of waste in our own homes, turn it into liquid. Technology is a more acceptable method of coping with ecological problems than putting a government choke on such things as population or auto use."
Does he consider the public's current interest in environment a fad? He hesitates, then stays optimistic and takes the plunge.
"It goes deeper than that. People are concerned. The less defense-oriented we become the more we will be concerned with life. It is going to take years. But I believe the basic real estate of earth by 2000 will be used for the enjoyment of men. The higher America's standard of living, the better I think things will get. When you are poorer you care less. The more affluent are more concerned with their environment."
Does he believe current government spending on environmental programs is sufficient?
"On the water pollution program, certainly yes. The $215 million we have gotten is a giant step in the right direction. In water pollution we couldn't spend $10 billion this year if we had it. It is like saying when they decided to go to the moon, why didn't they fire Apollo 11 first? There had to be an Apollo 1, 2, 3.... Cleaning up the environment is going to be costly. There is a cost for doing business."
Hickel is a Catholic and a father of six sons. What are his views on population control?
"At the moment we are not suffering from overpopulation. In our national parks like Yosemite it is not too many people but too many cars. Get in an airplane, go up 30,000 feet and see America. Fly across it. There are clusters of people on the coasts, a few clusters here and there in the heartland. But there are thousands and thousands of square miles in which you see nothing. There is still an opportunity to challenge vacant space. That is what brought me to Alaska in 1940. We need a way to attract people to those places, perhaps we need to give tax concessions to industry to locate in towns with a population of 10,000 or 15,000. In the future population is going to have to be controlled on a world basis, by education or planning how to disperse it best."
How can we best cope with the automobile, its pollution and the crowded highways?
"I believe we must have a rapid transportation system, elevated high-speed trains like the Tokyo-Osaka express. This rapid transit should carry people as far as 500 miles. It could be developed privately or by the government, but the main thing is to get on with it. Rationing the auto is not the right approach, nor are steam-engined or electric cars. Of course, better anti-pollution equipment will be necessary for cars and continuing efforts are being made in the development of nonleaded gas."
Finally, what are his views of the talk, talk, talk of Earth Day?
"If talk is negative, derogatory and serves to confuse and destroy, I think it is wrong. But if the talk is questioning and searching, the kind of thing we are finding on this issue in colleges, it is good and worthwhile. Some conservationists are unreasonable. If God put oil on earth, I'm glad he put it on the North Slope. It's no damn good for anything else. They don't want oil in Santa Barbara, nor in the Gulf nor in the Arctic. Where the hell do they want it? People raise a problem hoping that these things won't be developed. That is the wrong attitude. The land or water should be used for the highest value and best use. In Santa Barbara I believe the highest value of the water in front of that strip of beach is for recreation. I am hoping to get permission to buy up the leases in the channel so that no new wells go in there. The drilling of oil wells in the channel was wrong."
Hickel walks a tightrope between the nation's greatest interest groups—"and I walk right down the center of that rope," he said in the dark of the plane. He is canny and perhaps politically ambitious. He is a "doer," a man of action, and a larger figure than the public—or perhaps even the White House—may have guessed. A leading Democratic Senator, who wished to go unnamed but is prominently involved in environmental concerns, says of Hickel's performance so far, "We've been converted. Hickel is way out ahead of the Administration. If Hickel says what the Administration feels, then we've come a long way in a hurry." From Washington last week came a report, quite unconfirmed, that Hickel had a serious scrap with Vice-President Agnew at a recent Cabinet meeting. Agnew, it is said, wanted Hickel to give up this Earth Day foolishness. But Hickel refused. Like a lot of people, he did his thing on Earth Day.
Hickel (second from left) takes a two-mile canoe trip down the polluted Chena River, which runs through the heart of Fairbanks.