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Happy Walter J. Hickel Day of the Arctic!

“All of us own the seas in common. We own the air and space. If we can learn to use these resources productively for the benefit of all, not just for a few powerful groups or a handful of corporations, the world would stand today on the threshold of wealth and social advancement we cannot yet imagine.”

—Former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel

On the day I was born, Wally Hickel was the Republican Governor of Alaska. On the day I moved to Alaska, Wally Hickel was the governor of Alaska for the second time, having run successfully as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate. On May 7, 2010, I was in Sitka, in the Pioneer Bar with a bunch of raucous Democrats who were there for the Democratic Convention. When word came that Hickel had passed away, things got quiet, glasses were raised, and eyes moistened. There was never one like him, nor is there likely to be again.

At the age of 21, Walter Hickel, a welterweight Golden Gloves boxing champion from the plains of Kansas where he was born on his parents’ dust-bowl tenant farm, decided he’d travel and seek his fortune in Australia. The prospect of waiting weeks for a passport didn’t appeal to him, so instead he boarded the steamship S.S. Yukon in 1940 with hardly a dollar to his name, and headed for Alaska. It was Australia’s loss.

He took work as a logger, a bouncer in an Anchorage bar, and a flight inspector during World War II. His entrepreneurial spirit, and an internal voice he used to call “the little man” led him to build housing for GI’s in the post-war era, always putting profits into new ventures – supermarkets, shopping malls, and hotels, including his legacy building, the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage.

Hickel joined Democrats in calls for Alaskan statehood during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. He engaged reluctant Republicans in Congress and in the Eisenhower administration, and softened those who were initially resistant to the idea of statehood. Eventually, enough Republicans were swayed, resulting in the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958.

During his first stint as governor, he helped to open Prudhoe Bay on the north slope of Alaska for oil development. when industry leaseholders announced their intention to leave, Hickel famously threatened, “You drill or I will.”  They drilled.

His term ended when he stepped up and became Secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon. Environmentalists were outraged, and the Sierra Club, for the first time in their history publicly spoke out and opposed the appointment of a cabinet member.

Hickel, however, wasn’t quite what people expected. After the devastating oil spill in the Santa Barbara channel in January of 1969, almost immediately after assuming his new office, Hickel shut down oil drilling in the channel, and penned regulations to control offshore drilling, making the oil industry financially liable for oil well blowouts. He also advocated the institution of Earth Day in 1970, sending 1000 members of his department to speak at college campuses and other venues across the nation.

He also oversaw the permitting process for the Trans Alaska Pipeline and helped gain the votes to authorize its construction. He played a key role in the settlement of Alaska Native land claims, and advocated for the 200-mile limit to protect Alaska’s fisheries.

In July of 1970, he addressed the National Petroleum Council in Washington.

“Let’s find new ways, better ways of doing business so that our industries can prosper and our environment flourish at the same time,” Secretary Hickel said. “The right to produce is not the right to pollute. America must prove to itself as well as to others worldwide that it has the ability to clean up the garbage it has left in its wake.”

And thus he gained support from a bewildered constituency of environmentalists who had previously opposed him so vehemently.

Nobody could put Wally in a box.

He didn’t much care for his boss, President Nixon – particularly in matters of war, and the government’s relationship with the youth of the nation. After the bombings in Cambodia, and the bloody Kent State massacre, Hickel wrote a letter to Nixon, castigating him for his policies and attitude.

“I believe this administration finds itself today embracing a philosophy which appears to lack appropriate concern for the attitude of a great mass of Americans — our young people,” Hickel wrote.

The letter was leaked to the media. Nixon fired him “for a mutual lack of respect” on November 25, 1970. He then went back to his office and signed an order putting all eight species of great whale on the endangered species list.
Home to Alaska he came, and after a couple unsuccessful attempts became governor again from 1990 to 1994. During this time he was the architect of a  $1 billion universal legal settlement of the damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, assisted in establishing the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, pushed for community development quotas, and took the problem of wasteful bycatch fishing practices to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.
In 1994, he addressed the United Nations again about Arctic development, conservation and the possibility of big projects to improve the world – tunnels, cross-continental rail projects, reallocation of water resources from north to south, linking the world’s excess energy-generating capacity with those most in need. He lamented the use of war as an economic driver. “Why war?” he asked. “Why not big projects? After all, war is just a big project.”
He also shared his vision for the future of his state.
The obligation rests with government  both to care for the land, and to make it productive. Therefore government must not be the enemy. Government must be the friend. Government must regulate, to ensure that our lands and people are not exploited. But government must also advocate. Without government saying “yes,,” there will be no sustainable economic foundation.
I call Alaska an “Owner State.” What we own in common must be managed in a new way – not in the interest of a few, but for the needs of all.
Hickel continued to preach the mantra of the Owner State, and advocate for arctic development and conservation for the remainder of his days. In his later years, he co-founded Commonwealth North with Governor William Egan, co-founded the Northern Forum, and founded the Institute of the North. Those organizations continue to promote Alaska public policy issues, highlight Alaska’s role as an arctic state, and connect the state to others on the national and international stage.
When he died, at the age of 90, at his request he was buried in Anchorage, standing up in case he had to “come out fighting” for Alaska. His tombstone reads – “Arctic Statesman” followed by “Stay Free.”

Try to neatly categorize Wally Hickel at your peril. But, whatever he did, he always acted in the best interest of the state of Alaska. Shunning partisan politics, he advocated not for bi-partisan politics, but no-partisan politics. Alaska could use him right now.

Today would have been Wally Hickel’s 93rd birthday. To honor him, and his vibrant legacy, the legislature voted to make August 18, Governor Walter J. Hickel Day of the Arctic. A special nod went to Senator Hollis French who helped to make it happen.

The first one was celebrated on the 10th floor of his Hotel Captain Cook by family, friends, and those who share his vision for Alaska. I was humbled to be surrounded by the legacy keepers, and visionaries that will keep his memory alive.


Nils Andreassen, Managing Director of the Institute of the North addresses the gathering


Lt. Governor of Alaska, Mead Treadwell, and Governor Hickel’s head of the Department of Environmental Conservation, John Sandor.

The inimitable Walter Parker, known for his work in Alaska transportation, fisheries, telecommunications, land use planning, and oil spill response, mingles with guests.

Longtime Hickel aide, friend, Senior Fellow of the Institute of the North, and legend in his own right, Malcolm Roberts.

Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell, and one of Alaska’s founding fathers, and Constitutional framers, Vic Fischer.

Walter Hickel’s son Dr. Jack Hickel, and his mother Ermalee Hickel.



6 Responses to “Happy Walter J. Hickel Day of the Arctic!”
  1. Carol says:

    Didn’t agree with him much of the time, when he and Coghill were elected, figured the state wouldn’t go forward, in so many ways it didn’t. But as stated, cannot pigeonhole Wally Hickel. No way can I see him (or anyone like him) being elected as a republican nowadays. He was way too rational. I read some of the statements above with respect for the vision. Wish more people thought that way.

  2. Zyxomma says:

    Lovely tribute, AKM. L’dor, v’dor, indeed.

  3. mike from iowa says:

    Be worth a pretty penny to find out what the enemy of the common people(rethuglicans) think of the late Guv.They are the antithesis of what the Guv stood for. With all the non-sense being perpetrated on Alaskans by other Alaskans,your Guv of blessed memory better put his best running shoes on.

  4. thatcrowwoman says:

    *raising a cuppa in his memory*

    I love me some history in the morning, especially with a heaping helping of Hope,
    “…the legacy keepers, and visionaries that will keep his memory alive.”
    Calls me to be a better me.

    Vision. Passion. Talent. Energy.
    Explore. Live. Work.
    Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.


    Never underestimate the power of “just one person.”
    One man was he, marching to his own drummer, and look at the difference he made in our world.

    Fancy pageant walkin’ and livin’ large on teevee and playin’ the victim and/or celebrity,
    that’s some choice, there.
    But there are other role models in Alaska and beyond,
    using skills and talents, working to make Our World a better place.
    I want to hear those stories. Theirs are the stories I want to share.

    No, mudpuppies, there will never be another Walter J. Hickel.
    There will never be another you, another me, also, too.
    How’s our legacy shaping up, there, eh?

    L’dor v’dor, as my tribe says, from Generation to Generation.
    (My students return tomorrow, and I can hardly wait to see them. Can you tell?)

    *polishing my spectacles and rolling up my sleeves*

    hahahahacaw Caw CAW!

  5. flex gunship pailn says:

    half the time you did not know what he was talking about .then 15-20 years latter it would start to all make sense. did not like him all the time , but I do miss him .

  6. Alaska Pi says:

    Boy- we could use him now is right .
    Oh jeez. We could use him now.

    Thanks AKM .

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