Alaska's Place in the West
From the Last Frontier to the Last Great Wilderness
From Sarah Palin’s surprising rise to political stardom to recurring environmental battles over oil drilling in the arctic and public work projects like the Bridge to Nowhere, the remote state of Alaska continues to occupy center stage in the national spotlight. Yet for most Americans the history of this sparsely populated region remains a vast unknown. Roxanne Willis takes readers behind common and simplistic representations of the state to explore the rich history and extreme diversity of a land that cannot easily be pigeonholed into typical American conceptions about place
Alaska's story is usually confined to regional history books, and in many American history texts, the state simply disappears after the Klondike gold rush. Willis's book marks the first comprehensive examination of Alaskan development schemes from 1890 to the present, connecting these plans to the changing priorities of American culture and politics. She examines competing definitions of Alaska—from a "Last Frontier" meant to be exploited to a "Last Wilderness" to be protected at all costs—and explains how the contemporary Alaskan landscape is a result of this ongoing struggle to define this mythic state's place in the American West.
“With [this book] Willis demonstrates that Alaska’s history is vital to understanding North American history. . . . [The book] brings up many important questions and would be suitable for courses on environmental or western history.”
—Pacific Historical Review
“Willis has some interesting things to say about Alaska that will engage readers interested in a precautionary tale of the pitfalls from economic developments taken without understanding Alaska’s special cultural and physical circumstances.”
—Material CultureSee all reviews...
“Scholars interested in modern environmental history, in Alaska, and in the West, will all want to read this book. Both Willis’s larger point about the importance of environmental narratives to economic development and some of the case studies’ arguments about the interaction of national processes and local politics and environments are somewhat familiar, but the range of episodes presented, and her clear writing, including an elegant and readable theoretical introductions, sets this book apart.”
“Willis makes an important contribution by attempting to connect Alaska into the cultural imagination of the larger nation. . . . Anyone interested in how and where Alaska fits into our national story should read this provocative new book which is a welcome attempt to add some spark to a conversation that deserves broader attention.”
“A well-researched introduction to Alaskan history, and its thesis about the centrality of ill-fated development schemes is thought provoking. Alaska’s leaders would do well to consider the lessons described therein.”
—Montana The Magazine of Western History
“ . . . the overall impact of her analysis on the image of Alaska in the American mind is thought provoking and original. . . . This is a book for everyone to read and a welcome invitation for more historians from Outside to look at Alaska.”
“In this well-researched and documented work, Willis underscores the complexities of each issue, examining politics, economics, state’s rights, Native American claims, international conflicts including military factors, patriotic fervor, environmental issues, and the foolishness that hindsight makes painfully obvious. Highly recommended.”
“Willis shows that the stories Americans told themselves about nature and place mattered deeply. Drawing on imagined ideals of what Alaska might become, Americans imported reindeer, plowed fields, built ill-conceived railroads and roads, and almost built ill-conceived dams—all at great economic cost, and all in defiance of environmental, economic, and cultural realities. Then they built an oil pipeline, with serious environmental consequences. These compelling stories of Alaskan ambition and folly provide a new understanding of Alaskas place not only in the West, but in the national imagination.”
—Kathryn Morse, author of The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush
“Willis’s fresh examination of Alaskas history reveals a colonial population dependent on dreams of economic development generated mostly by non-residents—‘Outsiders’ in Alaska parlance—who knew little of actual conditions in the territory and sought to mold it to fit their imaginations, often with disastrous results. Her insights provide a new template with which to measure the evolution of America’s ‘last frontier,’ shifting the emphasis to economic planners who saw Alaska in terms of economic, not environmental, profit and loss. Williss penetrating analysis will force readers to rethink the background of what is now America’s ‘last wilderness.’”
—Stephen Haycox, author of Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska and Alaska: An American ColonySee fewer reviews...
Willis focuses on five historic battles between environmentalists and developers: the Alaska Native reindeer herding industry, the New Deal homesteader program in the Matanuska Colony, the construction of the Alaska Highway, the political dispute over the Rampart Dam, and the ongoing struggles over the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. She presents these case histories in clear language that will engage general readers while using new historical analysis that will appeal to scholars of environmental history and the American West. The result is an effective introduction to the historical origins of current political conflicts in Alaska.
Transcending the typical regional histories of the state, Willis's study shows how Alaska development schemes have affected the history of American development more broadly, with conclusions that will be useful to anyone interested in environment and development issues in America or the circumpolar North—including a consideration of Alaska as the new frontier in global climate change. By showing why Alaska continues to resonate in the American imagination, Willis's book situates the forty-ninth state within the environmental movement, within the definition of the American West, and within American culture as a whole.