Walter J. Hickel dies at 90; former Alaska governor, Interior secretary

Walter J. Hickel, a former governor of Alaska who served as Interior secretary under President Nixon until he was dismissed for objecting to the treatment of Vietnam War protesters, has died. He was 90.

Hickel died Friday of natural causes at an assisted living facility in Anchorage, said longtime assistant Malcolm Roberts.

Hickel was fired from his Interior post in late 1970 after sending Nixon a letter critical of his handling of student protests after the deadly National Guard shootings at Kent State University and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

The letter helped to stir national debate about the growing generational rift over the Vietnam War.

"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.

Days before he lost his job, Hickel had told the CBS program "60 Minutes" that he would not quit under pressure. He said he would only go away "with an arrow in my heart, not a bullet in my back."

Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler said the president took the action because his relationship with Hickel lacked "essential elements of mutual confidence."

Hickel had never held elected office when he upset two-term Democrat Gov. William Egan in 1966. He resigned in 1969 to become Interior secretary and quickly made national headlines as the environmental movement began to take root in America.

Hickel imposed stringent cleanup regulations on oil companies and water polluters after an oil rig explosion off the coast of Santa Barbara. He also fought to save Florida's Everglades from being destroyed by developers and advocated making Earth Day a national holiday.

Hickel railed against "locking up" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling and used settlement money from the Exxon Valdez oil spill lawsuit to help clean up Prince William Sound.

"He's kind of a mixed bag," Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, told The Times on Saturday. "He was a staunch advocate of more oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. At the same time, he was trying to figure out how to get them under regulations when we didn't have strong laws governing oil and drilling."

He frequently described Alaska as an "owner state" and advocated that its wild frontier should be developed responsibly to preserve its value.

Hickel began his political career in the early 1950s as a crusader for Alaska statehood, both at home and in Washington. He was also involved in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which helped pave the way for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Walter Joseph Hickel was born Aug. 18, 1919, in Claflin, Kan., the oldest son of a German wheat farmer. As the Depression-era Dust Bowl swallowed Kansas, he made plans to leave the Great Plains.

He took up boxing as a means of travel and won the Kansas Golden Gloves championship. At 20, Hickel, impatient over the wait for a passport and visa for a trip to Australia, chose Alaska. He arrived nearly penniless in the small city of Anchorage in 1940, taking advantage of the city's rapid growth after World War II to amass a multimillion-dollar construction and real-estate fortune. In 1941, he married Janice Cannon, who died in 1943. They had one son, Ted.

Hickel never quite got out of politics. In 1990, at 71 and after several unsuccessful gubernatorial bids, Hickel won the job a second time.

But his four years as governor were marked by frequent run-ins with legislators put off by his sometimes autocratic style and with environmentalists critical of his unabashed support for natural resource development. .

With his popularity sagging, Hickel chose to not run for reelection in 1994. Democrat Tony Knowles was elected.

Hickel famously promoted a plan to bring water from the glacier-fed rivers of Alaska and deliver it 2,000 miles to Los Angeles.

"It was completely unrealistic. It would have been an environmental disaster," Hamilton said.

Hickel was an early supporter of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during her campaign in 2006. However, that support waned after she became Republican John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race.

Gov. Sean Parnell ordered state flags flown at half-staff Saturday in Hickel's honor.

Hickel is survived by his wife, Ermalee Strutz; six sons; 21 grandchildren; and seven great grandchildren.