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Walter Hickel dies at 90

Walter J. Hickel, twice Alaska's governor and an Interior secretary fired by President Richard Nixon after objecting to the treatment of Vietnam War protesters, died Friday.
Walter Hickel, Richard Nixon
President-elect Richard Nixon, left, talks with Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel at Nixon's hotel Pierre headquarters in New York in 1968.HWG / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Walter J. Hickel, twice Alaska's governor and an Interior secretary fired by President Richard Nixon after objecting to the treatment of Vietnam War protesters, died Friday. He was 90.

Hickel died of natural causes at Horizon House, an assisted living facility in Anchorage, according to longtime Hickel assistant Malcolm Roberts.

Hickel was dismissed from his Interior post in late 1970, several months after he wrote Nixon a letter critical of the president's handling of student protests following the National Guard shootings at Kent State and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

"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," began the letter, which helped stir the national debate about the growing generational rift over the Vietnam War.

When Hickel was fired in November 1970, Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler said Nixon 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.

An Alaska boomer
Hickel resigned in 1969 to become Interior secretary with the Nixon administration where he 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, Calif. He also fought to save the Everglades from being destroyed by developers and advocated for making Earth Day a national holiday.

An "Alaska boomer" with complex views on environmentalism and developing the state's oil-rich resources, Hickel railed against "locking up" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling and used settlement money from the Exxon Valdez oil spill lawsuit to help repair Prince William Sound.

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

Days before he was fired by Nixon, Hickel had told CBS' "60 Minutes" that he would not quit the Interior post under pressure. He said he would only go away "with an arrow in my heart, not a bullet in my back."

Hickel's political career started 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.

Hickel's was a quintessential Alaska rags-to-riches story. Born in Kansas, he arrived nearly penniless in the small city of Anchorage in 1940, taking advantage of the city's rapid growth following World War II to build a multimillion-dollar construction and real-estate fortune.

"I used to think about all the great countries of the world where I might want to go, because there was no room or opportunity in Kansas for me to do the things I wanted to do," he wrote in his 1971 book, "Who Owns America."

Through the years, Hickel never lost the "can-do" attitude that made him a rich man, nor did he stop thinking about ways Alaska could further develop its natural wealth.

He also never quite got out of politics. In 1990, at age 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. His backing of a drinking water pipeline to California became a metaphor for his love affair with big construction projects and a target of criticism from political enemies.

Disillusioned Palin fan
With his popularity sagging, Hickel chose to not run for re-election in 1994 and Democrat Tony Knowles was elected. Hickel returned to Anchorage to run his business, while also serving as head of the Northern Forum, an international group addressing polar issues.

Hickel remained interested in politics, and endorsed a 2010 gubernatorial candidate during an October 2009 news conference.

Hickel also 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.

In a September 2009 guest column in the Anchorage Daily News, he decried what he said was her penchant for partisan politics during the campaign.

"Palin became the spokesperson for the divisive voices in American politics. She dismissed the greatness of our immigrant heritage, indeed of today's Alaska, where in Anchorage alone nearly 100 languages are spoken in the homes of the children in our public schools," he wrote.

"She missed a golden opportunity to challenge the rest of the country to adopt the welcoming spirit of the Alaska frontier and the message of mutual respect," he wrote.

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 means of travel and won the Kansas Golden Gloves championship. At age 20, Hickel, impatient over the wait for a passport and visa for a trip to Australia, chose Alaska.