In the 35 years since Joe Flakne moved from Alaska to his log cabin on the Mason Neck peninsula in Fairfax County, the 81-year-old conservationist has learned to love the Northern Virginia woodlands. So much, in fact, that he has donated his cabin to local park groups -- twice.
But when area park officials honor Flakne at special reception Friday, it won't be just for the donation of his 53-year-old cabin and three acres overlooking the Potomac River.
"It's because Joe's always been there, fighting for parks all these years, long after others lost their enthusiasm. . . . All over Northern Virginia, we've been able to count on Joe Flakne," said Elizabeth Hartwell, a veteran conservationist and Fairfax County member of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
Flakne donated his cabin and land to the county Park Authority in the mid-1970s to be developed as a park. Plans for the public park were killed after opposition from neighbors.
In donating his property to the regional park authority, Flakne provided that he will live there until his death, when the authority can sell the land and cabin. Proceeds from the sale, according to park officials, will go to help build an arboretum at another estate recently given to the regional park authority. The arboretum will be on the 70-acre farm of New Deal economists Gardiner and Caroline Means near Wolf Trap Farm Park. Both the Flakne and Means properties orginally were bought for about $7,000 each; Flakne's cabin now is valued at more than $100,000; the Means farm, at more than $2 million.
Flakne, who spent much of his career as an Alaskan official, has been actively involved in Northern Virginia conservation efforts. He spearheaded a special study several years ago to determine the feasibility of developing a park along the abandoned W & OD railroad right of way. The study, put together entirely by local high school students, convinced the regional park authority to go ahead with the park. It also convinced several students to take up careers in park and urban planning.
"He has been a kind of missionary in the cause of conservation, working just to see that good is done and not for recognition . . . and working especially with young people in the parks. For them there suddenly was this man saying, 'I'm passing the torch,' " said Barbara Hildreth, a Fairfax County representative on the regional park authority.
Flakne learned about conservation "behind the saloons in Minnesota where, to help the family buy bread and eggs, I looked for returnables while we were en route to a homestead in northern Minnesota."
He kept going north, hitchhiking 2,800 miles on wagons, trucks and boats to Alaska. He earned his tuition at the University of Alaska by riding dogsled circuits protecting herds of reindeer, yaks and musk oxen for the U.S. Biological Survey.
In Alaska, Flakne said, the person who influenced him most was the late Ira Gabrielson, an internationally known conservationist who headed the Biological Survey and later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the 1950s Gabrielson helped found the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
In 1937, Flakne was named by President Roosevelt to head manpower training in Alaska, where he broke with tradition by giving women public jobs.
He and his wife, Irene, set a family example by enlisting together in the Army in World War II. She went to the Pacific, serving in MacArthur's command, while he was sent back to Alaska to help oversee construction of the Alaskan Highway. Irene Flakne died in 1975.
He later was sent to Micronesia, a U.S. territory east of the Philippines, where he directed construction of the first schools and public water system and on his own founded the islands' first 4-H Club.
In 1946 the Flaknes were brought to Washington by the Interior Department to help work for Alaskan statehood, and Flakne later became chief of Interior's Alaskan Territories office.
During their stint in Washington, the Flaknes found their Mason Neck cabin. "We told our real estate agent we wanted something colonial with columns and a spiral staircase," Flakne recalled, "and he came back and said he had something 'you sourdoughs might like.' "
The Flaknes planned to use the cabin only as a summer home. With Alaskan polar bear, brown bear and black bear rugs and a wood stove to comfort them, they never left.
Flakne still cuts and splits his own wood and says his good health is due to the work and his regular hours -- he arises daily at 5:58 a.m.
Along with the U.S. and Norwegian flags and ERA placards that adorn the cabin, Flakne has a number of framed letters and citations. Some mark his efforts for youth groups and parks and women's rights.
Flakne admits he has not always won the admiration of everyone for his work with the parks. But he doesn't seem worried. In fact, he says one of the highest compliments he ever received was from an oil company officials who had been working to put a pipeline across the Mason Neck wildlife refuge.
"The official told a friend of mine they'd run into some citizen opposition, especially from some guy from Alaska," Flakne said. "My friend said 'You mean Joe Flakne?' And he said 'Yes, that's the bastard.' "