Many of the wild places we love are protected today because a few individuals dedicated their lives to the outdoors. Here are five people who championed wilderness and helped keep the wild alive.
At the age of 30 John Muir traveled from the east coast to San Francisco, a place he had only read about, for a week-long vacation. After arriving he ended up building a cabin and living in the California wilderness for several years. He spent those years exploring the Yosemite valley, discovering natural features such as a glacier below Merced Peak, and guiding others through the wilderness. Referred to as the “Father of National Parks,” John Muir was instrumental in protecting wild places and establishing national parks including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. In 1903, Muir led President Theodore Roosevelt on the three day camping trip in Yosemite and he often lobbied for federal protection of lands through his celebrated writing and lectures. Muir was the co-founder of the Sierra Club and remained president of the club until his death in 1914.
In his words
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
As a professor, Forest Service Ranger, and author of best-selling book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold is considered one of the most influential people in modern environmental ethics and wilderness conservation. After graduating from the newly created forestry program at Yale University, Leopold went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in 1909 as a ranger in Arizona and New Mexico territories. At this time it was standard practice for rangers to kill predatory animals such as wolves, bears, and cougars which were pests to local ranchers. After shooting a wolf while surveying lands in the southwest Leopold felt immediate regret. In A Sand County Almanac he states, “I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” This experience led Leopold to articulate an idea known as the “land ethic” which stresses the importance of predators as part of a balanced ecosystem and calls for a decrease in human dominance over wild lands.
In his words
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
In 1936 Rachel Carson became the second woman ever to be hired full-time by the Bureau of Fisheries as a junior aquatic biologist. She wrote brochures and literature for the public regarding field data on fish populations and contributed articles to several newspapers including The Baltimore Sun on the side. Carson published her first book Under the Sea Wind in 1941, depicting the life of fish and seabirds in story form. In the late 1950s Carson was closely following federal proposals for widespread spraying of pesticides to eradicate fire ants. The dangers of pesticide use would inspire the writing of Silent Spring and the focus of Carson’s work for the rest of her life. Often cited as the spark that started the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring is a book focused on the abuse of pesticides and their effect on nature. In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States.
In her words
“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Howard Zahniser is the primary author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, an act of Congress that federally protects wild lands in America. Zahniser worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for 12 years, writing and editing public information for the agency. After successfully fighting the Echo Park Dam, a proposal to build a hydroelectric project in Dinosaur National Monument, Zahniser became the primary leader in the movement to pass the Wilderness Act. In the late 1950s, Zahniser convinced a tailor to custom-make a coat with four super sized inside pockets in which he would keep books, wilderness bill propaganda, Wilderness Society membership information, and other items. Zahniser died on May 5, 1964, just months before the Wilderness Act became law. The act designed 9.1 million acres of wilderness in the new National Wilderness Preservation System, most of these coming from the national forests. Because of Zahniser’s relentless efforts, he has often been called the “Father of the Wilderness Act.”
In his words
“The wilderness that has come to us from the eternity of the past we have the boldness to project into the eternity of the future.”
Elizabeth Titus Putnam
As the founder of the Student Conservation Association, Elizabeth (Liz) Putnam provides opportunities for thousands of young adults to live and work in the outdoors every year. While attending Vassar College in 1953, Putnam read an article in Harper’s Magazine titled, “Let’s Close the National Parks.” It outlined the dreadful state of America’s national parks and proposed they be closed to the public until Congress could provide enough money to properly conserve the areas. Putnam thought there could be another way and was inspired by the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s. As part of her senior thesis, Putnam proposed a program the utilized college and graduate level volunteers to assist rangers and naturalist in various park programs. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) was incorporated in 1964 and provides millions of voluntary hours to America’s public lands every year while providing valuable experience and skills to young people. SCA alumni include 12% of National Park Service staff, the co-founder of Priceline.com, and G Love (Garret Dutton) of musical group G Love and the Special Sauce.
In her words
“This fragile earth is hurting. Young people today have so many serious challenges that need to be faced head on. I believe it is vitally important for the young to realize they can each do something positive with their lives – that they can go for their dream whatever that is. This world needs their help more than ever before.”