Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ed Zahniser: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

image003(5)My father Howard Zahniser, who died four months before the 1964 Wilderness Act became law 50 years ago this September 3, was the chief architect of, and lobbyist for, this landmark Act. The Act created our 109.5-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System.

Had I another credential, it would be that Paul Schaefer—the indomitable Adirondack conservationist—was one of my chief mentors and outdoor role models. Paul helped me catch my first trout. I was seven years old. That life event took place in what is now the New York State-designated Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks. Izaak Walton should be so lucky.

I worked for Paul Schaefer’s construction outfit, Iroquois Hills, for two high school summers. I lived here in the family home — 897 St. David’s Lane — along with three of Paul and Carolyn’s four children, Evelyn, Cub, and Monica, and Paul. I slept in the Adirondack room — in the loft. Carolyn Schaefer, Ma Schaefer, was cooking for the weather station on Whiteface Mountain those two summers. Evelyn and Monica and I were on our own in the kitchen with an oven that had just two settings, “off” and “hot as hell.”

I spent many of those summer weekends with Paul in his Adirondack cabin, the Beaver House, near Bakers Mills. It was his heart’s home. And so for me, as in much of life, it’s not what you know. It’s who. But I must add that trying to fry three two-minute eggs the way Paul Schaefer liked them—with NO cellophane edges!—could bring down more wrath than Marine boot camp. And don’t ever let Paul sleep too late on Sunday morning to make it to mass in nearby North Creek.

Paul Schaefer lived by letterheads. He had a double fistful over the years. I was born the same year as Paul’s letterhead group Friends of the Forest Preserve, formed in 1945 to fight the Black River Wars. I must now confess—with all due respect—that my siblings and I still often address each other as “Dear Friends of the Forest Preserve.” Today the official group is Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

When I first read James Glover’s A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall it reminded me that the many family friends I grew up taking for granted as national conservation associates of my father Howard Zahniser had been recruited by New Yorker Bob Marshall in his travels. Bob Marshall’s cohorts and co-founders of The Wilderness Society included Benton MacKaye, Bernard Frank, Harvey Broome, Aldo Leopold, and Ernest Oberholtzer. They carried on his wilderness work as The Wilderness Society after Marshall died at age 38 in 1939.

MacKaye, Frank, and Leopold were trained foresters, as was Marshall, who also had a PhD in plant physiology. Broome was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, where MacKaye and Frank worked as foresters. Also helping with Marshall’s early Wilderness Society work were his personal recruits Sigurd Olson, an advocate with Ernest Oberholtzer of today’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and Olaus and Margaret E. “Mardy” Murie, who would play crucial roles in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bob Marshall inspired wilderness advocacy not only for federal public lands but also for the Adirondack wilderness of his youthful summers at the Marshall family camp near Saranac Lake. In July 1932, three years before The Wilderness Society was organized, Bob Marshall ran into a young Paul Schaefer atop Mount Marcy. Schaefer was photographing ravages of forest fires caused by careless logging of Adirondack High Peaks forests above the elevations that loggers had assured Bob Marshall and others that they would not cut.

Paul Schaefer was doing what his conservation mentor John Apperson said we must do. Stand on the land you want to save. Take pictures so the public sees what is at stake. John Apperson’s rallying cry was “We Will Wake Them Up!” Paul would practice just that for more than a half century of wildlands advocacy.Atop Mount Marcy, not far above Verplanck Colvin’s Lake Tear of the Clouds, Bob Marshall captured Paul Schaefer’s wild imagination. Marshall called for wilderness advocates to band together, which took place with The Wilderness Society’s birth three years later, in 1935.

In 1946, 14 years after his peak experience with Bob Marshall, Paul Schaefer recruited our father Howard Zahniser to defend Adirondack forest preserve wilderness. Apperson and Schaefer showed their documentary film about the dam-building threats to western Adirondack forest preserve lands at the February 1946 North American Wildlife Conference in New York City. My father had gone to work for The Wilderness Society the previous September 1945. After their presentation, my father told Schaefer that The Wilderness Society would help defend the western Adirondacks against dams in what became known as the Black River Wars.

When they took up the gauntlet in 1946, to block the series of dams was universally deemed a lost cause. But Schaefer and Zahnie—as our father was known—went from town to town in western New York, testifying at public hearings, meeting with news people, and identifying and cultivating local advocates of wildlands.

Zahnie also brought national experts from Washington, D.C. to New York to testify against the dams. So Paul Schaefer was Zahnie’s mentor in sticking with lost causes, too. As Olaus Murie later said—and this is my all-time favorite quotation about our father—“Zahnie has unusual tenacity in lost causes.” That was a New York State skill. I hope you have that skill, too, “. . . unusual tenacity in lost causes.”

Schaefer invited Zahnie and our family to experience Adirondack wilderness firsthand that summer of 1946. Backpacking across the High Peaks wilderness that summer with Schaefer and his fellow conservationist Ed Richard, Zahnie remarked that the ‘forever wild’ clause of New York’s state constitution might well model the stronger protection needed for wilderness on federal public lands. The next summer, 1947, The Wilderness Society governing council voted to pursue some form of more permanent protection for wilderness. That 1947 vote set the stage for the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The administrative classifications that Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold had won to protect wilderness on federal, national forests were proving ephemeral. A housing boom followed World War II’s end in 1945. Federal bureaucrats started de-classifying administratively designated wilderness areas for exploitation of timber, minerals, and hydropower.

Under Schaefer’s tutelage, Zahnie dove into the Black River Wars here in New York. Zahnie’s federal government public relations work had taught him the machinations of multi-media publicity. But from and with Paul Schaefer in the Adirondacks, Zahnie learned firsthand the art of grass roots organizing and stumping for wilderness. Paul Schaefer built a statewide coalition of hunters, anglers, and other conservationists and held it together by the strength of his personality for fifty or 60 years. If you’re looking for a job, there’s one that is probably going begging tonight.

This truths our calling the Adirondacks and Catskills “where wilderness preservation began.” The epic early 1950s fight against the Echo Park Dam proposed inside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah built the first-ever national conservation coalition. Then, having defeated the Echo Park dam proposal by 1955, Zahnie and the Sierra Club’s David Brower put that coalition to work for the legislation that would become the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Zahnie and David Brower, who then headed the Sierra Club, led the Echo Park Dam fight. Brower told Christine and me at the National Wilderness Conference in 1994 that Zahnie was his mentor in the practical technics of conservation advocacy. So this also puts David Brower in the direct line of mentoring by Bob Marshall and John Apperson and Paul Schaefer’s Adirondack wilderness advocacy. It was also during the western Adirondack dam fights that Zahnie met the philanthropist Edward Mallinkrodt, Jr., who helped bankroll the campaign against Echo Park Dam in the early 1950s.

In 1953 Zahnie gave a speech in Albany, New York to a committee of the New York State legislature. This was my father’s first major public formulation of the wilderness idea. His topic was the remarkable record of the people of the Empire State in preserving in perpetuity a great resource of wilderness on their public lands. The speech was titled “New York’s Forest Preserve and Our American Program for Wilderness.”

Then, in 1957, Zahnie addressed the New York State Conservation Council convention in Albany. He titled this speech “Where Wilderness Preservation Began.” In it Zahnie said: “This recognition of the value of wilderness as wilderness is something with which you have long been familiar here in New York State. It was here that it first began to be applied to the preservation of areas as wilderness.” The 1957 speech also included a sentence that, unfortunately, does not appear in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Zahnie told the convention “We must never forget that the essential character of wilderness is its wildness.”

In August 1996 Dave Gibson and Ken Rimany, Paul Schaefer’s grandson David Greene, and my brother Matt Zahniser and I and our four sons backpacked across the High Peaks to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1946 trip made by Schaefer, Ed Richard, and Zahnie. It remains crucially important to speak clearly and strongly for this unparalleled legacy of wildness—here and nationally—that we love and cherish. And only astute wilderness stewardship can put the forever in a wilderness forever future.

Bob Marshall, who was Jewish, early fought for wilderness as a minority right. Marshall also fought for a fair shake for labor and other social justice issues. On his death at age 38 in 1939, one-third of Bob Marshall’s estate endowed The Wilderness Society, but two-thirds went to advocate labor and other social justice issues. Wilderness and wildness are necessity; they are not peripheral to a society holistically construed.

This bit of biography underscores how Congress declares the intent of the National Wilderness Preservation System Act to be “for the permanent good of the whole people . . .” —and this by a 1964 House of Representatives vote of 373 to 1. Isn’t that amazing? And by an earlier Senate vote of 78 to 12.

Wilderness and wildness are integral to what Wendell Berry calls the circumference of mystery. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the poet Denise Levertov calls the Great Web. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls our inescapable network of mutuality. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what God describes to Job as the “circle on the face of the deep,” to the bio-sphere, to our circle of life, to our full community of life on Earth that derives its existence from the Sun.

The prophetic call of wilderness is not to escape the world. The prophetic call of wilderness is to encounter the world’s essence. John Hay calls wilderness the “Earth’s immortal genius.” Gary Snyder calls wilderness the planetary intelligence. Wilderness calls us to renewed kinship with all of life. In Aldo Leopold’s words, we will enlarge the boundaries of the community—we will live out a land ethic—only as we feel ourselves a part of the same community.

By securing a national policy of restraint and humility toward natural conditions and wilderness character, the Wilderness Act offers a sociopolitical step toward a land ethic, toward enlarging the boundaries of the community.

Preserving wilderness and wildness is about recognizing the limitations of our desires and the limitations of our capabilities within nature. But nature really is this all-encompassing community—including humans—that Aldo Leopold characterized simply as “the land.” With preserving designated wilderness we are putting a small percentage of the land outside the scope of our trammeling influence.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964. Our mother Alice Zahniser stood in our father’s place at the White House signing, and President Johnson gave her one of the pens he used. The future of American wilderness lies in continued concerted advocacy by spirited people intent on seeing our visionary legacy of thinking—and feeling—about wilderness and wildness taken up by new generations. Howard Zahniser said that in preserving wilderness, we take some of the precious ecological heritage that has come down to us from the eternity of the past, and we have the boldness to project it into the eternity of the future. If you are looking for good work, you will find no better work than to be a conduit for those two eternities. Go forth, do good, tell the stories, and keep it wild.

This essay was adapted from a talk given at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Wilderness held at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College in Schenectady, NY, on May 8, 2014.

Edward Zahniser

Edward Zahniser

Ed Zahniser recently retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (b. 1918) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer: a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

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14 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll Bill Ingersoll says:

    Great article–thanks! I’ve read the different versions of the story of Howard Zahniser in the Adirondacks and always find it inspiring.

    Unfortunately, not every self-styled conservationist abides by the motto “stand on the land you want to save.” Many people–including those in authority and those at the helm of conservation organizations–take our wild places for granted, never having known an age when such places didn’t exist. If you don’t take the time to visit the Forest Preserve, then it is purely theoretical to you–little more than a GIS shape file that can be manipulated any number of ways, or traded for something better.

    Thus it is my opinion that the success of a prior generation of conservationists has led to complacency with some members of the current generation–which could be today’s biggest threat to wilderness.

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    • Matt says:

      I hope you’ll take the time to read and consider the article in the link below Bill, if you haven’t already. Cronon is a respected scholar and cheerleader for protected wildlands. He respects the accomplishments of the “prior generation of conservationists” you mention, but he refuses to put on the rose colored glasses when examining the implications of holding Wilderness as the highest environmental and cultural ideal.
      It’s food for thought, and I think it’s an important perspective that is seldom brought to bear in this forum.

      Contrary to what you’ve suggested, “complacency” among our current generation of Adirondack conservationists is not the major threat to Wilderness you suggest it is. However, A few Wilderness Advocate/scholars who would choose to pick the wrong battles could be.

      We have met the enemy, and he is us.

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      • John Warren John Warren says:

        While I respect William Cronon as a historian and Changes in the Land is a formative work in my own understanding of environmental history and the discipline’s, the idea that people’s connection to nature is eroded because we have wilderness set aside is untenable in the real world. Cronon writes from a rather philosophical academic urban-suburban perspective – not rural, there is no place for rural wilderness advocates – that sees environmentalism as a ‘critique of modernity’, not what it is: a desire for open space protected from the sprawl of development and clean water and air.

        It’s disturbing that Cronon’s rather nuanced and deep critique of the American psyche as it relates to wilderness would actually be used by conservatives to oppose wilderness – talk about missing the point.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

        • Matt says:

          Hi John,
          I’m an unapologetic lover of Wilderness, and I believe that all of the perspectives on it should be shared and discussed freely. Why would you characterize me as you have, a conservative opposing Wilderness? I am neither(and I fail to see how political persuasion has any relevance here anyway). We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we weren’t asking the hard questions. Cronin does a fine job of asking some hard questions, and that’s why I mentioned him. I’ve not misrepresented him, only directed your readers to him on the topic matter. As I’ve noted in my comment to Bill, and Phil mentions again below, Mr. Cronon is indeed a Wilderness advocate.
          Regarding my comment about the “wrong battles” it is my opinion that the approach being taken by ADK and Council at this moment in history will ultimately reap far more protected land and many more supporters of this grand “experiment” of the Adirondack park. Perhaps thats not the most popular opinion in this forum, but so be it. Thanks.

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        • Bill Ingersoll Bill Ingersoll says:

          Mr. Matt,

          Your opinion about ADK and the Council is based on your own “rose-colored glasses” about how certain recent events transpired–that the EDs of these groups held hands with politicians in a consensus-building exercise while singing “Can’t We All Get Along,” ushering in some new golden age of collaboration.

          My opinion is built around my personal experiences dealing with both EDs, and the observation of how they think and operate. I am unable to dismiss the “coincidence” that one of these groups received grant money from the same state politicians they collaborated with.

          William Cronon’s essay is about the dangers of revering wilderness at the expense of how we value the tree in our back yard. Message received.

          Wilderness is not about quantity of acres you can protect, it’s about the quality of those acres. Therefore giving up a few acres to an industrial concern in exchange for more acres is in no way, shape, or form a “win” for wilderness. It just proves that money talks, which we knew already anyway.

          Therefore I stand by my original summation, all critiquing considered: the biggest threat to wilderness in the 21st century is indifference, complacency, taking it for granted, objectifying it, and making deals with it.

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          • Matt says:

            Hi Bill,
            Notably, Cronan also brings attention to the real need for recognition of the wildness all around us every day in every part of our lives. Why separate it? That tree in the backyard you mentioned certainly matters- perhaps it matters even as much as the one that happens to be in a designated Wilderness area? Nature does not discriminate, so why do we? I’m probably not doing justice to the nuanced character of the essay, but it’s a fair question to ask. I think these are important and interesting questions, and they can help frame a discussion about NYCO and Wilderness. Furthermore, Cronan recognizes that Wilderness is fundamentally a human construct, and it’s undoubtably been a shape-shifter over the years. Wilderness was most recently redefined in the context of the industrial revolution and the destruction of critical forestlands, river systems and valuable habitat in the late nineteenth and Early 20th century while resource extraction in our neck of the woods was going full-bore. To round out the Wilderness picture, the interests of individuals(who happened to be mostly wealthy and influential) saw the importance of creating protected places where a certain kind of “Wilderness Experience”, best defined by primitive recreation and personal meditation on a “Wild” landscape could be had. I have to wonder, could Wilderness ever come to have new meaning once again, as it has changed in the past, or will it be put on a shelf in a museum so to speak, not to be touched anymore? How do we take ourselves seriously with this kind of “untouched by the hand of man” ideal in a world with human created climate change? These are tough questions, and we must not be complacent in our efforts to answer them. I think Cronan see’s a hazard in the “museum” approach- to suggest that a small area of the true pristine Wilderness will always be more important than other less worthy lands. To suggest that we shall not make any “deals” with Wilderness is interesting, and I think Cronan’s essay is relevant in that discussion. The political wheeling and dealing you mentioned saddens me, but does not surprise me. That said, I considered the NYCO question on it’s own merits. I still feel OK about my vote, and I respect yours. Wilderness is a personal and emotional thing. I suppose I’m turning some screws here, but I want you to know that I really appreciate your contributions and this forum overall.

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  2. Matt says:

    Nice story. In addition to the personal stories associated with Wilderness advocacy, I hope this anniversary compels us to dig a little deeper too.

    http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html

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  3. Paul says:

    Preserving wilderness and wildness is about recognizing the limitations of our desires and the limitations of our capabilities within nature. But nature really is this all-encompassing community—including humans—that Aldo Leopold characterized simply as “the land.” With preserving designated wilderness we are putting a small percentage of the land outside the scope of our trammeling influence.”

    This is very well said.

    I think in the Adirondacks we have certainly gone well beyond a small percentage. But maybe not for the country as a whole.

    The first sentence here gets to the heart of the debate regarding wilderness in the Adirondack park.

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  4. It takes courage to defend the high peaks from illegal logging, to speak out against corruption in government, and to organize grass roots campaigns to educate the public on the hidden agendas lurking behind proposed laws…especially laws that would try to erode the protections of the forever wild clause of the NY Constitution. I am pleased that Ed Zahniser has mentioned John Apperson’s role in this story about the wilderness movement. Apperson’s contributions have been under-reported, for too long. Thanks, Ed.

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  5. Susan Fuller says:

    Very nice article. Ed, I’m thinking you must be related to Karen Zahniser, with whom I worked in the research department of National Geographic Magazine in the 1970s. Please give her my best. I’m now living in the Adirondacks, about 15 miles southeast of Malone in a little community called Mountain View.

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  6. Terrific article, Ed. Thanks.

    Few essays on matters environmental have been more misunderstood and/or manipulated for personal agendas than Cronon’s. Consider this: after its publication, Cronon sat on the governing board of the Wilderness Society. He was and is an advocate for statutorily protected wilderness.

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    • John Warren John Warren says:

      “…this essay may seem still more dangerous and provocative, perhaps appearing to offer aid and comfort to hostile forces that would gladly roll back all the progress that has been made in preserving wilderness and protecting the environment over the past thirty or more years. I would feel deep regret were my words to be used toward such an end.” William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness: A Response,” Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996).

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  7. paul k says:

    anyone know where a copy of the 50th anniversary poster could be purchased ?

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