Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wilderness 50th:
Howard Zahniser And The Black River Wars

Howard Zahniser at Mataskared, Crane Mtn in backgroundHoward Zahniser knew he needed two things when he came to the Adirondacks in 1946. The two things could help him prove himself to his national wilderness mentors—now his new employers—at the Wilderness Society. They could also help him build the practical and functional organization needed to pursue a national wilderness preservation system. First, Zahnie, as he was known, needed honest-to-goodness wilderness in reasonable automobile vacation reach of Washington, D.C. for our family. Even this was a two-day car trip then, and we would camp overnight on the way. Second, he needed to leave his professional comfort zone of public relations and public information and journalism work. He needed to expand into grassroots political organizing and consensus building. That is, he needed to learn to operate in the larger world that would become the environmental movement twenty-five years later.

The Adirondacks and their Edwards Hill setting—soon to be Mateskared—met the first need. Paul Schaefer met the second. Paul was my father’s ticket out of his own comfort zone.

Paul’s longtime colleague Richard Messmer of the Friends of the Forest Preserve has said that Paul “was a master of consensus building” who “knew how to compromise—but not on principles.” Paul’s wide-ranging characteristics—consensus building, genius for compromise, energy, dedication, attention to detail, and simple, beautifully articulated vision—were “rarely found in a single individual,” Messmer writes. “These characteristics and watching Paul in action, listening and learning from his great wisdom—made him a true mentor to many.”

I doubt that anyone proved more attentive to Paul’s promptings than Zahnie did in their early associations. Born in late 1945, I was too young to soak up directly the meanings of those early years in the 1940s and early 1950s. It would be many years after my father’s death in 1964 before I began to see clearly the true dynamics of Paul’s and Zahnie’s early work together.

The Wilderness Society papers are lodged in the Conservation Library Center of the Denver Public Library. They show that some members of the Wilderness Society’s governing board were not convinced that Zahnie was the right hire for executive secretary in 1945. Several thought Zahnie would not make substantive contributions to wilderness thought. Zahnie was hired for his publicity, journalistic, and office management skills. Those were crucially important functions for the fledgling Wilderness Society then, because Zahnie was the Society’s only full-time staff member.

Public relations editing, writing, and broadcasting were what his resume showed to that point. Founded only ten years earlier the young Society needed to expand dramatically as a public membership organization. That would be crucial to building the constituency needed to pursue some type of national, legislated protection for wilderness areas on federal public lands. By design, The Wilderness Society started out like an advocacy think tank or learned society, not a broad-based membership organization. Nor was it clear in 1945 how federal wilderness areas should be protected. But Zahnie was soon to have his first-ever experience of the Adirondacks—at Paul Schaefer’s invitation.

The Black River Wars

Paul Schaefer lured Howard Zahniser to the Adirondacks in 1946 to help fight what became known as the Black River Wars. This eleven-year battle sought to save the Moose River Plains from a series of dam proposals. In the thick of the struggle, Paul wrote that it was the biggest Adirondack conservation battle of the 1900s. He reiterated that assessment in the late 1980s in his book Defending the Wilderness. I don’t think Paul would have revised it even in the 1990s, after fifty years and lots more conservation battles. The dams controversy definitely surfaced Paul as a conservation leader in New York State. Paul jumped into what was then seen as a lost cause. He was to stick with it to the eventual reversal of the dam schemes—which involved a United States Supreme Court ruling.

The Black River Wars would be a regional training ground for the early 1950s Echo Park dam, a national controversy in Dinosaur National Monument, a National Park Service area in Utah. In turn, the Echo Park fight—several historians call it the most important conservation battle of the 1900s—prepped the eight-year campaign for what became the federal 1964 Wilderness Act. Paul Schaefer and Mateskared figure in that progression of events.

DSCN5968Cabin Country recounts an early-1950s visit Zahnie paid to Paul’s old log cabin from Mateskared one summer afternoon. The purpose of their visit was to continue a conversation begun the night before up at Mateskared. Zahnie “was helping us develop national strategies for our battle to save the Moose River wilderness and its virgin forest located about 40 miles to the west,” Paul wrote. “Because we had talked so long into the night, I asked him if he would rather take a hike into Bog Meadow. He agreed and we head for the trail that enters the Siamese Ponds wilderness.” Later, Paul wrote “We are in no hurry. For me to be with Zahnie in wilderness is an end in itself, as I had discovered about five years earlier on our first trip into the Adirondack High Peaks. All of nature seems to take on a new significance when I walk leisurely with him in this kind of country.”

That is Paul Schaefer reminiscing in the 1990s, by which time Paul’s perception of their comparative status had shifted. That shift occurred before I was a teenager and spent great blocks of time with Paul. For many years it prevented my grasping how formative Paul Schaefer and the Black River War campaign had been for Zahnie’s early conservation career.

Paul picks up his reminiscing a few paragraphs later: “Howard is to leave for Washington tomorrow, so we review again our strategy for the Moose River fight, which after five years is reaching new legal and political heights. We talk about that greatest of conservation-minded families in New York: Louis, Jim, Bob, and George Marshall. We talk about Robert Sterling Yard, Richard Westwood, and Hugh Hammond Bennett. About Ira Gabrielson, Anthony Wayne Smith, and Pink Gutermuth, all of whom are involved in our New York conservation battles.”

Paul’s 1990s reminiscences do show Zahnie’s arguably greatest contribution to the Black River Wars. When Zahnie jumped in it was a New York State controversy. Zahnie transformed it into a national conservation issue. Zahnie recruited Westwood, Gabrielson, Smith, and Gutermuth—all national conservation leaders—to defend the Moose River Plains. They and others Paul does not list here traveled to New York State. They gave influential expert testimony about the wilderness qualities and values of these forever-wild Adirondack lands—Bob Marshall’s country.

What Paul’s 1990s reminiscences do not show was recorded in an article he wrote at the end of the Moose River fray. Written for a 1955 brochure for the conservation group Friends of the Forest Preserve, now Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, the piece is reprinted in Defending the Wilderness: “Traveling became a way of life, with business responsibilities for many put in the background,” Paul recorded. “New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Binghamton, Kingston, Morrisville, Brownsville, Broadalbin, Cobleskill, Albany, Jamestown, Waverly. And hundreds more cities and towns. Movies and slides to overflow audiences. Billboards on highways. . . .”

Still an emerging New York State conservation leader, Paul himself led Zahnie into most of these places. He taught the new executive secretary of The Wilderness Society how to stump to save the wilderness, how to build a ground swell at the grass roots.

A few years before Paul died, he captioned a blow-up of the snapshot I made of my father in the late 1950s. The setting is the back yard of our home in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland. In the snapshot my father wears a full-brimmed hat and overcoat over a suit with white dress shirt and tie. He carries his small travel suitcase and clutches a portfolio under his free arm. The snapshot ran on the poster to promote the American Experience TV series film “Wild by Law,” which focuses on Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Zahnie.

Paul Schaefer, rt., with John Apperson 1947Above and below the photograph Paul has had typed in: “Howard Zahniser: from Washington . . . to New York City, to Albany, to Schenectady, to Buffalo, back to Schenectady, to Watertown, and to Albany again.” Those were hearings and meetings Paul and Zahnie did together during the Black River War. I went with my father by train when he attended one of the Buffalo meetings. At five years old, I traveled free. I stayed at a cousin’s home while my father did his conservation business.

My father’s letter to Paul about the trip closes with one of many, many return solicitations from Zahnie to Paul: “I forgot to ask you when you are coming to Washington, but I do wish that you would work it in this winter. You could do a lot of good down here.”

Paul could have, for sure. But it would be twelve years before Paul Schaefer did repay all those Black River War debts and come testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in favor of my father’s all-consuming project of federal wilderness legislation.

“It seems incredible that even with all this help, we were able to pull back from the brink of disaster that marvelous Moose River country,” Paul concludes his piece for the Friends of the Forest Preserve brochure. “We have been on the defensive too long. It is time to gather our forces and to accomplish things that heretofore have been but dreams.”

Paul wrote that in 1955. That same year Zahnie, on behalf of a new national coalition of conservationists, negotiated the final settlement that kept the proposed Echo Park dam—or any other subsequently—from violating the protected lands of Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River in distant Utah. In so many words, and this also in 1955, Zahnie was to exhort a convention in Washington, D.C., with the same theme: It is time to gather our forces and to accomplish things that heretofore have been but dreams: a National Wilderness Preservation System.

Photos: Above, Howard Zahniser at his cabin in Johnsburg with Crane Mountain in the distance (Courtesy Ed Zahniser); Middle, part of the Moose River Plains saved during the Black River War (John Warren photo); and below, Paul Schaefer with John Apperson, c. 1947, the only known photo of the two together, taken by Howard Zahniser (courtesy Adirondack Research Library of Protect the Adirondacks).


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Ed Zahniser 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 (1918-2014) 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).

4 Responses

  1. chris says:

    Thanks to your dad for all this work.

    People who work for a larger cause such as this accomplish a level of social and spiritual achievement that is the core of being human and creating a society.

  2. Wally Elton says:

    I am grateful for people like these and the many more who make differences great and small for wildness.

  3. […] Read it here: Wilderness 50th: Howard Zahniser and the Black River [NY] Wars […]

  4. Dylan says:

    Brilliant. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I often think of how grateful I am for all the work done by those who walked the Adirondacks, and all our Wilderness areas, National Parks, etc. and had such foresight and conviction to see they preserved.

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