12 historic American environmentalists who made our wilderness all-star draft

Our modern environmental movement stands on the shoulders of a few great early-American conservationists. Through their staunch activism and groundbreaking research, these icons helped shape our current views and policies on environmental protection. These wilderness champions were pioneers in their respective fields, and their legacy lives on in our national parks, designated wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and national forests.

The following men and women were explorers, scientists, writers and activists, but perhaps most all, they were Americans who cared deeply for our nation's wild places and natural resources.

Get to know the wilderness all-stars who made our list of top American environmentalists:


Aldo Leopold: An ethical environmentalist

A Yale-educated professor of wildlife management with a deep appreciation for the natural world, Leopold worked with the Forest Service to protect the nation’s first wilderness area. He also wrote A Sand County Almanac, the seminal book on the land ethic. 

Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, Aldo Leopold spent his boyhood exploring the nearby woods and fields. He went east for high school to Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where his love of the outdoors took a heavy toll on his grades. Leopold survived high school and began college at Yale with the goal of obtaining a graduate degree from the University's brand new School of Forestry.

With degrees in hand, Leopold joined the Forest Service in 1909, advancing swiftly as a ranger and supervisor in New Mexico.  By 1919, his thinking had evolved from a narrow focus on forestry and wildlife management to an expanded awareness of the need to protect wilderness in America.

In 1924, Leopold convinced the Forest Service to protect as wilderness 500,000 acres of New Mexico's Gila National Forest.  It was the National Forest System's first officially designated wilderness area.

In 1933, the University of Wisconsin offered Leopold a professorship to teach in the nation's first graduate program in wildlife management.  Two years later, with the rapid loss of wilderness in America weighing heavily on his mind, Leopold joined seven other leading conservationists to form The Wilderness Society. 

Around the same time, Leopold purchased a farm on the Wisconsin River, where, over the years, he and his family planted thousands of trees.  Leopold’s time spent planting, hiking, and observing inspired his most famous book, A Sand County Almanac.  In it, he introduces the idea of the “land ethic,” which to this day serves as a guiding beacon for The Wilderness Society. 

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mardy Murie: The grandmother of American conservation

Margaret “Mardy” Murie learned to love wilderness on the windswept Alaskan tundra during a youth in Fairbanks. After her marriage to renowned biologist Olaus Murie, Mardy plunged into environmental politics. Together, the legendary couple advocated for the protection of America’s wild places, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and helped lead The Wilderness Society. 

Mardy was a powerful conservationist in her own right, leading the crusade to protect Alaskan wilderness after Olaus’ death.   She mentored many of today's conservation leaders.  Unlike Rosalie Edge, however, Mardy did gain lasting recognition — Mardy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was remembered as the “grandmother of the American conservation movement,” a humble yet determined protector of Alaska’s wild places.

In 1964, Mardy testified in support of the Alaska Lands Act, sweeping legislation that ultimately would establish millions of acres of new national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska.

"I am testifying as an emotional woman and I would like to ask you, gentlemen, what's wrong with emotion? Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them."

Mardy and Olaus Murie. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Robert Marshall: The original mountain man

 

Robert Marshall, principal founder of The Wilderness Society, set an unprecedented course for wilderness preservation in the United States that few have surpassed.

Marshall shaped the U.S. Forest Service's policy on wilderness designation and management, and was among the first to suggest that large tracts of Alaska be preserved. 

Robert Marshall was born on January 2, 1901, in New York City to Louis and Florence Marshall.  He was educated in the city, but spent the summers of his youth at his family's summer home in the Adirondack Mountains. Here, Marshall eventually climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks above 4,000 feet.

In 1929, he took the first of several trips to the remote town of Wiseman, Alaska, beginning a lifelong love affair with the Central Brooks Range in the Alaska wilds. Marshall was one of the first people to explore much of this range and it thrilled him to witness a landscape never before seen by any human.

A voracious outdoorsman, Marshall was also a prolific writer. His writings detailed the aesthetic value of wilderness to humankind and pushed for public ownership. He outlined his argument in support of wilderness lands in his article "The Problem of the Wilderness," which ran in Scientific Monthly in February 1930. Militant in his politics, he was equally uncompromising in his quest for an organization that would fight for wilderness preservation.

His call for a new conservation group was heeded in 1935, when he helped co-found The Wilderness Society with his $1,000 gift. He continued to keep the organization solvent and steered its course until his death almost five years later.

Photo: The Wilderness Society

Rachel Carson: Mother of the modern environmental movement

Known as the mother of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson’s environmental writings inspired the nation to look at environmental problems seriously. Her famed book Silent Spring, published in 1962, provoked a national reexamination — and ban — of the use of DDT. Carson’s writings were attacked by chemical manufacturers who painted her as an alarmist and even attempted to dismiss her findings because she was a woman.

Carson was the first woman to take and pass the civil service exam for federal employment. And in 1936 she began working for Bureau of Fisheries as a biologist. She wrote several books on the environment and in 1952 left the Bureau to pursue a full-time writing career.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Olaus Murie: Father of the last frontier

Olaus Murie was a renowned biologist and one of the country’s great champions of wildlife and wilderness. Scientist, visionary, and former governing council member and president of The Wilderness Society, Olaus Murie’s vision helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and shaped a new way of thinking about predators and ecosystems.

Olaus Murie began his career as a wildlife biologist in Alaska, where he studied caribou herds in northern Alaska’s Brooks Range and found his lifetime companion, Mardy. The Muries moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to study the local elk herd and it became their lifelong home. Olaus became an early, staunch defender of predators and their crucial role in ecosystems.

In 1937, Murie joined the governing council of the young Wilderness Society. He helped convince President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to add surrounding rain forests to Olympic National Monument. He also worked to establish Jackson Hole National Monument in the valley below the Teton Range.

In 1950, The Wilderness Society named Murie its president. The Muries’ log cabin in Moose, Wyoming became an unofficial Wilderness Society headquarters. As president, Murie lobbied successfully to prevent large federal dam projects within Glacier National Park and Dinosaur National Monument.

Murie’s greatest quest became protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. In 1956, Mardy, Olaus, and a few others spent several weeks on an Arctic expedition. Armed with their evidence, they returned to the lower 48 and spent four years campaigning tirelessly to protect the place so dear to them. In 1960, President Eisenhower set aside 8 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Range, which later became part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Howard Zahniser: A legendary leader

Howard Zahniser was the legendary leader of The Wilderness Society who authored the original Wilderness Act.  Zahniser led The Wilderness Society through two decades of wilderness battles and landmark accomplishments. Due in large part to Zahniser's sheer persistence, this was the period of time in which the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the political maturing of The Wilderness Society occurred.

Born the son of a Pennsylvania minister in 1906, Zahniser became a member of the Junior Audubon Club in the fifth grade. In time, he developed a deep love for the Adirondack Mountains. At heart an intellectual, he preferred to admire the wild country from afar and to ponder its inherent goodness from a philosophical standpoint.

Equal to Zahniser's respect for nature was his affinity for the written word. Trained as a journalist, Zahniser worked as a book reviewer for Nature Magazine and as an editor for the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1945, he joined The Wilderness Society, first serving as executive secretary and editor of the organization’s magazine The Living Wilderness, and later as the organization’s executive director. 

Zahniser came to realize the urgent need for a federal wilderness law during the early 1950s. He knew that unless federal legislation was enacted to permanently safeguard millions of acres of wild lands under the jurisdictions of the National Forest and National Park Services, conservationists would be destined to fight for protection on a reactionary, piecemeal basis.

Although his health was failing, Zahniser wrote 66 drafts of the Wilderness Act between 1956 and 1964 and steered it through 18 hearings. Its passage in 1964 stands in testament to the dedication and perseverance of this man who deeply felt the worth of wilderness. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now encompasses more than 109 million acres.

Photo: Adirondack Explorer

Rosalie Edge: The "indomitable hellcat"

Rosalie Edge was not your typical conservationist. She was raised to become a lady of high society, yet her tenacity and strong convictions led to great achievements as an activist. When she was in her 50s, a pamphlet written by a prominent zoologist inspired Rosalie to fight for threatened birds of prey. This effort led her to co-found the Emergency Conservation Committee, which established the nation’s first sanctuary for birds of prey and successfully campaigned to create or expand several national parks.

Using skills she gained campaigning for women’s suffrage, Rosalie crafted letters, published pamphlets and lobbied Congress, fine-tuning strategies that are essential for conservation organizations today. Her often confrontational style created enemies as well as admirers, and led a 1948 New Yorker article to describe her as “the most honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.”

Photo: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives

Harvey Broome: "Save Our Smokies"

Harvey Broome, revered for his conservation work in the Smoky Mountains, was president of The Wilderness Society for nine years.

Broome worked closely with Executive Director Howard Zahniser to persuade Congress to create the National Wilderness Preservation System.  That finally happened in 1964 when Congress passed the Wilderness Act.  Broome stood proudly with other conservationists to watch President Lyndon Johnson sign this important bill into law.

Born in 1902, Harvey Benjamin Broome grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee.  He spent much of his time at his grandfather's farm, which was 40 miles north of the Smoky Mountains.  There, he developed his deep love of the natural world.  

Broome served as the long-time president of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.  Over the years, he hiked most of the mountains and hollows and fought hard to prevent inappropriate development in the Smokies. In October 1966, he organized the "Save Our Smokies" hike, which has been credited with preventing construction of a road across the Smokies from Bryson City, North Carolina to Townsend, Tennessee.

In addition to serving as president of The Wilderness Society from 1957-1968, Broome had leadership roles in several other conservation organizations, including the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. His skilled writings appeared in three books published after his death: “Out Under the Skies in the Great Smoky Mountains,” “Faces of the Wilderness” and “Harvey Broome: Earth Man.”

Photo: The University of Tennessee Libraries

Celia Hunter: Keeping "a fire in your belly"

Celia Hunter didn’t plan to be a conservationist — she just wanted a life of adventure. Celia was a WASP in World War II, but the army wouldn’t let women fly to Alaska, so Celia and her friend Ginny Wood borrowed a pair of rickety airplanes and battled through 27 days of blistering cold from Seattle to Fairbanks.

Years later, an encounter with the Muries sparked Celia’s activism. In order to provide a local perspective on the importance of Alaskan conservation, Celia created the Alaska Conservation Society, which fought — and won — many of Alaska’s most important environmental battles. Celia remained a tireless voice in the Alaskan environmental movement throughout her life.

“You just have to keep a fire in your belly, and you just go for it, and when you do, you can make a tremendous difference,” she advised young activists.

Photo: The Wilderness Society

Benton MacKaye: Father of the Appalachian Trail

Benton MacKaye is widely known as the father of the Appalachian Trail. Before co-founding The Wilderness Society, he made groundbreaking scientific contributions to the conservation movement. MacKaye was a planner and forester who helped pioneer the idea of land preservation for recreation and conservation purposes. He was a strong advocate of balancing human needs and those of nature.

Born in Stamford Connecticut in 1879, MacKaye was the son of dramatist Steele MacKaye. Due to his father’s financial troubles, his family experienced a series of moves, living on different farms in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before settling in Washington, D.C. in 1889. A young MacKaye became enamored with the beauty and freedom of the country, preferring it to an urban existence. 

Drawn to the study of the natural world, he often pursued knowledge on his own, spending time at the Smithsonian, making sketches, and volunteering in the labs. He dropped out of high school to prepare for the college entrance exam on his own. In 1896, he began his studies in geology at Harvard.

MacKaye made some important contributions during the early years of national forestry. While working as a Forest Examiner, he performed groundbreaking research on the impacts of forest cover on runoff in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

MacKaye is known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail, an idea he presented in his 1921 article, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. The Benton MacKaye Trail was named after MacKaye. Some portions of the trail coincide with the Appalachian Trail.

Photo: The Wilderness Society

Sigurd F. Olson: The Bourgeois

Sigurd F. Olson, former president and governing council member of The Wilderness Society, was an American author, environmentalist and lifelong advocate for wilderness. Olson helped write The Wilderness Act of 1964 and his lifelong dedication to preserving wilderness resulted in permanent protection for the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Sigurd Olson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and was raised in northern Wisconsin, where he first learned to love the outdoors. For more than thirty years, he served as a wilderness guide in the lakes and forests of northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. He was known honorifically as the Bourgeois — a term the voyageurs of old used of their trusted leaders.

He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964 and was vice president of The Wilderness Society from 1963 to 1966 and president from 1967 to 1971. His work was critical to gaining protection for the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Point Reyes National Seashore. Olson was awarded the Johns Burroughs Medal — the highest honor in nature writing — in 1974.

Boundary Waters was designated as protected wilderness in 1964. 

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Robert Sterling Yard: Penning the national parks

Perhaps one of the greatest of Wilderness Society founders, Robert Sterling Yard may have also been one of its most unexpected.

Yard’s career as a champion of American wilderness began only in his 50s, yet this late-found passion came to define him. His work was essential to passing the bill that created the National Park Service.

Born in 1861 in Haverstraw, New York, Yard attended Princeton before beginning a career as a journalist, editor, and publisher in New York City. In 1915, Stephen Mather, the newly named assistant secretary of the Interior asked Yard to join him in Washington as an advocate for national parks. Yard accepted, leaving behind his successful New York career.

Though far from an experienced wilderness explorer, Yard plunged into his new role with both enthusiasm and humility. From 1915 to 1916, Yard compiled a “National Parks Portfolio,” full of his passionate writings about America’s wild places. The portfolio was distributed to every member of Congress. This publicity campaign helped persuade President Woodrow Wilson to sign the bill that created the National Park Service.

Yard played a vital role in awakening the nation to the scenic magnitude of wilderness. However, he also insisted on the practical value of public lands, testifying, “Our national parks constitute an economic asset that we have entirely overlooked.”

In 1919, Yard founded the National Parks Association. Then, at age 74, he co-founded The Wilderness Society and handled almost all of the day-to-day work of the young organization.  He served as the first editor of The Wilderness Society’s former magazine The Living Wilderness. In the last months of his life, Yard published two issues of the magazine while bedridden with pneumonia at the age of 84.

Photo: The Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society: Inspiring Americans to care for wild places since 1935

The Wilderness Society has contributed to historic moments in the national conservation movement, helping to pass dozens of wilderness bills. Our work was instrumental in passing the 1964 Wilderness Act, which establish the National Wilderness Preservation System. 

Over the years, we have turned back both industrial and ideological attacks on our most iconic wild spaces. We’ve gone toe-to-toe with high-priced lobbyists on the Arctic Refuge, on mining the Grand Canyon and other massive land grabs — and we have won.

To this day, The Wilderness Society and our supporters remain at the forefront of efforts to protect America’s wild lands and wildlife. Protecting wilderness and inspiring Americans to care for wild places is central to our work.

Four founding members of The Wilderness Society, from left to right: Bernard Frank, Harvey Broome, Bob Marshall and Benton MacKaye. Photo: The Wilderness Society