The fascinating stories behind Wilderness namesakes

Looking into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. 

Credit: flickr, AlbertaScrambler.

Just as varied as Wilderness areas themselves are the biographical details of the figures after which they are named.

Since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, public lands accorded the federal government’s highest level of protection have ranged across 44 states (and Puerto Rico) and covered close to 110 million acres. They are, in a word, diverse--from the tiny lagoon sanctuary of Pelican Island to the expansive, glacial beauty of Wrangell-Saint Elias.

So, too, Wilderness areas’ names run the gamut, from the terse and straightforward to florid and obscure. Some of the largest and most celebrated bear the names of people, typically conservation champions. As often as not, those people are pretty interesting in their own right.

Here is our look at some of the people for whom Wilderness areas have been named, with a special emphasis on lesser-known figures.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness (Florida)

Cypress habitat in Everglades National Park, most of which is also protected Wilderness. Credit: National Park Service.

The Florida Everglades are unlike any other place on earth, comprising a teeming “river of grass” that confounded countless early attempts to subdue and develop it (the first journalist to visit the area dismissed it as a “vast and useless marsh”). Fittingly, the great majority of the national park that now preserves this unique place is protected Wilderness named for a truly singular person. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a prolific writer, suffragist and civil rights champion, was so closely associated with the region and efforts to conserve it that she earned the nickname “Lady of the Everglades.” Among other superlatives, former Florida Governor Robert Graham called her  “the poet, the sledgehammer advocate, the constant conscience of the Everglades for half a century.” Indeed, she played a major part in shifting public opinion to the camp that recognized the Everglades as a vibrant, irreplaceable ecosystem rather than an inhospitable wasteland.

Black Elk Wilderness (South Dakota)

Credit: flickr, John Utter.

Black Elk Wilderness is named not after an animal, but a man, Nicholas Black Elk. Born in 1863, this Oglala Lakota (or Oglala Sioux) spiritual leader was a witness to frontier history both famous and infamous, and a compatriot of towering figures including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. But Black Elk was a fascinating person in his own right, too, and considered by some to be the most influential Native American leader of the 20th century. He began experiencing spiritual visions as a child, and became known as a healer within his tribe at the age of 19. As a relative youth, he would take up arms in the Battle of Little Bighorn and sustain injury in an attempt to retaliate for the massacre at the Battle of Wounded Knee. The arc of his life was defined by efforts to beat back the often-bloody advances of white men, and eventually a mournful recognition of the arduous future of his people. As an old man, Black Elk recorded these experiences with John Neihardt in the seminal 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, including these elegiac reflections on the consequences of Wounded Knee: “I did not know then how much was ended….I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Gaylord Nelson Wilderness (Wisconsin)

Credit: Wilderness.net.

It would do Gaylord Nelson a disservice to reduce his long career to a single accomplishment, but if nothing else, the impact of the beloved former senator and governor of Wisconsin is recognized once each year, when conservationists everywhere celebrate Earth Day. Inspired by late-1960s campus activism, Nelson took his concern about pollution and other issues directly to the people, suggesting that April 22, 1970, be used as a day to raise environmental awareness, setting a powerful precedent.

He would eventually be intimately involved in efforts to pass conservation legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. At the state level, Nelson helped to win protection for the St. Croix riverway and Apostle Islands and pioneered a penny-a-pack cigarette tax to pay for Wisconsin’s Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program, which was used to buy hundreds of thousands of acres of park land, wetlands and other open space. In recognition of his work, most of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore he helped protect was eventually designated as Wilderness. Following his political career, Nelson served as a counselor for The Wilderness Society for 14 years.

Mollie Beattie Wilderness (Alaska)

Credit: Wilderness.net.

Though many Wilderness names commemorate triumphant accomplishments or happily-retired conservation champions, some memorialize efforts prematurely extinguished and legacies tragically cut short. Mollie Beattie died too young, before her work as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could be completed. However, in just three years on the job, she managed to move the department in the direction of ecosystem-wided conservation rather than a focus on individual imperiled flora and fauna, and was a fierce defender of the Endangered Species Act. During her time at the agency’s helm, 15 new national wildlife refuges were protected, more than 100 habitat conservation plans were signed with private landowners and the gray wolf was reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. It is fitting that a person with that outsized influence will be forever linked to such a spectacular landscape, the second-largest in the National Wilderness Preservation System at about 8 million acres.

J.N. “Ding” Darling Wilderness (Florida)

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, part of which makes up the Wilderness of the same name. Credit: flickr, Matthew Paulson.

Jay N. “Ding” Darling was a renaissance man the likes of which America might never see again. After a boyhood spent exploring the wind-swept prairies of Nebraska and South Dakota, the inveterate nature-lover started drawing editorial cartoons, with a special penchant for those focused on conservation. His first such work was in support of Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to establish a forestry service, and the two became friends thereafter. During a career spanning parts of five decades, Darling wielded his pen as a potent weapon in defense of the wild, authoring numerous densely-packed cartoons dealing with topics like depletion of natural resources, wildlife habitat conservation, deforestation, pollution and Congressional indifference to the environment. He also won two Pulitzer Prizes at The Des Moines Register, founded the National Wildlife Federation and designed the first Federal Duck Stamp. The mangrove-knotted Florida Wilderness that bears his name makes up part of the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness (North Carolina/Tennessee)

Credit: flickr, Chris M Morris.

Parks, elementary schools and municipalities around the country bear the name of Joyce Kilmer, and the New Jersey-born journalist was undoubtedly impressive: though cut down by a German sniper at the age of 32 during the second Battle of the Marne in World War I, his prime writing years included stints at The New York Times and acclaimed magazine The Literary Digest, as well as perhaps the most famous nature poem of all time, “Trees,” reportedly inspired by a massive white oak on the Rutgers University campus (“I think that I shall never see/a poem as lovely as a tree”). It was the latter accomplishment that led the federal government to protect a 3,800-acre parcel of land as Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, now part of the eponymous Wilderness.

William O. Douglas Wilderness (Washington)

Credit: flickr, brewbooks.

This paradise of forests, lakes and mountain peaks is named for controversial U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who explored the area on foot and lived in nearby Goose Prairie. This love of the outdoors was rooted in Douglas’ early life; like  Theodore Roosevelt, who was president during Douglas’ childhood, he was a sickly boy, and hiked in the outdoors to gain strengthen. His judicial career was also distinguished by an interest in conservation, including the nascent environmental movement of the 1960s. Though Douglas spent over 35 years on the Supreme Court, making him the longest-tenured member ever, he found the time to author numerous books, including the seminal 1950 title Of Men and Mountains, an account of his time in nature. In it, he wrote of the mountainous Pacific Northwest backcountry he loved: “These tangled masses of thickets, ridges, cliffs, and peaks are a vast wilderness area. Here man can find deep solitude, and under conditions of grandeur that are startling he can come to know both himself and God.”

Joseph Battell Wilderness (Vermont)

Credit: George Wuethner via Wilderness.net.

People whose names grace Wilderness areas range aren’t all broadly famous. Some are more regionally-known, idiosyncratic figures. Without a doubt, Joseph Battell belongs in the “local color” camp.

Battell was a late 19th-century horse-breeder, publisher, author and conservationist--and at one time the largest landholder in Vermont. In addition to an abiding love for the mountainous land around the town of Middlebury, he nursed a morbid obsession with automobiles, recording news of every car accident in the country to strengthen his case against motorized travel.  He may still be best known for a protracted controversy over the construction of a famous bridge in his hometown, but Battell’s passion for nature and dedication to the area that is now Green Mountain National Forest have endured. The core of this wooded Wilderness was bequeathed as a park to Middlebury College by Battell in 1915, and though it didn’t gain ultimate protection until well after his death, it aptly honors his memory today.

Phillip Burton Wilderness (California)

Credit: Bill Ingersoll via Wilderness.net.

It is telling that the 1996 biography of Rep. Phillip Burton was titled “A Rage for Justice.” Indeed, the colorful California congressman’s energy for governing and unstinting commitment to a variety of equality-minded causes made him a hero of organized labor and the bane of complacent moneyed interests. Among Burton’s conservation accomplishments were a series of bills establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the California Wilderness Act of 1984, which protected more than 3 million acres of Wilderness throughout California. Though controversial, his political integrity was rarely questioned; and while the man once called a “young curmudgeon” passed away at a relatively early age, he still blazed a formidable, iconoclastic path through the halls of Congress.

Dick Smith Wilderness (California)

Credit: flickr, Roy Ubu.

Within just a few years of his death in 1977, Dick Smith’s name was attached to a  67,800-acre stretch of rugged terrain in Los Padres National Forest. What did he do to warrant such an honor? It might be more fitting to ask what he didn’t do. A conservationist, writer, sculptor, woodworker, stonemason, photographer and naturalist, Smith earned the nickname “the conscience of Santa Barbara County” for his tireless efforts educating the public about the wonders of nature in his adopted home state (especially the California condor). Most prominently, these efforts took the form of a regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press called “Nature Notes,” which he wrote for more than 50 years. He is credited with helping to build support for the San Rafael Wilderness, also part of Los Padres National Forest.

Jedediah Smith Wilderness (Wyoming)

Credit: flickr, Robert.

For this rugged strip of forest and rocky terrain in the Targhee National Forest, only a consummate mountain man will do: Jedediah Strong Smith. The evocatively-named trapper from central New York state is probably most closely associated with popularizing the “South Pass” trail through the Rocky Mountains, paving the way for future settlers to Oregon and California. In a brief but uncompromising career, he went on to explore the Great Salt Lake and Colorado Plateau, and lead an expedition to California before retiring at the age of 31 or 32. Amid his travels, Smith reportedly survived a grizzly bear mauling.

Stephen Mather Wilderness (Washington)

Credit: flickr, Miguel Vieira.

Industrialist Stephen Mather, a borax tycoon, was a self-made millionaire before he was 50, and could have quietly receded into private life. However, inspired by memories of an encounter with John Muir and his own disappointment in the degraded state of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, he decided to take up the cause of America’s public lands, engineering what eventually became the National Park Service and serving as its first director. After Mather passed away, the agency dedicated a series of plaques featuring this epitaph: “He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved, unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good he has done." This tract of alpine peaks in the North Cascades National Park complex is only one of many landmarks named in his honor.

Bob Marshall Wilderness (Montana)

Credit: flickr, jm133.

This name may not be well-known among the public at-large, but Bob Marshall is on par with Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan at The Wilderness Society. In addition to co-founding our organization in 1935, this giant of American conservation helped bring attention to the need to preserve wild, intact places through his writing, including a landmark essay, “The Problem of Wilderness,” that ended with this now-famous passage: “There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”

Marshall personally recommended numerous public lands for wilderness designation before capital-w “Wilderness” even existed, while working as a U.S. Forest Service researcher in the 1920s. Fittingly, Bob Marshall Wilderness was among the first areas to be protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Together with two other Wilderness areas, this spectacular stretch of wildlife habitat and breathtaking scenery makes up the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, most of which is managed by Flathead National Forest. It is the third largest wilderness complex in the lower 48 states, referred to collectively as “The Bob.”

Learn the stories behind some of the most unique Wilderness names.

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