From John Muir to Bob Marshall, the American conservation movement has often been defined by prominent male voices — yet the powerful women who fought to protect America’s wild places are seldom recognized. Because they worked in a movement dominated by men, these women had to be tough, intelligent and, perhaps most of all, courageous, to make an impact and preserve the places they cared deeply about.
In the last century, women have changed the landscape of America through their activism. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to celebrate the lives of a few of these pioneering women conservationists, as well as some amazing modern-day conservationists. Below are just a few examples of inspirational women who are Real Mama Grizzlies!
Historic Mama Grizzlies
Modern-day Mama Grizzlies
- Veronica “Ronni” Egan, Executive Director, Great Old Broads for Wilderness
- Kristi Davis, Executive Director, California Wilderness Coalition
- Amy Vedder, Senior Vice President, Conservation, The Wilderness Society
- Nicole Whittington-Evans, Director, Alaska Regional Office, The Wilderness Society
- Kate Graham, Public Lands Organizer, Colorado Environmental Coalition
- Nancy Hall, Gold Butte Organizer, Nevada Wilderness Project
- Kate Mackay, Deputy Director, Arizona Wilderness Coalition
Historic Mama Grizzlies — Women who shaped conservation
Rosalie Edge was not a 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.”
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."
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.
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.
Mollie Beattie’s love of nature grew quietly, in a childhood spent outdoors with her mother and botanist grandmother. This led Mollie to an impressive career in natural resources management, culminating in her appointment as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the first woman to hold that position. Mollie arrived in Washington during a critical period, determined to protect the many landmark environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts, that were up for review.
She had a reputation for political toughness, yet Mollie had the rare ability to bring together people with different points of view. Although she passed away after less than three years in her position, Mollie left an enduring legacy, including the reintroduction of the grey wolf to Yellowstone and the creation of 15 new wildlife refuges. In honor of her achievements, Congress named the Wilderness within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area.
Modern-day Mama Grizzlies — Women in wilderness today
Women have become more prominent and influential within the conservation movement than ever before. Women like Amy Vedder, the senior vice president for conservation at The Wilderness Society, and Kristi Davis, a conservation leader dedicated to involving urban youth in wilderness, inspire others and dictate policy through their dedicated action.
Despite these gains, many women continue their work for conservation away from the limelight. In every community, women fight for wild places in less visible ways — they educate youth about the importance of wilderness, lead environmental initiatives in workplaces and organize grassroots campaigns in their hometowns.
Veronica “Ronni” Egan is a genuine western woman who learned to love wilderness in the mountains and deserts of New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. She worked as a guide and outfitter both on her family’s guest ranch outside of Santa Fe and for Colorado Outward Bound and Pack Creek Ranch in Moab—“using my saddle as a soapbox from which to educate folks about wild places,” as she remembers. She has worked as an environmental activist and educator for many years and has served on the boards of a variety of environmental groups in New Mexico and beyond. Currently, Ronni shares her passion and expertise as Executive Director of the national wilderness advocacy group Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
Kristi Davis is a native Californian and former Girl Scout who grew up with easy access to the chaparral-covered slopes and striking redwoods near her hometown of Monterey. When Kristi was six, her dad took her on a fishing trip in the Silver Peak Wilderness, and in the years since she has come to see the outdoors as a place to renew, learn and create lasting memories.
Kristi has spent much of her 14-year career helping provide outdoor experiences and education to urban youth. She has held leadership positions in a variety of nonprofits in California—she is currently the Executive Director of the California Wilderness Coalition—and has spearheaded campaigns to enhance the quality of drinking water and air for Californians. Kristi’s grassroots and leadership experience have allowed her to connect with a diverse array of people, proving through her work that wild places inspire and educate all of us.
Dr. Amy Vedder’s conservation career began in the wildest of places—the rainforests of Rwanda—where she spent more than 2000 hours a yard or so from wild mountain gorillas, determining what foods and habitat they needed to survive. She found great hope in the results (food was in abundance), and turned her attention to working with the government to protect the gorillas and their habitat. In Rwanda, Amy and her husband Bill Weber learned the importance of listening to concerns and interests of local people in crafting long-term, sustainable solutions to protect wildlife and habitat. Amy and Bill’s book about their work in Rwanda, In the Kingdom of Gorillas, is now in its fourth edition.
What began as a scientific endeavor became a labor of love and shaped the rest of Amy’s career. After many years with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Amy joined The Wilderness Society, where she is currently the Senior Vice President for Conservation. Through her work with TWS, Amy has found striking similarities between conservation at home and abroad, and greatly enjoys her role of protecting the extraordinary wild places of America – now speaking as a citizen and stakeholder.
Nicole Whittington-Evans perfected her backcountry skills—and strengthened her love for wild places—while working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Wyoming and Alaska. During that time she was part of the first all-women’s traverse of Denali, helped lead a group of students to Denali’s summit and traversed hundreds of miles of wilderness in the Chugach, Talkeetna, Alaska and Brooks ranges and Rocky Mountains.
After completing an MS in Environmental Studies, Nicole began a career in environmental policy and advocacy that allowed her to fight for many of the places she loved to explore. She began as the Executive Director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, was appointed to Alaska’s Board of Game in 1997 and joined The Wilderness Society 13 years ago, where she now serves as the Regional Director for Alaska. When not working to defend Alaska’s wild lands, Nicole can often be found outdoors with her family, teaching her two daughters to understand and appreciate wilderness.
Kate Graham began her career in national politics, yet her desire for connection with a local community and distaste for partisan causes led her to look for a different type of advocacy. Vacations on her grandparents’ farm in Georgia and one memorable trip to the canyons and mesas of Four Corners gave Kate an appreciation for wild places—and a hankering to try her luck out west. Colorado's western slope, and a job advocating for the wildlands of the Dolores River Basin, have offered Kate a perfect combination of activism, community and the outdoors.
As a Public Lands Organizer at the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Kate believes that building a diverse, bipartisan coalition of conservation advocates is her most important task. When not working to protect Colorado’s wild lands, Kate is out enjoying them—she loves to hike, bike, climb and paddle in Colorado's stunning canyon country.
Nancy Hall grew up in Florida, but felt drawn by the abundance of wild places and open space in the West, where stepping into her backyard felt like vacation. To get to know the landscapes, birds, plants and archaeology of her home, Nancy volunteered with local organizations and became more and more involved in the conservation community. Through explorations with local groups or just her dogs, Nancy was steeped in the unique desert landscapes around her small town.
Since moving out West, Nancy has dedicated much of her time to educating children and adults about the importance of protecting Nevada’s wild places. Today she is the Director of Friends of Gold Butte. Nancy sees the results of her tireless work every time she guides new residents on a hike in the desert or brings her grandchildren to see “her office”—the canyons and redrocks of wild Nevada.
Kate Mackay has worked to defend wildlands for 14 years, in places as varied as Boston, Washington, D.C., Portsmouth, NH and Phoenix. As a kid, she learned that she was happiest when exploring the cornfields and creeks around her Massachusetts home, and after a few years as a journalist, Kate translated her early love for the outdoors into a career. In Boston, she learned the power of grassroots action when she mobilized local citizens and lawmakers to protect Cape Cod National Seashore from damaging Jet Ski use. A position at the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association—where Kate was surrounded by stories and images from America’s most stunning wild places—sparked her desire to travel, and she moved across the country to experience a few of these sights firsthand.
Kate ended up in Phoenix, where she serves as Deputy Director for Arizona Wilderness Coalition. Although the desert felt foreign to Kate at first, its subtle beauty and diverse wildlife have won her over completely. She enjoys exploring Arizona’s unique wilderness areas with her family.
Rosalie Edge. Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives.
Mardie Murie. Photo by Boyd Norton.
Rachel Carson. Courtesy USFWS.
Mollie Beattie. Photo by Walter Steiglitz, Courtesy USFWS.