Comic strip “Mark Trail” salutes Wilderness Act’s 50th

Long-running comic strip "Mark Trail,” which has featured conservation and nature lessons for decades, saluted the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary on Aug. 31.

At about 68 years old, Mark Trail is one of very few pop culture entities that has been around longer than the Wilderness Act. Especially given the former’s longstanding commitment to nature education and conservation, it is only fitting that cartoonist James Allen recently featured that landmark 1964 law. You can read the comic in full color below:

Mark Trail: © 2014 North America Syndicate, Inc. World Rights Reserved

The Wilderness Act, which set the framework to permanently protect uniquely wild landscapes now totaling some 110 million acres, was developed and passed with the direct support of The Wilderness Society and remains among the signature conservation achievements of the 20th century.

Read more about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act

Ed Dodd started drawing Mark Trail in 1946, and the strip has since been about as durable a fixture of American newspapers as exists in the rapidly changing media landscape of the 21st century.

The comic centers around the titular character, a magazine writer and photographer who moonlights as a conservationist/crusader alongside his trusty dog, Andy, stopping each Sunday to host straightforward lessons about wildlife and natural history.

With a right hook as acute as his eye for nature, the hard-punching, strong-chinned outdoorsman has been a hero to generations of young readers. Dodd famously said the character was “the kind of man [he would] like to be":

"I'm short, he's tall. He's a handsome, black-haired man. You couldn't call me good-looking. He's a guy who excels at everything and I'm not a great fisherman or hunter, just a guy who likes to go. Mark lives my fantasies and daydreams and I enjoy it very much."

Dodd both wrote and drew the strip until 1960, then continued writing it until 1978, when his eyesight began to deteriorate (Tom Hill, who had drawn Sunday panels, died that year). The strip was then turned over to Jack Elrod (once Dodd’s boy scout charge, according to the Dallas Morning News) but it retained Dodd’s focus on conservation.

Upon Dodd’s passing in 1991, the Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted a retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service official as saying that Dodd "probably reached more people with the conservation and outdoor-ethic message than anyone I know." Further testament to the durability of his creation: The Washington Post had attempted to cancel the strip earlier that year but was flooded with complaints (a representative letter: “Please cancel my subscription. "Mark Trail" is your only environmental advocate. If he goes, I go”). The strip was reinstated. A 1994 story quoted Elrod on the significance of the character in the 20th century green zeitgeist: "Mark Trail was an environmentalist long before it was front-page news [...] The strip was ahead of its time."

Mark Trail has changed a bit over the years--he gave up smoking in 1983 at the behest of a young reader, got married a decade later and somehow found time to adopt a son--but he has remained a stalwart defender of wild places and creatures. The strip remains grounded in a certain mid-century aesthetic, but it is as visible as ever, even inspiring a tongue-in-cheek tribute song, per a 2002 Washington Post story (“He can walk into the bushes and bring back lunch/He can knock out all the bad guys with just one punch”). James Allen took over when Elrod retired in 2014, and Mark Trail is still chugging along.

The strip and its creators and caretakers were given the ultimate honor when a wooded 16,400-acre expanse of northern Georgia was set aside as the Mark Trail Wilderness in 1991. "The idea was to not only honor Ed Dodd and Jack Elrod, but to recognize the contributions the comic strip has made to conservation," Sammy Smith, former Rep. Ed Jenkins’ administrative assistant and originator of the idea, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1994.

It is only fitting that Mark Trail and the Wilderness Act be linked forever, both in newsprint and a picturesque corner of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

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