In memory of Alice Zahniser, widow of Wilderness Act author

Alice Zahniser (center) receives a pen used to sign the Wilderness Act into law from President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

Credit: Abbie Rowe via The Living Wilderness

Alice Zahniser, widow of Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser, passed away on July 8 at 96. She attended that landmark law’s signing in her late husband’s stead.

The youngest of nine children, Zahniser was witness to the act that would set our nation’s highest standard for public lands protection. She typed the first handwritten draft of the Wilderness Act in early 1956. That draft would go through 17 revisions before twin bills were introduced in the House and Senate in July 1956.

With those bills introduced, the Zahniser family left for a series of five wilderness trips, from Minnesota to Wyoming, Montana, and Washington state. The wilderness treks — by canoe, on horseback, and on foot — were tied together by car camping. “Our mother was a saint for her years of cooking over open wood fires,” said her son, Edward Zahniser. “She was the logistician behind our wilderness experiences that buttressed her husband’s wilderness preservation work.” Alice Zahniser’s 1956 trip journal was later published as Ways to the Wilderness.

Howard Zahniser (right) confers with Olaus J. Murie (center) and then-Sen. Joseph O'Mahoney, of Wyoming. Credit: The Living Wilderness

Howard Zahniser died in May of 1964, only days after testifying in support of the bill at the last of 18 hearings in Congress and nationwide. He had worked on the legislation through 65 revisions. The Senate passed a wilderness bill in 1963, followed by the House in August of 1964. Alice was invited to the bill-signing ceremony along with Mardy Murie, the widow of late former Wilderness Society President Olaus J. Murie and a formidable conservationist in her own right. Each received a pen used by President Johnson.

Soon after, in the Spring-Summer 1964 issue of The Living Wilderness, a magazine published by The Wilderness Society and mailed to all members, an editorial put it thusly: “We now have an accomplished Wilderness Act, born of sacrifice that few have been privy to. Patience, tolerance, restraint, and the ability to negotiate with reason and respect, were qualities which played a heavier role than will ever be known. The Zahnisers and the Muries will be remembered.”

It is significant that the piece saluted both Zahnisers. Howard’s conservation ethic was influenced by a 1937 canoe trip he took with Alice on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. Little did they know that islands they canoed by—and one they camped on, Thompson Island—would eventually be protected as the Allegheny Islands Wilderness. Alice also voiced her opinion on issues facing The Wilderness Society at meetings of the organization’s governing council over the years.

Initially joined by a love of music--Alice was an accomplished coloratura soprano--the Zahnisers would come to embark on countless outdoor adventures as a couple. Fittingly, for years to come, their names will both be attached to a moment in history when a great American truth was codified: wildness, and wilderness, define us as a nation, and should be preserved for the enjoyment of all.