New York State’s Forest Preserve lands of the Adirondacks and Catskills are living fossils of the broad 19th-century movement to protect wild forests of the federal public lands in the West as forest reserves and not as national forest sources of fiber, forage, and minerals.
New York State’s Forest Preserve lands therefore are living proof that the wilderness preservation movement is not an upstart 20th-century offshoot of the mainstream American conservation movement.
The Adirondacks and Catskills preserve the historical fact that the wilderness preservation movement is a continuous, living stream of America’s enduring determination to protect and preserve a significant remnant of its public wild lands to which, as cultural geographer Bret Wallach writes, progress otherwise would show no mercy.
The Adirondacks also are the locus of a significant legacy of wilderness preservation advocacy and served as the training ground for the national conservation coalition-building that would launch the mid-1950s campaign to achieve the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. The so-called Black River War begun in the 1940s to save the wilderness of the Western Adirondacks from dam proposals, provided the first and regional stage of a two-stage training ground for the national citizen campaign for the Wilderness Act.
One way to bring this story into focus is to put Verplanck Colvin and his Adirondack state land surveys, begun in the 1870s, into their proper national context. Most eyes had turned westward for broad horizons by the post-Civil War 1870s. The so-called “Great Surveys” were then working the West as complex scientific expeditions, some with military escort and even military leadership. Standard histories of this great convergence of government, science, and the military have canonized four western expeditionary forces: the Wheeler, Hayden, King, and Powell surveys.
But Michael Peter Cohen has pointed out that there was a fifth great western scientific survey: John Muir. No matter that Muir conducted a one-person survey. His research into the Sierra Nevada of California was not government-sponsored, military-escorted expeditioneering but solo wandering. Nevertheless Muir, as a lone wilderness researcher, ended up assailing the official western science establishment – and winning on its own developing turf of sheer empiricism.
Muir won by looking at the evidence firsthand. At issue was: What had sculpted the land? Was it great floods or continental glaciation or what? The evidence lay high in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Muir went and looked at the evidence. Muir even found active glaciers, perhaps alpine remnants of the very Earth-carving culprits themselves. Muir’s chief opponent was California State Geologist Josiah Whitney. Whitney was reading a preconceived mental map. Muir was reading the terrain itself guided by the new glaciation ideas of Louis Agassiz. As John McPhee has written, in any conflict between a map and the terrain, the terrain is always right.
John Muir would soon be battling in the West to get certain public lands designated as forest reserves, just as Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack survey reports and speeches encouraged New York State eventually to designate certain public lands as forest preserve.
We owe today’s “enduring resource of wilderness” in New York State – and arguably in the nation, too – to the fact that the people of the Empire State opted for the preserve, not the reserve and then stuck by their guns. In essence Colvin was conducting a sixth great survey but in the East where Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau had remarked in 1848, perhaps with a mite of jealousy, that New York State “has its own wilderness within its borders.”
From a semantic standpoint American wilderness preservation begins with that word, preserve. The formula might read p + reserve = wilderness in perpetuity. In other words New Yorkers carried through on the preservationist impulse of American conservation that, as it applied to federal wild forest lands, was soon co-opted by Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarian conservation philosophy under the Progressive politics of President Theodore Roosevelt. (It is ironic that Roosevelt was informed he was President in the Adirondacks.)
That same co-option was attempted in the Adirondacks, too. Timber interests argued long and hard that New York State should allow sustainable harvest of the timber on its Forest Preserve lands. But even the counties in which Forest Preserve lands lay voted against such a move. If you let the loggers in it would get out of hand, they said. Except for the National Wilderness Preservation System, sustainable federal forestry was — and remains today — an unrealized optimism of the neo-Darwinian myth of Progress. A 1996 scholarly history of the U.S. Forest Service is titled A Conspiracy of Optimism. The persistence of wildness on such a large scale in New York State hinged on how its people rejected any diluting redefinition of its forest preserve lands.
Failure to place Verplanck Colvin in this national tradition of the 19th-century scientific surveys has helped mask these roots of America’s wilderness preservation movement in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Failure to recognize these 19th-century New York State roots of American wilderness preservation has similarly painted an inaccurate portrait of wilderness preservation advocacy as a post-1930s fringe movement, a mere offshoot of mainstream American conservation.
We can argue that in truly preserving its public forest lands, New York State simply accomplished in its public back yard what the federal government then lacked the foresight or political will to achieve on its national public lands in the West. New York State set in motion the preservation of wildlands in perpetuity. Forever. To preserve not just “forest” but “wild forest lands.”
That so few wilderness advocates today realize that New York-born Robert Marshall was a second-generation champion of wilderness mirrors the wider misconception that America’s national wilderness preservation movement is a relatively recent offshoot of so-called mainstream conservation. The wilderness preservation movement actually carries forward this impulse for wildlands preservation that New York State embedded in its state constitution in the 19th century as its “forever wild” clause.
Bob Marshall’s father Louis, the eminent lawyer and champion of civil liberties and minority rights, was an ardent advocate of the preservation of wild-lands and particularly wild forest lands. Louis Marshall was a voting member of the 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention that emplaced the “forever wild” clause as protection for Adirondack and Catskill forest lands. It was Louis Marshall who led the floor fight to defend the “forever wild” clause against potentially crippling amendment at the 1915 Constitutional Convention.
But Marshall not only inspired wilderness advocacy for federal public lands. He also inspired organized wilderness advocacy for the Adirondack wilderness he grew up experiencing in youthful summers at the Marshall family camp near Saranac Lake. Atop Mount Marcy in July 1932, three years before the Wilderness Society was organized, Bob Marshall ran into a young Paul Schaefer.
Schaefer was on the summit of Mount Marcy photographing ravages of forest fires caused by careless logging of Adirondack High Peaks forests above elevations at which loggers had earlier assured Marshall and other they would not cut. Schaefer was up there doing what his conservation mentor John S. Apperson said you must do – stand on the land you want to save and take pictures so the public can see what’s at stake.
Apperson’s rallying cry that Schaefer would carry forward for more than five decades of conservation action was “We Will Wake Them Up!” And on the summit of Mount Marcy, not so far above Colvin’s Lake Tear of the Clouds, Bob Marshall captured Paul Schaefer’s imagination with his call for the banding together of all wilderness advocates that would in fact happen three years later.
Fourteen years later, in 1946, it was Paul Schaefer who recruited my father Howard Zahniser to the practical defense of Adirondack forest preserve wilderness. Apperson and Schaefer had just showed their documentary film about the threats to western Adirondack Forest Preserve lands posed by dam-building schemes. Following their February screening at the North American Wildlife Conference in New York City, my father, who had begun work for the Wilderness Society the previous September, went up and told Schaefer that he and the Wilderness Society would like to help defend the wilderness in what became known as the Black River Wars.
Schaefer invited Zahnie, as he came to know my father, and our family to experience the Adirondack wilderness firsthand in the summer of 1946. During a backpacking trip across the High Peaks wilderness that summer with Schaefer and fellow Adirondack conservationist Ed Richard, my father remarked that the “forever wild” clause of New York’s state constitution might well model the type of protection needed for wilderness areas of the federal public lands. Earlier that summer the governing council of the Wilderness Society had voted to begin work toward achieving some sort of permanent protection for wilderness on federal public lands. The administrative classifications that Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold had pursued to protect wilderness within the National Forest System were proving too ephemeral. Subsequent administrations were de-classifying them for road building and timber, mineral, and forage exploitation.
It was also on that High Peaks backpacking trip that my father remarked on the Adirondack wilderness: “So this was Bob Marshall’s country. No wonder he loved it so.” It is in this historical context that the Adirondack and Catskills forest preserve lands are living fossils of this 19th-century movement to protect New York State forests as forest preserve and federal forests as national reserves. That the Adirondacks and Catskills are where wilderness preservation began is revealed in the persistence in both name and fact of their designation as forest preserve lands. Today more than one million acres of New York State forest preserve lands are additionally designated as wilderness under the same language that defines the wilderness designated on federal public lands.
The connective tissue of this shared definition of wilderness is the legacy of Bob Marshall, son of Louis Marshall. And Bob Marshall’s connective function is not just a matter of wilderness preservation philosophy. It forms a direct line of succession of practical advocacy and inspiration to advocacy that makes the Adirondacks the logistical locus of where wilderness preservation began.
The Wilderness Act also expresses the biotic humility Leopold called for, to preserve the whole of those natural processes because we don’t even know what they are. And I would like to add that the New York State Constitution, an important precursor of the Wilderness Act in many ways, also implicitly protects the workings of natural processes in wildness as the Constitution says that its Forest Preserve legacy shall “be forever kept as wild forest lands.” In its saying lands, it seems to me, it implies a larger vision of what is out there than simply forest and water. In other words, it knows more than it knows about the complexities of the more-than-human world, and it similarly knows that it doesn’t know as much as it might about those complexities.
My father Howard Zahniser was a longtime close student of Henry David Thoreau and the work on wilderness and wildness that Thoreau did in his books Walden and The Maine Woods and in his still-remarkable natural history essay “Walking.” My father served as a one-year honorary president of the Thoreau Society, in 1956, the same year the first Wilderness Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Pennsylvania Congressman John P. Saylor.
In “Walking” Thoreau makes that shorthand statement that “. . . in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” The shorthand quality renders the statement somewhat ineffable: “. . . in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” However, a close reading of the essay_which combines two lectures, one Thoreau gave on walking and one on the wild does make its case for Thoreau’s perception that culture rests on nature.
Fundamentally, my father — friends and associates knew him as Zahnie — was someone who loved birds and ended up following that love of a particular wildness to where Robert Marshall and Aldo Leopold perceived it leading. In short, my father followed his love of birds to wilderness, an intellectual and, yes, emotional journey beginning with the decade and a half, from 1930 to 1946, when he joined the staff of the Wilderness Society. During the 1930s he worked in the U.S. Department of Commerce, and for a time for its U.S. Biological Survey to its becoming the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Throughout this period my father was mentored by people becoming increasingly interested in the significance of wilderness and the need to save some remnants of it.
Wilderness, you might say, is our best current vision of the land as a for-itself. And so the preservation of wilderness especially for the purposes made explicit in the language of the Wilderness Act furthers Aldo Leopold’s suggestion that we need to extend the social conscience from people to the land. In preserving wilderness we are in fact extending the social contract to the land in perpetuity both for-itself, for the more-than-human world, and for future generations.
Howard Zahniser was born in the Allegheny Mountains area of Western Pennsylvania in 1906, to an essentially unsalaried evangelical Christian minister and his wife. For much of his childhood his parents did not live on the money economy. An elementary school teacher interested him in the Junior Audubon Society and prompted the lifelong delight in birds I alluded to earlier. Zahnie, as friends knew him, would brag that he graduated in the top ten of his high school class and quickly add that there were only ten students in the class.
Receiving an honorary doctor of letters degree for his conservation work from his small, church-college alma mater in the late 1950s, Zahnie told the convocation that he was so far behind in his correspondence that the degree should be called a “doctor of postcards.”
It was as a writer and editor that Howard Zahniser went to Washington, D.C. in 1930 at the urging of Paul Oehser to take a job as an editor with the Department of Commerce.
Zahnie worked for the U.S. Biological Survey there, until recently our Fish and Wildlife Service, but now a National Biological Survey again. Zahnie made inspection trips to wildlife refuges. His interests in literature and nature entwined. He became books editor of Nature Magazine. He became chief of information and publications for the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture.
His chief early mentor was the naturalist Edward Preble, for whom I am named. I share this distinction with a field mouse, Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse. Zahnie was drawn into the small circle of wilderness activists who had formed the Wilderness Society in 1935 and had decided to take it public just before its driving force, Robert Marshall, died at age 38 in 1939. The founders were foresters Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Bernard Frank, and Benton MacKaye; landscape architect Ernest Oberholzer; accountant Harold Anderson; lawyer Harvey Broome; and publicist Robert Sterling Yard.
Next to them, my father felt very ordinary as a government writer and editor, although none of these persons were then famous. Not even Bob Marshall, dead then six years, whose Alaska book Arctic Village had been a Literary Guild selection. Benton MacKaye was the founder of the Appalachian Trail, but the Second World War had brought the trail project to a dead halt. It was a quarter century later that some of these people would become famous through an Earth Day that they and arguably the Wilderness Act itself helped bring on.
Zahnie came to the Wilderness Society in 1945 after the death of Robert Sterling Yard, who had functioned as its entire staff and edited its then occasional magazine The Living Wilderness. Yard’s former job would be split between the bedroll biologist Olaus Murie, who became the Society’s half-time director, working out of Moose, Wyo., where he was then studying elk, and Zahnie, who became executive secretary and magazine editor with half-time clerical help. That was the awesomely powerful environmental group, the Wilderness Society, in 1945! I seriously doubt that the Society had a thousand members then.
There were few members but a new realization. The Wilderness Society must build bridges with other public lands and wildlife advocates and outdoors enthusiasts to broaden support for wilderness protection. The bridge building paid off ten years later in the coalition that blossomed into the Dinosaur National Monument victory, defeating the powerfully backed Echo Park dam proposal. That coalition formed the core that would begin the push for a wilderness bill in 1955 and 1956.
When talking to wilderness advocates today who are younger than myself, I find it difficult to convey to these good spirits the reality that there was no environmental movement in the 1950s. Nor was there an environmental movement in the 1960s. The environmental movement didn’t arise until the 1970s, of course. Many people even in the thick of advocacy today assume that there was an environmental tide sweeping the wilderness movement toward its appointment with glory in the 1964 signing of the Wilderness Act. Not so.
For example, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club decided to fight for Echo Park and the principle of inviolability of National Park System lands despite the fact that many people within the Sierra Club felt that the Club should not be involved in issues outside California. We are talking the early 1950s here. The Sierra Club’s self-image was that recently regional.
And who provided the political clout that eventually created such noise in the mailboxes of members of the U.S. Congress that it quelled the great strength of the dam-building Bureau of Reclamation? The bulk of the political clout that defeated the well-heeled and already engineered Echo Park Dam proposal was delivered by the Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Garden Clubs of America. Look there for the roots of the environmental movement. Roderick Nash, in his book Wilderness and the American Mind, called the Echo Park victory a decision for permanence. Mark W. T. Harvey, in his book A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement, calls it the dawn of a new era in environmental history.
Not only was this coalition of conservationists naive they were taking on the Bureau of Reclamation and the Western states congressional delegations, but my father Howard Zahniser was also naive. Surprised by victory, he and David Brower of the Sierra Club decided to turn their Echo Park coalition toward pursuit of federal legislation to protect wilderness on the public lands by statute, not by administrative whim. Zahnie and Dave Brower weren’t going to let the troops disperse and go home. They were going to put them to work for wilderness preservation as a frontal attack, not as yet another rear-guard, piece-meal action. Was my father naive in 1956 about the federal political process? I think so.
The first Wilderness Bill was politically green behind the ears. It took eight years of lobbying and compromising to forge socially viable legislation. But without the naivete, would these rag-tag conservationists have mustered the nerve to take that first step? Zahnie died with the family wilderness camping book contract in force. All he wrote was letters to the publisher to keep the contract alive. Just days before he died on May 5, 1964, Zahnie wrote to his friend and fellow Adirondack conservationist, the late great Paul Schaefer, that it didn’t look like there would be a post-Wilderness Bill period of writing. Indeed, there was not to be.
Howard Zahniser was a writer and reader who made more trips to secondhand bookstores in any year than to wilderness areas in his lifetime. He was such a book junkie that as a kid I got free books in several secondhand bookstores whose owners thereby bought my silence so that Zahnie could shop longer. A secondhand book shop opened near our house when I was a teenager. My father and I went there every Wednesday night. He called it “prayer meeting.”
Zahnie was not only a writer but also a reader immersed in the literature of Dante, Blake, The Book of Job, and Thoreau. My father wore fabric file cabinets, large-pocketed suit coats suited to a lobbyist. The oversized pockets usually held a book by Thoreau and one by Dante or Blake along with other wilderness propaganda.
Zahnie’s literary interests fed his delight in words that informed his choice of untrammeled to define wilderness. My sister Karen had a teddy bear that my father variously nicknamed “Wilderness Bill” or “Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear.” “Wilderness Bill” is an obvious nickname. The other moniker parodies a Christian gospel song, “Gladly, the Cross I’d Bear.” Carefully mixing metaphors, Zahnie once joked that wilderness was “where the hand of man has never set foot.”
Choosing a definition for wilderness was fraught with pitfalls. Zahnie took his clue from the word wilderness. In speeches and hearing testimony he reiterated that wilderness ends in -ness and connotes a quality. The Federal definition should not quantify it. A long search brought him to untrammeled. It is an unlikely, seemingly imprecise word to now define officially more than 100 million acres of federal land! Indeed, more than one writer on wilderness, even in scholarly settings, has misquoted the word as “untrampled.”
The genius of the word came clear in the 1970s battle for Eastern National Forest wilderness on lands recovered or recovering from being rooted, grazed, farmed, deforested, and eroded. Pristine? No. Virgin or old-growth? Hardly. But guided by the Wilderness Act definition, Congress placed those land in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
In 1955, Zahnie wrote in a speech to a parks and open spaces conference: “It is characteristic of wilderness to impress its visitors with their relationship to other forms of life, and to afford those who linger an intimation of the interdependence of all life.” “In the wilderness,” Zahnie said, “it is thus possible to sense most keenly our human membership in the whole community of life on the Earth. And in this possibility is perhaps one explanation for our modern deep-seated need for wilderness.”
So what is this wilderness that we need? The naturalist John Hay implies that the “great message” of wilderness is inclusion and that wilderness makes a great statement of “the total involvement of life.” Without wilderness, says Hay, we lose not only “incomparable species but the foundation of shared existence.” The whole of life is the source of life. And what brings us more face to face with the total involvement of life, with the whole of life, than wilderness?
Ralph Waldo Emerson caught Henry Thoreau thinking such thoughts in Emerson’s own woodlot in 1858. Emerson confided to his journal:
“I found Henry yesterday in my woods. He thought nothing to be hoped from you, if this bit of mould under your feet was not sweeter to you to eat than any other in this world, or in any world. We talked of willows. He says ’tis impossible to tell when they push the bud (which so marks the arrival of spring) out of its dark scales. It is done and doing all winter. It is begun the previous autumn. It seems one steady push from autumn to spring.”
What legislated vision of the Earth today so honors that “one steady push from autumn to spring” as the National Wilderness Preservation System? What a legacy! As Zahnie claimed, wilderness affords “an intimation of the interdependence of all life” and a keen sense “of our human membership in the whole community of life on the Earth.”
John Hay suggests in his book The Immortal Wilderness that wilderness is not simply designated areas. Wilderness is the very texture of our true, natural lives, the whole, interpenetrating system of things. Hay calls wilderness “the earth’s immortal genius.” Gary Snyder says as much in his book The Practice of the Wild. “A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet,” Snyder says. “The world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of report spreading out from one’s passage. . . Every creature knows when a hawk is cruising or a human strolling. The information passed through the system is intelligence.” You get the idea that the system itself is wilderness, planetary intelligence. How elegant! Imagine: an ecosystem that features no outsiders. Imagine: an Earth community bounded only by gravity.
Aldo Leopold set our course when he wrote that “the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” This is a huge social task. Listen to Leopold again: “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” These are the core human values that wilderness educators, managers, stewards, and advocates must first reach in people. And then help them nurture the wilderness within. Why not make Cornell a locus of the nurture of such consciousness?
Howard Zahniser did not live to see the Wilderness Act, but only a series of wilderness bills he shepherded through sixty-six drafts. In fact, my father once said that creating a National Wilderness Preservation System was not even as important in itself as the fact that so many of us would one day take that step together. That step is now a 30-plus years’ journey. And the journey is toward the sustainable inhabitation of North America, of Turtle Island, by us non-Native Americans as a home place, at last, as a home place in what we must hope is perpetuity.
Wilderness work is an ideal candidate for a life’s work. I believe wilderness was so for Aldo Leopold, for Robert Marshall, and for Howard Zahniser. Their legacy is your open invitation to grasp and shape such work so as to instill your new generations of students with its vision of sustainable life for the permanent good of the whole people and the whole biosphere. It seems to me that the National Wilderness Preservation System exists now to create the ethical space for that vision, the ethical space evoking human restraint in our relations with the more-than-human world.
Illustrations: “Catskill Creek” by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole; Plate 21 Lithograph of the 1878 discovery of The Great Corner in Colvin’s Seventh Report; Theodore Roosevelt portrait (Library of Congress); Paul Schaefer (foreground) with John Apperson; Howard Zahniser (courtesy Wilderness Society); and President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act of 1964 in the White House Rose Garden with Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Senator Frank Church, Mardy Murie, Alice Zahniser, and Representative Wayne Aspinall, and others.
Ellen Apperson Brown says
Ed, Nice to see this essay about your father and the wilderness movement. Your mention of the Women’s Garden Clubs is intriguing, too. John Apperson had close associations with those groups, and especially with Hilda Loines, who was a horticulturalist and officer in New York’s Federated Garden Clubs. Ethel Drier, President of the NY City Club, was another woman who became involved with Apperson and helped by writing editorials in the New York Times and by giving speeches before the NY Legislature. She hosted a dinner to discuss concerns about Commissioner MacDonald, with FDR, Eleanor, George Foster Peabody, Apperson, and Richmond Moot, in 1929. I would suggest that there was already an environmental movement underway as early as 1930 or so, and it was already recruiting out-door enthusiasts like Paul Schaefer to the cause. Paul never forgot to give credit to Appy for teaching him the methods for successful organizing, and for passing along the compelling philosophy about the importance of preserving our forests and wild places. As his great niece, I am one example of the success Apperson had in passing down his passion to future generations, just as your father passed his passion along to you!
Ed Zahniser says
Hi Ellen: Thanks for the supplemental garden clubs info. Will add it to my repertoire! I don’t think most wilderness advocates are very aware of the role of women’s organizations in building winning support for the 1964 Wilderness Act. And yes, my father was a recipient of your John Apperson’s grassroots stumping and organizing via his tutelage by Paul Schaefer. Have I ever mentioned that I worked two high-school summers with Paul’s Iroquois Hills outfit. The second summer was mostly in the Albany Stockade area of Schenectady. Very historic stuff there! Cheers, Ed Z
Kirk Johnson says
What an interesting, comprehensive history of the wilderness movement in America! Thank you Ed. Will be sure to get this edifying information out to our members here in the Allegheny National Forest region of Zahnie’s youth. Everyone who cares about protecting wilderness would do well to educate themselves by reading your deep history piece. Very important perspective. We have to know where we came from in order to know where we are going.
Sarah Cross says
What a beautiful and comprehensive piece. I believe you have followed in your father’s footsteps in many ways. I appreciate your writing, knowledge, and passion so greatly.
I will never forget riding into DC by train with you to lobby Congress on WV wilderness designations. For it was that train ride that inspired me to move from my beloved wild and wonderful state of West Virginia to Montana, to study wilderness preservation. Then, somewhat ironically, my studies in Montana inspired me to come home, as I desperately longed for the deciduous trees and diverse mountains of Appalachia. That train ride did much more than change my course of study, it helped to shape me into the person I was meant to be. Now, I’m an environmental science professor and public lands continue to be one of my favorite topics to discuss with my students. I love taking my students to nearby public lands and watching them come alive with excitement and bewilderment from the wild.
I would love to meet up in your neck of the woods sometime. Blessed be.