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Savior of wild places: Franklin native Howard Zahniser worked tirelessly for the passage of '64 Wilderness Act

A new marker in Tionesta memorializes his work

Monday, August 13, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

TIONESTA -- Along Route 62 next to the Allegheny River, just a mile north of this sleepy village built around timbering, tourism and the Forest County seat, a new roadside historical marker bears the name of Howard Zahniser.

Most people driving past on the curving, two-lane blacktop will ask "Howard who?" as the sign recedes in the rear-view mirror.

But two islands -- Baker and No-Name -- sitting out in the middle of the river a good stone's throw from the marker are lush, green clues.

Despite his anonymity, even among residents of this town where he grew up, Zahniser's historical marker will be dedicated this morning with a celebration of his role as author and architect of one of the nation's most successful and lyrically written environmental statutes -- the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964.

As one of the tall timbers in a national conservation movement that was just budding half a century ago, Zahniser was an early proponent of the ethic that without untrammeled wilderness, mankind would be materially and spiritually impoverished.

He also believed that legislation to ensure permanent wilderness protection was a necessity, so its preservation would not be subject to whim, political expediency or greed.

Patiently, over eight years and 66 drafts, he forged a document and a consensus so strong that the Wilderness Act remains virtually unchanged today, 37 years after it was passed, 373-1, by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The original wilderness designation covered 9 million acres of widely scattered national forest lands. It has grown to 105 million acres, including the 8,600 acres in the Allegheny National Forest's Hickory Creek and Allegheny River Islands Wilderness that were added in 1984.

In all of that wilderness there is no sacred mountain peak, no wild river, no pristine national forest tract named for Zahniser, though in a very real way his name is on them all.

In constant communion

His footprints are on many of those places too.

From the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where he bought a cabin in 1946 next to the state's Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area, to remote Lake Solitude in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, which would become part of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, Zahniser enjoyed visiting and walking the natural landscapes.

His son, Ed, on whose school tablet his father wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in February 1956, said three-, four-, even seven-day backpacking trips into the Adirondacks were not uncommon.

"In 1956, after he wrote the first draft, the family piled into an Olds 98 convertible and toured the West, doing hikes and canoe trips and backpacking and horseback trips," said Ed Zahniser, who works for the National Park Service in Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

The itinerary included the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, what would become the the Teton High Country Wilderness Area in Wyoming, the Glacier Peak Wilderness in the Northern Cascades of Washington, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana.

It was as though he had to see the places he would be championing.

"It was not just an environmental ethic my father had. He viewed conservation as part of a broad humanism," Ed Zahniser said. "Thoreau said that wilderness preserves us, and my father believed that."

Pennsylvania days

Howard Clinton Zahniser was born in Franklin, Venango County, in 1906, the son of a Free Methodist minister who moved around a lot before eventually settling in Tionesta.

Zahniser graduated from Tionesta High School and attended tiny Greenville College, in Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in English in 1928. In 1998 his name was attached to the school's Institute for Environmental Studies..

His first jobs were as a newspaperman. While still in college, he worked summers at the Forest Press in Tionesta and the Pittsburgh Press. He returned to Greenville shortly after graduation to work at the town's daily paper, The Advocate.

From 1931 to 1943 he worked as an editor, writer and broadcaster in Washington, D.C., with the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Biological Survey, and its successor agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was a contemporary there of both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, two authors whose books, "Silent Spring" and "A Sand County Almanac," would forever change the nation's environmental landscape.

In 1945 he took a pay cut to join the Wilderness Society, where he served as executive director and editor of its quarterly magazine,The Living Wilderness, for almost 20 years.

Secure behind the scenes

Zahniser would have been comfortable with the relative obscurity of his name and his work on the Wilderness Act, according to Douglas Scott, policy director at the Pew Wilderness Center. And that comfort would be grounded in his religious upbringing.

"The Free Methodists were a small sect that thought of themselves as servants of the Lord's work," said Scott. "And there was that humility about him.

"He did give speeches, testified before congressional committees and spoke to editorial boards but he didn't seek the limelight. Where his chief partner, David Brower, loved the limelight and was even on the cover of Life magazine, Zahnie didn't have that ego need."

But that didn't mean that Zahniser's role wasn't of central importance, or that he wasn't aware of his place in history.

"He kept meticulous records, and he testified at every one of the 18 hearings on the bill," Scott said. "He knew the historic significance of what was happening."

That the Wilderness Act was a substantial accomplishment and the strongest practical protection for the nation's wild places, is most evident, Scott said, during presidential administrations that are unsympathetic to wilderness values.

He pointed to the Bush administration's proposal to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which isn't a designated wilderness and doesn't have the same protections. Efforts to make the refuge a wilderness area in the 1980s were thwarted by the Reagan administration.

"We've been there before during the Reagan years, and we'd be in a world of hurt with this current [Bush] crowd if we didn't have this law," Scott said.

"There would not have been a Wilderness Act without him, and certainly not in 1964," he said. "He was the indispensable ringleader. His unique contribution was as a strategist. He took the wilderness philosophy and figured out a way to make it practical as a law. His role was to say we can do it and here's a practical way to do it.

"In the future there will be lots of pressures on wilderness and we are better off for having this tool crafted by Howard Zahniser."

The home front

Alice Zahniser, Howard's wife, was a typical, mid-20th century housewife, nonpolitical and domestically grounded, busy taking care of their four children and their home.

"I was not an activist by any means, and he didn't discuss his work with me," Zahniser's 83-year-old widow said last week from the family's summer home in the Adirondacks. "I learned a lot by the fact that the phone was in the kitchen."

That, and sometimes Zahniser would bring home his friends.

"There was George Fell, who just had a gleam in his eye then about The Nature Conservancy that he would later start, and Benton McKaye, the architect, who came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail," she remembered.

Other friends who came by included George Marshall, brother of Bob Marshall who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, Olas Murie, a backpacking naturalist who explored the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and would serve as director of the Wilderness Society, and David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club in the '50s and '60s, and a rabble-rouser who helped save from the Grand Canyon from flooding.

Zahniser could be overshadowed by his more flamboyant friends, but his widow said he was never bothered by the lack of recognition.

"Howard had no regrets. He just made sure he was doing what needed to be done," she said. "One of his favorite sayings was that you could get anything you wanted done in Congress if you didn't expect to get the credit."

It wasn't that easy. The campaign to make a wilderness protection law reality took eight years and Zahniser pushed himself hard.

"He'd just go and go, often 30 hours at a stretch without sleeping," his wife said. "In the end he just spent himself out."

He died in bed of a heart attack on May 5, 1964, just four days after testifying at the last of 18 congressional hearings on the bill.

Four months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Wilderness Act into law, making the United States the first nation to grant irrevocable legal protections to its most pristine public lands.

Johnson handed one of the pens he used to sign the bill to Alice Zahniser.

More visible recognition

Until last Wednesday, when Kirk Johnson helped a state road crew hoist the cast aluminum marker onto its 10-foot-high pole, the only thing with Zahniser's name on it in his adopted hometown was a roughly square granite rock, two feet high and dappled with green lichen, in the Riverside Cemetery.

The gravestone, tucked under shading maples and oaks, is one of the closest to the Allegheny River and one of the few that faces the flow, so it has about as much of a presence as Zahniser does in the town's collective memory.

Johnson, executive director of the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness and the prime mover behind the historic marker, admits he was surprised when he stumbled across Zahniser's name while working last year on an article to propose expanding the wilderness designation in the Allegheny National Forest.

"I was blown away that the connection was here and that very few people knew about it," Johnson said.

The connection strengthens his belief that more wilderness is needed. He said only half of the area originally proposed for wilderness protection in the forest was designated in 1984.

Nationally, about 18 percent of Forest Service land is designated wilderness; in the Allegheny, only 1.7 percent.

The Allegheny's 1986 forest plan makes note of the wilderness shortage, stating, ". . .demand for wilderness experience in the Allegheny National Forest is very high," and "the available supply in the regional area is low."

Johnson said the Forest Service will revise its management plan for the Allegheny over the next couple of years and he is proposing that a 4,100-acre tract of old growth in the Tionesta Scenic Area and the Research Natural Area be added as wilderness.

Such a designation would mean closing a few forest roads and capping some small oil and gas wells, but Johnson thinks it has a chance, even in a region still heavily reliant on extractive industries.

"It's not like the 'zero cut' proposal for federal forest timbering. I think a lot of different people could get behind more wilderness designation," he said. "It would be positive for the region."

About 20 yards up the road, north of the Zahniser marker, Johnson points to a big clearing in the trees along the river bank where a tractor-trailer tumbled down five years ago.

Because of that accident, it's easy to see Baker and No-Name islands, two of the seven in the Allegheny River Island Wilderness Area.

"One of the neat things about the site," he said, "is that people can see these bits of wilderness."

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