Howard Zahniser and the Making of the 1964 Wilderness Act

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which now protects more than 100 million acres of wild lands in the United States from development. Howard Zahniser is widely recognized as the key architect of and advocate for the Wilderness Act, but his untimely death just four months before the signing of the Wilderness Act meant he never saw the fruits of his tireless efforts. In the new volume, The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser, Mark Harvey has astutely curated Zahniser’s writings—from radio addresses and personal correspondence to congressional testimonythat supported this critical piece of legislation. The collection provides an eloquent and passionate reminder that wilderness is a core American value and should be protected accordingly. Here we feature an excerpt from Zahniser’s address before the Sierra Club’s 7th biennial wilderness conference in San Francisco in April 1961.

Wilderness Forever

From Mark Harvey’s introduction to Zahniser’s Sierra Club address: By 1961, the campaign for the wilderness bill had gone on for five years. Several versions of the bill had been introduced in Congress, dozens of drafts had been circulated, and Zahniser had testified at hearings both in the field and in Washington, DC.… He was tireless, “the constant advocate,” as Sierra Club executive director David Brower later described him. No other conservationist was in a better position to advocate for the bill, and no other had the knowledge of Washington politics and the networking and lobbying skills to accomplish it. Despite his immersion in the complexities of the legislative process, he never lost sight of the larger purposes of the campaign. His speech before the Sierra Club’s seventh biennial wilderness conference in San Francisco in April 1961 demonstrated his talent for thinking big. In what were arguably his most eloquent remarks on the subject, he summoned his deepest convictions to make the case for preserving wilderness forever.

Zahniser in his backyard in Hyattsville, Maryland, wearing a suit coat designed with extra pockets, filled with promotional material on the wilderness bill. Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Conservation Collection.

Zahniser in his backyard in Hyattsville, Maryland, wearing a suit coat designed with extra pockets that he filled with promotional material on the wilderness bill. Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Conservation Collection.

Primeval wilderness, once gone, is gone forever; but it can be preserved forever. The vision of generation after generation, through an enduring future perpetuating a soundly established human purpose, is as glorious as a man’s view of sons and daughters when he himself senses the period of his own time and cherishes more and more the eternal.

The practical program for wilderness preservation, even in its discussion, leads us thus into the inspiring contemplation of something that endures. That is the nature of wilderness and we can hardly fail to realize it. What we must also recognize is that there is still the drive of the self-interest that exploits the wilderness for profit. There still are mining and lumbering interests who seek to confound, frustrate, and defeat every effort to secure wilderness as wilderness. There still are hazards in various enterprises that would continually modify wilderness rather than limit or regulate their own projects. We must use our inspirations to deal patiently, persistently, but practically with these contending forces.

Our political realities are such that we must continue, in our role as citizens, to strive to see the nation of which we are citizens espouse this cause to which we have become devoted. In this effort we are compelled to recognize that we must have the concurrence of many who have not yet or have not long shared our purposes. We must recognize that wilderness as a resource of the people has not been assured perpetuity until those among the people who would and could destroy it have been enlisted in or reconciled to its preservation. We must continue to work for the passage of the basic legislation that is the first step in whatever we can accomplish, and as it is enacted we must promptly mobilize for the ten or fifteen year program that it will inaugurate. There must not be any hesitancy in this, our immediate course of action. If some of us may indeed become wearied physically, and profoundly, in the years through which frustrations continue

—Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying—

—we should never lose heart. We are engaged in an effort that may well be expected to continue until its right consummation, by our successors if need be. Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration. We are not fighting a rear-guard action, we are facing a frontier. We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all the wilderness there is. We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation, will be always effective in preserving wilderness. We are not fighting progress. We are making it.

We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness. We are working for a wilderness forever.

Also of interest:

Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act
By Mark Harvey

“Mark Harvey’s Wilderness Forever is a superb biography of the nation’s preeminent postwar wilderness lobbyist. Harvey has given readers a detailed portrait of an activist who most environmental historians know was important but do not know well. Like the man it chronicles, Wilderness Forever is quiet and humble but also forceful and convincing.”
Oregon Historical Quarterly

“Do environmental historians really need yet another biography of a heroic environmentalist? . . . In the case of Mark Harvey’s graceful study of Howard Zahniser, the answer to that question would seem to be, surprisingly, yes, the pantheon of environmental heroes needs to make room for one more addition. Those seeking to understand the tectonic shifts in environmental politics in the mid-twentieth century and the quiet man who played an unexpectedly large role in many of them will find Wilderness Forever to be a welcome- and long overdue- work of environmental biography.”
The Journal of American History

Mark Harvey is professor of history at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

1 thought on “Howard Zahniser and the Making of the 1964 Wilderness Act

  1. Lanny Cotler

    WE are making a documentary on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and we are looking hard for certain old photographs that limn the efforts of those who worked to make the Act a reality. Can you put us in touch with anyone who might help find copies of such? This is crucially important. We can describe in more detail what we need.

    Lanny Cotler & Paul Edwards

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