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Howard Zahniser

"Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration... We are not fighting progress. We are making it."

-- Howard Zahniser

Howard Zahniser (or "Zahnie" as many affectionately knew him), executive director of The Wilderness Society from 1945 through 1964 and primary author of the 1964 Wilderness Act, was from Tionesta, Pennsylvania, located on the southwest corner of the Allegheny National Forest. On August 13, 2001 Zahniser's legacy was honored with the dedication of a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker near Tionesta along the Allegheny River. U.S. Representative John Peterson, local residents, members of the Zahniser family, dignitaries and other interested people were on hand to pay homage to this great Pennsylvanian. Friends of Allegheny Wilderness hopes to further Zahniser's vision by working to designate additional wilderness areas in his home Allegheny National Forest.

The following profile of Zahnie can be found on the website, and appears here with permission:

Who Was Howard Clinton Zahniser?
Howard Zahniser was born on February 25, 1906, in Franklin, Pennsylvania. The son of a Free Methodist minister who changed churches every few years, he grew up in the Allegheny River region of northwestern Pennsylvania. He spent his teenage years in Tionesta, just west of what is now the Allegheny National Forest. It was here that he developed a life-long interest in nature and a love of literature. He attended Greenville College in Illinois where he received a degree in humanities. He taught school and worked as a newspaper reporter.

Beginning in 1930, Zahniser was employed by the U.S. Department of Commerce and soon the USDA Bureau of Biological Survey (which would several years later become the core agency of the new USDI Fish & Wildlife Service). He worked for 12 years for the Fish & Wildlife Service in the information division where he honed his interests in nature, influenced by the likes of Ira Gabrielson and Edward Preble, as well as doing his own research, writing, and editing. He worked at writing press releases, speeches for agency directors, radio scripts for the National Farm and Home Hour (in which he sometimes appeared himself). In 1942, after the start of World War II, the Fish & Wildlife Service was relocated to Chicago, but Zahniser found work in the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. He worked as the director of the Bureau's information and editorial division.

During this time as a federal employee, he contributed articles and essays to scholarly and scientific journals relating to the conservation/environmental movement. Zahniser's ideas about ecosystems and wilderness were influenced heavily by Harold Anderson, Harvey Broome, Bernard Frank, Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKaye, Robert Marshall, Ernest Oberholtzer, Olaus Johan Murie and Robert Sterling Yard, who were driving forces behind the fledgling wilderness movement and the formation of the Wilderness Society (founded in 1936). In 1945, Murie left the National Park Service to become director of the Wilderness Society in Moose, Wyoming, and at approximately the same time, Zahniser left the federal government and became the executive secretary of the organization in Washington, D.C. Murie and Zahniser led the organization and built a broad basis for support. Both were pivotal in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the 1910s and 1920s, there were several proponents of wilderness. Three men are considered pivotal in these early years and all were Forest Service employees: Aldo Leopold, Arthur H. Carhart, and Robert Marshall. Their efforts were successful at the local level in creating administratively designated wilderness protection for several areas across the country beginning in 1924 with the designation of the Gila Wilderness on the Gila National Forest. At the national level, there was a series of policy decisions (L 20 and U Regulations) that made wilderness and primitive area designation relatively easy, but what was lacking was a common standard of management across the country for these areas. Also, since these wilderness and primitive areas were administratively designated, the next chief or regional forester could "undesignate" any of the areas with the stroke of a pen. This situation was considered to be unacceptable by Zahniser and others.

Zahniser became the primary leader in a movement to have Congress designate wilderness areas, rather than the federal agencies. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he led conservationists of the era to successfully fight the Echo Park Dam. This was a Bureau of Reclamation proposal in 1949, to build a substantial hydroelectric project in Dinosaur National Monument as part of the Upper Colorado River Storage Project. The dam fight came to symbolize the nation's endangered parks and wildernesses. Zahniser served as a representative of conservation interests in negotiations with the government, and the issue was finally resolved in 1955 with no dam being built. With the support he had garnered from the conservation community during the dam fight, he went on to be an important leader in the campaign for federal wilderness legislation in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1946, proposed legislation for a Federal Wildlands Project articulating the vision of Benton MacKaye, then president of the Wilderness Society, was circulated, though it was never introduced into Congress. The lack of support for this proposed legislation showed Zahniser that substantial national support would be needed to achieve wilderness legislation. By 1949, Zahniser had a detailed idea for federal wilderness legislation in which Congress would establish a national wilderness system, prohibit incompatible uses, identify appropriate areas, list potential new areas, and authorize a commission to recommend changes to the program. It was not until after the Legislative Reference Bureau report on wilderness was published legitimizing concern for wilderness and the Echo Park Dam fight united the conservation community, however, that the first wilderness bill would be drafted.

In 1955, Zahniser began an effort to convince skeptics and Congress to support a bill to establish a national wilderness preservation system. Drafts of a bill were circulated the next year and introduced in Congress by Rep. John P. Saylor (R-PA). He sought to rally public opinion through writing in The Living Wilderness and other publications as well as organizing many talks to citizens groups across the country. By the late 1950s it seemed that the wilderness bill would eventually become law, but there were many legislative battles still to be fought. At the same time, the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act (MUSY) was also being pushed through Congress. Some have said that the MUSY was strongly supported by the Forest Service to counteract the wilderness legislation, and after passage of the Multiple Use Act of 1960 there were many who felt that there was no need for a separate wilderness bill since wilderness was one of the many multiple uses allowed in the act.

Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN) became a major supporter of the bill, but state water agencies, mining, timber, and agricultural interests were very much opposed. Also, the Forest Service and the National Park Service both initially opposed the bill not wanting to give up administrative control. The wilderness bill, which was stalled for several years in Congress, finally came out of committee with a compromise to allow mining in national forest wildernesses until 1984.

Howard Zahniser's son Ed recalled, at a national wilderness conference in 2000, that on Saturdays, it was his father's job to take the four children out of the house for "Zahnie's Rational Spousal Preservation System," and take them for hikes along the C&O Canal or to the National Mall museums and art galleries. He recounted that some of the Saturdays were devoted to Capital Hill visits where the four children could be found distributing Wilderness Act pamphlets to remaining members of Congress. Ed said, "We four kids could talk wilderness first hand...Did our squeaky-voiced squadron of Saturday lobbyists turn a heart or two? Who knows?"

Ironically, Howard Zahniser who pushed so hard for the act died on May 5, 1964, just a few months before the bill became the law of the land. Doug Scott, policy director of Campaign for America's Wilderness recalled Howard's last days. "Zahnie [as he was affectionately known] wasn't there to see it [the wilderness bill]...Just two days after testifying at [the final congressional hearing], Zahnie died at the age of 58...But, his widow, Alice, and Olaus and the incomparable Mardy Murie stood at Lyndon Johnson's side when the wilderness law was passed." President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on September 3, 1964. The act designed 9.1 million acres of wilderness in the new National Wilderness Preservation System, most of these coming from the national forests. Because of Zahniser's relentless efforts, he has often been called the "Father of the Wilderness Act."

A team of Forest Service wilderness managers met soon afterward in Washington D.C. to come up with implementing regulations for these new congressionally established wildernesses. What was felt to be an easy task eventually took many months as they sought consistent ways to manage the existing wildernesses. Part of the Wilderness Act of 1964 also set up procedures to evaluate existing primitive and roadless areas for possible inclusion into the wilderness system. For the next 20 years the roadless areas reviews (RARE and RARE II) would play an important and controversial role in Forest Service management of the national forests.

Zahniser served as executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, editor of its journal The Living Wilderness, and later executive director for the next 19 years. In addition to Zahniser's role in the Wilderness Society-and the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964--he played important roles in other conservation and environmental groups from the mid-1940s until his death. He wrote extensively for the Nature Magazine, where he contributed a monthly book review column from 1935 until 1960; organized the Natural Resources Council of America in 1946 (he served as the chairman 1948-49); served on the Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Committee on Conservation from 1951 to 1954; and was honorary vice-president of the Sierra Club after 1952, vice-chairman of the Citizen's Committee for Natural Resources in 1955, and president of the Thoreau Society for the 1956-1957 term. He was awarded the honorary Doctor of Letters (Litt. D) degree by Greenville College in 1957.

To see the entire feature page on Howard Zahniser, including commentary by Zahnie's son Ed Zahniser, click here.

Read Howard Zahniser's 1937 Allegheny River Journal.

Read the compilation of Howard Zahniser's career writings.

Read the in-depth biography of Howard Zahniser.

Read the Natural Areas Journal book review of WILDERNESS FOREVER: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act.

Peruse these Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles about Howard Zahniser and his incredible connection to the Allegheny National Forest.

"Savoir of wild places", Monday, August 13, 2001

"True Visionary", Sunday, September 5, 2004

Wach the hour-long documentary of the dedication of the Howard Zahniser historical marker in Tionesta, Pennsylvania, August 13, 2001.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Wilderness Act into law and handing the pen to Howard Zahniser's widow, Alice. Photo courtesy of Alice Zahniser

Howard Zahniser canoeing on the Allegheny River, June 1937. Photo courtesy Alice Zahniser

Howard Zahniser atop Crane Mountain, Adirondack Mountains, New York. Photo courtesy Alice Zahniser

Zahniser's son Matt and grandson David in front of Zahniser historical marker
Howard Zahniser's son Matt (right) and grandson David (left) next to the Howard Zahniser historical marker near Tionesta, Pennsylvania, September, 2004. Photo by Ben Moyer.

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