News - Keeping the Wild In Wilderness - The Nation Celebrates Zahniser's Work

Keeping the Wild In Wilderness - The Nation Celebrates Zahniser's Work

By Carla Morris Keeping the Wild In Wilderness - The Nation Celebrates Zahniser's Work

Few colleges lay claim to a legend-in-the-making among their students, but this year, environmentalists nationwide will remember one student from the Greenville College Class of ’28 as legendary.

Howard Zahniser, shown in the College’s 1928 yearbook as president of its debating club, would one day ply his oratory skills on a national stage to champion The Wilderness Act, landmark legislation that he authored.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the law “one of the nation’s most successful and lyrically written environmental statutes.”

Zahniser’s legislative opus defined wilderness in the U.S. and created a way for Americans to preserve their most pristine wild lands for future generations. Today, the act protects more than 100 million acres in 750 wilderness areas nationwide.

Celebrating the Act and the Activist

Howard Zahniser

Twenty fourteen marks the 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, and commemorative events across the U.S. will renew memories of Zahniser’s epic campaign to win its passage.

The achievement showcased Zahniser’s strength and dexterity as a communicator and negotiator:

  • His eloquent writing
  • His sympathetic ear for all voices and tireless work to reach a common ground
  • His masterful ability to persuade
  • His patience

Uncommon Consensus

Zahniser crafted a document so strong that it has remained largely unchanged. Its success is due in part to the strong consensus he achieved on Capitol Hill. In eight years, he testified before Congress 18 times and drafted 66 versions of the act. The final version passed by a vote of 373 to one.

“[Zahniser] knew that if he listened long enough, and worked hard enough to accept other points of view, that he could ultimately forge a majority that would adopt his point of view,” explained environmental historian Mark Harvey in his book Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act.

Though Zahniser was confident of victory, he did not live to see it. He died of heart failure at age 58, just four months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on September 3, 1964.

Master Communicator in the Making

In college, Zahniser diligently pursued activities that fed his hearty appetite for literature, poetry and skilled oratory. He participated four years on the intercollegiate debate squad, edited the school newspaper and belonged to a literary society that also developed skills in public speaking and debate.

In an article for Backpacker, Zahniser’s son Ed recalled that his father’s interests in journalism and writing flourished in Greenville, adding, “And it was as a writer and publicist of wilderness that he later made his greatest contribution to America’s wilderness movement.”

Poetic and Eloquent Voice

Howard Zahniser taught high school briefly and then worked as a writer and researcher for federal agencies, including the Fish & Wildlife Service and the USDA. He later left government work to pursue his interests with The Wilderness Society, where he served as executive secretary and then director. He also lent his poetic voice as editor to the Society’s journal, The Living Wilderness.

Eloquence was his hallmark.

“He was persuasive, but never caustic or vindictive, either in speech or print,” a colleague once observed. “His speeches were masterpieces of conviction and logic mixed with humor.”

Zahniser’s oft-quoted remarks to an audience at the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Conference in 1961 exemplified his evangelistic zeal for wilderness preservation:

“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.” 


Today, the Wilderness Society calls Zahniser a “legendary leader.” Others call him “savior of wild places” and “Father of the Wilderness Act.”

At his alma mater, where he received an honorary doctorate in 1957, his passion remains alive. Students explore wild places through backpacking trips, canoeing, rock-climbing and an annual 10-day Walkabout in the Great Smokey Mountains. They often return understanding the spiritual and healing connection Zahniser saw in the wilderness.

“You don’t come back the same person; you know you’ve changed,” reflects one. “Sacred,” says another.   

And one, who has made the Walkabout journey multiple times, quotes Kathleen Norris: “Like Jacob’s angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing . . . this is my spiritual geography, the place where I¹ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance.”

Personal experience of the wild may indeed be the most fitting anniversary tribute to The Wilderness Act and its chief architect. 

Zahniser Institute LogoVisit the Zahniser Institute website to learn more about its history, current offerings, and the legendary Howard Zahniser.


This article will also appear in the Fall 2014 edition of The RECORD.

This story was published on September 03, 2014

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