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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Looking Back: Howard Zahniser

Every so often it's good to look into the past to revisit the people who got us where we are today. Looking Back is a series on the people who helped shape the National Wildlife Refuge System. The series is based on "A Look Back," a regular column written by Karen Leggett, from the Refuge System Branch of Communications, which appears in each issue of the Refuge Update newsletter.

Howard Zahniser was known in Washington, DC, for his genial personality, his poetic prose, and his coat.

Zahniser PortraitCourtesy of Wilderness.net

The coat, tailor-made for Zahnhiser, had multiple oversize pockets to hold handouts and drafts of legislation while Zahniser made his rounds on Capitol Hill in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1906, Zahniser taught school and worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming a writer-editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its earliest days, when he worked with its first director, Ira Gabrielson.

In 1945, his wife pregnant with their fourth child, he left the security of government service and became executive secretary of The Wilderness Society, then a fledgling organization. He remained there for the rest of his life, working closely with wildlife biologist Olaus Murie.

Zahniser and the MuriesHoward Zahniser, Mardie Murie, and Olas Murie Courtesy of Wilderness.net

They were an unlikely pair – Murie preferred his log cabin in Moose, WY, while Zahniser roamed the halls and offices of the nation’s capital.

Together, they built The Wilderness Society and worked tirelessly for federal legislation to provide permanent protection for wilderness lands.

Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956, with its eloquent definition:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 

As the son and nephew of ministers, he often spoke of wilderness in spiritual terms, believing its protection was “vital for providing spiritual uplift in an increasingly mechanized and urbanized society,” according to biographer Mark Harvey.

Zahniser and the MuriesHoward Zahniser and Olas Murie, Courtesy of Wilderness.net

Zahniser influenced numerous rewrites of the Wilderness Act, attended all 18 public hearings on the bill, personally lobbied virtually every member of Congress and held together a coalition of conservation organizations, most small then. But his chronically weak heart gave out on May 15, 1964. The Washington Post wrote that there was “special poignancy in the death of a man on the apparent eve of his attaining the goal for which he had long and devotedly labored.”

Less than five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law, seated next to the widows of both Zahniser and Murie.

At the Signing of the Wilderness ActSigning of the wilderness act, 9/3/1964; President Johnson giving pen to Alice Zahniser with Mardy Murie looking on, Courtesy of Wilderness.net

Then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey remarked that, “Howard Zahniser has left for all time to come a legacy to future generations which neither time nor man will ever erase.”

Wonderful story!
# Posted By | 12/19/11 8:03 PM

As Howard Zahniser' first child who still misses him very much I thank you for this excellent tribute.
# Posted By Mathias Zahniser | 12/20/11 12:26 PM

beautiful tribute. thank you.

granddaughter of H.Z.
# Posted By Layla Ward | 12/26/11 7:20 PM
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