Text excerpted from the book: PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN: 978-1-63388-225-6)
Budd Titlow & Mariah Tinger
Sometimes it takes a person with a tenacious spirit coupled with an unyielding march toward a personal goal that makes the world a better place for us all. Just such a person and event came together in 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) signed the Wilderness Act—that created the National Wilderness Preservation System—into law.
Ironically the incredibly dedicated person that made this come to fruition—after writing 66 drafts of the legislation over an eight-year period and leading 18 Congressional hearings—was not around to see the landmark act put into force. Howard Clinton Zahniser, the “Father of the Wilderness Act” and another Past Environmental Hero, died from a heart attack just four months before LBJ’s pen hit paper. But anyone who knew this ebullient man realized that he was there—floating invisibly high above the scene and grinning with glee—when the President handed the now famous signing pen over to his widow, Alice.
Howard Clinton Zahniser, the “Father of the Wilderness Act” died from a heart attack just four months before LBJ’s pen hit paper.
Zahniser—called simply “Zahnie” by all who knew, loved, and respected him—was born in 1906. His father was a Free Methodist minister who moved his family around a lot before settling in the tiny, but scenic village of Tionesta hard by the banks of the Allegheny River. Zahnie graduated from Greenville College, a small Christian institution in Illinois, with a degree in writing. Afterwards he worked as a newspaperman for several papers, including the Pittsburgh Press. Throughout his career, Zahnie displayed a humility that was couched in his childhood—growing up as a devout Free Methodist.
After working for twelve years as a writer and editor with the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey, and its successor agency—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—Zahniser took a pay cut to serve as Executive Secretary of The Wilderness Society and editor of The Living Wilderness Magazine. During his almost 20 years (1945 to 1964) in this position, he tenaciously lobbied and worked with other conservationists across the Nation for a piece of draft federal legislation called the Wilderness Act.
Often communicating his passion for wild places and arguments for their preservation, Zahniser was both a gifted writer and an eloquent speaker. He used a variety of media—including magazine articles, radio addresses, professional speeches, and congressional testimony—to get his message about the value of wilderness across to the general public and the legislators on Capitol Hill.
Zahniser pushed himself to the breaking point—including often going more than 24 hours without sleep—to finally get the Wilderness Act passed. In the final tally, the Wilderness Act passed the US House of Representatives by the amazing vote count of 373–1.
When it first passed, the Wilderness Act protected 9.1 million total acres in fifty-four areas in thirteen states. By 2015, the number of areas in the world’s only Wilderness Preservation System had grown to 757—protecting more than 100 million acres in forty-four states and Puerto Rico. Regrettably, in all of these wilderness areas, there is not a single feature named in honor of Howard Zahniser. Although, we strongly suspect Zahnie wouldn’t mind this slight—since his life’s labor was finally in place to benefit the public good.
Never assuming the limelight as did some of his more widely acclaimed contemporaries —including David Brower, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold—Howard Zahniser was always content with staying in the background and subtly pushing his basic message that “without untrammeled wilderness, mankind would be materially and spiritually impoverished.” He simply believed that wilderness protection legislation was a necessity, so that its preservation would not be subject to whim, political expediency, or greed. Zahniser’s son, Ed, is quoted as saying, “It was not just an environmental ethic my father had. He viewed conservation as part of a broad humanism. Thoreau said that in wildness is the preservation of the world, and my father believed that.”
“I believe that at least in the present phase of our civilization we have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness – a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in nature.”
– Howard “Zahnie” Zahniser
Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.