Howard Zahniser: Putting Ideas to Work

By Ashley Balsom, 
University of Montana, Wilderness and Civilization

Imagine you draft an act to be introduced to Congress. You spill your heart and soul into this act, truly believing in the good it will do. You understand the commitment it takes to get an act passed, so you rewrite the act as many times as is necessary (sixty-six, in this hypothetical), attend every single public hearing regarding this act, and lobby like hell to get it passed.

Now, imagine you never get to see the act signed into law. This is what the last 8 years of Howard Zahniser’s life looked like.

Howard Zahniser was born in 1906 and grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. He lived west of the Allegheny National Forest, where he established a love of nature. After attending Greenville College and earning a degree in the humanities, he became a newspaper reporter for a short time.

After his short stint in journalism, Zahniser went into federal government work, first with the Fish and Wildlife Service for 12 years, and then with the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering.

Along with working in the government, Zahniser kept up an output of environmental thinking and writing. Perhaps he still felt the strong pull of nature from his younger days. These were feelings molded by his reading of other famed environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Olaus Murie.

Around the same time that Murie became the director of the Wilderness Society, in 1945, Zahniser left his federal job and accepted the position there, where he worked closely with Murie until his death in 1964.

While working for the Wilderness Society, he became dissatisfied with current wilderness designation protocol. Although there were laws in place to designate and protect wild places, it was relatively easy to “undesignate” the areas to use the land for other values. In the early 1960s this was going on toward demands for housing. In fact there were some in government considering damming the Grand Canyon. None of these changes on the landscape sat well with Zahniser. Howard Zahniser was determined to change American land treatment.

Zahniser led conservationists in the fight against Echo Park Dam in Colorado, which was to be built in Dinosaur National Monument (DINO). Under consideration was a proposal to flood an area with multiple indigenous sites, wilderness valleys, and caves. Bernard DeVoto wrote an early opinion piece about the DINO dam. He compared it to the Hetch Hetchy. Zahniser was an influential in DINO negotiations, settled in 1955. After winning the fight against the dam, “he went on to be an important leader in the campaign for federal wilderness designation,” (

Starting in 1946, the whisperings of a Wilderness Act project began circling around Congress. Originally titled the Federal Wildlands Project, it lacked the support to be introduced into Congress. Zahniser saw the lack of support, and by 1949 “had a detailed idea for federal wilderness legislation,” (, n.d.).

In 1955, Zahniser began to garner support for a bill establishing a national wilderness preservation system. He was lobbying Congress for support of the Act, and he contributed to “The Living Wilderness,” the Wilderness Society’s magazine. By 1956, the bill had been introduced to Congress, although there would be a great journey before it was written into law. By the late 1950’s there was hope for the bill to become law, but many people believed that the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield (MUSY) Act was sufficient in wilderness protection, and a second wilderness bill was unnecessary.

However, Zahniser fought long and hard for 8 years, and made his final testimony to Congress on May 3rd, 1964. Just two days later, he died of heart failure. On September 3rd, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, with the late Zahniser’s wife, Alice, by his side.

Although there were many supporters of the conservationist movement in the United States during Zahniser’s lifetime, there were also many people opposed to the idea of federally protecting wild lands. Anyone who could profit from the land being set aside did not agree with the Wilderness Act, such as the American Pulpwood Association and the American Mining Association. Even the Forest Service and National Park Service were originally opposed, not wanting to lose control of “their” lands.

Zahniser poured his heart and soul into the Wilderness Act, an Act that now displays one of the United States unique cultural identity characteristics. By protecting the untamable areas, Zahniser cultivated a powerful force that permeates our political, social, and economic lives.

In the early 20th century, the conservation movement was just beginning to blossom. The United States Forest Service was founded in 1905, and the National Park Service was formed shortly after in 1916. People had ideas about the wilderness and how to protect it, but the majority of the country still saw wilderness through the biblical definition, being chaotic and threatening towards civilization.

Despite this, the conservation movement was gaining popularity by the time Zahniser died. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, which was a major factor in spurring eco-activism. It shed light on the misinformation that many chemical companies were spreading for their own financial gain, especially companies that used pesticides.

Zahniser was born in the era of Aldo Leopold and John Muir, two of the most widely known conservationists; they are commonly referred to as the Father of Conservation and the Father of the National Parks, respectively. Zahniser was greatly influenced by the conservation work they did.

Zahniser does not just relate to Wilderness stewardship; he is Wilderness stewardship. As the main author of the Wilderness Act, Zahniser shaped and defined what is considered Wilderness today. He made Wilderness available and accessible to future generations, knowing the value that they would hold to our country after he was gone.

Many people of Zahniser’s time did not agree with the Wilderness philosophy he had. While Zahniser defined Wilderness partly as “contain[ing] ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value,” (The Wilderness Act), a multitude of people saw the land only as what it could become for them. They failed to see the intrinsic value of the land, and therefore opposed the Wilderness Act on principle. This is still a common practice, where people do not realize that land is important just as it is, rather than for purposes that benefit humans.

The Wilderness Act has made a massive difference in protected land since it’s inception. The original act established 54 Wilderness areas totaling 9.1 million acres. As of 2015, there are now 1,592 Wilderness areas, adding up to a total of 217,883,316 acres across the country, and including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. This is an incredible amount of land for our nation.

Zahniser made a huge difference in the world of conservation. His actions led to the Wilderness Act being written into law. Without his passion and drive, the Act may never have passed. He gave the wilderness movement strong footing, and his dedication is an inspiration to wilderness enthusiasts everywhere.

Work Cited

Carson, R. (1964, 2002). Silent Spring. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Department of Agriculture. (1960). Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act. (Public Law 86-517) Washington D.C.

Department of Agriculture. (1964). The Wilderness Act. (Public Law 88-577) Washington D.C.

Geiling, N. How the Wilderness Act was passed: The landmark piece of legislation changed the way Americans looked at the great outdoors. Retrieved from the Smithsonian website:

Howard Zahniser: Author of the Wilderness Act. (n.d.) Retrieved from:

Shelton, H. (2014, November). 50 years later: how the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act changed the U.S. Retrieved from The Sierra Club website: c...

Summary Fact Sheet (2015, February 2). Retrieved from

Wehr, Kevin. (2008) "The State of Nature and the Nature of the State: Imperialism Challenged at Glen Canyon". History Essays from the Centennial Symposium. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. p. 835. Retrieved 2 June 2011.

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