Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Tionesta, Forest County
Conservationist Howard Zahniser was known as ?the Father of the Wilderness Act.?
Known as “Father of the Wilderness Act,” Howard Zahniser was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania on February 25, 1906. From 1955 to 1964 the executive secretary of the Wilderness Society tirelessly worked to convince congress to pass a Wilderness Act. Producing the first draft in 1955, he famously used the word “untrammeled” to define wilderness. In the following eight years Zahniser appeared before Congress 18 times and produced 66 other drafts. Dying of heart failure in May 1964, Zahniser did not live to see his act passed only four months later. The Wilderness Act effectively protected 9.1 million acres of Congress designated wild lands.
Conservationist Howard Zahniser was born on February 25, 1906 in Franklin, Pennsylvania to parents Archibald Zahniser and Bertha Zahniser. His father was a Free Methodist minister and changed churches every few years, relocating the family. Zahniser spent his teenage years growing up west of the Allegheny National forest in Tionesta, with his brother, Harold, and sisters, Elizabeth and Helen. It was in the majestic wilderness of Tionesta where he developed his love for literature, writing and for nature.
In 1924, he graduated from Tionesta High School, though not traditionally; rather he graduated in a bedside ceremony after having surgery on infected bone tissue. Zahniser had developed a bad case of osteomyelitis when he was seventeen; an antibiotic had not yet been developed in the 1920’s, therefore his only option was surgery. His family could not afford anesthesia however, so the surgery was quite painful. He was confined to hospital bed rest for several weeks after, where he received his high school diploma, and a considerable scar was left on his right leg. Though Zahniser was able to walk perfectly well after healing, the impact of osteomyelitis stayed with him throughout his life, somewhat limiting his outdoor activities. However, Zahniser continued to enjoy and participate in his love for hiking. Zahniser married Alice Hayden in 1936 and together they had four children, Mathias in 1938, Esther in 1940, Karen in 1943, and Edward in 1945.
Attending Greenville College in Illinois, Zahniser majored in English and minored in history. Throughout his college years, Zahniser competed on the debate team and wrote for the school newspaper. He also wrote part—time for the Pittsburgh Press and the Greenville Advocate during these years. After graduating, in 1928, Zahniser took a job as a teacher at Greenville High School. Two years later, on New Year’s Day in 1930, Zahniser arrived in Washington D.C. and shortly after he became employed in the division of publications at the Department of Commerce. In May 1931, he became a writer and editor for the Department of Agriculture at the United States Bureau of Biological Survey and worked there for ten years. While there, Zahniser worked to inform farmers and state agencies about critical issues of wildlife. Working in the public relations department, Zahniser issued regular and numerous statements to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which were then distributed to sporting magazines, daily newspapers, and the U.S. and Canada Office of Game Officials.
In 1935, Zahniser, or “Zahnie” as he came to be warmly called, earned the opportunity of writing a monthly column for Nature Magazine, a magazine embracing and promoting respect of wildlife. Eventually the Bureau of Biological Survey became the central agency for the USDA Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1942, it relocated to Chicago, Zahniser however, found work in the information and editorial division of the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. Upon its founding in 1935, Zahniser became the executive secretary of the Wilderness Society. In 1945, he became executive director of the society and editor of The Living Wilderness, the society’s magazine. Zahniser remained with the Wilderness Society until the time of his death.
In the late 1940’s Zahniser gained notice as the primary leader urging Congress, rather than federal agencies, to allocate wilderness areas. In 1949, Zahniser worked to lead conservationists in effectively fighting the Bureau of Reclamation proposal which advocated the implementation of a dam located in the middle of the Dinosaur National Monument at Echo Park in Los Angeles, California. Resolved in 1955, Zahniser’s efforts as a representative of conservation interests in negations with the government paid off and Echo Park was preserved. During this time, executive director of the Sierra Club, David Brower, and Wilderness Society’s Zahniser worked tirelessly in promoting the free flowing Yampa and Green Rivers at Echo Park.
The success in the preserving of Echo Park, sparked Zahniser’s passion for and realization of the need of federal legislation for the preservation of millions of acres of wildlands. Zahniser began the movement in 1955 to gather support in trying to convince Congress that a bill was needed to institute a national wilderness preservation system. In 1956, Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act defined a legal characterization for “wilderness” and in effect strived to protect 9.1 million acres of federal land. Using the word “untrammeled” to describe and define wilderness, his eloquent choice was questioned. However, Zahniser thought the word, meaning not limited or restricted, was an absolute fit for the use and stood by his decision. In the Wilderness Act, Zahniser defines “wilderness” as:
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.
The bill was opposed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, timber, mining, and agricultural interests as well as state water agencies. In 1957, the bill was introduced by Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and U.S. Representative John Saylor of Pennsylvania. By the late 1950’s the chances of Zahniser’s bill becoming law looked promising, however the Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act (MUSY), strongly supported by the Forest Service, passed in 1960, was said to counteract wilderness preservation legislation. Zahniser continued to write 66 more versions of his draft between 1956 and 1964, the word “untrammeled” remaining in each draft. Through 18 congressional hearings, Zahniser continued to speak on behalf of the Wilderness Society in advocating the act. In May 1964, he spoke before Congress on the implications of the bill to society:
Civilization’s ambition can encompass wilderness protection. And so sublimated, it can make preservation a prevailing purpose. We maintain the gallery of art, even though few use it...The wilderness system that has come to use from the eternity of the past we have the boldness to project into the eternity of the future. It seems presumptuous for men and women who live only forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, or eighty years to dare to undertake a program for perpetuity, but that surely is our challenge.
On May 5, 1964, one week after his congressional appearance, the “Father of the Wilderness Act,” died in his sleep of heart failure, at his home in Hyattsville, Maryland. The 58—year—old was buried 25 feet from the Allegheny River at the Tionesta Riverside Cemetery. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission commemorative roadside marker in memorial and appreciation of Zahniser’s tireless work was placed on Route 62 along the Allegheny River just north of Tionesta in August 13, 2001. Zahniser was survived by his wife and children. Along the Allegheny River Islands Wilderness in 2004, a commemorative canoe trip was hosted in memory of Zahniser by the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness. The canoe trip memorialized a similar one taken by Howard and Alice Zahniser from Olean, New York to Tionesta in 1937.
On September 3, 1964, only four months after Zahniser’s death, and after an eight year legislative course, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Eight years in the making, the final bill authorized congress to designate recommended areas as wildlands and called for the protection and preservation of 9.1 million acres. A compromise on part of the bill was also reached and allowed mining until 1983 in national forest wildernesses. Since 1964, there have been over 100 wilderness bills signed into law. Known today as, “The Wilderness Act of 1964,” the monumental legacy of “Zahnie’s” continues to stay in effect, and the Wilderness Society successfully continues to protect the last untouched wild places.
Harvey, Mark. Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2005.
Hopey, Dan. “Savior of wild places: Franklin native Howard Zahniser worked tirelessly for the passage of ’64 Wilderness Act, A new marker in Tionesta memorializes his work.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 13 Aug. 2001: A8.
Moyer, Ben. “True Visionary — Tionesta native had a hand in the national Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 Sep. 2004: C18.
Wilderness Act. Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136) 88th Congress, Second Session. Sep. 3, 1964.