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Howard "Zahnie" Zahniser

Howard "Zhanie" Zahniser

Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Wilderness Act. Here, we feature a piece about its main author, Howard Zahniser (1906 to 1964).

“Howard Zahniser, or ‘Zahnie’ as he was known to friends and associates, grew up largely off the money economy and so did not get eye glasses until well into his youth. With their aid, he discovered that the world had sharper edges and even greater natural beauty than he had previously imagined. A public school teacher introduced him to bird-watching and inspired a lifelong fascination that no doubt attracted him to his eventual work in conservation.” – Edward Zahniser [1]

Howard Zahniser was born in February 1906 in Franklin, Pennsylvania. He spent his teenage years near the Allegheny National Forest. There, beginning with the birds, he developed a life-long interest in nature as well as a love of literature. He attended Greenville College in Illinois where he received a degree in humanities, later teaching school and working as a newspaper reporter. By 1930, Zahniser was employed by the USDA and other government agencies as a writer and an administrator. [2] His articles and essays caught the attention of leaders of the fledgling wilderness movement, and in 1945, he was hired to co-staff the Wilderness Society with Olaus Murie. Murie (in Wyoming) was policy director, and Zahniser was executive secretary of the organization in Washington, DC. Together they made a good pair, and both men were pivotal in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Zahnie’s spirit was alive in his bold writing:

The need is for areas of the earth within which we stand without our mechanisms that make us masters over our environment—areas of wild nature in which we sense ourselves to be, what in fact I believe we are, dependent members of an interdependent community of living creatures that together derive their existence from the Sun.” – Howard Zahniser. [2]

By the time Zahniser was involved, the country had enjoyed a national park system for decades. Yet after the Model T and a resulting fast-paced influx of mankind into park spaces and beyond, advocates began to educate about “true wilderness.” And the country would need some standard of management across the country for these new areas. Such areas demanded federal law. As Zahniser penned that need, it was “for a positive program that will establish an enduring system of areas where we can be at peace and not forever feel that the wilderness is a battleground.” [2]

Although Howard Zahniser’s entre to the movement was as an administrator and writer, not as a wilderness hiker such as Bob Marshall or a canoeist like Ernest Oberholtzer, he took many trips into various wild places with all the greats. These were times of coalition building, yet they were also times of healing from the wounds of Washington, and Zahniser kept careful journals and took it all in. He began to coin the phrases that would stand the test of time in the Wilderness Act. “Untrammeled” (unfettered, unrestrained) was a good example of Zahnie’s word choice when describing wilderness, “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Other poignant phrases spoke of the human relationship to the wild: “The character of wilderness… embodies an attitude of humility and restraint that lifts our connection to a landscape from the utilitarian, commodity orientation... to the symbolic realm serving other human needs.”

In a very sad twist of history, by the time the Wilderness Society council met in Alaska in the summer of 1963, Olaus Murie was ill with cancer, and Zahniser was feeling the effects of his gradually weakening heart. [3] On the morning of May 4, 1964, Zahniser’s heart stopped in his sleep. He was only fifty-eight. The Wilderness Act, however, was then nearly completed—it was signed on September 3rd by President Lyndon Johnson. Alice Zahniser and Mardy Murie were both present at the signing ceremony. (Olaus had also died the previous October). The Wilderness Act of 1964 constitutes Howard Zahniser’s greatest professional legacy.

All along, Ernest Oberholtzer was in the background, supporting the work from his waning years on Mallard Island and his early years living in the Frigate Friday on the shore of Bancroft Bay. Their correspondence was going strong.

Today, Ed Zahniser and his older brother, Mathias Zahniser both recall a canoe trip taken with Ober in mid-July of 1956. Mathias shared his journal of that week, telling of fishing with Ober’s young friend, Bob Hilke. That trip had a rainy start in Orr, MN, and finished on Mallard. It was a lot of work for its young participants, but it left them changed.

In mid-April (of this year) Ed Zahniser shared clear memories of that particular trip, now over fifty years ago: “Ober let me sit in the bottom of his canoe when he ran a set of rapids that looked questionable. He stood up in the canoe, studying the rapids. I was 10 years old that summer; I hunkered down as instructed. It was a long rapids that I was glad not to have to hike around. He had stashed a lot of heavy gear in the canoe to save portaging it.

Ober was a magician with a reflector oven. I remember his baking a pineapple upside-down cake part way through the canoe trip-- at an open wood fire. It furthered my education in how much outdoor cooking depended on what you knew about building and maintaining the right type of fire through the cooking process. What's more, Ober could tell a complete, long story nonstop while cooking an entire backwoods meal.”

Whether in the wild up on Namakan Lake or in the halls of Congress, Howard Zahniser and his family played a key role for those who love the wild, in the preservation of our shared wilderness. We close with more of Zahnie’s words, here explaining the declaration and baseline impact of this new wilderness policy:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” [4]

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[1] “Preserving Wilderness and Wildness as Enlarging the Boundaries of the Community,” by Edward Zahniser, son of Howard Zahniser

[2] Web article, “Howard Zahniser: Author of the Wilderness Act,” accessed 4-16-13.

[3] Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act by Mark Harvey, Univ of Washington Press, (2005)

[4] Public Law 88-577, 88th Congress, S. 4, September 3, 1964. First sentence.