Wilderness 101: All About the Bob

By Beacon Staff

After my “Wildernists” column, my secret advisory board jumped me for not fully explaining the “wilderness” concept to readers.

To begin with, wild land is wild land, but whether it is “Big-W” Wilderness, sanctioned by Congress, is a political act by human beings. God makes the ground, but only Congress (people) make Wilderness.

So, since people make Wilderness, it’s important to discuss the man who had the greatest long-term individual impact in terms of actualizing the nationwide Wilderness system we now have: Bob Marshall.

I checked out A Wilderness Original, a biography of Marshall written by James N. Glover, and now will shamelessly crib from it. It’s worth the read. Your point of view will determine how much you enjoy it. I didn’t.

Son of famed New York civil-liberties attorney and multi-millionaire Louis Marshall, Bob Marshall graduated with a masters in forestry from Harvard in 1924, then rotated in and out of Forest Service research back to college, then up to Alaska (where he himself named the Gates of the Arctic), then back to the States where he wrote a book about his trip (Arctic Village).

In 1932, the U.S. Senate commanded the Forest Service to present a “state-of-the-forests” report, which took shape as the 1,677-page Copeland Report. Marshall was tasked with writing the forest recreation sections, in which he recommended that 22.5 million acres be set aside in “Superlative, Primeval and Wilderness” areas.

By this time, Marshall was becoming an outspoken socialist with many, as Glover puts it, “liberal” friends. In 1933, he wrote a second book, The People’s Forests, (one tentative title: Those Bastards, the Lumbermen), based in part on the Copeland report. Marshall recommended nationalization of America’s forests by buying 240 million acres of then-private land for a total of 562 million acres, 84 percent of all forests in America. He then bought 750 copies and sent 531 of those to Congress.

His book was seen by some as “dangerous.” Others liked it, including John Collier, a reformer who had worked with Louis Marshall on an Indian water rights case. Marshall supported Collier’s appointment as commissioner of Indian affairs in the new Franklin Roosevelt administration’s Interior Department. Soon after, Collier put Marshall to work with the Indian Forest Service, at a Depression salary of $5,600 a year.

In 1935, Marshall and eight others founded the Wilderness Society (TWS), a clear conflict of interest which Interior Secretary Harold Ickes suggested handling by Marshall doing the work while letting “somebody else get the title.”

Work Marshall did. With the Indian Forest Service, he convinced Commissioner Collier to sign an order designating 4.8-million acres of tribal lands “roadless” or “wild” – without consulting any Indians. Then Marshall moved over to the U.S. Forest Service to be deputy chief of recreation and lands. Among other things, Marshall proposed the entire North Cascades from the Canadian border to Stevens Pass be designated wilderness. By 1939 he was complaining to his bosses that his proposals for 27 more primitive areas and 20 extensions to existing areas were not being implemented – especially in the Pacific Northwest. He also, in 1939, recommended to “keep Alaska largely a wilderness” – the Big W kind.

That last eventually happened, of course, in no small part thanks to lobbying by bachelor Bob Marshall’s de-facto “child,” the Wilderness Society.

Until his premature death in 1939 at age 39, Marshall was TWS’s lone check-writer. His estate (over $1.5 million) was split into three trusts: one promoting civil liberties; a second promoting labor unions and the “theory of production for use, not for profit.” The third promoted wilderness, run by five trustees, three of whom were Wilderness Society directors. The fourth was TWS’s only employee.

Marshall’s trust kept TWS alive in the early years and lasted long enough to provide $150,000 to fund TWS efforts to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act as well as an unspecified amount to lobby for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in the late 1970s, the biggest wilderness and parks bill ever, 40 years after Marshall’s death.

Next class, we’ll look at the Wilderness Act of 1964.

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