Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society became the leading critic of development and the destruction of the environment that attended that concept.

Summary of Event

On October 19, 1934, Robert Marshall gave the keynote speech at the American Forestry Association Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. That afternoon, he and four friends—Benton McKaye, a naturalist and city planner; Harold C. Anderson, an accountant, avid hiker, and developer of the Appalachian Trail; Harvey Broome, a Knoxville attorney; and Bernard Frank, associate forester with the Tennessee Valley Authority—had taken a trip into the mountains north of Knoxville. On the drive, Marshall, who was director of forestry in the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior, talked about organizing a national group interested in promoting the preservation of wilderness areas in the United States. No such group existed, he explained, because nationwide organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League focused most of their attention on saving wildlife rather than on wilderness in general. The Sierra Club Sierra Club focused on such a program, but that group, founded by the famous naturalist John Muir, had offices only in California. After Marshall’s talk, the other passengers in the car began creating a plan to organize the Wilderness Society. [kw]Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society (Oct. 19, 1934)
[kw]Leopold Form the Wilderness Society, Marshall and (Oct. 19, 1934)
[kw]Wilderness Society, Marshall and Leopold Form the (Oct. 19, 1934)
Wilderness Society
Wilderness preservation
Environmental organizations
[g]United States;Oct. 19, 1934: Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society[08730]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 19, 1934: Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society[08730]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 19, 1934: Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society[08730]
Marshall, Robert
Leopold, Aldo
Yard, Robert Sterling
Ickes, Harold
Collier, John (1884-1968)

Marshall had become interested in conservation as a teenager. Born to a wealthy family in New York City, he had spent many of his childhood summers at the family’s summer home in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. He studied forestry in college and received a master’s degree in forestry from Harvard University before going to The Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a doctorate in plant pathology. Before he joined the Department of the Interior, Marshall spent five years in Alaska, where he helped identify hundreds of Arctic plants and assembled a lengthy catalog of species.

In the Arctic, Marshall became a wilderness preservation advocate. Cities and industrial civilization, he believed, destroy the human connection with nature. Wilderness not only satisfies the human need for freedom and adventure but also makes people more self-sufficient, improves their health, and liberates them from the tension and pressure of civilization.

Marshall saw wildness as comparable to works of art and music in its importance to the human spirit. It presents opportunities for contemplation and meditation. All human senses are aroused by the sights and sounds of wild places, and the beauty of the wilderness cannot be matched by any synthetic objects. For these reasons, Marshall believed wilderness had to be preserved.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, a supporter of conservation, brought Marshall into his department because of Marshall’s reputation as a defender of wilderness. The Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled vast tracts of forest in the American West, and in the 1920’s agency leaders had advocated economic development on these lands. Roads and hotels would bring tourists into the forests and increase Native American prosperity. Marshall argued that the so-called benefits of civilization would never compensate for the loss of true wilderness. Wilderness was as important a resource as coal, oil, or lumber, and all of these resources needed to be preserved. On this point, Marshall won the support of Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier, who set up sixteen wilderness areas on reservations. That meant that no development would be allowed. The principle of no development became a key part of the Wilderness Society’s creed.

Shortly after the October 19 car trip, the organizers sent out an invitation to people believed to be interested in a movement to preserve the American wilderness. The letter stated that wild places had to be kept “sound-proof and sight-proof from mechanized life.” The recipients included Ernest Oberholtzer, a naturalist and leading defender of maintaining the Quetico-Superior region of Minnesota as a wilderness area; Robert Sterling Yard, a retired Park Service employee and critic of the government’s conservation policies; and Aldo Leopold, who had written essays on wildlife preservation and the ethics of conservation. John Collier and John C. Merrian, president of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, declined to participate.

Leopold was a former National Park Service ranger, a manager of national forests in Arizona and New Mexico, and a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin after 1933. His stature among naturalists and preservationists led Marshall to suggest that he be offered the Wilderness Society’s first presidency. Leopold initially agreed to serve, but he raised several questions concerning the group’s goals, membership, and agenda. Marshall envisioned a small, tightly organized group of “thoroughly earnest” wilderness lovers who appreciated the beauty and purity of the outdoors. In contrast, Leopold, who was a scientist as well as a wilderness advocate, believed that the group should be open to like-minded explorers who searched for a place to study animals, plants, and their relationship with the environment. When the Wilderness Society held its first conference in Washington, D.C., in January, 1935, the Wisconsin professor did not attend. Yard and other members chose Marshall as the group’s first president.

Marshall accepted the position, but his job with the government created a conflict of interest, and within a few months he had stepped down from the presidency. He could not promote wilderness and cooperate with the Bureau of Land Management at the same time because the bureau leased millions of acres of grasslands to western cattle ranchers. Secretary Ickes told Marshall that he could not hold both jobs, and so Marshall turned leadership of the society over to Robert Sterling Yard, the seventy-four-year-old former Park Service publicity director. Yard had quit that job after criticizing the agency for building too many roads and making parks too accessible to the public.

During its early years as a two-man organization, the Wilderness Society pushed for reversal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s conservation priorities. Roosevelt considered himself a conservationist, but his priorities differed greatly from the society’s. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Roosevelt and his advisers stressed recreation, forestry and lumber milling, range management, soil and water conservation, land reclamation, and wilderness in their conservation agenda. The founders of the Wilderness Society agreed that these priorities needed to be reversed.

In its first statement, the society called for maintaining primitive areas in the United States. The statement asserted that, since many of the most beautiful areas in the country had already been opened to automobile traffic, all future road construction should be halted (though exceptions could made for unusually compelling cases).

By the end of its first year, the society had 576 members and was slowly growing. The pace of growth did not dishearten Marshall and Yard; both men believed that a small, well-organized group of wilderness lovers would have more impact on Interior Department policy than would a large group of sports lovers, tourists, and fishermen. Wilderness had spiritual as well as recreational or economic importance, they agreed, and only those people concerned about preserving the most obscure plants and animals in the country would have the proper understanding of the society’s ethic. For these two men, preservation was important not only for human health but also for even deeper and more spiritual reasons. Maintaining undisturbed tracts of wilderness demonstrated a human commitment to living as part of the natural world rather than as destroyer and master of living things. The human being, in Aldo Leopold’s view, must learn to think “like a mountain” and must give up the drive to conquer everything. Mountains prosper because of the great abundance of life that they support. Respect for all life was the key to survival for all things, living or nonliving. The Wilderness Society sought to impart these values.

Marshall contributed most of the money, and Yard wrote the society’s newsletter and edited its magazine, The Living Wilderness. Living Wilderness, The (magazine) Yard did not want people in the group unless they were absolute purists on wilderness preservation. Aldo Leopold contributed an essay to the first issue of The Living Wilderness in which he summarized the society’s view of the human place in nature. Humankind, he said, had become far too arrogant toward the natural world and had to relearn its place in the biosphere. People needed to treat nature with “an intelligent humility,” and that meant leaving much of nature alone; no development or improvement was needed. Civilization was corrupt; nature was pure and free.

Yard promoted the society’s cause before Congress, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service (he received a salary from Marshall). In his view, and in Marshall’s, the Park Service had already gone too far in prioritizing accessibility over preservation. In the 1920’s, the Park Service National Park Service, U.S. had built roads, tunnels, and tourist facilities in an effort to encourage more people to use the parks, and these actions had thoroughly upset wilderness supporters. In the mid-1930’s, three projects especially troubled the preservationists: the Skyline Drive being built through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the proposed Ridgeline Highway cutting through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the proposed 450-mile National Parkway along the Blue Ridge Mountains from Shenandoah to the Smokies. Park and Marshall set out to fight these projects’ completion, but when their opposition met with little success, they turned away from the Park Service and decided to push for wilderness protection in the Forest Service. Forest Service, U.S. They reasoned that the national forests were more geared toward preservation, since they contained more than 188 million acres of land, while the national parks contained only 16 million acres.

Late in 1937, Marshall became the director of the Division of Recreation and Lands in the U.S. Forest Service. The agency had maintained primitive areas since 1929 but had no specific ban on road building or other improvements. The new director quickly set about issuing regulations restricting all development on Forest Service land. Unfortunately for wilderness advocates, Marshall died of heart failure early in 1939 while on a train trip to New York City. During his brief tenure with the Forest Service, however, he had set aside more than 14 million acres of land as pure wilderness.

Aldo Leopold became the intellectual leader of the Wilderness Society after Marshall’s death. Leopold served as Yard’s principal adviser and his link to other conservation groups around the country. He continued to write for The Living Wilderness and to expand his philosophy. In 1941, when the Saturday Evening Post accused Marshall of having been a member of the American Communist Party, Leopold came to his defense. The Post also informed its readers that Marshall’s brother George, who was a member of the board of the Wilderness Society, maintained his membership in the party. Leopold publicly supported the Marshall brothers and maintained that, as long as George did his job, political labels were not important.


The Wilderness Society became the nation’s strongest supporter of untouched wilderness areas. While other conservation groups, such as the National Wildlife Society and the American Forestry Association, tried to make accommodations with hunters, developers, and tourists, the Wilderness Society tried to remain faithful to the ethic established by Marshall and elaborated by Leopold. As Leopold wrote in an article titled “The Conservation Ethic,” human beings would have to totally transform their attitudes toward private property and nature if the earth were to survive. Land and the natural environment could no longer be treated like slaves to humankind. Human beings would have to learn that destruction and abuse were wrong, whether they were directed at human beings or at the land and nature.

According to its critics, the Wilderness Society advocated an antidevelopment agenda. The society’s publications, indeed, argued that development led to “the enslavement of the earth,” and that human beings needed to stop themselves from destroying the environment. Instead, the society argued, people needed to recognize their part in a community of plants and animals that needed to be treated with love and respect. It was imperative that some wild places be kept free from human access and economic development. Wilderness Society
Wilderness preservation
Environmental organizations

Further Reading

  • Glover, James M. A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall. Seattle: Mountaineers, 1986. Tells the life story of the founder of the Wilderness Society. Based on original research and on interviews with friends and relatives. Includes a balanced account of the founding of the Wilderness Society. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. A seminal work on the early history of conservation. Argues that the movement began as a search for greater efficiency in resource management, not as a democratic crusade against supposed business rapacity.
  • Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. The most detailed biography of the great conservationist. Based on extensive research in Leopold’s vast collection of papers, it includes useful information about the aims and goals of the Wilderness Society. Detailed bibliography and useful index.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and the environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Nash is the foremost authority on the history of conservation movements in the United States. This book conveys the spirit of the movement, discusses its successes and failures, and describes the major difficulties involved in challenging the basic values of modern society: production and consumption. Both do harm and destroy much of the natural environment. The Wilderness Society was among the first groups to challenge these values. Nash includes a lengthy bibliography.
  • _______. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Nash’s first history of the environmental movement and its challenge to modern ways of life. Includes much useful information about the founding of the Wilderness Society and especially about the role of Robert Marshall.
  • _______, ed. The American Environment: Readings in the History of Conservation. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1968. Collection of essays includes Robert Marshall’s “Wilderness,” written in 1930 and one of the few essays he ever published, and Aldo Leopold’s “An Ethic for Man-Land Relations.”

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