Here is the photo of Evelyn Greene interviewing Ed Zahniser at his Bakers Mills cabin on Aug. 15, 2012.
An interview with Ed Zahniser of Bakers Mills and Shepherdstown, West Virginia adds a new subject to the archives of the Johnsburg Historical Society: the connection between the Federal Wilderness Act of 1964 and two Adirondack men with camps in the Town of Johnsburg. Evelyn Greene interviewed Zahniser at his cabin on Edwards Hill Road on Aug. 15, 2012. This interview is part of JHS’ Living History project, and is stored at the Society’s research library.
The landmark legislation was the brainchild of Howard Zahniser, Ed’s father, who was regarded by many as “the hero of wilderness.” When the act finally became law after many years of roadblocks, Congress was enabled to designate wilderness areas on federal public lands. Nine million acres were protected in the original act, and today 110 million acres are protected under this law.
The story of the 1964 Wilderness Act begins in 1946 when Howard Zahniser met Johnsburg’s Paul Schaefer (father of Evelyn Greene) in New York City. Schaefer was speaking to a large group about the “Black River Water Wars” and the troubling proposal to build more than 40 dams in the western Adirondacks. The dams would have flooded wildlife habitat and forest preserve lands which were protected under the New York State Constitution.
Schaefer invited Zahniser and his family to Schaefer’s cabin in the Eleventh Mountain area of Johnsburg. Like so many visitors to the area, Zahniser was seduced by the loveliness. On a hike with Schaefer in the High Peaks from Heart Lake to Tahawus and to the falls on the Opalescent River, Zahniser was impressed with the natural beauty. He remarked to guide Ed Richard that the federal government needed legislation similar to New York State’s Article 14, Section 7 “forever wild” clause.
And Zahniser was just the man to begin moving the country toward federal legislation to make wilderness protection permanent.
As a child, Zahniser had a teacher who encouraged students to join the National Audubon Society. From his interest in birds, young Zahniser saw the need to protect migratory pathways. His concern for the environment grew steadily, and eventually he went to Washington D.C. to work for the Department of Commerce and to serve at the Bureau of Biological Survey as publicist and editor. His work was influenced by the highly respected naturalist Edward Preble, for whom Zahniser’s new son was named, and by Olaus Murie, well known for his efforts to protect caribou and other migratory animals in Alaska during the 1930s.
In 1945 Zahniser left D.C. and went to work for the fledgling Wilderness Society where he edited the Living Wilderness magazine. One of his colleagues was Aldo Leopold, today considered one of the founders of the modern ecological movement. Leopold believed that the value of outdoor recreation is in its contrast to our daily lives (peace, quiet, natural beauty, wildlife).
Keeping in mind his prophetic 1946 hike in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Zahniser began to build interest in Congress for a wilderness bill. In 1949 he produced an inventory of federal wilderness lands, which generated interest from Congress for each member’s own state wilderness areas. By February 1956 Zahniser composed his first draft of the bill, in longhand, at his dining room table. In the summer of that year it was first presented to the Senate and the House of Representatives.
After a few more years of roadblocks, the bill was signed into law by President Johnson in 1964. Although Howard Zahniser died in May 1964 before the signing, he died knowing that the bill would be voted upon successfully. It passed in the Senate 78 – 12 and in the House 373 – 1.
Alice Zahniser signed the bill in place of her husband.
Interviewer Evelyn Greene and interviewee Edward Zahniser reminisced about the happy times they shared at the Zahniser cabin through many childhood summers. After the first visit to the Schaefers in 1946, the Zahnisers purchased 21 acres and a house at the top of Edwards Hill from Harold and Pansy Allen. The Allens wanted to move down the hill to flatter pastureland. With four children, husband away at work, no running water and no electricity, Alice Zahniser spent every summer at the idyllic retreat. Carolyn Schaefer and her four children, including Evelyn, would stay also in their nearby cabin. Water was supplied by the spring, meals were cooked over the fire, refrigeration was a bucket in the spring, and there was an outhouse. Electricity was added in 1964 and later a telephone.
Alice Zahniser continued to spend summers there with visiting children and grandchildren for 60 years.
Sharing his father’s love of the land, Ed Zahniser has worked for the National Park Service since 1977 as writer and editor. He has produced all visitor information brochures for each of the 58 national parks, has been involved with the rest of the 397 protected areas of the national park system, and has written books on Yosemite, Sequoia, Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend and others. He continues to write for the NPS to this day.
When asked about his major environmental concerns for the Adirondacks now, Zahniser noted two. One was the impact of snowmobiles on forest preserve and their contribution to noise pollution and wildlife stress. The other is the future of fire prevention in an area where more and more homes are being built in the forest. He cited the situation of the terrible recent wildfires in Colorado, a result of the interface between human habitat and the forest.
A recently written biography by Mark Harvey, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act, is available at Town of Johnsburg Library. Another publication of interest to naturalists and to caretakers of the land is Where Wilderness Preservation Began, edited by Ed Zahniser.
The two friends Howard Zahniser and Paul Schaefer have been described as having “a kind of wilderness dementia.” The Town of Johnsburg has benefited from their obsession.