When I compiled my first list of possible subjects for Voices of the Wilderness episodes, some names jumped right into the mix – Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.
Then I started digging into the USFWS archive material at the National Conservation Training Center, headquarters for the federal agency, an act that changed my trajectory.
One day, I was standing at a counter in the archive sorting through documents when USFWS historian Dr. Mark Madison walked by and asked, “Are you going to do an episode about Howard Zahniser?”
It was the first time I’d heard the name, yet it didn’t take me long to find out why I should get to know his story and start working on how to share it in film.
They said he wasn’t a “Wilderness Man”
Zahniser never lived Thoreau’s life of solitude, walked through the High Sierra’s nourished only by nature and the one biscuit in his pocket like John Muir or sabotaged bulldozers to discourage wilderness destruction like Edward Abbey. “Swashbuckling wilderness man” simply wasn’t Howard Zahniser’s style. All he did was quietly, determinedly set a course for the preservation of over 100 million acres in perpetuity, a goal that was ironically achieved just weeks after his death in 1964.
I am always intrigued by the influences that guided the “difference makers”, particularly those who have been inspired to preserve and protect the natural world. I enjoy traveling back to the towns of their childhoods to see the surroundings firsthand. It’s the first tangible connection I have with them.
In the case of Howard Zahniser, I traveled to Tionesta, Pennsylvania twice. It’s a beautiful town on the banks of the Allegheny River with the Allegheny National Forest snugging up against the city limits. It doesn’t take long to see where a young boy gained his reverence for the world around him.
Signs of Recognition
And the town maintains its reverence for their most famous citizen as well. A few years ago, the town hosted a celebration and unveiled a new Pennsylvania historical marker just north of town at the edge of the river. It is hoped that people will pause long enough to gain an appreciation for the man who ensured his generation would make sure that wilderness areas would remain part of our nation’s DNA.
I hope to help spread the word.