Much of the wilderness we cherish today was protected thanks to one tireless crusader: Bob Marshall. He would have turned 100 this week, on January 2. Marshall’s legacy influenced policy makers to designate wilderness long after his early death in 1939. The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, claims Marshall as its principal founder. Thanks mostly to Marshall’s inspiration and funds, the society successfully fought for passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
“To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness,” Marshall said in one of his many passionate writings on conservation.
The son of a famous activist lawyer, young Marshall began his love for the outdoors by exploring the forested Adirondack mountains each summer on family vacation. He was the first known to climb all 46 Adirondack High Peaks (over 4,000 ft). Inspired, he entered the forestry school at Syracuse (now SUNY-ESF), continued on to Harvard for a master’s degree, and to Johns Hopkins University for a Ph.D. in plant physiology.
While a US Forest Service (USFS) researcher in the 1920s, the humorous, energetic Marshall tirelessly surveyed 200 or more US wildlands in order to personally recommend them for wilderness designation. When the trails were good, he often covered 30 to 40 miles in a day, running the downhills and flat stretches wearing tennis shoes and sweaters-a harbinger of today’s ultralight fastpackers.
Intent on safeguarding more wildlands, Marshall continued in the 1930s to survey western roadless areas in between duties as Director of Forestry for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and later as USFS Director of Recreation. Not only was he instrumental in shaping USFS wilderness and management policies, his work resulted in the protection of 66 wilderness areas (9.1 million acres) during his lifetime, and much more wilderness after his death.
Mapping unknown lands was another of his passionate pursuits. After volunteering to chart roadless areas for the US Geological Survey, Marshall field-checked 46 unmapped areas himself, and funded the resulting publications personally.
Along the way, he became a pillar of the “monumentalist” environmental aesthetic, which valued size, scenic grandeur, and physical challenges as the yardsticks of true wilderness. Marshall’s explorations up Alaska’s North Fork of the Koyukuk River, and his euphoric descriptions of its surrounding peaks, led to the naming and designation of Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of America’s wildest and most spectacular preserves.
Marshall died suddenly and naturally at age 38, but in his short life achieved more on behalf of wilderness than most could accomplish in 100 years. Montana’s vast Bob Marshall Wilderness, affectionately known as “the Bob,” was named in tribute to his love for wild places.