By Dan Ritzman, Arctic Wild guide and Alaska Program Director for the Sierra Club.
Over the past month we have lost two of the great champions for Alaska’s wild places – Stewart Udall and Dr Ed Wayburn
Stewart Udall grew up in the southwest but he has left his mark on the wild lands across this
country. As Secretary of the Interior for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Udall played a key role in fostering environmental awareness and expanding the national park system. His efforts led to the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, under which many key lands in Alaska are managed including much of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Maybe most importantly for Alaska and Alaska’s Native People, when he was Secretary of the Interior in the early 1960’s, government and private interests were acting as though the Native people of the State of Alaska had no rights in their ancestral lands. Stewart Udall imposed a land freeze on all of Alaska lands transfers in 1964, which meant that no title could be exchanged on any Alaska lands until a settlement had been reached with the aboriginal people of the state. That drove the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and section d-2 of that Bill set the stage for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Dr Wayburn was a five time President of the Sierra Club and has been called a “20th Century John
Muir.” To me Dr Wayburn was a personal hero, one of America’s legendary wilderness champions, and certainly the least-known yet most successful defender of America’s natural heritage. In 1995, he was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and in 1999 President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Under Dr Wayburns leadership the Sierra club lead the charge to pass the Alaska national Interest Lands conservation Act which ultimately protected over 100 million acres of Alaskan wildlands.
I came to know Dr Wayburn early in my conservation career when I traveled to San Francisco from Fairbanks to organize around a series of hearings in the lower 48 focused on Arctic wildlands. Dr Wayburn took me under his wing, offered my office space and advice and I learned so much from him about conservation, and the importance of approaching our work with a positive attitude and a love for the land. During my tenure in Washington DC I was honored to work out of the Wayburn Wilderness House which honored Dr Ed and his wife Peggy for all the work they had done on behalf of America’s wild places.
It has been a sad month for those of us who love wild lands, but the legacy of these two great individuals live on in the lands they have protected and in the conservation ethics of their families and friends. I don’t know if I believe in a heaven, but if its there we can rest assured that when we get their, these two will have organized to protect the best parts of it.