Before the national rallies and international campaigns that launched a conservation movement known as Earth day, Wyoming native John Turner and a handful of others held their own ecological event.
In 1969, Turner was a graduate student at the University of Michigan working on eagle and osprey research throughout the West. He and several other students decided to host the country’s first environmental teach-in – a large event meant to teach and foster discussion. The campaign took months to plan and organize, but it paid off. Thirty thousand people attended, representing corporations, schools, public officials, celebrities and entire communities. Participants learned about ecology, the environment and conservation.
The next year, former Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson’s staff asked Turner and his friends how they pulled it off. Using their t-shirts, buttons, hats and other promotional materials, Nelson launched the nation’s first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
“They used our recipe,” Turner said. “We gave them the resources and ideas and they went back and opened their office and launched what has become a wonderful phenomenon.”
Turner credits his Wyoming roots — growing up on a ranch and hunting and fishing near Jackson — with his success as a leader in the conservation movement. He went on to serve in the Wyoming State Legislature for 19 years, became the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later the assistant secretary of State. He helped created 50 wildlife refuges, protected wetlands and formed international partnerships.
Turner is not the only national conservationist whose experiences in Wyoming influenced their environmental missions. In recognition of Earth Day, celebrated Monday, the Star-Tribune looked at a few of the nation’s most prominent conservationists to see how they were shaped by, and helped shape, the Cowboy State.
George Bird Grinnell
and Theodore Roosevelt
Discussions of early conservationists in the West generally start with Theodore Roosevelt. Credited with designating 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reserves, five national parks and forming the Boone and Crockett Club, the 26th president had a lasting impact on the West, said Jeremy Johnston, managing editor of the papers of William F. Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
But conservation scholars talk about another man, George Bird Grinnell, as the unsung hero of the time.
Grinnell came to Wyoming first as a graduate student in 1870 to study fossils in the southern part of the state, said Chris Madson, editor of the Wyoming Wildlife magazine.
He returned nearly every summer and was part of an 1870s reconnaissance mission to Yellowstone National Park. What he saw there shocked him, Johnston said.
Hide and market hunters killed bison with reckless abandon. Without immediate intervention, the West’s great animal herds faced extinction, Madson said.
Grinnell took over leadership of a magazine called Forest and Stream. By the 1880s, he focused his efforts on stopping the massacres and commercialization of wildlife, Madson said.
In 1885, a young Roosevelt sent Grinnell his manuscript called “Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man.” His stories detailed his years spent on a ranch in North Dakota and hunting trips to Wyoming. Grinnell responded politely, telling him it was, essentially, “charming in its freshness and naiveté,” Madson said.
“Teddy wasn’t the kind of guy to take that faint praise very well,” Madson said. “And so he stormed over to Grinnell’s office and barged in the front door.”
Grinnell told Roosevelt about his many years spent writing, working and exploring the West, including running a ranch in Shirley Basin.
He then asked how that compared to Roosevelt’s young adventures.
“Ted calmed down and they became fast friends,” Madson said.
Together they brought more attention to Yellowstone, fought against commercialization of the park and efforts to shrink the park’s boundaries, Johnston said.
Grinnell also helped Roosevelt form the nation’s first major hunting conservation group, the Boone and Crockett Club.
Grinnell started the first Audubon Society after realizing that overhunting of plumes — birds with beautiful, showy feathers such as the snowy egret — driving the birds to near extinction.
His ability to hatch an idea, and then allow someone else to take credit for the outcome, was one of his talents, Madson said.
“You can argue back and forth about how much Grinnell had to do with forming Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas,” Madson said. “But, it’s hard to mention one name and not the other.”
Olaus and Mardy Murie
A couple of decades later, a man named Olaus Maurie came to Jackson to study the elk Grinnell and Roosevelt helped preserve.
Murie had been a field researcher in Alaska, studying everything from caribou to waterfowl breeding areas, Madson said.
Wyoming was where he started working on a national scale.
“He literally wrote the book on Jackson elk,” Madson said. “It’s called ‘The Elk of North America’ and it rises from his extensive, extensive field work.”
That book then helped shape elk management policies across the West, he said.
Murie brought his wife, Mardy, with him to Jackson and together they began a fight for the nation’s wilderness.
He became one of the leaders of the Wilderness Society, working from his log cabin near the Tetons, said Jon Mobeck, executive director of The Murie Center.
Olaus Murie died in 1963, shortly before he could see the passage of the Wilderness Act. He and Mardy Murie are credited for not only the act, but also the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Mobeck said.
Mardy Murie continued their work for decades, writing books and testifying before Congress on behalf of open spaces. In 1998, former President Bill Clinton gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
“She was an ordinary citizen who was passionate and had incredible conviction,” Mobeck said. “And she was somehow able to relate to people on different sides of issues in a way that wasn’t divisive.”
Their attitudes toward nature, and their actions on conservation, were shaped in large part by Wyoming, Madson said.
In the couple’s book, “Wapiti Wilderness,” Mardy Murie writes: “All the modern conveniences…have come to Jackson Hole. But why? The reason for all of it is still the place itself, the untouched natural part of it. There is indeed, as we have been saying through the years, ‘something about it.’”