Margaret 'Mardy' Murie spent her life living in and working for the protection of wild spaces
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Margaret 'Mardy' Murie spent her life living in and working for the protection of wild spaces

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Margaret Murie

Margaret "Mardy" Murie sits on her porch in Grand Teton National Park as the sun sets June 29, 2002, shortly before her 100th birthday. Murie is considered by many to be the mother of the wilderness movement.

Even after living for a century, Margaret “Mardy” Murie advocated for wild places, taking solace in nature everywhere, from Alaska’s far north to the beaver pond near her Teton County home.

The Wilderness Society calls her the “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.” Former President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. She wrote books on nature, landscapes and raising a family in the outdoors. Her legacy lives on with her husband, Olaus Murie, in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Murie Ranch of Teton Science Schools. She went on scientific expeditions around the world.

Those are some of the obvious accomplishments, the ones that make for good soundbites. For Kristen Girard, who manages the Murie Education Program at Murie Ranch, some of Murie’s “greatest legacies are her profound belief in people and the impact that one individual can have if they put their mind to it and if they have curiosity.”

Murie advocated for youth education. Even in her later years, she would invite community members and students from local schools to her ranch to listen to their stories and hear what inspired them.

“She liked to encourage that spark because she believed that young people were, and continue to be, the people who will take up the reins of conservation,” Girard said. “It’s in them that the hope of the future lies.”

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Murie was born in Seattle in 1902. At 9, she and her mother moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, where they spent a decade living in a four-room log cabin on the edge of town. There, fresh water arrived each morning from a horse-drawn cart and mail came once a week, Murie wrote in her book “Two in the Far North.”

She went to college in Oregon, Boston and then Fairbanks, eventually becoming the first women to graduate from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now the University of Alaska.

In 1921, after two years of college in Portland, she came home and met a tall, blue-eyed, “unassuming” biologist named Olaus Murie, who was studying caribou in the Brooks Range for the U.S. Biological Survey (what would become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

For years they corresponded back and forth by letter, meeting when possible in Olaus Murie’s remote outposts. Then at 3 a.m. Aug. 19, 1924, after Mardy, her mother and maid of honor traveled 800 miles downriver, the couple married. Minutes later, they walked outside to see the sunrise: “Out across the wide gray river, over the low willows, there was a bright splash of rose and molten gold. Mother and Olaus and I stood in the bow and watched a sunrise of promise. A beautiful world was waking to light here on the Yukon,” she wrote.

In 1927, Olaus was sent by the Biological Services to Jackson to study elk. There they would make their home base for conservation for decades as they raised their three children. They eventually purchased a dude ranch near Moose with their siblings, Adolph (Olaus’ brother) and Louise (Mardy’s sister) Murie, and the couples began to leave an indelible mark on the preservation of the country’s wilderness.

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It would be nearly impossible to adequately summarize Mardy and Olaus’ lives spent in conservation. Their writings include his book “The Elk of North America,” which is still considered the Bible of North American elk management; her book “Island Between”; his sketches and writing that filled field ecology books including Peterson Field Guide’s “A Field Guide to Animal Tracks”; and their shared book “Wapiti Wilderness” about their early lives in Wyoming.

Olaus worked for the Biological Survey until he left to “enter the struggle to preserve our remaining wilderness,” at the helm of The Wilderness Society, Mardy wrote.

There, the couple championed for the creation of The Wilderness Act. Olaus died in 1963, the year before The Wilderness Act was signed into law. Mardy traveled to Washington D.C. for the signing, then spent the next 40 years continuing the couple’s mission.

Murie died in 2003, a few months after celebrating her 101st birthday.

“She’s clearly, when you think of the icons of conservation — Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Wallace Stegner — she is in that league of icons when it comes to conservation and protection of public lands,” said Dan Smitherman, Wyoming state manager for The Wilderness Society.

As she traveled to Alaska in 1975 for a humanities forum, she articulated her thoughts on the state and wilderness:

“… perhaps Man is going to be overwhelmed by his own cleverness; that he may even destroy himself by this same cleverness; and I firmly believe that one of the very few hopes left for Man is the preservation of the wilderness we now have left...”

It was not only her curiosity and intelligence that made her so successful, Smitherman said, but also the couple’s ability to bring people together on their ranch in Moose to work on the future of the country’s wild lands.

She appreciated, to her very core, what wilderness and open spaces offered people and wildlife.

In their book “Wapiti Wilderness,” Mardy wrote about the tendency for travelers on the Union Pacific to travel through western Wyoming, “their eyes glazed with boredom.”

“At last, the wide sky, the wide land, broke and bare but stretching far to the limitless blue sky of Wyoming,” she wrote. “Room to breathe, to stretch one’s soul’s wings again. Here the big country still is. Always a joy to come back, to find it still big, still stretching away, meeting and passing starling buttes which rise here and there, and dry watercourses, drift fences, once in a while a ranch house and corrals nestling under cottonwoods and willows in one of those watercourses; once in a while a few cattle, a band of antelope in the sage, some horses galloping with the wind.

After the cities, a wave of thankfulness rises in my heart that the great United States still has some room, some great spaces.”

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"When I think about female representation in Wyoming’s outdoors," Peterson writes, "it’s not just an interesting topic to consider and then move on. It’s my future. It’s our future."

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