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Conservationist Answered America's Call of the Wild

Edgar Wayburn, 100 today, has protected more parkland than any other American.

September 17, 2006|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — When Edgar Wayburn first visited Alaska in 1967, the federal government was still unsure what to do with the new state's 360 million acres.

Wayburn, a San Francisco physician and then-president of the Sierra Club, knew exactly what should happen. He and his wife, Peggy, spent that summer scouting locations for new national parks in the sprawling state.

Thirteen years after the Wayburns first fell for Alaska, they saw the final piece of their vision realized. President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, creating 10 new national parks that doubled the size of America's national park system and provided protection for 104 million acres of Alaska wilderness, rivers and wildlife.

"It was the greatest act of wilderness creation that we'll ever see on this planet," said Roderick Nash, an environmental historian and author of "Wilderness and the American Mind."

Wayburn, who turns 100 today, is responsible for protecting more parks and wilderness than any other American, President Clinton said in recognizing his work in 1999.

He was the impetus behind the establishment of Redwood National Park. And he pushed for creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a remarkable swath of protected land starting with the Presidio at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and advancing north along the coastline for more than 70 miles of parks, forests and beaches to Point Reyes National Seashore.

A five-term president of the Sierra Club, Wayburn reflected recently on his years of fighting for parkland.

"At that time we didn't have much dedication of land compared to what we have today. There was a great deal that hadn't been done. So the opportunities were there for doing more," he said. But, he added, times have changed. "People are having a much harder time today to accomplish similar things."

In 60 years of activism, Wayburn ushered one of the nation's oldest environmental groups, taking it from a genteel era of pack trips and wildlife lectures into a time of bare-knuckle lobbying for conservation legislation and the navigation of a dense thicket of newly minted environmental laws.

The Georgia-born Wayburn was known for his soft-spoken, cordial approach. But he didn't shy away from a fight.

"True. He was always a perfect gentleman," said Nathaniel Reed, assistant secretary of Interior during the Nixon administration. "But he'd cut your throat in a dime if you didn't agree with him. You could disagree with Edgar, but you had to have good rationale. If you crossed Edgar, he would roll you, eight times out of 10."

And he never missed an opportunity to lobby. While he was in the receiving line after Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, Wayburn, then in his 90s, shook Clinton's hand with a vise-like grip and proceeded to inform the president about the myriad wild places his administration had failed to protect.

Politicians, environmentalists and historians today say it is not likely that Wayburn's accomplishments can be duplicated, and they place him high in the conservation firmament, with the likes of Sierra Club founder John Muir. For his cumulative conservation achievements, Wayburn was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award for Humanitarianism.

He managed it all as a private citizen, a volunteer, on weekends and on vacations, while running a thriving medical practice and helping to raise four kids.

Wayburn, a Republican for most of his life, is an unlikely environmentalist. Raised in Macon, Ga., he played out his courtship of the Bay Area over leisurely summers at the side of his San Francisco-born mother. Wayburn earned a medical degree from Harvard and settled in San Francisco before serving in the Army Air Forces in World War II.

He carried memories of the Bay Area's pastoral hills with him throughout the war. But he says they were shattered when he returned and took in the busy industrial shipyards in Oakland and the newly erected housing on the nearby hills. That vision of headlong development prompted his campaign to preserve the Marin Hills, which to that point had remained mostly untouched.

While starting a family and running his medical practice, Wayburn and his wife, a fellow conservationist, focused on areas in California they thought needed to be saved from the post-war development boom. As the environmental movement gained steam in the mid-1960s, Wayburn, then at the helm of the Sierra Club, was at the forefront, always guiding with a velvet-gloved fist.

He says he won over Rogers Morton, Nixon's formidable secretary of the Interior, through persistence and patience. The Sierra Club had opposed Morton's Cabinet nomination, and after he was confirmed, Morton twice refused to meet with Wayburn. But Wayburn had gone to Washington and gotten to know Morton's aides, who put in a good word for him. Finally, Morton agreed to a meeting.

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