His Writing Helped Keep Wilderness Wild

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Wallace Stegner

02-01-2003 // Rene Ebersole

WALLACE STEGNER was never one to curl up on the couch with an old Western movie. He was usually far too busy for that sort of thing. Not to mention the fact that he hated Hollywood's vision of the "wild" West: rugged cowboys riding off into sunsets, Indians toting tomahawks. The silver-haired author was much more likely to be found in his study, peering through black, plastic-rimmed glasses as he tapped away at a novel about the real wild West: "A more fragile environment than any well-watered country," he once said, and when hurt, it "doesn't heal."

Often noted for his contribution to conservation of Western lands, Stegner had a prolific 60-year writing career, marked by countless essays, short stories and some 30 novels, including Wolf Willow, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, The Spectator Bird and the Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose.

Many of Stegner's novels had an environmental vein, and one of his biggest contributions to the conservation movement was his famous Wilderness Letter. "Something will have gone out of us as a people," he wrote, more than 40 years ago, "if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste."

The letter ends on the often-quoted passage: "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." Stegner's "geography of hope" served as a catalyst for the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the National Wilderness Preservation System that protected millions of acres of "untrammeled" land.

The author's appreciation for rugged, untouched landscapes began when he was a small child, living in Saskatchewan. His family moved there in 1914, at a time when the number of lakes within the Canadian province's borders practically outnumbered the people. Stegner sometimes joked that he didn't see a toilet or a tub until he was 12 years old.

His first major nonfiction work, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, was a marriage of his appreciation for the wide, open spaces of his youth and a love of history. Today, the book is still one of the most thorough accounts of Powell's Colorado River explorations. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once told the Los Angeles Times that Beyond the Hundredth Meridian was the book that opened him "to a whole new view of the West."

Stegner not only influenced people in the environmental field, he occasionally used his craft to fight-and win-battles. During the 1950s, he edited a book called This is Dinosaur that opposed the controversial Upper Colorado River Project, which aimed to divert large amounts of water from the river to agricultural and urban uses. This is Dinosaur helped persuade Congress to keep dams out of Utah's Dinosaur National Monument. In exchange, however, the Glen Canyon dam was constructed in north-central Arizona. According to Nancy Packer, a close friend and colleague at Stanford University, where Stegner taught creative writing, "Wally never really forgave himself for not winning that battle, too."

When the 84-year-old author died in 1993, he was remembered as "The Dean of Western Writers." As one conservationist put it, "Stegner joins John Muir, John Wesley Powell, Bernard DeVoto, Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey in the pantheon of friends of the West. He was the last of the giants."

The NWF Conservation Hall of Fame® was established in 1963 to honor people who have made major contributions to protecting natural resources and the environment. Wallace Stegner, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this March, will join the 27 conservationists who were previously honored. Rene Ebersole is an associate editor of this magazine.

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