Contributed by Will Rice
On the Snake River in the south end of Grand Teton National Park sits the Murie Ranch, the homestead that served as home to the Murie family for nearly sixty years and the informal home to the wilderness movement for the better part of the twentieth century. Such luminaries as Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and Terry Tempest Williams have graced its guest cabins. It saw the launch of the Wilderness Society, debates over predator control in our national parks, and the preservation of the Alaskan wilds. Above all, however, it was a home. It is where the brothers Murie, biologists Adolph and Olaus, and their wives, Louise and Mardy, raised their families. Decades of sunrise hikes, midday naps, and twilight rambles forged a connection between people and place that would be impossible to fully convey. Mardy Murie attempted to capture a hint of her personal relationship with the park in her essay “Welcome to Grand Teton”:
In my many years living in this valley called Jackson Hole, I have sometimes had half-waking fantasies about how such a very special place came to be. One could almost imagine that 50 or 60 million years ago some great force purposely set about to create a valley as beautiful as any valley could be. A step further into fantasy, one might imagine this great force saying: “Let us start, of course, with mountains. I shall raise up a block of granite from the Earth planet’s interior; over the centuries it will become 4,300 meters high; time and the winds and waters will sculpt it. Looking across to it will be other hills and mountains, and glaciers will form the valley and then melt away and there will be waters and streams flowing through. But with only the winds and waters singing, it will be too quiet, it will not be alive, so there must be animals— mammals, birds, fish, frogs, toads, butterflies, and all the rest.” Within this space the Creator must have intended to bring man in humility to his knees…This is the Teton Range.
Margaret “Mardy” Murie was a lot of things. She was an Alaskan, the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was a dirtbag, spending her honeymoon dog sledding through what would become Gates of the Arctic National Park. She was a scientist, spending her life adventures studying and living in America’s North Country public lands with her husband, famed wildlife biologist Olaus Murie. Suffice it to say, Mardy Murie was a force.
The Grandmother of Conservation, as she is known, went toe to toe with America’s political titans on environmental and public land issues. In the 1950s, she helped persuade President Eisenhower to create her beloved Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1960s, she and Olaus championed the Wilderness Act, and Mardy stood at President Johnson’s shoulder as he signed it into law. In 1963, Olaus passed away. Following his death, Mardy began campaigning for public lands with seemingly unrelenting energy.
The 1970s brought the fight of her life, an opportunity to protect a huge chunk of her home state of Alaska through the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. It was a personal pursuit. These were the lands that she and Olaus had spent the first years of their marriage studying and building a family. The fight culminated on a warm June day in 1977. Mardy sat before an all-male House Subcommittee of Congress to testify on behalf of legislation that was to protect 157 million acres of national parks, refuges, monuments, wild and scenic rivers, forests, and conservation areas. Her message was blunt:
I am here before you today, gentlemen, as an emotional woman…I feel deeply about all of these areas, but am not going into detail about them. You have been, or will be, told a great deal about their physical characteristics. I am only trying here to tell you why I, an emotional woman, but a woman familiar with Alaska, think they should all in their innocence and beauty be cherished.
I don’t know whether the human race is going to survive very much longer; I sometimes wonder whether we deserve to. Who knows what is ahead in the long march of evolution? But saving the last remnants of wild untouched country seems to me to be the one wise, altruistic, beneficial, and practical action this Nation can take for its sanity. It is tremendously important and providential fact that, so far as all research to date shows, the areas which have been selected as the most important for wildlife, for scenery, for recreation, for undisturbed ecosystems in Alaska, are not known to have appreciable resources of oil or minerals.
Therefore, when all the nonrenewable resources have been dug up, hauled away, piped away, to satisfy the needs of a certain span of users, Alaska can still have a renewable, self-perpetuating resource of inestimable value, value economical, value spiritual, value for the health of the people. In the long view—all Alaska needs to do is be Alaska. That will be her economy. If managed with ordinary commonsense, it will be a stable economy…All I have said here could be called emotional, sentimental, impractical, too idealistic. I am here to plead an impractical theory, for I firmly believe there are cases where idealism is in the long run the most practical and I believe this is true of Alaska now.
On December 2nd, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Act into law. Before it passed, he went on the record to thank Mardy for all she had done for the sake of the Alaskan Wilderness.
Now Mardy is gone. And her home for more than seventy-five years, Grand Teton National Park, is being threatened. The introduction of a bill in the House of Representatives proposes pulling back regulations on oil and gas drilling in those national parks that are qualified as “split-estate”, where the federal government owns the land, but private owners maintain the rights to minerals below the surface. Among the twenty “split-estate” national parks stand the likes of the Tetons of Wyoming, the Everglades of Florida, and the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. Protecting them will require that same emotion Murie evoked to protect the places she loved. It will take that unapologetic display of feeling, that honest exclamation of sensitivity, to reject this and similar bills to come.
Now is the time to stand up for the places that have brought us to our knees, to embrace the idealism that is distilled in the wild corners of our country. That feeling, idealism, is the common resource across our parks. It plumes up from evening campfire circles, bounces off canyon walls as a child’s laughter, and stains t-shirts under the weight of backpack straps. It, above all, is what we gain from time afield. It is the economy of the American landscape, and though our public lands fill us with a million emotions, all just as unique as the geographies of hope they embody, idealism might be the most abundant.
So show some emotion. Be an idealist. Reject the rhetoric of those who tell you to refrain from protesting, posting, or petitioning. Let the idealism found in our parks run rampant. Let Mardy’s “impractical theory” reign on.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service