Your Land and Mine: Evolution of a Conservationist
November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Harvey
WITHIN THE LAST two decades, several scholars have written about a number of the leading conservation activists who appeared in the United States and Canada in the crucial decades following the Second World War. Thanks to insightful biographies of Sigurd Olson, Ernest Oberholtzer, and Aldo Leopold, as well as collections of their writings and those of their colleagues, the lives of key figures in the postwar era have been ably chronicled. Edgar Wayburn, a leading figure in the Sierra Club for more than four decades, has now added his story to the mix with an engagingly readable memoir entitled Your Land and Mine. Working closely with his wife, Peggy, Wayburn offers a chronicle of their life’s work as wilderness activists.
Wayburn begins by recalling his move to San Francisco as a young medical doctor in the 1930s, his courtship and marriage to Peggy in 1947, and their early “high trips” into the Sierra Nevada. Ed Wayburn worked his way into the high ranks of the Sierra Club, serving on the executive committee of the San Francisco Bay chapter in the late 1940s, gaining a seat on the board of directors in 1957, and winning his first presidency of the organization in 1961. In the decade and a half after the end of the Second World War, the Wayburns shared the anxieties of many within the Sierra Club over sprawling subdivisions on undeveloped land near San Francisco, and they helped spearhead campaigns to save Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Wayburn ably narrates these campaigns, along with the bigger ones over dams in Dinosaur National Monument – dams which the Sierra Club helped thwart – and the battle over the California redwoods.
For those familiar with the Sierra Club’s history or with environmental politics in the 1950s and 1960s, Wayburn’s book covers much familiar ground. He offers capsule histories of the Sierra Club’s debates over a proposed nuclear facility at Diablo Canyon on the California coast as well as nicely drawn vignettes of the conflicts over Point Reyes, the redwoods, and the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to dam the Grand Canyon. He recounts the great internal struggle within the club over David Brower’s leadership, a struggle that led to his resignation as executive director in 1969. Wayburn provides character sketches of Ansel Adams, Martin Litton, August Fruge, and Michael McCloskey, though naturally he keeps himself at the centre of the story.
Wayburn’s approach to Your Land and Mine, which involves blending evocative descriptions of the lands he loves with crisply drawn vignettes of the main players in many of the battles, makes for a compelling read. He draws illuminating portraits of important players in the postwar battles: of Newton Drury, the conservative director of the Save-the-Redwoods League; of the even more conservative California governor Ronald Reagan, who, in a conversation with Wayburn, denied that he ever said “When you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all” (154); and of former United States interior secretary Stewart Udall. In his early tenure as secretary, Udall won plaudits from Wayburn and other conservationists; later, however, when Udall had an apparent change of heart regarding the redwoods, Wayburn experienced “the biggest disillusionment in my conservation career” (149).
Nearly half of this book centres on Alaska, which, by the late 1960s, increasingly consumed the Wayburns’ energy and time. The “great land” inspired Ed and Peggy as no other wilderness areas in the lower forty-eight ever had, and they eagerly returned frequently to explore Alaska’s wilds by raft, float plane, bush plane, train, and on foot. Wayburn makes clear the valuable role of grassroots activists such as Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, owners of Camp Denali near Mount McKinley National Park, who were energetic in protecting the park from miners and other interests. He then traces the lengthy political effort to save Alaska’s wild lands and to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, 1971, as well as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, 1980.
Wayburn does not much concern himself with recent debates about the social constructions of wilderness; instead, he simply states his own love for and convictions regarding the value of wilderness. Anyone interested in the main outlines of the conservation movement in recent decades should find Your Land and Mine of interest. Readers will also be reminded of the pronounced moral commitment that bound together the generation of conservation and wilderness activists in the decades after the Second World War.