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Marshall was legendary advocate for the wild: Born in the city, he spent his life protecting the land
Marshall was legendary advocate for the wild: Born in the city, he spent his life protecting the land

Once upon a time, there was a man who loved the wilderness. His name was Bob Marshall, and he was a 20th century legend.

One day, near a notch in the Bitterroot Mountains called Friday's Pass, Marshall looked up to see a pair of grizzly cubs munching berries on the hillside above him. He was not afraid. Then came a crash and a roar in the timber, and Marshall saw the grizzly sow. She was not happy.

He ran to a tree, a whitebark pine, and started climbing. But his weight was too much for the weather-worn branches, and he came tumbling to the ground.

"I recollected the testimony of old hunters that bears will not molest people who feign death," Marshall wrote some years later. "It seemed a slim chance, but not half as slim as wading into that mass of ferocity with bare fists. So I landed and lay. It seemed as if I reposed for aeons. About the dawn of the Cenozoic Era, I heard strange rumblings above me. I opened my eyes and looked up on the hillside just in time to see three bears disappearing over the ridgetop.

"It was a terrible blow to my self-esteem."

Returning to Missoula from the wilderness, Marshall sent a telegram home to his parents and brothers in New York City.


Brother James Marshall penned the family's reply: "Your grizzly telegram has considerably aroused this part of the country, including a recital by father of the number of times he has told you to carry a gun, and not to go alone, and to wear rubbers when it rains."

Marshall's adventures in the wilderness were legendary even before his death (in 1939 at age 38). He was the first white man to explore Alaska's Brooks Range. He scaled 14 peaks in the Adirondacks in a single 19-hour hike. He was shipwrecked in the Arctic, chased by a grizzly bear in Montana and lost overnight in an early-season blizzard on Lolo Pass.

Marshall's activism for wilderness was no less heroic. He is credited with single-handedly adding 5.4 million acres to the nation's wilderness system. He wrote the U.S. Forest Service's "U" regulations, which prohibited logging in wilderness areas. He and seven like-minded friends founded The Wilderness Society "to battle uncompromisingly" for wilderness protection. His doctoral thesis was the Magna Carta of the wilderness movement.

The doctrine of "the greatest good to the greatest number" does not apply to every acre on Earth, Marshall wrote. "If it did, we would be forced to change our metropolitan art galleries into metropolitan bowling alleys. The Library of Congress would become a national hot dog stand, and the new Supreme Court building would be converted into a gigantic garage where it could house a thousand people's autos instead of Nine Gentlemen of the Law."

Never before had there been such a tireless advocate for wilderness preservation.

Marshall's love of wilderness grew out of a city-bound boyhood, "dreaming of Lewis and Clark and their glorious exploration into the unbroken wilderness." His father, Louis Marshall, was a constitutional lawyer who led the fight - in 1914 - to retain New York's "forever wild" guarantee for Adirondack State Park. The Marshall boys made their first wilderness sojourns in the Adirondacks, eventually climbing the 46 highest peaks in the range. With each foray, young Bob yearned for more and greater adventures.

He attended forestry school at New York State College, but left immediately after graduation (in 1920) for the Wind River Forest Experiment Station in southwestern Washington. By the spring of 1925, Marshall had a master's degree in forestry from Harvard and an assignment to the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station in Missoula.

During the next three years, he explored the wilderness he had read about and longed for since childhood. By the time he journeyed back East to study for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in 1928, Marshall was a legend.

"He kept a record of any time he hiked over 50 miles," Forest Service retiree Ralph Space later remembered. "He really drove himself to extremes. My fellas told me that when Marshall came in over the divide, he was so exhausted he would stumble, fall, lay there for a while and then hike some more."

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Marshall began writing about the wilderness he loved, and advocating for its protection. "Wilderness," he told Nature magazine readers, "is the perfect aesthetic experience. It is vast panoramas, full of height and depth and flowing color, on a scale so overwhelming as to wipe out the ordinary meaning of dimensions."

As the Forest Service's chief of recreation and lands, Marshall turned his wilderness advocacy into action. Every roadless area of more than 100,000 acres should be protected as "primitive land," he said. And every proposed highway, irrigation project or lumbering job should be judged by one question: "Do the increased benefits of this extension of civilization really compensate for the loss of wilderness values?"

He challenged regional foresters - including the Northern Region's boss in Missoula - to protect more primitive areas. When they stalled, he urged their dismissal. He railed against highways, including U.S. 12 over Lolo Pass, for their subdividing of wild country. He preached and lobbied and begged. He protected millions of acres of national forest from development.

No one imagined that Marshall's work would end so suddenly. In November 1939, while on a train to New York, he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. He was 38 years old.

Two years later, 950,000 acres of western Montana wilderness were set aside in his name. Year upon year, more land was added to the total until national forests in Montana held more than 3 million acres of wilderness. Another

6 million acres remain roadless and under consideration for wilderness protection.

Nearly 70 years later, his name - and words - resonate: "We're all young enough that we'll probably meet many defeats in the next 50 years. It's even conceivable that when we die, we still will not have won the fight. But win or lose, it will be grand fun fighting and knowing that whatever we do in the right direction will help eventual victory."

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