John G. Mitchell; Editor At National Geographic

John G. Mitchell, 75, edited and wrote articles about the environment for several magazines and was the author of eight books.
John G. Mitchell, 75, edited and wrote articles about the environment for several magazines and was the author of eight books. (By Maria Stenzel)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

John G. Mitchell, 75, a retired environment editor at National Geographic magazine, died July 7 in Albany, N.Y., after a heart attack. He was returning to his home in Old Lyme, Conn., from the high peaks area of the Adirondacks, where he had been visiting a family cottage.

Mr. Mitchell was past editor of Sierra Club Books and a longtime field editor and writer for Audubon magazine. He worked for National Geographic from 1994 to 2004 and lived in North Chevy Chase during that period.

In the last article he wrote for National Geographic, which ran in the October 2006 issue, Mr. Mitchell described threats to national parks: the balance of preservation and recreation, air pollution and crowding, energy development in or near the parks, and proposals to outsource or contract jobs previously performed by government employees.

His writing "verged on the poetic," Executive Editor Dennis Dimmick said. "He loved celebrating pristine American landscapes, and he felt a need to call to task those who would defile them. He felt it was important that we discuss whether the public stewards of our lands were caring for the public trust adequately."

Writing in 2005 about "our ebullient friend, Populus tremuloides" -- also known as quaking aspens of the northern Rockies -- he asked, "Can anyone imagine preferring the lugubrious roar of a gas compressor to the tintinnabulations of these happy trees?"

Whether covering mountaintop removal by mining companies and polluted wetlands or exploring the icy Alaskan mountains, Mr. Mitchell refused to succumb to cynicism, Dimmick said.

"He was a joy. He had a great sense of humor," Dimmick said. "He was a tremendous listener, a wonderful mentor, one of those people you could talk to about anything in the world. If you had a germ of an idea, he was tremendous in bringing that out in you."

Mr. Mitchell contributed scores of articles to magazines such as American Heritage, Wilderness and Smithsonian, and his work is included in several anthologies. He wrote eight books, including "Losing Ground" (1975), "Alaska Stories" (1984) and "Dispatches From the Deep Woods" (1991).

At the time of his death, his wife said, he was working on a book that retraced his steps in "Losing Ground," which looked at environmental disaster sites in the United States, and was searching for hopeful signs in the environment.

He was a Mellon Fellow at Yale University's School of Environment and Forestry Studies.

John Galvin Mitchell was born in Cincinnati and graduated from Yale. Mr. Mitchell started as an assistant at the Oxford University Press, then worked as a newspaper reporter in Cape Cod and in California before landing at the New York Journal American in 1958. He was science editor at Newsweek for several years in the early 1960s. He then began working as a freelance writer and editor.

He was a co-founder of the Staten Island Greenbelt Natural Areas League and in 1984 helped write a revised open space plan for Redding, Calif.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Alison Mitchell of Old Lyme, Conn.; two daughters, Katherine Mitchell of Piedmont, Calif., and Pamela Mitchell of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a brother; a sister; and three grandsons.

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