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Edgar Wayburn, 103, dies; No. 1 protector of U.S. wilderness

Dr. Edgar Wayburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 for his conservation efforts.
Dr. Edgar Wayburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 for his conservation efforts. (Michael Macor/san Francisco Chronicle)

He joined the Sierra Club in 1939, not out of any great conservation zeal, but because he wanted to go on a burro trip organized by the club. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, serving for four years before returning to San Francisco. It was only then, when he considered how the fast-growing suburbs might sprawl into the quiet hills and wild beaches where he enjoyed hiking on weekends, that he became an activist.

"It seemed incredible to me that there were no cities or suburbs built on those Marin Hills so close to San Francisco," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "I wondered how long that miracle would last."

In 1946, he met Peggy Elliott, a chic, chain-smoking former Vogue editor. Their first date was a steep climb from a beach north of San Francisco to the top of Mount Tamalpais and a just-as-steep descent.

The two were married less than six months later. Peggy gave up smoking as a wedding gift and they went on countless subsequent hikes together, including one -- when she was seven months pregnant -- to the top of a 12,000-foot peak in the Sierra Nevadas. They turned their family vacations into wilderness-preservation reconnaissance efforts, taking weeks-long trips to places such as the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and the Wind River Range in Wyoming. They invariably returned with armloads of maps marked with the boundaries of possible parks.

In 1958, Dr. Wayburn won his first major conservation victory when he successfully lobbied California politicians in Sacramento to expand Mount Tamalpais State Park to seven times its original size.

He served on the Sierra Club board from 1957 to 1994, including five terms as president during the 1960s. He became the Sierra Club's honorary president in 1993, and in 1995 was awarded the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, given by New York's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and administered by Johns Hopkins University.

Peggy Wayburn died in 2002. Survivors include four children, William Wayburn of Seattle, Cynthia Wayburn of Bellevue, Wash., Laurie Wayburn of San Francisco and Diana Wayburn of New York; and three grandchildren.

In addition to his conservation work, Dr. Wayburn taught for more than 40 years, first at Stanford Medical School and then at the University of California at San Francisco. "I have loved medicine and conservation," he told the journal of the San Francisco Medical Society. "In one sense, my involvement with both might be summed up in a single word: survival. Medicine is concerned with the short-term survival of the human species, conservation with the long-term survival of the human and other species as well. We are all related."

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