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

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; B07

Edgar Wayburn, 103, a physician and five-time Sierra Club president who is credited with protecting more wilderness and parkland than any other American citizen, died March 5 at his home in San Francisco. No cause of death was reported.

As a volunteer conservationist for more than 50 years, he was a behind-the-scenes force for wilderness protection who never earned the widespread renown of contemporaries such as the outspoken environmental activist David Brower and photographer Ansel Adams. Dr. Wayburn maintained a full-time medical practice, working evenings and weekends to stave off post-World War II development in California's coastal hills and later to protect millions of acres in Alaska.

"Edgar Wayburn has helped to preserve the most breathtaking examples of the American landscape," President Bill Clinton said in 1999, when he presented Dr. Wayburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Armed with genteel persistence and encyclopedic knowledge of the lands he aimed to defend, Dr. Wayburn set his sights first on wild places close to home. He was instrumental in establishing Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962, protecting a peninsula that juts into the Pacific north of San Francisco.

Ten years later, he partnered with Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) to push through legislation creating San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is one of the world's largest urban parks. He also played a key role in creating Redwood National Park in 1968 in Northern California. His crowning achievement came in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that preserved more than 104 million acres in Alaska -- called "the greatest act of wilderness creation that we'll ever see on this planet" by wilderness historian Roderick Nash. That Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created 10 new parks and effectively doubled the size of the nation's parklands, was the result of 13 years of lobbying led by Dr. Wayburn.

He had first become enamored of the nation's northern frontier on a 1967 trip to Alaska with his wife, fellow conservationist Peggy Wayburn.

"I think of flying with my wife, Peggy, above the clouds over the Alatna River in Alaska," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. "The clouds cleared just at that time so we could see the startling color of the beautiful green-blue river. This was one of the things that got us started in trying to protect it."

He persuaded leaders of the Sierra Club and other national environmental groups to focus on protecting Alaska -- a rare opportunity to save wide swaths of pristine land. The Wayburns returned north frequently, scouting and mapping lands worthy of protection. Peggy Wayburn wrote two books about the north while her husband visited Washington to work the halls of Congress.

Edgar Wayburn, a tactful Georgia native, cultivated relationships with unlikely allies, including Burton, a brash and aggressive politician with little interest in outdoor adventure, and Rogers Morton, secretary of the interior under Nixon, who was no friend to environmentalists and whose nomination the Sierra Club had opposed.

Morton rebuffed Dr. Wayburn's invitations to meet, but was later swayed by the doctor's quiet persistence. In a 1970s Senate committee hearing, the secretary opposed the National Park Service's proposed boundaries for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, supporting the Sierra Club's more expansive boundaries instead.

"The Park Service wants me to support their plan, but I went out there to the site with my friend Dr. Wayburn," Morton told a room of shocked senators, "and he convinced me otherwise."

Alarmed by sprawl

Edgar Arthur Wayburn was born Sept. 17, 1906, in Macon, Ga., and as a boy made frequent visits to California to visit an uncle who operated a tuberculosis sanatorium in the hills south of San Francisco. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1926 and from Harvard Medical School in 1930. He arrived in San Francisco by train in 1933.

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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