Bob Marshall

In north-western Montana, there is an area of over 1.5 million acres of carefully preserved wilderness. Every year thousands of hikers, horseback riders, hunters, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts come to this part of the country to experience a place that is revered all over the world for its lakes, rivers, peaks and valleys. This place is known to many as simply "the Bob," however, this continuous swath of preserved land is actually made up of the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear wildernesses. The man who carefully laid out plans for this almost mythical, untouched area was one of the most renowned conservationists in history, and was the namesake for "the Bob." Bob Marshall never saw the completion of his wilderness area, but his name and strong promotion of wilderness preservation still remain a driving force for conservation today. Born on January 12, 1901, Robert Marshall was the third of four children in the Marshall family. Parents Louis and Florence Marshall were activist themselves, most well-known for their support of Jewish civil rights. Later their support of civil rights grew beyond just Jewish causes and eventually included Catholics, Indians, Japanese, African Americans and socialists.

Though quiet as a child, Bob Marshall had a well-developed sense of humor that would be one of his endearing traits throughout his life. As a young man, Marshall was an avid sports fan and highly imaginative. Though his grades were average, Marshall read many books besides those required in school. Even though the Marshall family resided in New York City, much of the romanticism of the wilderness appealed to Marshall. He spent much of his time studying the history of the Adirondacks and the Lewis and Clark journals. His family's cabin in Saranac Lake Village (known as Knollwood) was always a favorite spot for young Marshall; he made his first trip to Knollwood at six months old and spent nearly every summer there until he was 25 years old. When he was 15, his mother died of cancer. She had been somewhat old-fashioned in her child-rearing ideals, and after her passing he was more at liberty to go out into the world and widen his scope of discovery. His shyness began to slowly fade, and he began to further his experiences in the wilderness with more forays into the deeper rough country with skilled mountaineers, often friends of his father. Marshall focused his education on forestry early on, and planned on attending forestry school after high school.

After graduating from Ethical Culture School in 1919 and taking a year at Stanford University, Marshall felt prepared to enter the New York State College of Forestry. Even though the initial records of this time in Marshalls' life state he was shy and almost painfully withdrawn, his grades were always near perfect. Eventually his intelligence would be what attracted his classmates to him. During his time at the Forestry School, Marshall would climb all of the 42 of the 46 peaks in the Adirondacks above 4000 feet (in 1921). As a junior, Marshall was accepted as an honorary member of two forest societies, and as a senior he was his class secretary and an editor for the yearbook. It was at this school that Marshall earned the nickname "Pond Seeker," because he inventoried and rated the lakes and ponds in the Cranberry Lake Region. After a very successful student career at the Forestry School, Marshall graduated 4th out of his class of 59. After his graduation in 1924, Marshall scored the highest in the nation on his Civil Service test for Foresters.

After graduation Marshall moved on to assisting Leo A. Issac, who worked at the River Forest Equipment Station in Washington. Marshall enjoyed the fact that the Station was near an area where Lewis and Clark had traveled. However, Issac and Marshall never shared a good relationship and Marshall was eventually reassigned to Richard McArdle, a member of the Forest Service. His sense of humor won many of his coworkers over (although Marshalls' cooking did not) and by the end of the summer of 1924, Marshall returned to the east coast to the Harvard Forestry School to complete his Masters in Forestry. During his studies at Harvard, Marshall discovered a correlation between decreased tree growth and election years, as well as started the 46ers Club, a group who was dedicated to climbing all 46 4000-foot peaks in the Adirondacks (On July 15, 1932, Marshall set a record of a different sort by climbing 14 Adirondack peaks within 19 hours, a feat that required a total ascent of 13,600 feet.). He received his degree in 1925.

From 1925 through 1928, Marshall worked in Montana at the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station. His main project while there was to research reproduction in forests after fires, but he was involved in almost every aspect of running the Station, including preparing meals and organizing transportation. He was well-liked and respected at the Station, but unfortunately was bothered by an ulcer to such an extent he missed four months of work. After his illness, he was advised that although he wanted to further his education by earning his doctorate, he needed more practical field experience. For better or worse, his experience did increase when Marshall was chased by a grizzly and escaped by playing dead. Ultimately, Marshall went to work at the Priest River branch of the Station. The food was healthier and the atmosphere proved to be helpful to Marshall; he wrote on technical plant activity and the actions of loggers (conversations, profanity and eating habits). After three years at this new Station, Marshall left to attend John Hopkins University.

From 1928 through 1930, Marshall worked arduously toward his Ph.D in Plant Physiology. He succeeded in not only attaining his degree, but also stayed connected to the outdoors. During his time in Baltimore, Marshall wrote one of his most important articles, "The Problem of the Wilderness," which ran in Scientific Monthly in February 1930. In it, he stated that the wilderness was one of the most beautiful places available to the people, and that there should be a strong group of citizens united in wilderness preservation. Five years later, near the proposed Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, Marshall and four colleagues would set in motion the creation of a society focused on wilderness preservation. Marshall would be one of the eight founders of a group known as The Wilderness Society, which is still in operation today.

After writing the article that would later spawn The Wilderness Society, Marshall spent over a year exploring the Alaskan wilderness, beginning in 1930. He befriended many townspeople in Wiseman, Alaska, and used these relationships as the basis for his book "Arctic Village." Marshall didn't want to leave the serenity of the arctic, and found himself saddened when he had to journey back to Baltimore. The publication of "Arctic Village" brought Marshall a then-tidy sum of $3,600. Marshall sent half of the profits to the Koyukuk natives he had written about, and even reserved money for future generations of Koyukuk's.

As content as Marshall was in the Alaskan wilderness, he was extremely unhappy with the forestry information available in 1931. Marshall's growing irritation with the forestry publications of the time was due to lack of information on the effects of deforestation. He took the task upon himself and after writing a series of letters to open the eyes of the public, he eventually wrote a book on the need for forest reform. In 1933, this catapulted Marshall into the position of Federal Head of the Division of Forestry and Grazing, for although a long bout of illness kept Marshall laid up for months before assuming the new position as well. Illness had bothered Marshall sporadically his entire life. And in the latest round, he had Hepatitis. None of these bouts kept Marshall from his work for long, however. Marshall held these positions simultaneously and perhaps this work ethic contributed to the single life he led.

In 1933, Marshall began a battle of cultures as well as the war over the wilderness. After Marshall was named the Director of the Indian Forest Service, he went on to fight for the rights of the Native Americans. He saw their customs and freedoms of religions had been stripped away from them, and he fought continuously to assure the Indians a level of equality all Americans should enjoy. Marshall stressed the spiritual and aesthetic values of the wilderness for all people. Many of the 1935-1937 administration's concessions were a result of Marshall's virulent fight to aid the Native Americans during the years in which the struggle was most delicate. His vision for the recreation areas of National Parks included every race, sex, religion and creed. Marshall even proposed subsidized travel so families with less expendable income could experience the beauty of the wilderness.

From 1933 through 1937, Marshall refined his wilderness ideals and became even more of a driving force behind the wilderness movement. He wrote numerous articles and associated with some of the most respected wilderness figures of his time. Not everyone agreed with Marshall, however, and the constant tension may have caught up to him all at once in 1937. Marshall was hospitalized for what was never truly resolved; doctors proposed either sun stroke or food poisoning. It has been speculated that however healthy Marshall's 30-40 mile-a-day walks may have been, they may perhaps have also been a cause for his constant health problems. The letters Marshall sent associates during this time are said to be blunt and rude. He also had been refused his offer of marriage by a woman he had been seeing, Georgia Engelhard. Additionally, while he had tried to keep the wilderness pristine for years to come, and open to visitors, resorts had sprung up. The resorts represented a plethora of problems in Marshall's eyes: not only were they a potential hazard to the environment, they directly conflicted with his civil rights views by banning minorities.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons Marshall returned to Alaska in 1938. This trip would go on to be pivotal for Marshall, and the people of the area grew to appreciate him even more; many of Northern Alaska's natural beauties are named after him. In the year before his death, he traveled throughout the West. Washington and Alaska were the two places Marshall spent the majority of his time that year. His prominence in the Forest Service grew rapidly during this time. Friendships he had fostered while climbing through the ranks of the Forest Service helped propel the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law, even though this wouldn't occur until years after his death. His friendship with men like Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKaye and Harvey Broome set a strong foundation on which to start the Wilderness Society. His work had protected thousands of acres of wild lands. The shy young man had grown into one of the most powerful forces in conservation of his time. His death would come as a shock to those who knew him. People had generally known Marshall as a fighter, and had not assumed he would meet such an early demise.

On November 11, 1939 while on an overnight ride from Washington D.C. to New York, Marshall died at age 39. The official cause of death was thought to be myelogenous leukemia and coronary arteriosclerosis, in other words, heart failure. Marshall had left part of his large estate (Marshall was independently wealthy) to The Wilderness Society. Marshall's service to the environment will be treasured for years to come in the form of "the Bob" and through his contributions to education and civil rights. Some of Marshall's most famous words even seem surprisingly prophetic: "As society becomes more and more mechanized, it will be more and more difficult for many people to stand the nervous strain, the high pressure, and the drabness of their lives. To escape these abominations, constantly growing numbers will seek the primitive for the finest features of life." Marshall knew the world was evolving fast, and though his life was short-lived he understood the value of preservation during his day and for the future.


The People's Forests (1933)

Arctic Village (1933)

Arctic Wilderness (1956)


"There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness. In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity. The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books ... To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action."

"I love the woods and solitude. I should hate to spend the greater part of my lifetime in a stuffy office or in a crowded city."

"For me, and for thousands with similar inclinations, the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness."

"Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every river is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road."

"The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books ... To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action."

"It seems distinctly an understatement to hold that each all-day visitor to the forest derives as much pleasure form it as he would derive from a 2-hour motion-picture show. I have estimated that in the United States approximately 250 million man-days a year are devoted to forest recreation. If the admission price to a movie averages 25 cents, this gives the annual American forest recreation a value of $62,500,000. This is the minimum that people probably would pay for the privilege of using the forest if the price were asked. The incidental fact that people have to pay for admission to the movies and do not usually have to pay for admission to the forests does not mean that the outdoor recreation is any less valuable."

"Although huge sums of money are involved in any basis of calculation, the most important values of forest recreation are not susceptible of measurement in monetary terms. They are concerned with such intangible considerations as inspiration, aesthetic enjoyment, and a gain in understanding."

"Finally, there are those whose chief purpose in visiting the forests is simply an escape from civilization. These people want to rest from the endless chain of mechanization and artificiality which bounds their lives. In the forest they temporarily abandon a routine to which they cannot become wholly reconciled, and return to that nature in which hundreds of generations of their ancestors were reared."

"Any one who has stood upon a lofty summit and gazed over an inchoate tangle of deep canyons and cragged mountains, of sunlit lakelets and black expanses of forest, has become aware of a certain giddy sensation that there are no distances, no measures, simply unrelated matter rising and falling without any analogy to the banal geometry of breadth, thickness, and height."

"A third peculiarity about the forest is that it exhibits a dynamic beauty. A Beethoven symphony or a poem of Shelley, a landscape by Corot or a Gothic cathedral, once it is finished becomes virtually static. But the wilderness is in constant flux. A seed germinates, and a stunted seedling battles for decades against the dense shade of the virgin forest. Then some ancient tree blows down and the long-suppressed plant suddenly enters into the full vigor of delayed youth, grows rapidly from sapling to maturity, declines into the conky senility of many centuries, dropping millions of seeds to start a new forest upon the rotting debris of its own ancestors, and eventually topples over to admit the sunlight which ripens another woodland generation."


Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.

Glover, James M. (1986). A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers.

The Wilderness Society

Wilmking, M. and Ibendorf, J. (2004). An Early Tree-Line Experiment by a Wilderness Advocate: Bob Marshall's Legacy in the Brooks Range, Alaska. Arctic. 57(1), 106-113.