The Spirited Mother of Our Plundered Planet

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Honeymoon Photo, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In 1911, when Margaret “Mardy” Murie (née Thomas) was nine, her family moved to the Alaskan territory. They took a steamship from Seattle to Skagway, boarded a narrow-gauge railroad bound for the Yukon Territory, rode a paddleboat one thousand miles to Fort Yukon, and sailed on a river steamship to Fairbanks, then a pioneer gold-rush village. During her childhood there, she learned to cherish nature. Mardy explained: “I was destined for the outdoors. My stepfather always said there must have been some gypsy in me. He’d say, ‘Oh, that one—if she fell in the creek she’d come up with an apron of fish.’”

In 1924, at the age of twenty, Mardy became the first woman to graduate from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines with a science degree. Within months, she married Olaus Murie, a blond, blue-eyed biologist who had just started working for the U.S. Biological Survey in Alaska. For a month, she kept house in a log cabin. She recalled the frontier women who kept their homes warm and ready for the men’s return. She was confused because her “eagerness for the new adventure” conflicted with her “love of a cozy homekeeping.” She wondered: “Did men ever feel pulled this way?”

When Olaus went off on a trek and failed to return on time, Mardy became worried. He returned an hour later, and she resolved not to worry again:

“That hour on the snowy mountainside was good for me. I came to terms with being a scientist’s wife.”

She got her chance for adventure soon enough. Their honeymoon was a three-month, 550-mile dogsled ride up the Koyukuk River to the wintering grounds of the caribou herds in the Central Brooks Range. Mardy helped Olaus by collecting data and photographing the reindeer. In 1927, they moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and raised a family.

In 1956, Mardy and Olaus, then president of the Wilderness Society, went on an Alaskan expedition to the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. The purpose of the trip, which was sponsored by the New York Zoological Society, the Conservation Foundation, and the Wilderness Society, was to gather information about the wilderness habitat to determine which areas should be under federal protection.

Mardy Murie by Anna Brones

Olaus was then recovering from tuberculosis, and the trip was difficult for him at age 67. Perhaps as a tribute to their 35-year marriage, Mardy and Olaus left the rest of the expedition crew for a five-day exploratory trek to the headwaters of the Sheenjek River, where they had honeymooned thirty-five years earlier. Olaus struggled: “Our patience and strength were pushed to the limit. Several times this afternoon, loaded as I was with a pack, I lost my footing and fell—and just wanted to lie there.” But when the trek was over, Olaus commended that the hike “was surely enhanced by our sturggle to achieve it.” Mardy agreed: “The mountain world here is multiplied, mountain and valley, mountain and valley… all reaching back against more mountains, far into the distance.”

Here, she thought, it is “easy to forget the world of man, to relax into this world of nature.” In the valley of the mountains, the modern world disappeared.

From The Murie Center

Mardy knew that the Alaskan wilderness offered “the greatest reservoirof nature as an antidote to city living. She worried that lack of physical exertion was “turning the children of the near future into robots and automatons and weaklings.” She predicted: “There are going to be increasing numbers of young people, and older ones, who will need and crave some benefit from the experience of travel in far places, untouched places, under their own power. For those who are willing to exert themselves for this experience, there is a great gift to be won in places like the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a gift to be had nowadays in very few remaining parts of our plundered planet.” When they decamped, the expedition team left the wilderness untouched “with every possible sign of our occupancy obliterated.”

The trip to Alaska motivated Mardy to lobby Congress to “save this bit of loveliness on our earth.” Not only did she want to preserve it as a refuge for people inundated by technology, but more importantly, for the animals who lived there. She wondered: “Will our society be wise enough to keep some of ‘The Great Country’ empty of technology and full of life?”

She and Olaus began a seven-year campaign to preserve the Alaskan wilderness. They started in Alaska, which was slowly moving toward statehood. In her speech before Congress, Mardy was proud to be emotional about Alaska:

“They accuse us of being emotional about this. I want to ask: What’s wrong with a little emotion? I am here before you today, gentlemen, as an emotional woman. I am here not only to tell you why I, as an emotional woman, but a woman familiar with Alaska, thinks these areas should, in all their innocence and beauty, be cherished.”

She told Congress of her fears for the future of humankind and the planet:

“Now, I do not know whether the human race is going to survive much longer, and I sometimes wonder if we deserve to. Who knows what is ahead in the long march of evolution? But saving that last remnants of wild, untouched country, seems to me to be the one wise, altruisitic, beneficial and practical action this nation can take for its sanity.”

Mardy concluded her testimony with a plea for the aesthetic: “Beauty is a resource in and of itself.” She implored the legislators to let Alaska remain undeveloped: “I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.”

As a result of her lobbying, Congress passed the Arctic National Refuge Range in 1960. Four years later, the Wilderness Act was passed, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and preserved nine million acres of wilderness. More than one hundred million acres have been added since it was enacted.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Wildlife Protection Act, Mardy’s son, Donald, said that his parents “won the respect of both allies and opponents by their calm, non-confrontational and reasoned approach. They never accused, never shouted, never insulted. Their legacy is one of high aspirations for conservation, delivered by kindness, civility, inclusive engagement, transparency and compromise.” The legislation that the Muries fought for has touched the lives of millions of Americans. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has awarded nearly $4 billion in almost 42,000 state conservation grants and protected 2.37 million acres of wilderness, including the Everglades and the Petrified Forest.

Mardy died in 2003, after her 101st birthday. Among the awards she received was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mardy was a member of the Society of Woman Geographers.

Other posts in this series include:

Men Mocked Annie Peck to Diminish Her Accomplishments

What happened when men banned women from the Explorers Club?

Ellen Riegel: Iron-Jawed Suffragist Angel

Why an Explorer Born in 1880 Gives Us Hope Today

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