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Dr. Edgar Wayburn, M.D.:  1906 - 2010

Former Sierra Club President Dr. Edgar Wayburn died on March 5, 2010, at home in San Francisco, California, in the presence of his family. He was 103. The profile below, written in 2006 on the occasion of his 100th birthday, describes his towering contributions to conservation nationally and world-wide. All Americans owe him our deepest gratitude.

Contributions in Dr. Wayburn's memory may be made offline to the Edgar and Peggy Wayburn Fund of The Sierra Club Foundation. Checks should be made payable to "The Sierra Club Foundation." Please note in the memo field "Wayburn Endowment," and mail your contribution to:
Sierra Club Advancement Office, attn: Brian Caughell
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105-3456

Dr. Edgar WayburnJUST NORTH of San Francisco across the Golden Gate, the rugged Marin Headlands marks the edge of an unlikely wilderness -- a hodgepodge of discrete but nearly contiguous parks covering an area many times larger than the city itself. For the more than six million inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay Area, that blessedly undeveloped landscape -- comprising among other public lands the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Mount Tamalpais State Park, and Point Reyes National Seashore -- is a near-at-hand escape to a place where urban man exists in startling proximity to elk, coyote, and ancient redwood.

It is easy, for both visitors and residents alike, to take that open space for granted, but it could so easily have been otherwise. No land is preserved by accident, and San Francisco's backyard wilderness was no exception.

The man who, more than any other, deserved credit for keeping this much of the Bay Area wild was Dr. Edgar Wayburn, a five-term president of the Sierra Club and America's most effective (and least known) wilderness advocate. Dr. Wayburn was the leading force in the expansion, first, of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, from a mere 870 acres to more than 6,000 acres.

He also spearheaded the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore, the first national park unit of any size near a major metropolitan area. That would be followed by the formation of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which would tie together nearly all the open space in south and west Marin, and even some lands in San Francisco and beyond, including the city's beaches, Alcatraz and the Presidio. All told, it amounts to some 200,000 acres. No other city in America -- perhaps the world -- has anything that can compare with it.

For all his accomplishments, Ed Wayburn was never a full-time conservationist. A practicing physician and a family man, he dedicated his spare hours and weekends to the health of the planet. Neither was he well-known, even within the environmental movement, having never gained the wide recognition of such contemporaries as David Brower and Ansel Adams. The low profile suited him fine. Dr. Wayburn preferred to do his work quietly, behind the scenes. He was a born facilitator and diplomat, someone who exuded the kind of authority and integrity that gets people -- even powerful people -- to listen.

When the National Park Service opposed Dr. Wayburn's plan for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, favoring the establishment of a much smaller park instead, Nixon's Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton was called upon to testify before the Senate Interior Committee. No great fan of environmentalists, Morton surprised everyone by supporting the Sierra Club's proposal in full. Morton told the shocked hearing: "The Park Service wants me to support their plan, but I went out there to the site with my friend Dr. Wayburn, and he convinced me otherwise."

Dr. Wayburn may have been a diplomat, but he was never keen on compromise. Where others might have been content to save random parcels of land -- whatever scraps could be spared by the agents of so-called progress -- he wanted nothing less than the protection of whole watersheds. As he explained in his memoir, Your Land and Mine, "It wasn't enough simply to add a few acres here and there; nature doesn't divide herself into measured plots. A watershed encompasses the chain of life; if any part is developed, the integrity of the whole ecosystem is threatened."

That devotion to ecological principles guided him through many subsequent wilderness campaigns, including the decades-long struggle to found, and later expand, Redwood National Park. Years of travel in the Alaskan backcountry with his wife Peggy -- herself a prominent wilderness advocate -- led eventually to his crowning achievement: Passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created ten new national park units and effectively doubled the size of America's National Park system. When Dr. Wayburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, President Clinton said of him, "He has saved more of our wilderness than any person alive."

By his own account, Dr. Wayburn was neither a "joiner" nor an "organization man," but he saw the Sierra Club as both a way to explore his beloved Sierra Nevada and as the most effective way to salvage the wild character of an America he saw vanishing before his eyes. In 1939, when he paid his first dues, the Sierra Club numbered only 3,000 members. Today it has more than 750,000, and Ed Wayburn carries the title of Honorary President.

Looking back, Dr. Wayburn recalled for his friend Harold Gilliam how it all began one day in the 1940s in San Francisco, as he gazed across the Golden Gate to the Headlands and Mt. Tam. "It seemed incredible to me that there were no cities or suburbs built on those Marin hills so close to San Francisco. I wondered how long that miracle would last."

Thankfully, he did more than wonder. He did something about it, and the miracle lasts to this day.
—Pat Joseph

Pat Joseph is the executive editor of California magazine.

Dr. Wayburn Remembered:

The Macon Telegraph: March 11, 2010
Famed conservationist, Macon native dies at 103

New York Times: March 9, 2010
Edgar Wayburn, a Leader in Saving the Wilderness, Dies at 103

Wall Street Journal: March 9, 2010
Persuasive Voice for Parkland

The Washington Post: March 8, 2010
Edgar Wayburn, behind-the-scenes conservationist, dies at 103

San Francisco Chronicle: March 8, 2010
5-term Sierra Club chief, Edgar Wayburn, dies

San Jose Mercury News: March 8, 2010
Conservationist, Sierra Club leader Edgar Wayburn dies at 103

Los Angeles Times: March 8, 2010
Edgar Wayburn dies at 103; longtime Sierra Club president helped double U.S. parkland

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