10 Outdoor Advocates You Should Know

If you’re a big fan of public lands, you know how much gratitude we owe to our past outdoor advocates. Our national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas — our most iconic outdoor places — were all created and protected thanks to people that used their voice to speak for our wild.
Whether you’re looking for a new public land hero or just want to learn more about the movement to protect the outdoors, we’ve got you covered. This list includes outdoor advocates past and present that protected public land, strengthened environmental protections for them, and advocated for our wildest places.

1. Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt in YosemiteTeddy is known as the “conservationist president,” and he was huge champion for our public lands with a long track record to prove it. During his presidency, he created five national parks (Crater Lake, Wind Cave, Sullys Hill [now a game preserve], Mesa Verde, and Platt [now part of Chickasaw National Recreation]), 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and added over 100 million acres to our national forests.

One of our favorite stories about Pres. Roosevelt is when John Muir invited him on a multi-day camping trip through Yosemite Valley. After wandering through Mariposa Grove, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Valley, the two of them gathered around the campfire one night to talk about the future of the nation. Muir, no stranger to the power of words, related the importance of keeping Yosemite Valley protected so that everyone, present and future, could enjoy it in its natural, wild state. Muir made a lasting impression on Roosevelt, because several years later, Pres. Roosevelt added Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the Yosemite National Park we know and love today. 

2. John Muir

John Muir Sitting on RocksNo outdoor advocate list would be complete without John Muir, the man who was writing about the mountains and the importance of protecting wild land well over 100 years ago. He grew up in Scotland, moved to Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, and eventually made his way to the Sierra Nevadas in California. This beautiful wilderness served as a backdrop for Muir to write about the spiritual importance of nature. He understood the importance of having “places to play in and pray in,” and went on to write many books about the sacredness of wild places. He was a fierce advocate in protecting the outdoors and worked for the protection of places like Yosemite, Glacier Bay, Mount Rainier, the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Kings Canyon.

Muir is known for starting the preservation movement, which sees wilderness as a pristine, cathedral-like place that is an important part of our country’s culture and identity. This movement contrasts the conservation movement championed by Gifford Pinchot (below). Muir felt that our iconic wilderness areas should be preserved for future generations to enjoy and used his writing to convince others of its importance. He is perhaps the most-celebrated champion of the national parks and the importance of wilderness.

3. Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams Biographical Photo Terry Tempest Williams is an author and environmental activist known for her poetic books "Refuge," "Mosaic, The Hour of Land," and "When Women Were Birds." In "The Hour of Land," she shares the importance of our national parks weaving lyrical stories while traveling from the Tetons to Acadia to Big Bend. She used each park as a setting to share the importance of why wild lands matter to us, what we mean to the parks, and why wild places are so important to our society. "The Hour of Land" is a must-read wake-up call for those of us who believe in preserving and protecting our wild places.
Her latest book, "Erosion," features essays about the assault on US public lands and the erosion of our commitment to standing up for open spaces of democracy.

She also edited the book "Testimony: Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness," which helped establish Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. This work shared the writings of famous writers John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez, and others about the importance of protecting wild land in Utah.

4. Gifford Pinchot

Black and White Photo of Gifford PinchotGifford Pinchot was a forester appointed as the first head of the US Forest Service by Pres. Roosevelt who founded the conservation movement. This movement has a different attitude toward land management than the preservation movement started by John Muir. Pinchot believed that humans are stewards of the environment and depend on it for food, water, and natural resources - not just recreation or spirituality. He championed a utilitarian land ethic in which humans and nature could sustainably co-exist. He felt that forests and wilderness were more than spiritual, they were practical resources that could provide “the greatest good for the greatest number." Critics of Pinchot would say he tried to advocate for sustainable use of natural resources but ultimately created a non-sustainable system.

5. Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas at National ParkMarjory Stoneman Douglas is known as the fierce advocate that worked to establish Everglades National Park. After working alongside a conservationist in the wet, inhospitable Everglades, she decided to share the unique beauty of this ecosystem with the world. She wrote an iconic book named "The Everglades: River of Grass" about the importance of protecting the region’s fragile ecosystem at a time when most people thought the area was worthless and inhospitable. By writing about its important ecosystem services, its beauty, and its uniqueness, her words and advocacy transformed how the public thought about the Everglades, which led it to becoming protected as a national park.

In 1986, the National Parks Conservation Association created an award in her name for individuals who “go to great lengths to advocate and fight for the protection of the National Park System.” 

6. Stephen Mather

Black and White Photo of Stephen MatherMather was the first director of the National Park Service. Prior to being director of the NPS, he was a successful businessman in the borax industry. He put his public relations and lobbying skills to good work by becoming a champion for the parks by purchasing more park land and making it accessible to visitors. When he first started as director, he even paid park service employees from his own pocketbook as he worked to manage the national parks as one cohesive system.

Starting a new government agency is no easy feat, and Mather successfully set a precedent showing that people can come together to find solutions that benefit everyone. He oversaw the addition of three national parks - Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave.

7. Ansel Adams

Ansel AdamsIf you’re not familiar with Ansel Adams’ name, you’ve very likely seen his photographs. Ansel Adams is most known for his famous black and white landscape photographs, especially of the national parks. He spent his life honing his craft and advocating for environmental conservation, pairing passion and talent to be a champion for the outdoors. His work sharing stunning, natural images and speaking of the importance of public lands helped to establish Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. He went on to work for the Department of the Interior, traveling to national parks across the nation to capture thousands of stunning photographs of our nation’s most wild places. He remains one of the most iconic, well-respected photographers to this day.

8. Captain Charles Young

Black and White Photo of Captain Charles YoungCharles Young was born into slavery in 1864, joined the military, rose to the rank of captain, and helped to protect Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Parks. During his time in the military, the NPS hadn’t yet been created - and so the military was used to oversee and develop the early national parks. Captain Young was named superintendent of General Grant National Park, making him the first African-American superintendent. He is known for having accomplished more in his first summer than the previous three officers’ tenures combined. He successfully managed a period of cracking down on poaching and grazing in the parks and completed a wagon road to make the park more accessible to visitors.

9. Sally Jewell

Secretary JewellSally Jewell served as Secretary of the Interior from 2013 and 2017 after working as REI’s COO and CEO during the 2000s. As Secretary, she worked to improve federal-tribal relations, get more kids outdoors, and improve conservation across our public lands. She began listening sessions with tribal nations, served as chair of the White House Council on Native Affairs, and championed the NPS' "Every Kid in a Park" initiative.

During her tenure, she withdrew over 1 million acres of the Grand Canyon from mineral development, improved fishery protections in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, recommended the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be permanently protected as a wilderness area, and worked alongside the Obama administration to create 25 new national monuments.  

10. Stewart Udall

Stewart Udall Speaking at a National ParkStewart Udall served as Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s and worked to establish the 1964 Wilderness Act, the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the expansion of national park system, and worked to create more than 50 new wildlife refuges. He oversaw a period of time in which public lands massively expanded and major environmental legislation was created. His tenure also oversaw the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He also wrote a book called The Quiet Crisis, which highlighted the importance of protecting wild places, addressing pollution, and using natural resources more sustainably.

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