A Who’s Who of Public Land and Water Policymakers, Movers, Shakers and Breakers

These are the men and women who, throughout American history, have made headlines for their work to uphold or undo public land conservation.

By Scott Willoughby September 19, 2018

1800’s   |    1900 – 1920    |   1920 – 1960   |   1960 – 2000   |   2000 – 2018

1800s      Back to Top >


Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of the country with territory that formed 15 new states, including future sites of many national parks and other public lands. Jefferson also sponsored the Lewis & Clark Expedition.


President Lincoln set the course of America’s public land legacy when he signed a law setting aside the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley as protected lands in 1864, establishing the precedent that places of scenic and natural importance should be protected for the enjoyment of all people.


Famous for the first (and second) known descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, Powell was also a champion of land preservation and conservation. Powell’s expeditions led to his belief that the arid West was not suitable for agricultural development beyond the two percent of lands near water sources. For the remaining lands, he proposed conservation and low-density, open grazing. Despite serving as director of the U.S. Geological Survey for 13 years, Powell’s recommendations were largely ignored until after the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and ’30s.


Outdoor photographer who traveled to northwest Wyoming in 1871 and provided the imagery needed to substantiate rumors about the grandeur of the Yellowstone region, and resulted in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, in 1872.

ULYSSES S. GRANT (1822–1885)

Grant accomplished two firsts in the area of conservation that remain today and that laid groundwork for Theodore Roosevelt’s work. In 1868, he set aside the Pribilof Islands in Alaska as a reserve for the northern fur seal, the earliest effort to use federally managed land to protect wildlife. In 1872, he signed a law establishing Yellowstone as our nation’s (and the world’s) first national park.

JOHN MUIR (1838–1914)

Naturalist, scientist, outdoorsman, writer and activist, Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892. He eventually convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to designate California’s Yosemite Valley as a national park after a three-day camping trip in 1903.


Best known for designing New York’s Central Park, along with other urban parks, including Franklin Park in Boston, Chicago’s Jackson Park, and the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. Those city-center parks became a model for anchor parks in cities around the country and are, for many citizens even today, the first and most-frequently used public land.


In 1887, Grinnell, Theodore Roosevelt and other prominent sportsmen of the day (General William Tecumseh Sherman and Gifford Pinchot) formed the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Grinnell was prominent in movements to preserve wildlife and conservation in the American West, organized the first Audubon Society and was an organizer of the New York Zoological Society. He was later influential in establishing Glacier National Park in 1910.

1900 – 1920      Back to Top >


He laid the foundation of wilderness, wildlife and public lands protection that shaped the American landscape and culture. As president, Roosevelt created five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 bird sanctuaries, began the National Wildlife Refuge system and set aside more than 100 million acres for national forests. He signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, authorizing presidents to proclaim and preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on lands owned or controlled by the United States as “national monuments.”


The so-called “father of American forestry,” he was a dauntless advocate of the preservation of our natural resources through managed use. He founded and developed the U.S. Forest Service (under Roosevelt) shortly after the turn of the century as a solution to the crisis that once faced the forests of our nation. “Conservation means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.”


The Iowa representative authored the Lacey Act of 1900, which made it a crime to ship illegal game across state lines, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 (with the help of anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewett) signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

WOODROW WILSON (1856–1924)

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service, responsible for protecting America’s 35 already existing national parks and monuments and those yet to be established. Wilson’s administration also presided over the creation of several new parks, including Dinosaur National Monument and Rocky Mountain National Park.

1920 – 1960      Back to Top >

ALDO LEOPOLD (1887–1948)

After graduating from Yale’s new School of Forestry, Leopold joined the Forest Service in 1909 in New Mexico. In 1924, Leopold convinced the Forest Service to protect as wilderness 500,000 acres of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. It was the National Forest System’s first officially designated wilderness area, pre-dating the Wilderness Act of 1964. He and seven other leading conservationists founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, the same year he purchased the farm that would inspire him to write A Sand County Almanac, the seminal book on the land ethic.


As president, FDR undertook many executive actions to protect and improve public lands, including creating 11 national monuments. His New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, dramatically impacted public lands by putting millions to work building infrastructure in national parks and forests, ultimately planting billions of trees, building roads and trails, and combating soil erosion. In 1934, he signed the Taylor Grazing Act to regulate grazing on public lands in order to address causes of the Dust Bowl.


Known as “the man who saved ducks,” Darling designed the first “duck stamp,” which he sold for one dollar put toward the purchase of refuges. He worked as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey (predecessor to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) before becoming the first president of the General Wildlife Federation (forerunner of the National Wildlife Federation). A Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, his “flying goose” emblem remains the symbol for all federal refuges.

STEPHEN MATHER (1867–1987)

Designer and first director of the National Park Service from 1916–1929, during which time the size of the national parks and monuments under his jurisdiction nearly doubled.


When original National Park Director Stephen Mather was hospitalized, Albright stepped in as acting director, organized the new bureau, set policies and procedures, and lobbied Congress for appropriations. He wrote the so-called “creed” for the National Park Service and was named director in 1929. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Carter on the 64th anniversary of the National Park Service.

BOB MARSHALL (1901–1939)

As a principal founder of The Wilderness Society, Marshall set an unprecedented course for wilderness preservation in the United States that few have surpassed. Marshall shaped the U.S. Forest Service’s policy on wilderness designation and management, and was among the first to suggest that large tracts of Alaska be preserved. A prolific writer who often detailed the aesthetic value of wilderness to humankind and pushed for public ownership.

ANSEL ADAMS (1902–1984)

America’s greatest landscape photographer, whose photos were used in many conservation efforts including a big role in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, for “his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas, both on film and on Earth.” Shortly after his death, Congress created the 230,000-acre Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, which is contiguous to his beloved Yosemite.

1960 – 2000      Back to Top >


A conservationist and a suffragette, Douglas was a fierce defender of the Everglades at a time when they were under threat of development. Her book about the Florida Everglades River of Grass has been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for its impact on conservation in America.

JOHN F. KENNEDY (1917–1963)

In a 1962 letter to Congress accompanying draft legislation that would eventually become the Land and Water Conservation Fund, President Kennedy wrote: “Actions deferred are all too often opportunities lost, particularly in safeguarding our natural resources.” Inspired by the work of his predecessors the Presidents Roosevelt as well as Muir, Pinchot and Mather, Kennedy proposed the LWCF as an investment to realize the true potential of “parks, forests and wildlife refuges which were acquired decades ago by the great conservationists.” The LWCF remains the single-most important legislation for funding public land conservation.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON (1908–1973)

President Johnson’s public lands legacy was largely enhanced by the efforts of conservationists Howard Zahniser, Olaus Murie and Mardy Murie, original architects of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Although only Mardy Murie would live to see the Wilderness Act signed by LBJ, the concept of securing a national wilderness preservation system for the benefit of present and future generations had been pursued for years by her husband Olaus and Zahniser. The new law created a system of federally managed public lands designated by Congress as “wilderness areas,” that would be administered in a way that would leave them unimpaired for the use and enjoyment of all.

STEWART UDALL (1920–2010)

Considered the most successful of all secretaries of the Interior, the Arizonan played a major role in conceiving and enacting the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Working under President John F. Kennedy, Udall proposed and achieved several land preservation areas, including three national parks, six national monuments, eight national seashores and lakeshores, and 56 national wildlife refuges. He defeated a proposal to dam the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers by establishing Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s largest. The Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building was named in his honor in 2010, the year of his passing.

JIMMY CARTER (born 1924)

When President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 into law, he set aside more than 104 million acres of land, creating 10 national parks and preserves, two national monuments, nine national wildlife refuges, two national conservation areas and 25 wild and scenic rivers ensuring that large portions of wilderness remain undeveloped. The legislation more than doubled the size of the national park system and dramatically increased the total designated wilderness acreage.

90th U.S. CONGRESS (1967–1969)

In the two-year term of the 90th Congress, the legislature passed the National Trails Act, which designates historic and scenic trails such as The Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. Today there are more than 54,000 miles of national trails. The Congress also created the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, chartered the National Park Foundation and created North Cascades National Park and Redwood National Park.

BRUCE BABBITT (born 1938)

Arizona governor from 1976–1987 who successfully ushered several wilderness designations through Congress before serving as Secretary of Interior under President Bill Clinton. Babbitt was the point person for Clinton’s ambitious program to protect expansive areas of federal lands as national monuments under the Antiquities Act, including the controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Babbitt submitted—and Clinton signed—proclamations for 20 new monuments and three expansions of existing monuments totaling nearly 8 million acres.

CELIA HUNTER (1919–2001)

Described as “Alaska’s modern John Muir,” Hunter launched the Alaska Conservation Foundation in 1980, the state’s first conservation organization.

GAYLORD NELSON (1916–2005)

The senator from Wisconsin authored legislation to create the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States and the National Trails System and was deeply involved with many other important pieces of environmental legislation, including the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Widely recognized as the founder of the first Earth Day in 1970, Nelson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 from President Clinton, who said he was “the father of Earth Day, and he is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event—the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act.”


A Native American and environmental activist, the Oglala Lakota woman won the 1993 Goldman Environmental Award for her work to protect voter and citizens rights against energy development projects. Photo: Goldman Environmental Foundation

2000 – 2018      Back to Top >

BARACK OBAMA (born 1961)

In his eight years as president, Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 more than any other president to protect iconic historic, cultural and ecological sites across the country. All told, he created or expanded 34 national monuments, two more than Franklin D. Roosevelt. His protection of more than 550 million acres is more than double the amount of Roosevelt, although Obama created or expanded multiple marine monuments in the Atlantic and Pacific, so the majority of that protected acreage is water. More than 1 million acres of land set aside by Obama as Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 is currently under threat of losing that designation due to a controversial 85 percent reduction attempt by President Donald Trump in 2017.

SALLY JEWELL (born 1956)

Jewell was the 51st Secretary of the Interior, and the second woman to hold the position, after Gale Norton (George W. Bush). Prior to accepting the appointment in 2013, she worked as CEO of REI and was known for her involvement in conservation and environmental protection efforts. As Interior Secretary, Jewell publicly pledged to work with President Obama to preserve mountains and rivers, with or without Congressional action. Citing a balanced approach between development and conservation, Jewell and Obama made regular use of the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 34 national monuments.

YVON CHOUINARD (born 1938)

Known as much for founding the wildly successful Patagonia brand as for his protection of wild places, Chouinard is a devoted advocate of environmental stewardship and preservation of public lands. In 1986, Chouinard committed the company to “tithing” for environmental activism, annually committing one percent of sales or ten percent of profits to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment, among other endeavors. His public lands commitment came to a pinnacle in 2017 when Patagonia led the charge to move the Outdoor Retailer show from its longtime home in Utah and announced that President Donald Trump “Stole Your Land” on the home page of its website following the reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The threat of monument rollback prompted Patagonia to release its first TV commercial in 45 years as a business, devoted to the need to protect and cultivate America’s public lands.


Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, Senator Mike Lee and Governor Gary Herbert taken together illustrate how nuanced public land policy has become in the second decade of the 21st century. The four lawmakers have each played pivotal roles and been top influencers in conversations and decisions about state takeover of public lands, the Trump administration’s monument rollback efforts, the Clean Power Plan repeal, the rise of the outdoor recreation economy’s significance in national politics, support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the balance of natural resource extraction and recreation access. Rob Bishop, as the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee since 2015 has been a part of every major federal land and water decision over the past decade and will maintain that power as long as the Republicans control the legislature. Meanwhile, Governor Gary Herbert was the first in the country to create a state office of outdoor recreation, but he was also a strong supporter of President Trump’s monument rollbacks in Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears, and he signed into law the Utah Public Lands Transfer Act of 2012. The law demands that the federal government grant the majority of public land in Utah to the State by 2014. The state of Utah would have to sue the federal government for that to happen, and it’s a lawsuit the state is unlikely to bring. Senator Mike Lee and Governor Herbert are vocal supporters of state takeover of federal public land.


A senator from Alaska (2002–present) and the chair of Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski wields more influence over how and where energy is extracted and developed on America’s public lands and waters than any other senator. A supporter of climate action and conservation who understands the value of her state’s recreation economy, Murkowski has also played a pivotal role in a 2017 tax reform bill that re-opened the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, which opponents fear will have disastrous environmental impacts.


One of the outdoor industry’s most consistent champions during her time in office, the senator from Washington is the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, where she has been an advocate for critical public lands issues, supporting recreation and addressing climate change.


A voice for Western public land values in the 21st century, he has found ways to bring sportsmen and outdooirsts together on divisive issues since his election as Senator from New Mexico. Heinrich, who sits on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has been a consistent friend and leader in the senate who understands the value of the outdoor industry as a vehicle to grow New Mexico’s economy.


For more than two decades, the Bundy family, led by father Cliven, clashed with federal land management officials over their right to graze cattle on public land. Facing fees and fines of more than $1 million, Cliven and a group of armed militiamen squared off against Bureau of Land Management officers attempting to remove his cattle from BLM lands in a tense 2014 standoff near Bunkerville, Nevada, which is now the site of Gold Butte National Monument. In 2016, the dispute escalated as Amon and Ryan Bundy led an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The standoff and the resulting legal battle elevated the discussion about the federal government’s role in managing and protecting public lands and led to a nationwide dialogue about public land use and management.

CHARLES (born 1935) & DAVID KOCH (born 1940)

The brothers who are listed at the top of Forbes list of richest individuals, have become emblematic of a nationwide shift in political activism predicated on the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on a case known as Citizens United. The ruling allows organizations, corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money funding political campaigns. The brothers have used their significant fortune to create advocacy and political groups that have significantly influenced who gets elected or defeated in American elections and which policies live or die. Their influence touches every sphere of American policy, including conservation, environmental regulation, climate and public land management. They have routinely opposed climate change legislation and espouse Libertarian policies learned from their father, who was a founding member of the John Birch Society.

DONALD TRUMP (born 1946)

Just days after taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump moved to reorganize the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. A few weeks later, his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was confirmed. Shortly after that, the Trump administration began what has been the swiftest assault on public lands in recent memory, best illustrated through President Trump’s direction to Secretary Zinke to review previously designated national monuments. He also opened the Arctic waters to oil drilling and proposed re-opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see Lisa Murkowski, below). In December of 2017, President Trump announced plans to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 85 and 46 percent, respectively, despite questionable legal authority and overwhelming public input requesting the Interior Department to leave the monument designations in place. President Trump has also rolled back climate, public health and environmental standards—most notably by pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, rolling back the Clean Power Plan, diminishing the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and diluting the powers of the Clean Water Act and easing regulations on methane emissions.

RYAN ZINKE (born 1961)

As President Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke came into office in 2017 as a self-described Teddy Roosevelt conservative but quickly set to work dismantling conservation precedent and public lands protections. In July of 2018, it was revealed that the Interior Department, under Zinke’s direction, knowingly and strategically ignored information about the positive economic impacts of recreation and tourism in and around Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in favor of information about energy development in reaching its rollback decision.