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Edgar Wayburn, behind-the-scenes conservationist, dies at 103

Emma Brown

Edgar Wayburn, arguably the least-known, most-effective conservationist in America, died Friday at his home in San Francisco. He was 103.

Dr. Wayburn was a full-time physician who is credited with protecting more wild spaces in America than any other citizen, an achievement that helped earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.

Point Reyes National Seashore, the peninsula that juts out into the Pacific just north of San Francisco? Wayburn's doing, back in 1962.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the string of open spaces including gorgeous hills opposite San Francisco? Also Wayburn's doing. Ditto Mt. Tamalpais State Park, which is seven times the size it once was thanks to Wayburn's effort, and Redwood National Park in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties.

His most impressive achievement, however, is probably the 1980 passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by Jimmy Carter just before he left office. ANILCA protected 104 million acres in Alaska, doubling the size of the nation's national parks. It was the result of 13 years of political shepherding by Dr. Wayburn and his colleagues.

Environmental activism was a weekends-and-evenings vocation that he undertook in addition to his medical practice. He and his wife, Peggy Wayburn -- a conservationist in her own right -- turned vacations with their four children into weeks-long wilderness reconnaissance missions.

"Growing up, we did not go to church -- we went hiking on Sundays," said their daughter Laurie Wayburn in an interview today. "Nature was our church."

Politically savvy, relentlessly persistent and always genteel, Dr. Wayburn was overheard -- in the receiving line after being awarded the Presidential Medal of freedom -- urging Bill Clinton to protect still more acreage in the West.

"Whenever we encroach on the natural world, we crop the boundaries of our own existence as humans," he wrote in "Your Land and Mine," his 2004 autobiography. "In destroying wildness, we deny ourselves the full extent of what it means to be alive."

Full obituary to follow. Image below courtesy of the Sierra Club's William E. Colby Memorial Library.

By Emma Brown  |  March 8, 2010; 3:53 PM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown  | Tags: edgar wayburn anilca, edgar wayburn died, edgar wayburn obituary, edgar wayburn sierra club, golden gate national recreation area history, point reyes national seashore history, presidential medal of freedom, san francisco bay area open space preservation, sierra club anilca  
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