Women You Should Know: The Grandmother of the Conservation Movement

“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.”

Mardy was the name Margaret Thomas Murie’s friends and family knew her by, but history remembers her as “The Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.” She was instrumental in creating the modern approach to conservation: acquiring and protecting large tracts of lands to preserve an entire ecosystem. Backed by rigorous field work and scientific data, this concept laid the intellectual groundwork for the creation of countless National Parks and Preserves. In addition to her work as a pioneering conservationist, she was also an author, adventurer, and educator.

Margaret Murie (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

Mardy was born on August 28th, 1902. She spent her formative years as a child in Alaska. At the age of nine she lived in a small log cabin near the edge of Fairbanks with her mother, stepfather, and siblings. One of her main tasks as a child was keeping the woodstoves burning through the frigid Alaskan nights. Prior to the railroad being built in her hometown, Mardy would undertake 400-mile treks to visit her father on the Alaskan coast. The journey required travel by horse-drawn carriage, carts, and dogsleds. At times the carriage horses would have to navigate open water, with passengers balancing on top of the floating wagon. She was unruffled. This upbringing was a proper training for her adulthood as an outdoorswoman and conservationist.

In the summer of 1921, Mardy met Olaus Murie, her future husband. A son of Norwegian immigrants, Olaus was a strapping blue-eyed biologist from Minnesota. They kept up a long-distance correspondence until 1924 when Mardy became the first woman to graduate from Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (University of Alaska Fairbanks). After her graduation they were married during a 3:00 am Yukon sunrise ceremony. Clad in fur parkas and boots, they spent their “honeymoon” on an 8-month, 500-mile dogsledding expedition studying caribou in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

Olaus and Mardy, in their honeymoon fur parkas – 1924

In 1927 the pair relocated to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to study the rapidly declining elk populations in the Tetons Mountains and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Mardy and Olaus would spend weeks in the Wyoming backcountry. Throughout the years they had several children, but that did not pause their research. Mardy continued to go into the field, even with a babe at her breast. Part of their children’s upbringing and education was studying and immersing themselves in the rugged ecosystem of the Tetons.

Murie Family

In 1945 the family bought the STS, a 77-acre dude ranch in Moose, Wyoming, which bordered the newly established Grand Tetons National Park. Their home became a meeting place for the growing and rapidly evolving conservation movement. The Wilderness Society, a non-profit land conservation organization, was headquartered in Moose. Mardy was an associate of the The Wilderness Society and was instrumental in campaigning for issues of public land management.

Top: Ranching and Dude Ranches of the Grand Tetons / Bottom: Elk Ranch (Credit: National Park Service)

In 1956 Mardy campaigned for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, convincing President Dwight Eisenhower to protect an initial 8 million acres, which was later expanded to 19 million acres. By the 1970s, Mardy was a leading consultant for the Wilderness Society, National Park Service, and the Sierra Club. In 1975 she was assigned to a task force to identify and secure critical Alaskan wildlife habitats for federal protection. Mardy was a major figure in the designation of the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act signed by President Carter in 1980. This ground-breaking act set aside 104,000,000 acres of land in Alaska.

“I feel so sure that, if we are big enough to save this bit of loveliness on earth, the future citizens of Alaska and of all the world will be deeply grateful. This is a time for a long look ahead.”

Top: Olaus and Mardy / Bottom: Camp Quarters – 1956, Sheenjek River Valley, Alaska

Margaret Thomas Murie was a prominent figure in the conservation movement for over 8 decades. In her lifetime she would receive the Audubon Medal (1980), John Muir Award (1983), Robert Marshall Conservation Award (1986), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton (1998). Additionally, she received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, and the University of Wyoming, and was appointed as an honorary National Park Ranger from the National Park Service. She transitioned ownership of her STS ranch to the National Park Service to be incorporated into the Grand Teton National Park. Mardy earned her sobriquet, “The Grandmother of the Conservation Movement,” many times over. She died in her home in Moose, Wyoming on October 19th, 2003. She was 101.

Want to follow the trail of this trailblazer? Here are a few places you can experience the life and legacy of Margaret Murie: