Members of the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness canoe trip on the Allegheny River paddle near Thompson Island which is near Tidiote in Warren County.
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Forty years ago last Friday, President Lyndon B. Johnson placed his signature on the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. But it was the pen of a Western Pennsylvanian, Howard Zahniser, that fashioned the heart and soul of the law that would lead to eventual designation of 107 million acres of wilderness on federal lands across the country.
Zahniser, a native of Tionesta, Forest County, wrote the original draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956 as director of the Wilderness Society. For eight years he guided the law through 66 revisions toward passage by Congress. Zahniser died in May of 1964, days after testifying at the final congressional hearing on the Wilderness bill and four months before Johnson's signature made it law. He was 58.
"He'd just go and go, often 30 hours at a stretch," said Zahniser's wife Alice after his death. "In the end he just spent himself out."
On Aug. 27-29, 13 canoeists in eight canoes commemorated the Wilderness enactment anniversary with a three-day canoe trip on the Allegheny River. Friends of Allegheny Wilderness (FAW), a non-profit group based in Warren, organized the journey as part of its work to promote appreciation of the 9,031 acres of designated wilderness on Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest.
After a study of other relatively undisturbed parts of the Forest, the group proposes that an additional 54,000 acres merit wilderness designation. FAW faces opposition, however, from commercial forestry and oil and gas industry representatives who maintain that extractive industries are foundations of local economies in places such as rural northwestern Pennsylvania and it is unwise to bar such activities from federal lands.
According to FAW executive director Kirk Johnson, the group's proposal for additional wilderness on the Allegheny is not an attempt to stop timber or gas and oil production there.
"Our proposal is not an all or nothing proposition," Johnson said. "We have objectively identified the most wild, undeveloped areas of the Forest with the fewest conflicts for their potential inclusion in America's National Wilderness Preservation System."
FAW's commemorative canoe trip launched at Warren (canoes and shuttle supplied by Allegheny Outfitters, www.alleghenyoutfitters.com) and paddled 40 miles downriver to Zahniser's hometown of Tionesta where his grave, marked by an uncut stone from the forest, overlooks the Allegheny. Making the trip with Johnson were Zahniser's son Matt Zahniser of Covington, Ky.; grandson Dave and wife Rachel of Covington, Ky.; Stuart Zahniser of Erie; Julie, Dan and Gabrielle Kennedy of Clearfield: Charlotte and Will Ford of McConnellsburg, Nathan Bell of Bradford; and U. S. Forest Service wilderness ranger Eric Flood.
Under the rim of the Allegheny Plateau, the paddlers glided through the Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, one of the more unique areas in the nationwide system of designated wilderness lands. The Allegheny River Islands Wilderness contains seven islands totaling 368 acres embraced by the river between Warren and Tionesta. Named for early settlers, the islands are covered with forest and dense understory vegetation. There is no development and the islands are used primarily by fisherman and for camping by canoe parties. The FAW party camped in hard rain on Crull's Island and King Island along their route. Courson Island, also part of the Wilderness chain, can be seen from the Tidioute Overlook along the Tidioute-Warren Road just east of Route 62.
Friends of Allegheny Wilderness chose a canoe float to commemorate Zahniser's contributions to the wilderness protection because he and Alice had made a similar but longer canoe trip on the Allegheny from Olean, N.Y., to Tionesta in June of 1937. Howard kept a journal during the trip and recorded sightings of wildlife and vegetation. Their route took them along a section of the Allegheny that was later inundated by the Kinzua Dam reservoir after the dam was completed in 1966.
Zahniser's early life along the Allegheny and his 1937 canoe trip with Alice strongly influenced his conservation work in the next 27 years.
"We paddled on, finding the islands interesting," Zahniser wrote in the journal. "It was a clear blue June day. The sky was especially beautiful, with cumulus, cirrus and stratus clouds all day. As we went under the bridge at West Hickory after winding through the islands, we saw two eagles flying high over the narrows. We stopped below the tannery to stretch. The canoeing from Hickory on had the added interest of the faint recollection of familiar things. We were much interested in fish jumping and in the green herons standing on an anchored boat."
As Alice and Howard Zahniser did in 1937, the FAW flotilla encountered numerous bald eagles, blue herons and abundant waterfowl. Ranger Flood asked the group to "help the Forest Service" by keeping a lookout for a possible eagle nest among tall white pines near one of the wilderness islands. A mature eagle soared out of the forest near where the nest was thought to be, and an immature eagle stretched its wings on a snag downriver, but the canoeists did not spot a nest.
Two miles above Tionesta, Johnson led the fleet ashore below the rumble of log trucks and the rush of tourist traffic along Route 62. There along the west shoulder stands a blue and gold Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker dedicated to Howard Zahniser's work on behalf of wilderness.
"It is quite fitting that he be mentioned in a place where not only did he have some of his most formative years, but in a region where there are two wilderness areas designated already," Matt Zahniser said.
The Hickory Creek Wilderness is the Allegheny National Forest's other designated wilderness. It consists of 8,663 acres of northern hardwood forest atop the plateau above the river's east bank. Both the Hickory Creek and the Allegheny River Islands areas were granted wilderness designation through the Pennsylvania Wilderness Act of 1984.
Together, their acreage amounts to less than 2 percent of the Allegheny National Forest total, far below the 18 percent of national forest land designated as wilderness nationally. Most designated wilderness is in the West, but according to Johnson protected wilderness on the Allegheny is scarce even compared to other eastern states.
"Demand for wilderness experience in the Allegheny National Forest is very high and the available supply in the region is low," Johnson said. "The Allegheny is Zahniser's home national forest and the inspiration for Friends of Allegheny Wilderness' efforts stems from the fact that there is so little wilderness in his home forest. We believe we must do his legacy proud by protecting what would still amount to a small fraction of this forest. We have an obligation here to live up to the hard work that Zahniser put into wilderness and its protection for the entire nation."