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date: 24 January 2021

Marshall, Robertfree

(02 January 1901–11 November 1939)
  • James M. Glover

Marshall, Robert (02 January 1901–11 November 1939), environmentalist and social activist, was born in New York City, the son of Louis Marshall, a renowned Jewish and civil rights leader, and Florence Lowenstein. He was strongly influenced by his father, who besides being an ardent defender of Jewish and other minorities’ civil rights, was an avid art collector, philanthropist, and defender of wilderness preservation in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Marshall was educated at the Ethical Culture School in New York and then studied forestry at the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University (receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1924) and the Harvard Forest in north-central Massachusetts. He earned his master’s degree in forestry from Harvard in the spring of 1925. Somewhat obsessed with the early American explorers and wishing to reenact their adventures, he had, by the time he was twenty-four, climbed all forty-six of the Adirondack “high peaks.”

From 1925 to 1928, Marshall, who was known as “Bob,” worked for the U.S. Forest Service conducting tree-growth research on both sides of the Idaho-Montana border. During this time he became well known within the Forest Service for his twenty- to forty-mile hikes on days off and for ardently adopting the minority position within the agency that large tracts of the national forests should remain roadless and undeveloped. He became known also for his zany sense of humor, well illustrated by a detailed study he conducted of lumberjacks’ eating habits and usage of profanity. When in December 1929 Social Forces magazine published the resulting parody of social science research, its readers learned such startling facts as that “an average of 136 words, unmentionable at church sociables, were enunciated every quarter hour by the hardy hewers of wood.”

Marshall spent the fall of 1928 to the spring of 1930 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he obtained a Ph.D. in plant physiology and “more or less” ran the Johns Hopkins Liberal Club. Marshall’s father died in 1929, and Marshall inherited a substantial amount of money, enabling him to be financially independent for the rest of his life. He spent the summer of 1929 exploring an unmapped portion of Alaska’s Brooks Range, accompanied only by a gold seeker named Al Retzlaff. A year later—beginning in August 1930—he spent another twelve and a half months continuing to explore and map the same region and conducting a sociological study of the 100 or so inhabitants of the region. His headquarters for the sociological study was a tiny mining settlement called Wiseman. The area he explored and mapped included much of what later became Gates of the Arctic National Park. His Brooks Range explorations, which included two subsequent trips in 1938 and 1939, resulted in a posthumous book, Arctic Wilderness (1956; 2d ed., Alaska Wilderness, 1970), the first maps of the region, and some 164 names for geographical features eventually adopted by the U.S. Geological Survey. His sociological study resulted in a popular book, Arctic Village, which was a Literary Guild selection for June 1933.

Marshall spent from autumn 1931 to May 1933 writing Arctic Village and another book, The People’s Forests (1933), which advocated a total takeover by the federal government of all forestlands in the country. By this time, Marshall had become an avowed socialist. He was also very active in many liberal, civil rights, and civil liberties causes. He served, for example, as chairman of the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, was active in the Tenants Unemployed League, and was arrested in March 1933 for participating in a United Front demonstration. Meanwhile he did freelance work for the Forest Service and campaigned for wilderness preservation. An article he had published in 1930 for The Scientific Monthly called “The Problem of the Wilderness” had aroused much interest among natural resource professionals and outdoor enthusiasts, and Marshall spent much time in the early 1930s making contacts with such people, who shared his wilderness love.

Throughout most of the 1930s Marshall was based primarily in Washington, D.C. From 1933 to 1937 he worked for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, under its liberal commissioner John Collier, as head of that agency’s forestry division. While in this position, he convinced Collier and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to declare some 4.8 million acres on thirteen reservations off limits to federally assisted development—in essence creating Indian reservation wilderness areas. He also began a relentless personal campaign to convince his friends and acquaintances in the Forest Service to expand that agency’s fledgling system of “primitive areas.” In 1935 he was the primary organizer and founder of the Wilderness Society, thus fulfilling his desire to create, as he had written in “The Problem of the Wilderness,” an organization “of spirited people” who would “fight for the freedom of the Wilderness.” Marshall personally financed much of the society’s activities until his death in 1939.

In May 1937 Marshall accepted a position as chief of the division of recreation and lands for the U.S. Forest Service. In this position, he stepped up his personal campaign for Forest Service wilderness preservation. On summer inspection tours of western national forests, he often hiked across large roadless areas, then circled these areas on maps, and formally urged local and regional Forest Service officials to preserve them. These maps of Marshall’s influenced the evolution of the Forest Service’s primitive area system for several decades after his death, indeed up until the Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Marshall died in his sleep on a train before reaching his thirty-ninth birthday; he never married. A police autopsy gave the cause of death as leukemia and arteriosclerosis. His primary contributions were as an Alaskan explorer, early environmentalist, and inspirational figure to later wilderness advocates. During the time of his active wilderness crusade (roughly 1933–1939), the U.S. Forest Service added some 5.4 million acres to its primitive area system; many areas added after 1939 had also been advocated by Marshall. His brainchild, the Wilderness Society, emerged as a leading environmental voice in the second half of the twentieth century. His chief aim was to rescue the opportunity for an ancient human experience, which he believed was enormously enriching. He spoke as much for himself as others when he wrote that for some, “the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness” (“The Wilderness as a Minority Right,” Forest Service Bulletin, 27 Aug. 1928).


The primary collection of Marshall’s papers is at the Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley. There are smaller Marshall collections at the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.; and the Moon Library, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse. Revealing articles by Marshall not mentioned in the text include “Recreational Limitations to Silviculture in the Adirondacks,” Journal of Forestry 23 (Feb. 1925): 173–78; “Impressions from the Wilderness,” The Living Wilderness, Autumn 1951, pp. 10–13; “Public Forestry or Private Devastation?” New Republic, 27 June 1934, pp. 176–78; and “The Universe of the Wilderness Is Vanishing,” Nature Magazine, Apr. 1937, pp. 235–40. A book-length biography is James M. Glover, A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall (1986). See also Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967); Peter Wild, Pioneer Conservationists of Eastern America (1986); and Jim Dale Vickery, Wilderness Visionaries (1986). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 12 Nov. 1939; the Nation, 2 Dec. 1939, p. 635; and the New Republic, 27 Dec. 1939, p. 289.