Ted and Joan Major: Last of a Generation of Conservation Giants in Jackson Hole

Two weeks ago, I was part of a celebration of Ted and Joan Major, founders of the Teton Science School (TSS), the much-lauded environmental education center in Jackson, Wyoming. I had served as the school’s Field Studies Director during 1984-1985, and for me, revisiting the school felt like coming home.

At 97, Ted held forth amongst former students and fellow board members with stories of the school’s early days, when he and Joan (now 90), started the environmental education center with just 12 high school students. Thereafter, they ventured into the Tetons, Yellowstone Park and Wind Rivers to learn about the ecology of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Ted’s message? Everything in the natural world is connected – rivers and mountains, forests and wildlife, and us. You can’t destroy nature without destroying something precious of ourselves.

To Ted and Joan, wilderness was a venue for learning and personal change, not constrained by the four walls of a classroom. In 1967, environmental education was a revolutionary idea. Since then, similar centers have sprung up across the country, many modeled after TSS.

While at the school, I saw first-hand the power of wilderness to transform. In just six weeks, I witnessed high school students catch fire with curiosity to understand more about the natural world and their place in it. They changed, not just in terms of knowledge or appreciation of nature, but also in relationship to each other.

The bonds forged at TSS would prove to be long lasting. More than one romance led to marriage, as with authors and conservation advocates Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams, artists Ed and Lee Riddell, as well as biologists Margaret and Roger Creel.

Frank and John Craighead’s Grizzly Legacy

In the school’s early days, TSS students enjoyed experiences that are now no longer possible. They looked on as Frank Craighead, the pioneer grizzly bear biologist (along with his twin brother John), tranquilized a grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park. “We even got to touch the bear while it was sedated,” said former student April Hirsch at the recent celebration.

By the time I arrived at TSS, grizzlies had been listed under the Endangered Species Act and the Craigheads’ research in Yellowstone Park had been terminated. But Frank lived in nearby Moose, and would still come and share his stories with students, often in front of a crackling fire in the living room. Wide-eyed kids sat on the edges of their seats to hear Frank’s hair-raising adventures about wading through waist-deep rivers, bushwhacking in feet of snow, and dodging an infuriated grizzly that had just woken from the sedating drugs they had used to immobilize it.

But Frank was not just known for being the wildlife biologist who, with John, had invented radiotelemetry and thereby transformed the study of wildlife (link). He and John were fierce advocates for wild things and wild places. They pressed Congress to set aside more Wilderness, and they spearheaded a successful campaign to protect rivers, under what became the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Frank and John would become known as much for their commitment to conservation as their scientific contributions. In 1998, the Audubon Society named the twins among the top 100 figures in conservation of the 20th century.

What amazes me is the breadth of their scientific pursuits, which ranged far beyond grizzlies. Together, Frank and John wrote a flora of the Northern Rockies, which is still revered. Frank also wrote the classic Track of the Grizzly on their research in Yellowstone, as well as a treatise on phenology in Jackson Hole, For Every Season, while John and co-authors wrote The Grizzlies of Yellowstone: Their Ecology in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.    

In a similar vein, Ted Major and Terry Tempest Williams wrote The Secret Language of Snow. Ted was particularly inspired by winter ecology and the adaptation of animals and plants to Greater Yellowstone’s harsh winters. In 1986, I had the opportunity to teach a winter ecology class with Ted in the northern part of Yellowstone. It was a thrill to be with Ted in his element, as he outskiied most of the class. Ted was a magical teacher, interpreting the history of the snowpack in the walls of a snow pit, tracking weasels and moose, and reveling in being the first to carve turns through then healthy forests of whitebark pine.

The Four Muries

Ted Major and Frank Craighead were not alone in the breadth of their knowledge about the natural world in Jackson Hole. There was also Olaus, Adolphe, Weezy, and Mardy Murie. Brothers Olaus and Ade pioneered research on predator-prey relations, and spoke out against the killing of the last wolves of Yellowstone.

Ade was the first scientist to study wolves in their natural habitat, and authored, among other books, the Wolves of Mount McKinley and the Grizzlies of Mount McKinley (now Denali National Park), spending countless hours observing these and other mammals and birds without the aid of radio collars (link). He believed that “life is richest where the greatest diversity exists in the natural order.” Ade is credited with crafting an ecological approach to wildlife management in the National Park system.

Olaus too studied mammals in the arctic, as well as Jackson Hole, where he successfully pressed for additions to Grand Teton Park on the grounds that wildlife need contiguous habitat from the mountains to the valley bottom. A talented artist and naturalist, Olaus wrote A Field Guide to Animal Tracks (a classic, still in print), which featured his drawings as well as rich anecdotes about his experiences in the wild.

Olaus and Ade were among the first in a long line of government biologists whose research on the value of predators was suppressed. (This sad pattern continues to this day (link)).   But such treatment did not silence the Muries.

In fact, Olaus went on to become an early director of The Wilderness Society, where he advocated for wilderness and wildlife in a national arena. He tragically died shortly before the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Olaus’ wife Mardy would come to carry the mantle of conservation after Olaus’ death, and inspire countless young activists (myself included), who made pilgrimages to the Muries’ log cabin in Grand Teton Park to enjoy tea, cookies and conversation. She too was a writer, authoring Two in the Far North(with Olaus), Wapiti Wilderness, and Island Between. A passionate advocate for wilderness, especially in her beloved Alaska, Mardy was a major force behind the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well 157 million acres of wild country protected, in varying degrees,  under the Alaska Lands Act of 1980.

When I was a budding conservationist in my 20s, Mardy was a living example of how to be brave without becoming masculine. I have long loved this quote of hers, in her testimony on the Alaska Lands Act:  “I am testifying as an emotional woman and I would like to ask you, gentlemen, what’s wrong with emotion? Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy. 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.” 

Ade’s widow, Louise (or Weezy) also was a role model for me. Every bit as courageous as her half-sister Mardy, Weezy was also an undaunted advocate for wild places. She and Ade spent 25 summers and several winters in a cabin in Denali with no running water – and their two children in tow. According to Weezy, “Ade said he carried enough water to wash enough diapers to stretch around the bounds of McKinley Park.”

 Weezy was also a skilled botanist, examining and cataloguing 100 flowering plants in Denali. “I carried a magnifying glass around my neck and studied the flowers, down to the little hairs,” she said in a 2011 interview. Her manuscript McKinley Flora, was published after her death at 100 years of age.   

Dave Love and Luna Leopold

Jackson was also home during summer to David Love, a preeminent geologist who would become the subject of a book by John McPhee, Rising from the Plains. A passionate teacher, Dave’s interests went far beyond geology to include ecology, wildlife biology, and management. He could look at an outcrop of Devonian shale and tell you about the antelope that relied on it in spring for key minerals. Looking at granitic or volcanic soils, he could tell you what kind of berries you were most likely to find growing nearby.

Like the Muries, Dave hated incompetence in the management of natural resources, which was (and still is) widespread in the region.

Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son, also frequented Jackson in those days, where he spent summers in a cabin nearby, on the eastern slope of Wind Rivers. Luna was a world-renowned hydrologist who wrote the primary college textbook on hydrology.

Luna was the major impetus behind the editing and publication of his father’s essays, Sand County Almanac, which serves as one of the cornerstones of modern conservation science, policy, and ethics. First published in 1949, it has become a conservation classic, articulating an ethic of moral responsibility for the natural world.

Luna said this about the land ethic: “Rather than interpreting the concept of the land ethic as an indication of disregard for the individual in favor of the species or the ecosystem, my view is quite different. I see the concept of the land ethic as the outgrowth and extension of his deep personal concern for the individual.

Accepting the idea that the cooperations and competitions in human society are eased and facilitated by concern for others, he saw that the same consideration extended to other parts of the ecosystem would tend to add integrity, beauty and stability to the whole.

I was amazed by Luna’s fierce intellect and wide-ranging understanding of the natural world. Once I saw him address a group of students using a quarzite core, the remains of an ancient hand ax, as through-thread of a narrative about the history of the earth and native peoples of the Northern Rockies. I stood at the back of the group, dumbfounded at the immense arc of time he tracked, aided only by a rock in his palm of his hand.

Learning How to Integrate Science and Conservation       

I was fortunate enough to know these legendary figures who frequented Jackson Hole — except for Olaus and Ade, who had passed on by the time I arrived. In fact, these giants changed my life. Aside from dispensing an immense amount of knowledge, they showed me, each in their own way, how you could be both an effective scientist and conservationist.

Dave Love became my mentor, encouraging me to pursue a career in conservation advocacy. With a twinkle in his eye, he was constantly asking questions, challenging assumptions, or telling terrible jokes. I thought that the enormous silver belt buckle he wore that read “LOVE” was pretty funny.

Dave charted an interesting course as a scientist and advocate himself. As a geologist with US Geological Survey, Dave had helped site tests for atomic bombs in Nevada during the 1950s. After seeing colleagues involved in these tests die from strange cancers, he became fiercely opposed to use of nuclear energy.

When the facts warranted, Dave demonstrated the ability to change his mind. Near the end of his life, to the surprise of many — me included — he argued against developing a gold mine near the Yellowstone Park. This was the guy who had mapped the geology of Wyoming during the depression, with a mandate to find valuable minerals such as gold.

It is testimony to the strength of the teachings of these legendary scientists that their voices still come to me when I make the journey back to Jackson. Depending on what I am looking at – the Oxbow of the Snake River, the Gros Ventres slide, or the Burnt Ridge glacial moraine — the voice might belong to Ted, or Dave or Luna. They are telling me stories about the creation of a landscape, or the animals and plants that live there. They are reminding me of lessons that are in danger of fading over the years.

In these selfish times, I miss Dave and the other conservation elder statesmen (and women) of Jackson Hole, who shared, above all, guts in the face of greed, and a sense of duty to leave to future generations as much of the natural world as possible.

To me, Ted and Joan are the last living links to this era of science and conservation legends of Jackson Hole. There is no one yet of their stature poised to fill their shoes.

The Sad State of Today’s Conservation Leadership

With so much more money pouring now into conservation organizations, I was not prepared to see the progressive weakening of the environmental movement — at least in the arena of public lands (especially wilderness) and wildlife.

Sadly, the current generation of professionals staffing well-heeled environmental organizations in this region is made up mostly of young people from Ivy League schools who are increasingly invested in maintaining the status quo and their connections with privileged elites. (Again, I am talking here about the public lands and wildlife arena, not climate change or sustainable food and energy issues, which are attracting enthusiastic, topnotch talent). Many rarely venture out from behind their computers, other than to count coup on nature with a mountain bike or snowboard. Few are willing to build meaningful relationships with people who are not like them – including working-class people who get dirty hands busing their tables or fixing their SUVs.

Many care more about playing the inside political game than paying heed to science. And, perhaps most distressing, many lack vision and courage – the kind that the Muries, Leopolds and Craigheads had in spades.

Case in point: the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, once founded on the rock of visionary and uncompromising iconoclasts, just announced that it would not oppose delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Dave, Olaus and Frank would roll over in their graves.

There is much more that needs to be said about this problem of deficit leadership, which will be the subject of future blogs.

But Hope for the Future

But I have hope for the future. TSS has succeeded beyond the Majors’ wildest dreams. Over 12,000 students pass through its portals every year. Some students are enrolled in the TSS’s K-12 Journey School, which emphasizes environmental education and ethics. Some students are training to be educators at the Science School’s Teacher’s Institute. Perhaps the next generation of environmental leaders will rise from their ranks.

At the celebration for Joan and Ted, some of this year’s high school students presented findings of their summer research, boosting my hope for the next generation of conservation leaders. I was amazed at the diversity of the student body: in fact, this year, Latinos outnumbered the white students. But for scholarship funds provided by Summer Search and the Walton Foundation, these students would not have been able to attend.

The first student to speak at the gathering was a young black man from Baltimore, Maryland, who talked about the ingredients of effective leadership. Wow! I know many people in leadership positions who seemingly never think systematically about the art and practice of being leaders.

Afterwards, during the reception, I saw Ted, as in the old days, surrounded by a cluster of high school students talking excitedly about what they had been learning.

Teton Science School is about as far from Trump University as you can get. It is — as it has been from the beginning — about educating young people and receptive adults to the virtues of truth, altruism, and saving some of our precious natural world as legacy for future generations.

For this, we owe Ted and Joan a huge debt of gratitude. I am thankful too that Ted and Joan continue to teach by example about how to age gracefully – lessons that I am mostly learning the hard way. And, perhaps Joan will yet publish her 30-year record of phenology in the mini-wilderness where they live on the back side of the Tetons.

This work in progress embodies what I think of as the essence of both Joan and Ted: a fundamental love for and curiosity about nature.  To me, these are traits we all need if we are to save this blue planet – and ourselves.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.