Marge Sill – Mother of Wilderness
by Jackie Rejfek

 

For an audio-visual interview with Marge Sill, click here.

As a wilderness advocate for 50 years, Marge Sill, is called the “Mother of Wilderness.” The nickname is well deserved because her enduring volunteer efforts make her indispensable to Western environmental preservation.

The Wilderness is an important aspect of Sill’s life. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1949 with majors in English literature and mathematics, she married Richard Sill. In 1954, Sill joined the Sierra Club and began her lifelong crusade to protect wilderness.

 “Before I was married, way back when I was going to college, I had several friends who were Sierra Club members,” Sill said. “Actually I even attended a little function in (Sierra Club founder) Dave Brower’s house and that probably was in 1948.”

In 1959, Sill and her husband moved to Reno and joined the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. Sill began going on outings

during the summer to places such as Yosemite, the eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.

When Sill’s husband was elected as chapter chairman of the club in 1965, her work with the wilderness became high profile. She worked with people such as Edda Morrison on issues involving land, and particularly on wilderness and national parks. Sill said during that time, the women of the club did the work, while the men just talked about change.

“I have held many offices in the local chapter and the regional conservation committee, which is California and Nevada,” Sill said. “I have never held any national offices. I have been asked sometime to run for the board, but I did not think it was my thing. I like working on issues on the land, and particularly on wilderness and national parks.”

In 1970, The Great Basin Group was formed as a division of the Toiyabe Chapter, covering western and northern Nevada. The Toiyabe Chapter covers all of Nevada and the Sierra crest east to Nevada. It has four groups including, the Great Basin Group, the Southern Nevada Group, in Las Vegas, the Range of Light Group, whose principle headquarters is in Mammoth Lakes, and the Tahoe Group. Sill said the groups have different activities but the Sierra Club tries to tie them all together

As the Sierra Club changed, Nevada began to change. Urban sprawl eventually moved into the Reno area and began causing problems for the preservation of environmental areas.

“When I first moved here, we did not have all this development around,” Sill said. “We did not have locked gate communities. You could go practically anywhere you wanted to by foot and I did that a lot. You could even walk on dirt roads because there was not that off road vehicle traffic, ATV’s and motorcycles that you have now. It was a very different kind of world. Things were sort of free and you could go almost anywhere without being closed off.

Community development limited access to members of the Sierra Club.

 

The locked, gated communities blocked access to areas such as the Mt. Rose wilderness and the Peavine trails. Sill worked with the Sierra Club to change legislation and preserve land. 

“I have been politically active since I came to Nevada. I have talked to Senator Alan Bible, Senator Howard Cannon, and Senator Paul Laxalt,” Sill said. “I worked for the election for Sen. Harry Reid, every campaign that he has run, and the two campaigns that Sen. Richard Ryan was in. I worked for his election too, so I have been very politically active.“

Sill warns the Sierra Club members to pick their battles. The first battle the club won was the fight to create Lake Tahoe State Park. Seven hundred people took 10 activity trips cross-country skiing on Mt. Rose. The trips and political activism showed how important the land was to the people.

 “We had a lot of involvement and worked very hard in the legislature to get the legislation passed to acquire the land from Mr. (George) Whittel, who owned much of east shore of Lake Tahoe,” Sill said. “Finally, we got permission and the Lake Tahoe State Park was established. It is a wonderful and great victory and we would not have places that everyone goes now on the east shore of Lake Tahoe if we had not been able to do that.”

Kurt Kuznicki, the public relations chairman for The Great Basin Group knows Sill’s involvement is indispensable. People look up to Sill and anyone would be lucky to meet someone as extraordinary as her, said Kuznicki.

“Marge Sill is a person who has in effect changed the world for the better,” said Kuznicki. “Marge has a gift. She has a very special way about her to make you feel at ease, even though you are sitting with a living legend, Marge makes you feel that you have something worthwhile to say, that your opinion really matters. Marge makes you believe that you can in fact change the world yourself. Marge has taught us all to love Nevada's Wild Places.”

Over the years, Sill and the Sierra club have won many battles such as the 1984 California Wilderness Act, 1989 Nevada Wilderness Act and 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

Sill said her greatest achievement was working to get the Wilderness Act passed. The bill was a great accomplishment because the club worked for more than 25 years to get it passed. Finally, the club was awarded with 750,000 acres of land that makes up the Great Basin National Park.

Political activity is important to Sill because most environmental change happens in politics.

“You always have a certain percent that are going to be politically active. When I first came here I do not think anyone was politically active except perhaps my husband and I,” Sill said. “That has changed over the years. We have a good number of political activists now, but it is a small percentage of the membership. I understand the membership of the Toiyabe Chapter is now about 5,500 people. I would say if 50 people were politically active that would be great.”

Most members support the club in different ways. Many contribute and participate in the outings program. Sill said that outings are the best service a person could do for the Sierra Club. Enjoying the wilderness and knowing what nature can give is powerful according to Sill.

However, if Sill could do more, she would educate more people about the erosion of land and the mistreatment of precious resources. She wants people to explore the possibilities that alternative resources offer.

“We recently had a program on the importance of alternative energy because you know we are going to have to have some kind of solution to the global warming problem,” Sill said. “We are running out of oil and in Nevada we are particularly fortunate because we have solar energy, sunshine almost everyday. We have wind energy and we have geothermal energy. We need to use our alternative energies and I understand the state legislature just passed a bill and put into effect use of photovoltaic cells, which are solar energy cells.”

Sill is worried about the future of Nevada wilderness. In her lifetime, she witnessed wilderness devastated by city expansion and numerous off-road vehicles that overrun the land. Sill calls upon the public land managing agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, to have designated routes for these vehicles to travel.

“That is going to take time and it is going to take money,” Sill said. “I know that the U.S. Forest Service has started this process by working on Peavine (Peak of north Reno), which – may have been as much as two years ago - was simply overrun with off road vehicles going everywhere, dumping trash everywhere and shooting. Now they have a travel management plan designating certain roads that vehicles go on and saying that the shooting cannot occur within a certain distance from the communities. I think this is extremely important.”

Though Sill has seen wilderness overwhelmed by change, she commends the Reno downtown development.

“I am very enthusiastic about the new kayak course on the Truckee River,” Sill said. “All the attention that is being paid now to the Truckee River, with the bicycle and hiking paths - all this kind of thing to me is a very, very definite advantage in making our community more friendly to the people who want to take advantage of our wonderful climate and our beautiful outdoors.”

Sill said that she looks forward to the future and has confidence that people will take care of wilderness areas.

“I am proud to be called the mother of wilderness, but right now I feel like the grandmother of wilderness, but that is okay. I love wilderness. I love wilderness as a vision for the future,” Sill said. “I want to see my grandchildren and their grandchildren – and I am speaking of grandchildren as a total community – be able to get out and enjoy the wonderful things that I have enjoyed. Of course, I also want the wilderness for all the little critters that live there. I think only in that way will we preserve part of our country’s heritage.”