Mardy Murie

Regarded as the “grandmother of the conservation movement,” Mardy Murie was instrumental in the passing of some of the most important environmental protection acts in U.S. history.


Born in 1902, Mardy Murie grew up in the Alaskan wilderness that she would spend her life protecting. She began her efforts as a conservationist after marrying biologist Olaus Murie in 1924, accompanying him on many of his expeditionary trips for the U.S. Biological Survey. Their efforts during the 1950s led to the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960 and the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Mardy Murie was also part of a task force in the 1970s that was instrumental in the passing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. It is the largest preservation act in U.S. history. Murie died on October 19, 2003, at age 101.  

A Rugged Upbringing

Now widely recognized as the “grandmother of the conservation movement,” Mardy Murie was born Margaret Elizabeth Thomas on August 18, 1902, in Seattle, Washington. Her parents divorced when she was a young girl, and her mother remarried an assistant U.S. attorney who was posted to Fairbanks, Alaska, where Mardy spent her formative years. Living in a cabin on the outskirts of the town, Mardy learned how to live in the often challenging remoteness of her surroundings and frequently made trips into Alaska’s rugged wilderness.

At age 18, Mardy began attending college in Portland, Oregon, and while home from school one summer met a young scientist named Olaus Murie. The two maintained a correspondence while Mardy completed her studies, and after she graduated from the University of Alaska (making her the first woman to do so) in 1924 the couple was married at a sunrise ceremony on the banks of the Yukon River. Their partnership would prove over time to be vital to the future of the Northwestern wilds.

Life in the Wild

Following their wedding, Mardy accompanied Olaus on a 500-plus-mile expedition by steamship and dogsled along Alaska’s Brooks Range while he studied caribou for the U.S. Biological Survey. Then, in 1927, they moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Olaus began to study elk and the couple raised their three children. During this time, Mardy often accompanied Olaus to his field sites and took notes on their excursions, and together they began working to expand the boundaries of national parks.

After completing his elk study, in 1945 Olaus left the U.S. Biological Survey to serve as part-time director of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group that he had helped establish 10 years earlier. With the ranch they had purchased in Moose, Wyoming, serving as the Wilderness Society’s headquarters, Olaus and Mardy began their conservation work in earnest, writing articles, giving lectures and backing legislation aimed at protecting wilderness areas.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

In 1956, while Olaus was serving as president of the Wildlife Society, he and Mardy led an expedition into the Upper Sheenjek Valley in Alaska to study wildlife in areas to be considered for federal protection. With the data they gathered and the assistance of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in 1960 they were able to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower to establish the country’s first federally protected region, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the early 1960s, Mardy turned her attention to writing, and in 1962 her memoir Two Far in the North was published, a recounting of her and Olaus’s adventures in the wildernesses of Wyoming and Alaska. Meanwhile, Olaus continued his conservation work, devoting much of his time to the establishment of the Wilderness Act, which would create a national wildlife preservation system. Olaus would not live to see its passing. He died from complications of skin cancer on October 21, 1963.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act

With the passing of her husband, Mardy Murie took active control of his conservation work, determined to carry on his efforts. She was invited to the White House on September 3, 1964, to witness President Lyndon Johnson’s historic signing of the Wilderness Act, and over the ensuing decades she was frequently called upon to advise the government and work as a consultant with conservation and environmental groups. She also published two additional memoirs, Wapiti Wilderness (1966) and Island Between (1977).

But what was perhaps the most important work of Mardy’s life began in 1975, when she was chosen as part of a task force that traveled to Alaska to identify land to be included in a new federal protection act. She testified before Congress on the matter two years later, and in November 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Creating more than 100 million acres of protected wilderness in Alaska, it remains the greatest preservation act in U.S. history.

Grandmother of the Conservation Movement

As old age limited Mardy’s mobility, she spent more and more time at her Wyoming ranch, which in 1968 she had promised to the National Park Service for its eventual inclusion in the Grand Teton National Park. However, this did not prevent her from amassing numerous awards and honors for her work. She received the Audubon Medal in 1980 and the John Muir Award in 1983, and in 1990 the Murie Residence was added to the National Register of Historic Places. She also received several honorary doctorates, and in 1998 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. The following year the revered activist was the subject of the documentary Arctic Dance: The Mardy Murie Story, directed and produced by Bonnie Kreps and narrated by Harrison Ford. 

In 1997 the Murie Center nonprofit was established. Housed on the Murie Ranch—which is now a National Historic Landmark—it was created to carry on Mardy and Olaus’s conservation work. In 2002, at 100 years old, Mardy received the Conservationist of the Year Award from the National Wildlife Federation. She died of natural causes at her ranch home on October 19, 2003.

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