Mike Matz: A New Chapter Begins for Conservation Champion Bill Meadows

Your Wilderness - July 2012

Too often, we don't take the time or make the effort to pat someone on the back for a job well done, but I have the opportunity this month to do just that by extolling the good work of a friend and colleague, William H. Meadows, who since 1996 has served as president of The Wilderness Society.

I first met Bill and his wife, Sally, when they accompanied a group of Utah conservationists on a field trip with then-Sen. Russ Feingold to the Escalante in the midst of a concerted campaign that resulted in a presidential proclamation establishing the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I was the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and they had recently moved from Tennessee so he could take the helm of The Wilderness Society. That was the first of many parcels of public estate that Bill and Sally helped to tuck away in Utah and elsewhere for future generations.

After that he was at the forefront of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When the situation looked most dire, when it appeared unlikely that the conservation community would be able to prevent the oil rigs, pipelines, pump stations, and gravel roads from spoiling a unique specimen of America's majesty, Bill redoubled his efforts. He met with senators, made the case, provided solid information, and was an incredible resource, all with his characteristic gentlemanly mien. We still face the threat of development on the coastal plain, but thanks to his leadership, the conservation community has prevailed so far.

Grand Staircase-EscalanteBill's conservation roots run deep. He came out of the Sierra Club, first as a volunteer in Tennessee, later as staff for the organization's centennial campaign. He had attended Vanderbilt University and remains an avid fan of its sports. When local advocates put together a campaign to protect a portion of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, Bill helped them persuade Sen. Lamar Alexander, a friend of his, to carry the legislation. And when the Campaign for America's Wilderness needed to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) organization in order to most effectively carry out our mission, Bill agreed to serve on the board of directors. Later, when Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council ended her term as board chair, Bill stepped into that role.

You have to appreciate the dynamics to fully understand the amount of respect I have for him. Bill was in charge of an organization that did the same work the Campaign for America's Wilderness was set up to do, and in some circles the Campaign was considered competition—for ink in the media, for foundation and donor resources, for talented volunteers and staff. Bill set aside those concerns with his ready explanation that more resources are better than fewer and that there was work enough for all of us to do. He was right. He also helped in the Campaign's successful transition into the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Public Lands Program.

Although Bill is stepping down as president of The Wilderness Society, he is not leaving the wilderness movement or the Society. After a well-deserved sabbatical, he will return early next year as counselor, a position first established for former senator Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day, who held the counselor post from 1991 to 2005. Wilderness enthusiasts across the country can be heartened that he and Sally will still apply their prodigious talents to our important work, now alongside The Wilderness Society's new president, Jamie Williams, who comes impressively credentialed and with a long list of accomplishments in the conservation field. So The Wilderness Society is not losing two of the nation's preeminent wilderness advocates; rather, it is gaining a third. We look forward to a long and productive tenure for Jamie and advancing the cause shoulder-to-shoulder with the three of them.