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Environmental historian William Cronon awarded Wilderness Society’s highest honor

September 25, 2014 By Meghan Lepisto

William Cronon

William Cronon lectures on the history of wilderness at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, the day before he was honored by the Wilderness Society for his contributions to conservation.

Environmental historian and University of Wisconsin–Madison professor William Cronon has been presented with The Wilderness Society’s Robert Marshall Award — the organization’s highest civilian honor — for his contributions to the protection of America’s wild places.

The award, named for wilderness visionary Robert Marshall, is given to a private citizen who has made outstanding, long-term contributions to conservation and fostering an American land ethic. As the 29th award recipient, Cronon joins an elite group of conservation leaders and influential thinkers that includes Sigurd Olson, Margaret Murie, Wallace Stegner, David Brower, Terry Tempest Williams, and Charlie and Nina Leopold Bradley.

William Cronon

William Cronon

The award citation recognizes Cronon as a champion for The Wilderness Society’s mission to inspire Americans to care for wild places. It reads in part: “Guided by your passion for this nation’s land and its people, your scholarship has cemented an understanding of Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ — so crucial to our existing in a more sustainable way — for a generation of Americans. You have challenged conventional definitions of wilderness, and with that act have strengthened and diversified support for wild lands protection across the country over the past three decades.”

Cronon — the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at UW–Madison — was presented with the award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18.

“This is a great personal honor for me,” says Cronon. “Land conservation has been among the defining passions of my life, so to receive the Robert Marshall Award is for me an affirmation not just of my scholarship, but of what I’ve always regarded as one of the most important ways I’ve tried to enact the values of the Wisconsin Idea in my work as a citizen scholar.”

Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams praised Cronon’s ability to inspire generations of new conservationists.

“He knows that people can only love what they know — what they feel connected to,” Williams said at the ceremony. “By illuminating our connection to the land with such powerful stories, he has given our society hope that we might come to care for the land — and for each other — in a more profound way than we ever have before.”

Cronon studies North American environmental history, seeking to understand the history of human interactions with the natural world. He has written several books, including “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England,” and “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.” He is currently completing a book titled “Saving Nature in Time: The Environmental Past and the Human Future.”

“To receive the Robert Marshall Award is for me an affirmation not just of my scholarship, but of what I’ve always regarded as one of the most important ways I’ve tried to enact the values of the Wisconsin Idea in my work as a citizen scholar.”

William Cronon

Cronon has been on the governing council of The Wilderness Society since 1995 and on the national board of the Trust for Public Land since 2003, and served as president of the American Historical Association in 2012. He is a founding faculty member of the university’s Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment.

On Oct. 21, Cronon will continue to explore the changing meanings of wilderness in American history at the third annual Jordahl Public Lands Lecture. The free public lecture, hosted by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies with campus and community partners, will begin at 7 p.m. in Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall (the restored Wisconsin Union Theater).

As 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which has protected nearly 110 million acres of U.S. public land, Cronon will draw on the insights of the environmental humanities to ponder what wilderness means in the Anthropocene, or the age of humans — a term many scientists are using to describe the profound impact people are having on the global environment.