Photo by John Vallentyne. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.23791.1

Hiking for Change: How William O. Douglas Saved the Wilderness

We expect judges to be impartial, to render calm decisions free of emotional baggage, but judges are human. There will always be some influence from their own experiences and personal outlook. Usually, they strive to limit that influence and render unbiased decisions. Their success in that exercise is as variable as the people who wear the robe. 

William O. Douglas was a judge. In fact, he was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was also the longest-serving jurist in the history of the Supreme Court: 36 years and 211 days. Yet he was also a fierce defender of America’s wild places, happy to make public demonstrations of his noble crusade. How these two forces existed inside one man’s head is an interesting story—and played a crucial role in the preservation of the wild Pacific coastline of Olympic National Park.

Growing up in poverty in Yakima, Douglas studied hard, worked odd jobs throughout his teens, and earned a seat at Whitman College in Walla Walla. As a young student, he was awed by the natural beauty of eastern Washington State.

“How do you tell a Supreme Court justice he can’t bring his dog?”

“I stood at daybreak one August morning on the ridge above Diamond Lake in the Wallowas. We were camped at Tombstone Lake, and I had risen early to find and explore Diamond, which lay below me 800 feet or more in a deep pocket of the mountains. The dark sapphire of its water, its remoteness from the trail, the steep slopes surrounding it, the fir that almost hid it from view—these combined to give it an air of mystery in the faint light that preceded the sunrise. The view stirred in me a feeling of eagerness and suspense that I have experienced again and again on coming to a ridge overlooking an unexplored lake in the wilderness.”

While at Whitman, Douglas worked as a waiter, a janitor, and a cherry picker. Working alongside immigrant workers at the cherry orchard inspired Douglas to study law.

“I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the I.W.W’s who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”

With help from his Whitman fraternity brothers, Douglas headed east and enrolled at Columbia University. Despite his academic excellence at Columbia, Douglas was troubled by money problems and struggled in the concrete jungle of New York City. The boy from Yakima who had spent every free moment exploring the forested mountains of the North Cascades was now trapped in a tiny apartment overlooking a dismal air shaft bereft of anything green and alive. The stresses of law school were slight compared to the pain of being so far removed from his beloved hills and streams. 

Of his time in New York, he wrote: 

“Packed tight in a New York City subway. I have closed my eyes and imagined I was walking the ridge high above Cougar Lake. That ridge has the majesty of a cathedral. The Pacific Crest Trail winds along it under great cliffs that suggest walls and spires yet unfinished. At points along the trail are meadows no bigger than a city lot, from whose edge the mountain drops off a thousand feet or more. Here one stands on a dais looking directly down on the tips of pine and hemlock….”

He took trips back to Yakima whenever he could, revitalizing himself by tramping the silent trails and taking in the glory of Washington’s snow-capped peaks. Eventually, he graduated second in his class at Columbia and took a job at an established New York City law firm. This was supposed to be everything a Columbia law grad would want: a coveted position at a powerful ‘white shoe’ law firm in the greatest city in the world. If he stayed, he could rise through the ranks, maybe become a partner. The money and prestige would be unmatched. 

He lasted four months at the firm before heading back home to Yakima’s grassy hills and craggy rocks. 

At Cape Alava, during Douglas’ beach hike on the Olympic Coast, 1958. Photo by John Vallentyne. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.23791.4

Between hiking trips in the mountains, he tried to find amiable work, but nothing presented itself. In dire financial straits, he took a teaching job at a local public school. This also proved unsatisfactory. He wanted to put his skills to work for the betterment of humanity and the planet they inhabited. So he went back east and scored a teaching job at Columbia. He had by then identified with the new concept of Legal Realism. It centered on the understanding that the law should be applied with an appreciation for the real-world results of its application, not merely its strict conformity to text. Douglas was vividly aware of his own beliefs and ethics, and he felt they should not be wholly separated from his application of the law. 

He took his Legal Realism to Yale Law School, where, as a faculty member, he molded young minds with the works of John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes. A passionate defender of free speech and a leading expert in corporate law, Douglas was a defender of American capitalism but was also quick to condemn its excesses. Douglas advanced quickly at Yale, accepting an offer to become Sterling Professor of Law. But in the end, academia couldn’t hold him. 

In 1934 Douglas accepted a position at the newly-created Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington, DC. As an expert in bankruptcy law and commercial litigation, he used his influence to reign in the excesses that had plunged the country into the Great Depression. 

While serving at the SEC, Douglas became a regular at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s frequent poker games. Roosevelt liked Douglas’ fiery oratory and progressive ideals. By 1937 Douglas was a full-fledged advisor to the president and was soon promoted to chairman of the SEC.

Two years later, Roosevelt nominated Douglas to take the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of famed jurist Louis Brandeis. Just 40 years old, Douglas became one of the youngest Supremes ever appointed and, by many accounts, was also one of the most prickly. He was quick to dissent from his fellow justices and was not shy about explaining himself. For Douglas, some truths were indeed self-evident and shouldn’t be shackled by the letter of the law. Sometimes too impatient to apply tact, he earned the nickname “Wild Bill.” Douglas was even called “rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, and self-absorbed” by his law clerk Richard A. Posner. 

Fortunately for us, the fire of William O. Douglas was often directed at the enemies of land conservation. 

In 1954, Douglas became aware of a plan to build a motorway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a serene strip of green to the northwest of Washington, DC. The canal was Douglas’ favorite respite from the noise of the city and he considered the plan to construct the motorway a desecration.

Unconcerned with judicial impartiality, Douglas, joined by an entourage of news reporters and eminent conservationists, staged a public hike along the length of the canal. To the editors of the Washington Post, he wrote:

“The stretch of 185 miles of country from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation…It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace…a wilderness area where we can commune with God and nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.”

Douglas’ protest march worked. The motorway plan was halted and eventually abandoned. Eventually, Congress set it aside as a historical park in 1970. 

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal protest was just the beginning of a series of protest hikes that would make William O. Douglas admired by conservationists and demonized by developers. 

The Olympic Beach Hike


Douglas (R) and Plly Dyer (L), August 19, 1958. Photo by John Vallentyne. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.23791.1


Douglas’ next public protest hike was back home, in his beloved Washington state. In 1958, a coalition of local municipalities and state legislators planned an extension of Highway 101 that would strike right through the coastal wilderness between La Push and Cape Alava in the northwest corner of the Olympic peninsula. At the time, this area was the longest unbroken strip of primitive coastline in the United States. (This was before Alaska and Hawaii attained statehood.) 

Arrayed against this highway plan were Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society and the cheerfully tenacious Polly Dyer, an outspoken conservationist based in Seattle. They asked Douglas if he was interested in supporting their cause. In fact, Douglas already knew the area well. He had a small cabin near La Push. 

This long stretch of wild coastline is where the Olympic rainforest presses against the ocean, sculpting it into myriad picturesque bays and alcoves. Along the shoreline, massive rocky islands rise from the sea like shark fins, some of them sporting groves of cedar on their backs like ancient sentinels from the era of the dinosaurs. It’s a place of striking beauty. Douglas was eager to oblige. 

This wasn’t his first rodeo, so Douglas quickly formed a game plan and invited a host of news reporters and conservationists to join him on a three-day hike from Lake Ozette in the north to Rialto Beach in the south. In all, seventy-two hikers assembled at Douglas’ humble riverside cabin on the 18th of August. Packed into the tiny cabin and spread out in tents across the property, the group prepared for their epic hike, and Douglas treated everyone to a salmon feast.

The next day, he hired logging trucks to ferry the group north to Lake Ozette, where the seventy-two hikers began their three-day odyssey along the coast. Douglas’ young wife Mercedes led the way. Although few could keep up with her, her enthusiasm pushed the protesters to make good time. Mercedes brought along her daughter Joan and their dog Sandy. Dogs were prohibited in the park, but the superintendent was lenient: “How do you tell a Supreme Court justice he can’t bring his dog?” The hikers wended their way south, taking in the beauty of the coastal vistas and slogging down the soft trail beds of the Olympic forest. They braved slippery boulders, haunting mist, and path-clogging driftwood. 

Douglas intended the hike to include proponents of the new highway, thus creating a chance for the two groups to have a “walk and talk” about the pros and cons. But none of the highway proponents accepted the invitation. After three days of walking, the group finally emerged at Rialto Beach, exhausted. A lone highway supporter, L.V. Venable, director of the Automobile Club of Washington, stood at the trail’s end with a host of signs, one of which said: “BIRD WATCHER GO HOME.” A photo of Douglas, Venable, and his sign made the national news the following day. 

L.V. Venable, director of the Automobile Club of Washington greets the hikers at trail’s end. This photo was published in newspapers around the U.S. and helped galvanize support for preservation. Photo by John Vallentyne. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.23791.7


After the hike, Douglas continued to write to the National Park Service in opposition to the proposed road, but the project remained on the books. Undaunted, Douglas repeated his protest hike in 1964, a sweet reunion for the hikers and renewed national interest in the Olympic coastal wilderness. After that, the road project quietly fizzled out.

To this day, the coastal strip from Cape Alava to La Push remains pristine and, in the words of William O. Douglas, “untrammeled.” 

Fighting to the Death


One would think this was enough for an aging Supreme Court justice. It wasn’t. 

In 1962, The Army Corps of Engineers were finalizing plans to install two hydroelectric dams on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. Meandering east from the tallest peaks in the Ozarks into a wide, placid confluence with the White River near Buffalo City, the Buffalo River is hugged by dramatic limestone karst formations and some of the prettiest countryside in the entire region. Black bears, elk, and bald eagles live along the riparian corridor. Canoeists discovered it in the 1950s and formed a movement to save it. 

The newly created Ozark Society went up against the might of the Army Corps of Engineers and a consortium of business interests. Once again, the conservationists reached out to William O. Douglas for help. In April 1962, Douglas put together a canoeing expedition with folks from the Ozark Society and the regional press. At the end of the two-day paddle, Douglas emerged to greet the cameras and said, “The Buffalo River is a national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve.”

It took three years of constant pressure, but eventually, the notoriously conservative Arkansas governor Orval Faubus informed the Army Corps of Engineers that he would not approve of the dams. As a result, to this day, the Buffalo River runs free, and the Ozark Society continues to do good work. 

Also, in 1962, a hundred-year flood devastated the small town of Clay City, Kentucky. Municipal leaders and local business owners lobbied the state and the federal government to install a protective dam in the Red River Gorge, another spectacular riparian strip teeming with sandstone escarpments, thick forest, natural arches, and stunning waterfalls. Located deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Red River had been a recreational wonderland for generations. Local hunters, fisherfolk, and conservationists appealed to the Sierra Club to speak up for the Red River Gorge. And who better to champion their cause than Associate Justice William O. Douglas?

Douglas calls for a rest break near Cape Johnson on the Olympic Wilderness Beach. Photo by John Vallentyne. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.23791.5

Heeding the call once again, Douglas set off to Kentucky. On November 19, 1967, William O. Douglas and over 600 enthusiasts went on a long day hike up the Red River Gorge. This time, television cameras were there to capture the spectacle, including a young TV reporter named Diane Sawyer. The Louisville Courier-Journal was there, too, and recorded, “…a 4-year-old boy who fell in a creek; a tall, bearded Indian with his two small sons, all wearing turbans; Boy Scouts in uniform; lots of dogs, on and off leashes; men in florescent orange hunting clothes — and even a little old lady.”

Once again, the public display of solidarity set off a tenacious movement to save this public land. The fight carried on for years until Kentucky governor Julian Carroll withdrew state support for the dam in 1975. Finally, in 1993, President Bill Clinton placed a 20-mile section of the Red River into the National Wild and Scenic River System. Today the Red River Gorge is an enormously popular outdoor recreation area with campgrounds, cave tours, river rafting, hiking trails, and cabin retreats. Its massive stone arches are the most spectacular you’ll find east of the Mississippi. 

Back on the bench in 1972, William O. Douglas made his opinion about the preservation of our wild places abundantly clear. In Sierra Club v Morton, he wrote: 

“The critical question of ‘standing’ would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. . . The ordinary corporation is a ‘person’ for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes. So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”

The belief that “trees have standing” has become a common refrain in legislative battles to preserve wilderness. It has been invoked to defend the southern resident killer whales of the Salish Sea and in Native American appeals to preserve traditional lands from despoilment. Time will tell if this legal concept will gain momentum or die under the gavel. 

Lusty, Lurid, and Risqué


Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Despite his heroic efforts to preserve America’s wild places, William O. Douglas was relentlessly attacked for his progressive views. In 1970, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford moved to have Douglas impeached from the bench. His crime? Douglas was president of the Parvin Foundation, a privately held trust that offered fellowships to foreign university students. The foundation’s original founder, Albert Parvin, was involved in sketchy Las Vegas investments, including the famous Flamingo Hotel and Casino. So ipso facto, Douglas must be guilty of…something.

William O. Douglas at the Plaza Hotel in 1969. Photo by Tom Barlet. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.50925.1

The Nixon administration engaged Ford as their attack dog. His mission: to smear Douglas with everything he could find. This included Congressional inquiries into his marriages (Douglas married four times to successively younger women), his ‘radical’ environmentalism, his defense of controversial works like the erotic Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), and an article Douglas wrote about folk music for the magazine Avant-Garde, which prompted this from congressman Ford: “The article itself is not pornographic, although it praises the lusty, lurid, and risqué along with the social protest of left-wing folk singers.”

Despite Ford’s best efforts to destroy Douglas, Congress found nothing in the hundreds of pages of documents that would make a cause for impeachment. As a result, no public vote was taken on the matter, and it was quickly dropped. 

In December 1974, Douglas suffered a massive stroke, leaving him debilitated. The 76-year-old justice insisted on keeping his seat, but at the urging of his good friend and fellow justice Abe Fortas, Douglas retired from the bench in November 1975. He was the last active appointee of FDR and the longest-serving jurist in the court’s history.

William O. Douglas died at age 81 on January 19, 1980. He left behind an impressive body of legal opinion as well as a lasting legacy of defending America’s wild places.  Walk along the beach at Hole-in-the-Wall on the Olympic Coast or take a canoe ride down the Buffalo River in Arkansas, and you’ll experience a little bit of what William O. Douglas did for his country. 


“Of Men and Mountains” (Harper Collins, 1950) by William O. Douglas

“Vigorous Defender of Rights.” (The New York Times, January 20, 1980) by Alden Whitman

“This Land is Your Land: The Story of Field Biology in America” (Univ. of Chicago Press 2018) by Michael J. Lannoo, Ph.D

Louisville Courier-Journal (November 12, 2020)

Ted Rosen is a freelance journalist, an IT professional, and served as chairman of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee. He enjoys guitar, photography, and complaining about litter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.