« Return to this article

Know the West

Paul Fritz left a unique legacy for the Park Service


We have reached a time when many conservation legends of the 20th century are disappearing. David Brower, the environmental giant, is a recent example. Now we've lost a lesser-known but very influential conservationist. Paul Fritz died quite suddenly on Christmas Eve from an undiagnosed brain tumor. He was 71.

Fritz's generation possesses a pure conviction for preserving wild places, and a strong sense of duty to their country. They came of age on the heels of the Depression. They watched young friends and family members die from medical maladies that are easily treatable today. Many of them served in the military. They knew that life was precious, and they lived it with gusto.

"The young Americans of this time constituted a generation birth-marked for greatness," wrote Tom Brokaw in The Greatest Generation.

Fritz's fiery personality was a product of growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., where he was a street fighter and high school football player. Every once in a while in later years, Fritz's temper would emerge when a pro-development foe pushed him too far, and he'd threaten to grab the tire iron from the trunk of his car and take him on.

Fritz even looked like a thug - with his broad shoulders, thick neck, bald head and big piercing eyes. "He was like a bull charging through the woods," says Martin Litton, a Sierra Club national board member and Grand Canyon boatman.

He had a soft side, too, and a big heart.

Fritz was bitten by a zeal to protect wild places when he spent his college summers as a fire lookout at Yellowstone National Park. In his 20-year career with the Park Service, he had a major hand in protecting all kinds of parks and monuments in the West, including Redwood, Arches, Canyonlands and Crater Lake national parks, Craters of the Moon National Monument, and many of Alaska's parks, monuments, refuges and wilderness areas.

Fritz was politically savvy. He hung out with environmentalists at parties. He contributed to the campaigns of moderate and powerful Republicans. He worked side by side with Ed Abbey at Arches National Park. He knew county commissioners, chamber of commerce directors and educators - all of the people it takes to build support for a park.

After Fritz retired from government service, he joined the boards of a number of grassroots environmental groups in the West, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the advisory board of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He gave money to many other groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Fritz received "The Sargent Award" from the GYC in the fall of 2000 for not only being a founder of the group, but also for the legacy he's left in his wake.

"Paul was one of a kind," says good friend Michael Frome, a widely published conservation writer. "He was independent and outspoken, shall we say, and he got away with it. He was a public servant who really served the public, above all."