Recipient Biography

Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash


Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash was a city kid. Born on Manhattan January 7, 1939, he grew up in New York City, but his vision was always focused on wilder country to America’s West. He devoted his career to understanding the meaning of wilderness in American culture, inspiring a generation of preservationists and land managers.

A distant relative of the Canadian river explorer Simon Fraser and his son, Simon Roderick, as a boy, Nash wondered if his generation would ever have the chance to experience the kind of country that amazed the early North American explorers. Hoping to catch the tail end of an era, in 1957, after his freshman year at Harvard, Nash drove west to the relatively new Grand Teton National Park and a summer job at Jackson Lake Lodge. Here he had the opportunity to become one of the nation’s first professional river guides, taking people in surplus military rafts down the Snake River in Jackson Hole. He went on to run rivers throughout western North America, specializing in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, which he has descended over 60 times usually in the dory “Canyon Dancer.” In 1978, Nash used his river experience to write The Big Drops: Ten Legendary Rapids of the American West. Reissued in paperback in 1989, the book is still a favorite around river campfires. As a professional river guide and a non-commercial floater with family and friends, Nash is one of the nation’s most experienced whitewater boaters. He has also used his tugboat “Forevergreen” to explore the west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska. He skis 75 days a year from his home base of Crested Butte, Colorado, and is an avid biker and backpacker. Nash has always thought this activity – a form of walking the talk – inspired and improved his scholarly writing and teaching.

After receiving a Harvard degree (magna cum laude) in 1960, Nash earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in American intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His mentor was Pulitzer-prize winner Merle Curti and his inspirations were Wisconsin legends such as John Muir, Frederick Jackson Turne, and Aldo Leopold. In the early 1960s, Nash gathered the first documents that became the Aldo Leopold Papers in the University of Wisconsin Archives. Completing his doctorate in four years, Nash taught for two years at Dartmouth College before joining the Department of History at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Dr. Nash’s 1964 dissertation became his most notable book, Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press published the first edition in 1967, and its four editions have become the bestselling title of the press. In 1967, the publishing industry commended the wilderness book as one of the 50 best published that year. In 1992, a publishing industry survey ranked it sixth on the list of America’s most important environmental books, just behind Thoreau’s Walden. Four years later, Outside Magazine listed Wilderness and the American Mind in its survey of the “Ten Books that Changed the World.” Professor Nash is proud of that distinction, but as an historian, he points out that he was lucky. The world was ready to be changed – at least in its ideas about wilderness. It’s significant, Nash thinks, that his dissertation was completed in the same year as the passage of the Wilderness Act. For many of today’s park and recreation leaders, Wilderness and the American Mind was a basic foundation of their professional education. American Academy member Dan Dustin describes Nash’s impact: “Wilderness and the American Mind, much like Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, was the inspiration for developing my own environmental ethic, and it continues to serve as a core reading for park and recreation students throughout the land.” Nash’s discussion of the need for and methods of wilderness management has provided the foundation for a new approach to the stewardship of our public lands.

After the wilderness book, Roderick Nash published ten books and over 150 essays. His writing includes a 1968 collection of documents in conservation history that has been reissued several times, most recently under the title American Environmentalism. It has been required reading in many parks and recreation courses. Another title, From These Beginnings: A Biographical Approach to American History, first appeared in 1973. The textbook has had seven editions. A book that many believe to be a sequel to Wilderness and the American Mind appeared in 1989 as The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Using the tools of intellectual history, Nash explored the sources and consequences of the idea that the moral community should expand to include non-human life and even non-living components of the ecosystem. The appearance of Australian, Chinese, Japanese, and Greek editions of this book suggests its far-reaching impact.

As a teacher, Professor Nash introduced in the late 1960s in Santa Barbara what is believed to be the first environmental history course in the United States. He played a leading role in the response to the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969, writing the internationally publicized “Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights.” Based on Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence,” the document calls for a renewed and expanded recognition of natural rights. Many regarded it as a “declaration of interdependence,” and one of the most visible expressions of 1960s environmentalism. With oil still coating Santa Barbara’s despoiled beaches, Nash led the faculty committee that launched a new curriculum called Environmental Studies. Its hallmark was a reorganization of disciplines to address real-world environmental issues. Nash was the founding chairman of the program and taught I it for his entire academic career. To date, Environmental Studies has produced more than 4,500 graduates, many of whom have gone on to influence local, state, and federal policy. Nash’s graduate students include Calvin Martin (Keepers of the Game, 1978), Alfred Runte (National Parks: The American Experience, 1979), and Joseph Siry (Marshes of the Ocean Shore, 1984). In 1990, Nash was named the University of California Santa Barbara’s Professor of the Year.

Roderick Nash credits his father as a major formative influence on his life and work. Dr. Jay B. Nash was a pioneer in the health, physical education, and recreation movement. Chairing one of the first departments in this field at New York University, he wrote the basic texts in the field culminating with Philosophy of Recreation and Leisure in 1953. It is likely that Jay B. Nash knew Cornelius Pugsley, whose public park work focused on Westchester County, New York, just an hour from the Nash home in lower Manhattan and even closer to NYU’s Lake Sebago training complex near Bear Mountain. When Roderick Nash was in college in the late 1950s, his father served on the Congressionally-created Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. In 1960, Roderick decided to write a cultural history of the American wilderness. He regrets that his father did not live to see the dissertation become a bestselling book.

Roderick Nash has two daughters, both of whom use his last name professionally. Jennifer Nash is a prolific novelist and creative writing teacher. Laura Nash is an associate professor of music history and theory at Fairfield University. When she earned her Ph.D. from Yale, she extended the string of doctorates that runs back to her grandfather, Jay B. In the rowing tradition, Roderick’s oldest granddaughter, Caroline Nash, captained the women’s rowing team at Yale in 2010-2011. She had previously won two Division 1 NCAA championships in the eighties.

From a historical perspective, Roderick Frazier Nash continued a long family tradition of exploration and a passion for wilderness adventure to give a critical environmental perspective to traditional academic disciplines such as history and philosophy. His two major books on wilderness and environmental ethics are seminal works. They have encouraged the rise of extensive scholarship and fostered an intellectual foundation for the park and recreation profession. Dr. Nash used scholarship to inspire responsible activism. He helped give the Santa Barbara Oil Spill global significance and anticipated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. On a local level, Nash used the oil spill as a lever to transform a conservative higher education curriculum into the first Environmental Studies major in the nation at the University of California Santa Barbara, launching thousands of graduates who are now extending Professor Nash’s legacy in human-nature relationships. [current as of November 2011]