Dyer, Pauline (Polly) (1920-2016)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/22/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9673

Polly Dyer was a Seattle conservationist and environmentalist. Her dedication to safeguarding Washington's Olympic coastline and forests and to protecting wilderness areas across the state had a profound impact on the successful preservation of Washington's natural areas -- untouched, untrammeled wilderness. For more than a half century, Dyer inspired her peers and succeeding generations of conservationists. Her efforts ranged from grand -- lobbying congress and the state legislature, spearheading major environmental movements, rallying recruits with hundreds of stirring public speeches -- to grassroots -- feeding and housing wilderness workers and serving as "den mother" and entry point into conservationism for scores of young people.

Dyer's drive was to protect wilderness areas, preserving them as places where the force of nature -- rather than the will of human beings -- prevails.  Banding with others who fervently believed protecting wilderness areas matters, and steadily recruiting new supporters for the conservation movement, became her life’s work.

Childhood and Youth

Pauline Tomkiel Dyer was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on February 13, 1920. Her father's work as an engineer in the Coast Guard meant that the family moved frequently to follow his postings. In a short biographical statement written in 2001 for members of the North Cascades Conservation Council, Dyer mentioned living in Seattle, New York City, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Florida during her youth. 

The family spent part of each summer on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.  “It wasn’t wilderness, but it was outdoors,” she later recalled.  Attending Girl Scout camp at age 11 provided young Polly with another chance to savor nature.  “There wasn’t too much wild, but Cassiopeia was out and the counselors showed us different things in nature,” she remembered many decades later (Defending Wild Washington... p. 149).

During Polly’s high school years, the Tomkiel family lived in Baltimore, enabling her to attend the same school all four years.  Dyer credited her teachers at Eastern High School (a public girls' school) with giving her an excellent education and a particularly solid grounding in English.  A course in a Miami, Florida, secretarial school during her family's posting there followed.

Moving to Alaska, Meeting John Dyer

In 1940, the Tomkiel family moved to Ketchikan, Alaska Territory. Polly, then 20, was so entranced by Alaska’s natural majesty that she later called her years there “the basis for my whole life since” (Scott, quoting Dyer’s testimony before Congress in support of the Wilderness Act).  She later recalled that, coming from the (more formal) East Coast, she did not own the rugged clothes (such as denim pants) that a West Coast young woman might have, and so hiked wearing a skirt. Lacking funds for college, she found a secretarial job with the Coast Guard.

In 1945, Dyer met her future husband, John A. Dyer (1911-2008), on a trail going up Deer Mountain, near Ketchikan.  John Dyer was a chemical engineer who grew up in California and was working for Alaska Fish Oil Extractors in Ketchikan. By the time he met Polly he had been almost a life-long rock climber. Among other rock-climbing accomplishments he had made the first ascent of Shiprock, a volcanic rock formation on the Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico.  Dyer later recalled that when they met, John, formerly an officer in the Sierra Club's Bay Area chapter, wore red hat with a pin reading "Rock Climbers, Sierra Club."  They were engaged in six weeks, and married four months later, on August 7, 1945.  Polly Dyer joined the Sierra Club almost immediately. "I like to say I married into the Sierra Club," Dyer later told The Seattle Times (August 7, 1974).

In 1947, the couple spent several months cruising the southeast Alaskan coastline in a 16-foot skiff.  They spent a month in Glacier Bay, and Dyer later remembered that her husband encouraged her to read Travels In Alaska, famed conservationist John Muir’s (1838-1914) account of his travels in the same area.

"An Unbounded Joy"

From 1947 to 1950, Polly and John Dyer lived in Berkeley, California, where they were active in environmental causes.  Dyer later said that it was during this time that she became an environmentalist -- hiking in the Sierras and experiencing their still-wild grandeur. 

The raw beauty of Alaska and the magnificent Sierra, along with John Dyer's enthusiasm, watered a seed that must have been inborn, Polly Dyer later told The Seattle Times.  "My husband may have raised my consciousness about the wilderness.  But there was something innate in me that was bound to come out sooner or later. ... I felt this almost unbounded joy. I wanted to stretch out my arms and bring it all up close to me. I felt that it was literally a part of me" (December 29, 1977).

Auburn, the Cascades, and the Sierra Club

In 1950, the Dyers moved to Auburn.  They hiked and explored in the Cascades and the Olympics -- their new backyard.  Polly Dyer led a Girl Scout troop, sharing the importance of the wilderness with her troop members.  The couple joined The Mountaineers, serving on that organization's Conservation Committee, which Polly Dyer later chaired. Their major project during the early 1950s was lobbying the United States Forest service for the establishment of a Glacier Peak Wilderness Area (created by Congress as a part of wilderness legislation in 1964).

In 1953, Polly and John Dyer, along with Patrick Goldsworthy (1919-2013) and his wife Jane, founded the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Sierra Club.  It was that organization's first chapter outside of California. Polly Dyer served on the Sierra Club’s national board of directors from 1960 to 1967.  She continued her involvement with the organization thereafter, serving on numerous committees at both the regional and national levels.

Becoming Visible and Vocal 

In 1953, Washington governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) appointed a 17-member committee to investigate whether a major portion of Olympic National Park should be transferred to the Forest Service (which would have opened it to commercial logging).  Dyer was one of the token environmentalists on the panel, and managed to help defeat the plan.  It was her first experience of the kind, and a formative one.  “I learned to speak out,” she later recalled.  “I used to be considered shy, but no more” (Defending Wild Washington... p. 150).  Another lesson Dyer took from this victory was the importance of writing a very strong report when serving on committees -- that a strong minority report could carry more weight than a weakly stated majority opinion.

Dyer's activism continued.  Commuting from Auburn to Seattle first by Greyhound bus, and then in a Volkswagen, Dyer attended forest industry meetings and read all she could to educate herself about forestry and conservation.  “I might have been the only woman in the room unless there was a secretary,” Dyer remembered, “but I didn’t hesitate to get up and ask a question.  It didn’t occur to me that I became visible that way.  I think that’s maybe why I became better known among industry people” (Defending Wild Washington... p. 151).

The Fight to Save Echo Park Canyon

In 1953, John and Polly Dyer became active in the fight to stop the construction of Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument, a primitive canyon area at the junction of the Green and Yampa rivers straddling the Utah/Colorado border.  Polly Dyer fought the project both as a private citizen and for The Mountaineers, for whom she was at the time serving as chairman of the conservation committee. 

In a December 28, 1953, letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), Polly Dyer reminded the president that Yosemite National Park -- which, like other national parks at the time, was enjoying increasing patronage as Americans embraced automobile culture including road trips -- originally had two breathtaking valleys, Yosemite and Hetch-Hetchy.  Hetch-Hetchy Valley, however, had been inundated by the backwaters of the O'Shaughnessy Dam (completed in 1923), robbing visitors of the chance to enjoy its glaciated beauty. 

After a two year battle by environmental advocates, plans for the Echo Park Dam were shelved, and Echo Park Canyon was saved. It was a victory, and a potent lesson in how wilderness protection could be successfully achieved.

North Cascades Conservation Council

From 1957 to 1959, Dyer served as president of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, the first woman to hold that office. The Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs was founded in 1931 to promote and protect America’s scenic, wilderness, and outdoor recreational resources. Beginning in 1964, Dyer coordinated the biennial Northwest Wilderness Conferences for the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs.  

In March 1957, she was among the founders of the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC). The NCCC was composed of the Northwest member clubs of the Federation of Western Outdoors Clubs.  The North Cascades National Park (684,000 acres stretching from the Canadian border to Lake Chelan) was established in 1968 as a direct result of intense lobbying, organizational, and public relations efforts undertaken by the NCCC.  Dyer has served on the NCCC board of directors for more than half a century.

National Wilderness Act

Beginning in 1957, Dyer worked closely with Howard Zahniser (1906-1964), Executive Secretary of the Wilderness Society (a national organization founded in 1935) and editor of its magazine, The Living Wilderness, in support of federal wilderness protection legislation. Zahniser drafted the federal legislation establishing a national wilderness preservation system, eventually known as the Wilderness Act.  Dyer and Zahniser had met during the fight to prevent the Echo Park Dam, which united the conservation community. 

A host of wilderness advocacy groups across the nation worked tirelessly to build grassroots support for the Wilderness Act.  In her capacity as president of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, and representing The Mountaineers and the Seattle Audubon Society, Dyer testified before congress in support of the act.  While in Washington, D.C., Dyer honed her lobbying skills.  Mentored by more seasoned conservationists, she made the rounds of federal agencies such as the Parks Service and the Forest Service, and of societies and government agencies that advocated conservation and supported the Wilderness Bill.

Dyer testified before the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee on June 21, 1957, but her time allotted was brief.  She was permitted to submit longer a written statement for inclusion in the record of the hearing.  Her passionate, well reasoned written testimony included this declaration:

“The Wilderness Bill’s provisions will do a number of important and necessary things in behalf of the nation’s present and future wild places and for its citizens who look for or merely like to know that such sanctuaries exist. … Wilderness cannot and should not wear a dollar sign.  It is a priceless asset which all the dollars man can accumulate will not buy back.  Some forest which is commercially operable has as much right to be kept primeval as the forest of non-commercial value.  Congress through this bill can help take the price tag off some of these remaining wilderness forests” (June 25, 1957).

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1917) signed the bill into law.  Since that time, the Wilderness Act has led to the protection of over 100 million acres of wilderness. The act prohibits dams, new mining claims, logging, roads, and off-road vehicles on federal lands classified as wilderness, defining wilderness as "an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by men, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" (Scott, p. 156).

Hiking to Preserve the Olympic Coastline

In 1958 and again in 1964, Dyer organized hikes along the coastline of the Olympic peninsula with United States Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), who grew up in Yakima and was an outspoken advocate for preserving the natural environment. The goal of the first hike was to increase public opposition to a planned portion of U.S. Highway 101 which, if constructed, would have destroyed the wild coastline portion of Olympic National Forest. 

Dyer later remembered that one of the members of her Auburn Girl Scout Troop numbered among the august company on the invitation-only hike. The second hike was intended as a reunion marking the first hike’s success -- the road effort had been defeated.

Learning, Growing, Organizing

When John Dyer's work necessitated a move to Boston from 1960 to 1961, the couple organized a New England chapter of the Sierra Club.  Polly Dyer also began attending evening school at Harvard University. 

The Dyers returned to Washington in 1963, settling in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood.  Dyer later told The Seattle Times that the home -- which features views of Magnuson Park, Lake Washington, and Mt. Rainier -- had an essential feature: a large living room that could accommodate environmental meetings.  Sierra Club vice-president Richard Fiddler later asserted that nearly every conservation leader in the Pacific Northwest had learned how to fight for wilderness preservation in John and Polly Dyer’s large living room, drinking their coffee.

Dyer's major project in the first years following her return to Seattle was working with other environmentalists and conservationists to lobby for the creation of North Cascades National Park.  She was a founding member of the North Cascades Conservation Council, which was the primary lobbying group for the park.  President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) signed the bill creating the 504,000-acre park on October 2, 1968, but not until 1988 were conservationists able to win wilderness designation for most of the park's land.

Dyer transferred her Harvard credits and in 1970 earned a degree in geography from the University of Washington. From 1971 to 1973 she undertook graduate studies in geography at the University of Washington.

Beginning in 1974, Dyer worked as the Public Services Coordinator, and later as Continuing Environmental Education Director, for the University of Washington’s Institute for Environmental Studies (now called Program on the Environment).  She edited the Institute’s free monthly publication, Environmental Outlook, and organized the institute's annual conferences, which addressed a wide variety of environmental topics. Dyer retired in 1994. 

Citizen Activist

In 1974, Washington governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) appointed Dyer to the first state Forest Practices board as a citizen member.  Dyer and Evans had met in the early 1960s when they worked together to pass a bill that regulated billboards.  Polly Dyer served on the Forest Practices board until January 1979. During the 1970s, she also served on planning committees for the U.S. Forest Service that impacted land use in Chelan, Snoqualmie, and Wenatchee National Forests.

In 1979, Dyer was honored with the Washington Environmental Council's environmental protection award.  By this time, many Washingtonians were developing a greatly increased awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving the environment, an understanding built on the foundation of the earlier work of conservationists like Polly Dyer. Dyer stated in a 1983 oral history:

“I would suspect that you might find that the environmental consciousness grew out of the wilderness consciousness, because a lot of the same people were concerned about clean water, clean air, and land use -- wilderness as a land-use argument, and whether you’re going to have further development or not” (“Polly Dyer: Preserving Washington Parklands and Wilderness”).

Dyer strongly advocated for the Washington State Wilderness Act, enacted July 3, 1984. She was a founding board member of the Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines, which advocates for health of and increased public access to the shorelines of Puget Sound. Dyer also served as a member of the Northwest Wilderness Conference, and was a founding member of the Northwest Conservation Council. 

From 1989 to 1994, Dyer was president of the Olympic Park Associates, working on behalf of the watchdog group to encourage the removal of dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. This goal was achieved, with removal of dams on the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River scheduled to begin in the summer of 2011.  Dyer successfully campaigned to have Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches added to Olympic National Park. 

A Life of Leadership

Among the many, many other organizations that have had the benefit of Polly Dyer's leadership and intense involvement over the years are The Mountaineers, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the Alpine Lakes Conservation Coalition, the Washington chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the King County League of Conservation Voters, and the Washington Environmental Political Action Committee.  Dyer also served on numerous environmentally related committees for King County.

A 1994 article in The Seattle Times summed up Polly Dyer's impact on her adopted state:

"If Polly Dyer hadn't moved to Washington in 1950, environmentalists say, the state map might look a lot different today. No North Cascades National Park. No wilderness areas -- for that matter, no Wilderness Act. Olympic National Park might not include the rain forests. Backpackers who hike the park's wild coastal strip, longest roadless coastline in the lower 48 states, might share that shore with cars.  Dyer played a big role in all those fights.  She has been a leader in the state's conservation movement for more than four decades, since long before the word 'environmentalist' was coined" ("Polly Dyer: Fighter By Nature...").

Dyer served on the North Cascades Conservation Council wolves working committee, which sought to facilitate the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Washington, and  on the Board of Directors of the Olympic Coast Alliance.  The Olympic Coast Alliance, founded in 2003, is dedicated to protecting the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary by ensuring a healthy coastal ecosystem through public education, advocacy, and close working relationships with coastal tribes.

In 1998 the Washington League of Women Voters honored Dyer for her longtime contributions to good government.  In 2001, the Washington Environmental Council honored Dyer as an Environmental Hero.

Accolades and High Honors

As Polly Dyer approached her 90th birthday, the many people who appreciated her work organized ways to honor her lifelong efforts and to mark this significant occasion. On February 4, U.S. Congressman Jay Inslee (b. 1951) made the following statement on the floor of the House of Representatives:

"Madam Speaker, I rise today to honor Polly Dyer for her more than fifty years of leadership and hard work improving and protecting the environment of our nation.  

"Polly, along with her husband John, played a leading role in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which preserved millions of acres of land throughout the nation -- the equivalent of almost 10 percent of Washington's land mass. She has made a special contribution to the protection and enhancement of the Olympic National Park and to the underwater domains of the Pacific Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Her efforts directly contributed to the development and preservation of the North Cascades National Park. She had a major role in the creation of the North Cascades Conservation Council, the Puget Sound Alliance, and was a key player in the formation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.  

"My family and I have hiked the trails and slept under the stars on land she fought hard to save for future generations. We know and honor the great heritage she is preserving for our nation.  

"Polly Dyer has mentored, inspired and nurtured several generations of wilderness leaders in Washington State. On and off the trail, in and out of the halls of Congress, Polly Dyer is the exemplar of a wilderness leader. Thank you, Polly Dyer, for everything that you have done" (Congressional Record).

Inslee's statement became part of the Congressional Record.

John and Polly Dyer 

John A. Dyer died in Seattle on April 24, 2008, at the age of 97.  He had helped foster his wife's activism and shared her passion for wilderness preservation for 63 years. "He was the conservationist," Polly Dyer later remembered, crediting John Dyer with awakening her passion for conservation, financially supporting them and so enabling her own conservation work, and setting an example for wilderness appreciation and support -- mostly unheralded (Paula Becker interview, December 21, 2010). 

Although John and Polly Dyer did not have children of their own, Polly Dyer numbers among her "daughters" her former Girl Scout troop (she led the troop from 7- and 8-year-old Brownies through high school and the Girl Scout Senior designation) and especially her goddaughter, Laura Dassow Walls, University of South Carolina professor and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) scholar.

On February 13, 2010, Dyer's 90th birthday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) proclaimed it Polly Dyer Day. King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) issued a proclamation honoring Dyer. Friends and well-wishers gathered at the Seattle headquarters of The Mountaineers to celebrate the birth of the one of the most stalwart supporters of the preservation of wilderness in the Pacific Northwest. 

Polly Dyer died on November 20, 2016, at the age of 96.


Folder "Echo Park Dam (1953-1955) Outgoing Letters" and “Letter from (as signed) Mrs. John A. Dyer to Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, June 25, 1957” Accession No. 3258-008, and Folder "Wilderness Bill (1957-1959) Outgoing Letters," Accession No. 3258-10, Polly Dyer Papers, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Doug Scott, “Polly Dyer: Nurturing Generations of Wilderness Activists,” Wilderness Heroes website accessed August 18, 2004 (http://www.wildernessforever/heroes/january1.html); “Echo Project Dropped From Colorado Plan,” San Diego Tribune, November 2, 1955, p. A-12; "Conservationist, Justice Lauded For Contributions," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1998, p. B-2; "Environmental Council Will Give Three Awards," Ibid., September 5, 1979, p. C-7; Linda Mapes, "'Parents' Want Park To Grow," The Seattle Times, May 20, 2009, p. A-1; Eric Pryne, " The 'W' Word Is Being Spoken Again -- Interest Reviving on The Eve Of Legislation's 30th Anniversary," Ibid., September 2, 1994, p. A-1; Eric Pryne, "Polly Dyer: A Fighter by Nature, Longtime Conservation Leader in the State Doesn't Plan To Slow Down inn Retirement,: Ibid., August 7, 1994, p. A-1; Janet Horne, "Latecomer Embraced A Mountain," Ibid., May 29, 1977, p. A-7; "Howard Zahniser: Author of the Wilderness Act" Wilderness.Net website accessed November 23, 2010 (http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=feature0504); "Honoring the work of Polly Dyer, a Washington state environmental leader," GPO Access.gov website accessed November 25, 2010 (http://frwebgate2.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgi?WAISdocID=82bHYR/0/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve); "Introducing Members of the NCCC Board," The Wild Cascades, Spring 2001, p. 21; and "In Memoriam: John A. Dyer," Ibid., Spring 2008, p. 21; "About OCA" Olympic Coast Alliance website accessed November 25, 2010 (http://www.olympiccoast.org/about.html); Defending Wild Washington: A Citizen’s Action Guide ed. by Edward A. Whitesell (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2004); "Pacific Northwest Conservationists" an oral history conducted in 1983, Sierra Club History Series, 1986, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; Voice of the Wild Olympics Special Edition Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Olympic Park Associates ed. by Sally Warren Soest (Seattle: Olympic Park Associates, 1998); Doug Scott, The Enduring Wilderness (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004); "Hetch Hetchy Timeline," Restore Hetch Hetchy website accessed December 7, 2010 (http://www.hetchhetchy.org/); "Elwha River Restoration," Olympic National Park website accessed December 7, 2010 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm); Polly Welts Kaufman, National Parks and the Woman's Voice (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 198-199; Mary Joy Breton, Women Pioneers For The Environment (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 173-178; Paula Becker interview with Polly Dyer, Seattle, Washington, December 21, 2010, notes in possession of Paula Becker; Polly Dyer, “Conserving Washington Parklands and Wilderness,”  an oral history conducted in 1983 by Susan Schrepfer, in Pacific Northwest Conservationists, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986; Claudia Rowe, "Polly Dyer, Driving Force for Northwest Conservation, Dead at 96," The Seattle Times, November 20, 2016 (www.seattletimes.com).
Note: This essay was updated on November 22, 2016.

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