Phil and Laura Zalesky began lives in 1924 that included early poverty, but became enriched through their marriage in 1945 and intertwined with some of the most important Pacific Northwest environmental efforts of the twentieth century: creation of North Cascades National Park, defending Olympic National Park, and protecting the fragile wetlands of Snohomish County.
Childhoods Rich in Outdoor Experience
Philip Henry Zalesky was born on January 11, 1924, the son of a Pullman, Washington, tailor whose business collapsed in 1931. His parents then opened a boarding house for Washington State College students. Despite his large family (a much older brother, three sisters, and a far younger brother), Phil was not close to his siblings, creating his own play and learning opportunities.
Laura Lee Kimball was born on April 6, 1924, in Pasadena, California, the youngest of twin girls who completed a family with three other children. Two years later her family moved to Griffin Creek near Medford, Oregon -- that was, in her words, “a ‘dark holler’ type place on a little subsistence farm. We were dirt poor. We played with the pigs which we loved, rode hay wagons, and spent summer days in the hills. We had no toys, so we made up games. Our imaginations just ran wild -- a wonderful time” (Zalesky).
Phil also enjoyed the freedom that poverty provided. He and his friend fished for crawdads and built a raft. “It weighed six tons, I think, and we dreamed of floating it down the Palouse River” (Zalesky). His curiosity led him to go through the hobo jungle near the river, finding that the fellows were friendly. He hitchhiked at age 10 to see the Washington State College football game in Moscow, Idaho, and as a 14-year-old, hitchhiked to Seattle and back, at one point sleeping behind a signboard in Yakima. He assessed his childhood: “I always felt I raised myself, and that affected my personality” (Zalesky).
In high school Phil played on the basketball team and practiced his speaking skills with a debate team. Laura, a sociable girl, twirled baton with the marching band and sang in the chorus. Unknown to them, however, decisions were being made on the national level that would impact their lives profoundly. Not only was war on the horizon for the United States (Phil was drafted in 1943), but another war, an environmental one, was brewing.
Wilderness Area Proposed
In 1937 Bob Marshall, a founder of The Wilderness Society and head of the U.S. Forest Service Recreation and Lands Division, devoted three summers of intense hiking to inventory wildlands, including the Glacier Peak area. He managed to get his “U” regulations adopted in 1939, “designating unbroken tracts of one hundred thousand or more acres as ‘wilderness areas’ (U-1) and others of five thousand to one hundred thousand acres as ‘wild areas’ (U-2). In both, commercial timber-cutting, roads, hotels, resorts, summer homes, motorboats, and airplane landings were prohibited” (Manning, 77).
Marshall proposed a 795,000-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, but that was doomed by his death in 1939. Only the “U” regulations remained to protect a Glacier Peak Limited Area -- at 325,000 acres. A re-study of that area in the 1950s would involve the Zaleskys.
Wartime Romance – Changing Lives
The 1940s were a time of change and discovery for the pair. Phil was an expert rifleman with a military police battalion stationed at Tule Lake Relocation Camp for Japanese Americans. Laura, who had studied for two years at the University of Oregon, went there to work in the War Relocation Office to make enough money to return to school. They were married only a few months after, on January 15, 1945. Her school plans were put on hold.
Phil discovered that, after growing up with little direction and plenty of freedom, “The Army gave me discipline. I learned a lot … like how I could settle down when I got out and be a serious student” (Zalesky). After release from the Army in April 1946, he worked briefly as a laborer at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo before using the GI Bill to enter the University of Washington, on track to become a teacher. Laura worked in the accounting office for the university. Their apartment was small and income limited.
One summer Laura’s parents visited, taking them on their first camping trip to Mt. Rainier. That inspired them, and for the next two years September vacations were spent hiking. Acquiring their first car in 1948 allowed them to hike extensively in Olympic National Park. Again, unknown to them, concurrent events were happening that would affect their lives.
Olympic Park Associates Founded
Since the creation of Olympic National Park in 1938 there had been a constant assault by logging interests to reduce its size. In 1947 a hearing was held on a bill to strip 56,000 acres from the park.
Outrage by conservation forces doomed it, but the threat of future similar efforts prompted conservation activists to form Olympic Park Associates (OPA) in 1948. In coming years the Zaleskys would become influential members of the group.
First Teaching Job
The Zaleskys faced another major change when, with Phil’s education degree in hand, they moved from their beloved West Coast mountains to settle in Davenport, a small town in Eastern Washington. Laura worked as a secretary while Phil taught high school English and journalism. To his consternation, he also was told to teach Spanish, and struggled to stay one step ahead of his students. The small class was not only forgiving, but loyal to him. One day, when the superintendent paid a surprise visit and asked one of the students to say something in Spanish, she replied, “Adios!” The Zaleskys laughed fondly about that 50 years later.
The couple went hiking in rattlesnake country and fly-fished a special “hole” near the junction of the Spokane and Columbia rivers. One Saturday Laura lost a large and wiley trout that managed to cut the line by diving under a log. “Mad at herself, she threw the fishing rod down and stormed to the car” (Zalesky). Rather than give up, she mulled over the manner of escape, returning the next day to catch it. Laura recalled, “I knew what he’d done, so I just kept him away from the log. He was old and damaged. Obviously, a lot of people had tried to get him” (Zalesky). Her powers of observation and quiet determination faced with a challenge became traits that others would observe in the future.
West Coast Beckons
The pull of the mountains brought the Zaleskys to Everett in 1952, with Phil teaching English at Everett High School. Laura volunteered one year helping developmentally disabled children. A permanent job on Sno-Isle Library’s Bookmobile engaged her for years after that.
They joined the Everett Mountaineers and took the basic climbing course, which gave them skills to tackle major peaks in the Cascades. By spring 1953, Phil’s leadership ability was obvious to these Mountaineers, who elected him president.
Becoming Conservation Activists
In 1953 Phil joined the conservation committee of the Seattle Mountaineers. Their primary issue was the effort to continue Bob Marshall’s work of the late 1930s, creation of a Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. Harvey Manning recalled, “Key members of the conservation committee had little or no personal acquaintance with the Glacier Peak area, but Phil and Laura Zalesky knew it well and arranged ‘show and tell’ trips ... that excited the committee leadership” (Manning, 93).
Concurrently the Zaleskys learned about political activism by observing tactics of the Olympic Park Associates (OPA), who convinced park officials that conservation representatives should be on the Park Review Committee, ordered by Governor Arthur B. Langlie, and dominated by timber representatives. The committee, charged with deciding whether large amounts of virgin timber should be removed from park protection, produced the timber industry’s majority report, and the conservationists’ minority report, backed by hundreds of letters to the committee. Governor Langlie let the issue die. In 1954, politically enlightened Phil was elected to the board of OPA.
Walking and Working for Wilderness
By 1955 the Zaleskys and other members of the Mountaineers’ Conservation Committee had gone on field trips with Forest Service staff to determine possible boundaries for a Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. A Washington Post columnist accompanied them one time and wrote a glowing report “about the magnificent forests and wilderness values of Glacier Peak, giving the area its first national exposure” (Manning, 92). The Forest Service wanted such high elevation boundaries, above timberline to allow logging below, that the committee began calling that unacceptable proposal “wilderness on the rocks.”
The Mountaineers joined forces with the Wilderness Society, the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs (FWOC), The Mazamas, and The Sierra Club to push for an expanded wilderness for the North Cascades. Phil presented his Glacier Peak area slides at the 1955 FWOC convention in California and to the first Northwest Wilderness Conference in Portland in 1956, where the main presentation featured a reading of the newly drafted Wilderness Bill that Howard Zahniser, Executive Secretary of the Wilderness Society, was planning to introduce to Congress.
"Salvage" Logging Threatens Olympic Park
Olympic National Park also commanded the Zaleskys' attention in 1956. Sound old-growth timber was cut under the guise of taking out blow-downs and diseased wood deep inside park boundaries. Park insiders alerted The Mountaineers, resulting in the creation of an ad hoc group of conservationists from several regional groups who organized a trip to survey the damage. Photos by Phil Zalesky and Carsten Lien were published by the Wilderness Society.
This evidence, along with a national public awareness campaign and a telegram hinting at possible malfeasance sent to Parks Director Conrad Wirth, resulted in a survey by Parks Regional Director Lawrence Merriam. At a late September meeting with Zalesky and others, Wirth declared there would be no more salvage logging in Olympic National Park. For once, conservationists had a clear victory.
Sharing the Mountains
Teachers never know when they will make a lifelong imprint. Phil Zalesky and Patrick Goldsworthy (1919-2013) led five Everett high school students on a climb of Mt. Whitehorse in 1957. One student, David Cameron, was terrified of heights.
Phil taught him to manage ropes and an ice ax and to glissade down a steep slope. Not only did Cameron lose his fear of heights, but with Phil as a mentor, turned his life toward a 30 year career in teaching, with over 20 summers working in the mountains for the U.S. Forest Service.
North Cascades Conservation Council
The creation of the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) in 1957 “was a turning point for conservation in the North Cascades ... Patrick Goldsworthy, Polly Dyer, Phil Zalesky, and Laura Zalesky ... led the charge” (American Alps Legacy website). They had the support of powerful people within the conservationist community such as David Brower of the Sierra Club and Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society. The NCCC ideal wilderness would encompass large areas of old growth timber in river valleys and lowlands. The group began holding conferences every two years to make plans and inform the public, alternating years with conferences held by the Sierra Club.
There were other meetings as well, such as a debate that the Society of American Foresters held, inviting Pastor Riley Johnson (timber interests), J. Herbert Stone (Regional Supervisor of the Forest Service), and Phil Zalesky, NCCC President. At one point Pastor Johnson said, “You wouldn’t catch me going into the wilderness, packing my wife on my back” (Zalesky). Phil countered with facts about old and young of both genders enjoying such hikes and, “as a matter of fact, the greatest teacher of all time went into the wilderness at Galilee to recreate body and soul.” That brought a rousing response from the audience, but didn’t deter Johnson, who countered with “Yes, but He was chased there by the Devil!” (Zalesky).
Shifting Focus: Wilderness to National Park
Formerly, issues for the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) had been how to protect the Glacier Peak area (under Forest Service jurisdiction), and how much land could be included. The Forest Service and Park Service had always wrangled about who should control what territory. Unknown to Phil, key members of the Sierra Club and others changed focus from working for a Glacier Peak Wilderness to creation of a North Cascades National Park.
Phil resigned his NCCC presidency in 1958, continuing as vice-president. A new assignment, teaching history rather than English, required more time. That summer he was blind-sided by a motion made at an NCCC meeting asking Congress to authorize a joint study with the Park and Forest services to define possible park boundaries. Emotions ran high as park advocates prevailed. Phil and Laura felt great disappointment, but he remained on the board, eventually working as hard for the park as he had for wilderness.
Although everyone agreed on an ideal, many believed it could not be achieved -- better to compromise by having the Park Service in control. Phil and Laura knew that park use might lead to intrusive new roads and recreation facilities. The results of that turning point vote were a multi-year campaign to rally support nationwide and a massive effort to negotiate politically the controversy between rival services.
“Team Zalesky” Seeks Balance
Laura Zalesky, with her full-time Bookmobile job, was there every step of the way as Phil went through leadership challenges of previous years. She typed newsletters, handled correspondence, and managed membership records the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) and Olympic Park Associates (OPA). They hosted innumerable meetings in their home, where she could be an equally persuasive advocate, though out of the limelight. Both OPA and NCCC depended upon Phil’s speaking ability and slide shows for many presentations.
Summers were time for climbing peaks: Mt. Whitehorse, Glacier Peak, Mt. Olympus and Mt. Jumbo with the Everett Mountaineers, as well as extensive backpacking. In 1959 and 1960 Phil served as a park ranger at Mt. Rainier. Laura accompanied him and enjoyed solitary hikes of her own when he was on duty. As members of the National Audubon Society, bird watching on these hikes became a satisfying addition to the adventure.
The Work of Teaching
Phil transferred to Cascade High School in Everett when it opened in 1961, becoming head of the History Department. He remembers: “Once I started teaching the honors program, I eased up considerably on conservation involvement. I was still the vice-president of the NCCC, but I had to concentrate on history, and would stay up until nearly midnight preparing for the next day” (Zalesky). He always gave essay tests rather than multiple-choice, requiring time and effort to evaluate.
In 1962 at age 38, Laura went back to college to get a teaching degree of her own. Although her bookmobile work was a joy, she wanted to do something more meaningful in her life. She trained with a new program, individualized instruction, for her first and second grade classes, which began in 1964.
Eventually she taught many other teachers that system to provide a coordinated approach throughout the grades. Her love of nature prompted excursions -- to parks, the zoo, stream banks, and on one memorable trip, a farm. There she encouraged children to roll down a grassy hill. Most of her “city kids” had never done that, so she demonstrated, causing much laughter among her charges and some head-shaking among accompanying parents.
Milestones of 1964
Laura Zalesky began her teaching career in the same year that the Wilderness Act of 1964 changed the rules under which wilderness areas were designated. No longer could either the Park or Forest services designate wilderness areas. That power was given to Congress, and conservationists had to rally voters to lobby their representatives to designate new ones. Old national forest primitive lands, including Glacier Peak, became “instant” wilderness areas, receiving statutory protection. However, the minimal acreage allotted did not stop the NCCC effort to create a larger park.
That year also offered the Zaleskys their first opportunity to do more extensive traveling. They went to Europe, hiking their way through Norway and Switzerland, and visited Holland, Germany, France, and England. Visits to the grand museums of the cities and the grander vistas of the mountains afforded them a wealth of material to share in their classrooms. It was the first of a number of travels over many summers, including trips to Fiji, New Zealand, and Ireland.
Troubles Brew Again in the Olympics
In 1966 with the North Cascades park issue still on the burner, there was another attempted boundary adjustment to Olympic National Park. A proposal was made to remove nearly the same 56,000 acres that had been proposed in 1947.
Phil wrote, “In essence, Senator Jackson was saying: if you want the North Cascades National Park, you are going to have to compromise by giving up timber volume in Olympic National Park” (Soest, 33). The Zaleskys, Polly Dyer, and John Osseward of Olympic Park Associates sprang to action. With only a month to prepare for a Senate hearing on the issue in Seattle, they rallied supporters nationwide to write letters and speak at the hearing “supporting the North Cascades park, but also condemning the Overly Report for sacrificing Olympic National Park” (Soest, 32-33).
One Bright Note in a Traumatic Year
The nation was suffering in 1968: the Vietnam War, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, a riot at the Democratic Convention. Phil, by now teaching government and economics as well as history, suggested that his students learn about government by lobbying their legislators for 18-year-olds to get the vote.
Against this backdrop, after years of effort, arguments, negotiations and compromise, “On October 2, 1968 the North Cascades National Park was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson” (American Alps Legacy website). It may have been the only thing the Zaleskys could celebrate that year.
Discovering True Wilderness: Arctic and Yukon
In the summer of 1970, at age 46, the Zaleskys took off for their trip of a lifetime. A bush pilot flew them to the Sheenjek River south of the Brooks Range, Alaska. They faced a solitary 250 mile canoe trip back to the Yukon River and civilization. The river was in flood stage, and going down rapids was tense. They barely missed getting hit by a leaning tree around a bend of the tumultuous current. Yet the prime impact of their trip was gaining an understanding of true wilderness. Laura remembered, “Wildflowers were almost unrecognizable because of their size, and the mosses deep and soft. We talked a lot about the fact that places that we call wilderness here are not, because you can hike out in one day, anyplace. You couldn’t do it there. You had an ‘alone’ feeling that was wonderful” (Zalesky).
Again, in 1972, the pair headed north, venturing into the foothills of the St. Elias Range from Klahane Lake, Yukon Territory. This time they saw their first grizzly, and a wolf trailed them for a time as they kept their small dog on short leash. Mosquitoes were fierce, but the vastness, the isolation, made a profound impact.
Marathon Man -- Age 54
Fellow teachers Phil Zalesky and Elliot Cheap completed a full marathon at Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C. in 1978. These two friends, 24 years apart in age, trained from Lake Roesiger to Monroe every weekend. They weren’t going for records, but for the personal challenge.
Laura accompanied Phil on shorter weekday runs, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to get in mileage before school. The couple continued to enjoy that activity for many more years.
1970s Political Activism
In addition to Olympic Park Associates (OPA) membership, Laura was a member of the League of Women Voters, and the couples’ political awareness prompted Phil to work on the platform committee for the Democratic Party. He spent the summer of 1974 campaigning for Jim McDermott for Congress, and was chair of the Democrats’ resolutions committee. During that decade OPA members again defended the park from attacks on its territory. They saved 2,000 acres on the north shore of Lake Quinault, and in 1976 a seven mile strip of roadless coastline south of the Makah Indian Reservation was added.
Leadership was never something Phil sought. In fact, he tried to avoid it, but he exuded a firm, if soft-spoken authority which appealed to everyone with whom he worked. Tim McNulty, past president of OPA, said, “Phil could get to the crux of an issue. He would make the motion and distill the main points, framing them so that the way forward became clear. He was an excellent speaker, with a warm and engaging way of addressing officials while remaining clear about what should happen. He combined authority with the human touch. Laura, too, was a bastion of self-possession -- unruffled in spite of difficult discussions and capable of diffusing situations -- a calming influence” (McNulty).
In 1984 Phil and Laura retired after 34 and 19 years of teaching, respectively. They were 60 years old and determined to have time to hike, climb and travel. However, not only did they continue their work for the OPA and NCCC, but as they saw various new environmental needs, they did their best to address them. Laura was chair of the Snohomish County League of Women Voters, serving on its conservation committee to raise awareness of local issues such as saving an estuary with threatened bird and animal habitat near Everett. In addition, she organized and served as conservation chair for Pilchuck Audubon. She also volunteered for the Assistance League’s Operation School Bell.
They became more active in their local Pilchuck Audubon group, assisting within that group with the start of the Smart Growth movement for anti-sprawl land development that considers environmental as well as human and economic needs. Phil was elected Democratic Party Chairman in 1984 and served for many years. He wrote Birding in Snohomish County and began the Snohomish County Land Trust to help address the estuary issue. Laura helped create the Snohomish County Wetlands Alliance for the same reason, and that group saved both Spencer and Otter islands near Everett from development. They both fought a county garbage incineration plan, successfully pushing for recycling instead.
Laura was appointed to chair the new Conservation Futures Committee (CFC) for Snohomish County government in the early 1990s. She said, “I get stuck in the leadership position too, and this is really funny because I’ve never been that type of person who leads, but I am very organized” (Zalesky). Her assessment of her ability to lead is contradicted by those with whom she has worked, including Marc Krandel, staff to the CFC, who said, “Laura was small, quiet, and determined -- sweet even when she was angry. She always made sure each person had a chance to speak before calling for a vote. It was a joy to be able to depend upon her leadership” (Krandel).
The couple's skills were complementary. Phil enjoyed speaking. Laura did not. She was extremely well organized, and Phil depended on her for that. Phil was not good at delegating; Laura was, and both realized that when you work with non-profits everyone is a volunteer, and all you can do is persuade, not order, people to do what must be done to reach mutual goals. They were convinced that anyone can make a difference through thoughtful persistence, knowledge, and cooperation.
Well into the second half of their ninth decades, Phil and Laura still worked for the environment as members of NCCC, OPA, and Pilchuck Audubon, through which they endowed a grant program for teachers who offer their classes natural history lessons. A relatively new initiative, the American Alps Legacy Project, dominated their efforts in 2010, with its goal of adding areas left out of the protection of either wilderness or park designations in the North Cascades.
The Zaleskys were honored as "Legacies of the Wilderness" by the Washington Trails Association, and a "Phil and Laura Zalesky Lifetime Achievement Award" is now given annually by the Cascade Land Conservancy. By the time Phil Zalesky died on October 18, 2013, the couple had given an extraordinary legacy of environmental protection for the benefit of future generations.