The Knoxville News Sentinel
Sunday, September 13,1998

Wilderness areas owe great deal
to Dickerman, ex-Knoxvillian

By Cathryn McCue

In the days before he died, Ernie Dickerman composed on his 1945 Royal portable typewriter the announcement of his death. "On (date) Ernest M. ‘Ernie’ Dickerman, a lifelong bachelor, died at the age of 87 by his own hand as he had long planned, on the little old farm in the Allegheny Mountains where he had lived since retiring in 1976. ‘Quit while you are ahead’ is sound philosophy, both in poker and in life. For over sixty years, as an amateur or as a professional, he was an active conservationist, especially in wilderness preservation."

It was classic Ernie. Not sentimental but eloquent and wry To the point And exceedingly modest, for this man was much more than an "active conservationist." Anyone who roams through an eastern wilderness has Ernie Dickerman to thank

Ernie Dickerman in 1950sFor more than half a century, Ernie worked tirelessly to prevent roads, logging and other development from desecrating the untamed reaches of our public lands. He helped pioneer a nationwide movement that resulted in the Wilderness Act of 1964, led the charge to pass the Eastern Wilderness Act in 1975 and, in his retirement, was the guiding force behind the designation of 15 wilderness areas in Virginia. All told, some 104.5 million acres are now in the wilderness preserve system.

But Ernie’s legacy extends far beyond preserving a piece of forest here, a mountain range there, for his greatest gift was inspiring others. He was a mentor and hero to generations of conservationists who to this day public lands are still fighting to protect America’s public lands.

Among his protegees are leaders from the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, EarthFirst and dozens of other organizations. He showed them how to persevere in the face of adversarial politicians and angry loggers, bow to look defeat in the eye and not be defeated, how to trust one’s inner compass and always how to have fun.

Since Ernie’s death on July 31, family and friends have shared their fondest and funniest stories of "the granddad of Eastern wilderness." lobbying and grassroots organizing came naturally to Ernie, who began his crusade in the 1930s during time off work from a Knoxville plastics company and in between treks to his beloved Smoky Mountains.

He tread the halls of the Capitol back roads of the South like a circuit conservationist, talking to anyone who would listen and even those who wouldn’t about the need to keep wild places wild.

"Why should we be deprived of them?" he once told a reporter. "When you log a place, you change its character. You need to build roads. Then you get vehicles coming in, streams dammed, and what is fine and natural you lose."

He would sit and spread his papers on the floor outside congressional offices, organizing himself for his next meeting ,then listen patiently to some long-winded politician before saying, "Frankly, I think that’s a crock. I can’t see how any rational person can fail to see the merit...."

For the D.C. crowd he donned coat and tie, which he bore like a suit of armor, but out in the field, he often wore mixed plaids and his signature felt "crusher" hat, knowing full well the disarming power a dash of eccentricity had over his audience.

His hiking exploits are legendary, as he dispensed with trails and maps and often carried the packs of the less hardy Even in his 80s, he invited congressmen and reporters on hikes and would soon be crashing through the laurel thickets and scaling steep slopes, leaving them in their citified shoes to scramble after.

Recently at a public hearing where some 200 wilderness opponents booed and hollered at him, Ernie kept right on talking like he didn’t hear them. Recalling the scene, a friend said she was scared, then discouraged, but the unflappable Ernie said. "I think we really succeeded in getting our points out there." Up to the last, Ernie took calls form young conservationists around the country seeking advice and direction. This spring, he was the patriarch at a mentoring conference that brought the old guard together with the current generation that is battling a backlash against wilderness expansion.

For some time, Ernie had confided in his family and closest friends that he would leave this world of his own accord when the time came. He argued that "old folks should get out of the way, stop using up resources, and let the young have the place ... where man himself is a visitor who does not remain"

In a way, though, Ernie will always remain
- in the people he inspired and who continue to defend our public lands and in the wild places be cherished and protected for all time.