"I've shed many tears," Bobbie Holaday says. "But if you're passionate about something, you never give up."
Bobbie Holaday has spent more than three decades as
© Mark Duran
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an advocate for wolves and wilderness areas. Through compromise,
compassion and unflinching determination, she's been a voice for those who have none. She's also a living testament to how much
can be accomplished in life after the age of 65.
By Annette McGivney
When Eastern Arizona ranchers learned in 1988 that someone in Phoenix had started a citizen organization to advocate for the endangered Mexican gray wolf, they were ready for a fight. Who had the nerve, they wondered, to seek public support for reintroducing wolves into their grazing country? But then the ranchers met their unlikely opponent: Bobbie Holaday. A mild-mannered 65-year-old mom and retired systems analyst, she didn't fit the profile of a typical eco-warrior. But Holaday was a force to be reckoned with.
"At first, they hated my guts," Holaday says. However, she gradually won the ranchers over, just as she'd done with all of the other controversial environmental causes she's championed.
Today, Holaday is a spry 90 years old and lives at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix. She's spent the better part of her 60s, 70s and 80s fighting for wild places and creatures. The Arizona Wilderness Coalition calls Holaday "one of the most dedicated and energetic wilderness advocates in the Southwest." Not only was she instrumental in helping to get the Mexican gray wolf reintroduced to the Southwest, but she also was responsible for the federal designation of two major Arizona wilderness areas.
Holaday is the daughter of a Baptist minister and grew up in New York state. "My folks always told glowing stories about the West," she says. "I had marveled at the pictures in Arizona Highways and knew I wanted to live in Arizona one day." Her wish came true in 1956, when she moved to Phoenix. But Holaday was a single mom raising two daughters, and she says she spent most of her time working and parenting. Then, in 1980, at the age of 57, she joined a local hiking club to get some exercise. That's when her life as a wilderness activist began.
"I really enjoyed hiking, and I started doing solo backpacking trips with my dogs in remote places like Rainbow Bridge," Holaday says. "I felt a spiritual connection to the land. I developed a kinship with those places. And I came to believe that any kind of environmental damage to wild areas would be a crime."
Soon Holaday was leading Sierra Club hikes into threatened Arizona wilderness areas. In 1981, she joined the Adopt-a-Wilderness Program, a citizen-led effort to advocate for inclusion of certain public lands under the Arizona wilderness bill that was making its way through Congress. Holaday adopted the remote and rugged Hellsgate Wilderness Study Area in Central Arizona. It was a place other volunteers avoided because of the harsh terrain and hostile ranching community. But such difficulties only strengthened Holaday's determination to fight for the protection of Hellsgate.
With the zealousness of a missionary and the methodical mind of a scientist, Holaday spent three years hiking into every corner of Hellsgate to document its natural features. She lobbied U.S. Forest Service managers and worked with local ranchers to dispel their fears about wilderness designation. She even took classes in range management at Arizona State University to better understand the ranchers' concerns.
When the Arizona Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1984, Hellsgate was included as a result of Holaday's perseverance. She then adopted the Eagletail Mountains and championed that rugged desert Wilderness Study Area. Eagletail, like Hellsgate, was a hotbed of conflict with ranchers who opposed wilderness designation. But Holaday won them over, too. And in 1990, the 100,600-acre Eagletail Wilderness became the crown jewel of the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act.
"You have to be willing to leave a little shoe leather in the wilderness to get it protected, and Bobbie certainly did that," says Mark Trautwein, who was on the staff of then-Congressman Mo Udall and oversaw the passage of the federal Arizona wilderness bills in the 1980s from his Washington, D.C., office. "Bobbie represented the best qualities of citizen advocates. She proved to be invaluable to the wilderness bills because her information was so reliable and her willingness to help solve problems kept the process moving forward."
In the late 1980s, Holaday expanded beyond wilderness to wolves when she adopted a dog that was part wolf. Then, in 1988, she founded Preserve Arizona's Wolves (PAWS), a citizen wolf-advocate group that sought to gain public support for reintroducing the endangered Mexican gray wolf into the wild.
"She was persistent but also fearless," recalls Don Hoffman, a retired manager for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests who worked closely with the wolf program in the 1980s and 1990s. When the idea of reintroducing the endangered Mexican wolf to the Blue Range Primitive Area was first circulated by federal officials, opposition from the surrounding community was fierce. Holaday was simply a concerned citizen with a big soft spot for wolves, but Hoffman says "she played a very powerful role" in finally getting the wolves released into the area in 1998. "She attended the meetings with local ranchers and tried to help them understand the benefit of having wolves in the ecosystem," he says. "There was no crowd that was too tough for her, and she was always hopeful that she'd eventually achieve consensus."
Holaday wrote a book about her experience with wolf reintroduction, The Return of the Mexican Gray Wolf: Back to the Blue, which was published by University of Arizona Press in 2003. She's also been recognized with prestigious awards from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club. But Holaday says the personal high point of her more than 30 years of environmental activism came in 1998, when she carried a cage containing one of the Mexican wolves and released it with others into the Blue Range Primitive Area, marking the beginning of the reintroduction program.
Today, the wolf program is struggling, but has approximately 50 wolves living in the wild. "I've shed many tears about the wolves, and there were times when it was so very hard," she says, noting how some of the animals have been killed over the past decade. "But if you're passionate about something, you never give up."
Holaday doesn't hike as much as she used to, but she works out three times a week with a seniors group. And she treasured the companionship of her 13-year-old snow-white dog, Blizzard, who was half-wolf. Blizzard recently passed away.
"I still push myself," she says. "I have a lot of things yet to accomplish. And I want to have a 100th birthday party."
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