Farewell to a giant of wilderness preservation

Phil Zalesky’s legacy is huge and everlasting. With his passion for wilderness, he worked with others to keep the places he loved unspoiled for all time. And his career in the classroom shaped generations of Everett students.

“He never stopped teaching or educating,” said Laura Zalesky, his wife of 68 years. “He influenced so many people through his teaching. And when we would go out hiking with people, he would teach them all about the area.”

Philip Henry Zalesky died Oct. 18. He was 89.

A longtime resident of Everett’s Eastmont area, he lived in recent years with his wife in Mill Creek. He taught in the Everett district for more than 30 years. A Pullman native and U.S. Army veteran, he came to Everett High as an English teacher in 1952. In 1961, he was among the first faculty at Everett’s new Cascade High School, where he taught history and economics until retiring in 1984.

With their shared love of hiking and the Glacier Peak area’s magnificence, Phil and Laura Zalesky became effective preservation activists.

In 1957, they were among several co-founders of the North Cascades Conservation Council, with an aim of creating the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The group would go on to push for the creation, in 1968, of North Cascades National Park.

“Phil’s main thrust had always been to get the Glacier Peak Wilderness. That was sort of his baby,” said Marc Bardsley, of Snohomish, a past president of the North Cascades Conservation Council.

Bardsley is now secretary of the group, a position Phil Zalesky held for many years. “Phil was like a mentor to me,” Bardsley said.

It was through efforts of the conservation council that the Glacier Peak Wilderness, with the 10,541-foot peak as its crown jewel, was established in the early 1960s. The rugged 572,000-acre area covers parts of Snohomish, Skagit and Chelan counties.

According to a profile of Phil Zalesky written for the HistoryLink website by local historian Louise Lindgren, there was wrangling between conservation groups over whether a new national park would offer the wilderness the total protection prized by the couple.

In the end, Zalesky worked “as hard for the park as he had for the wilderness,” Lindgren wrote.

Laura Zalesky on Thursday recalled the role the late U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., played in making North Cascades National Park a reality. The Zaleskys and others had long shared their knowledge of the land, and their fears about logging and mining.

“Senator Jackson finally got on the boat,” Laura Zalesky said. “His famous remark was, ‘You get the parade going and I’ll lead it.’”

Because so much of the wilderness area was accessible only to hikers, Zalesky became a pitchman for preservation. Herald archives show that in 1963 he spoke to the Everett Kiwanis Club on the topic of “A National Park in the Northern Cascades.”

“People who really knew the land well from exploring the back country and seeing it knew that all these great places, of national park caliber, needed to be protected. But the public needed to be educated about those places,” said Karl Forsgaard, now president of the North Cascades Conservation Council.

Forsgaard said the council’s 11-year push for the national park was followed by long battles to include “so much that was left out of the park.” Eventually, that work preserved the Mount Baker Wilderness, the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness and the Wild Sky Wilderness. “All that continued vigilance took a long-term commitment,” Forsgaard said.

The Zaleskys were part of that. The Cascade Land Conservancy honored the couple with its first Phil and Laura Zalesky Lifetime Achievement Award, an annual prize that now recognizes others working to save open space.

Zalesky died less than two weeks after the Oct. 6 death of 94-year-old Patrick Goldsworthy, of Seattle. Another co-founder of the North Cascades Conservation Council, Goldsworthy was a University of Washington professor who also helped start the Sierra Club’s Northwest chapter.

While Zalesky is known as a giant in wilderness preservation, one former student recalls him as a remarkable teacher. “We all have a handful of teachers we remember,” said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. “Mr. Zalesky was one of those. I learned so much about business and economics from him.”

Stephanson said one class project at Cascade High had students learning about companies and buying one share of stock. “The year I had him, I did all this research on Raytheon, a company doing electronic work and radar. I convinced the class to buy this stock. Over the course of the quarter, we watched the stock and read about it,” he said. “He was just one of those standout teachers.”

Laura Zalesky was also a teacher, and before that worked for Sno-Isle Libraries in the bookmobile. After retirement, the Zaleskys traveled and hiked in Europe and New Zealand. Both were involved in the Pilchuck Audubon Society, and Phil Zalesky wrote a guidebook called “Birding in Snohomish County.”

David Cameron, who taught history at Cascade High School for 30 years, was both a colleague and former student of Zalesky’s. As an Everett High sophomore, Cameron climbed Whitehorse Mountain with his English teacher — Zalesky — and Goldsworthy. “He had us reading mountaineering and outdoors books,” said Cameron, who is Lindgren’s husband.

Today, conservation groups are still working to preserve areas around North Cascades National Park through a campaign called the American Alps Legacy Project.

Zalesky’s own legacy stands tall, for all time.

“It took that advocacy work of people like Phil Zalesky, who knew that land, so more people would come to understand,” Forsgaard said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Celebration of life

A celebration Phil Zalesky’s life will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Dec. 7 at Merrill Gardens Retirement Community, 14905 Bothell-Everett Highway, Mill Creek.

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