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The Planet
In Memoriam—Mary Wiper

On August 1, Sierra Club Associate Representative Mary Wiper, 28, was killed by lightning while hiking with friends in Breckenridge, Colorado. Two others who were also struck regained consciousness, but were unable to revive Mary.

“This accident is about as random as anything nature can serve up,” says Club organizer Lawson LeGate of Salt Lake City. “She’s going to leave a big space in our hearts on a personal level, and she’ll leave a hole in our organization that will be hard to fill.”

Mary grew up in the small farm town of Bowbells, North Dakota, where she nurtured a deep love for the land. At the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, she worked to establish an Earth Day celebration and a long-term recycling program on campus. After graduating summa cum laude in 1999, she went to work for the Sierra Club in South Dakota, gathering public comment on a national grasslands management plan for the Dakotas.

That fall, Mary became a conservation organizer for the Club in Billings, Montana. The centerpiece of her work was Weatherman Draw—also known as the Valley of the Chiefs—on Montana’s high plains, a place held sacred by Plains Indian tribes from Montana to Oklahoma. Renowned for its 1,100-year-old rock art, it drew the attention of the tribes and others because it was slated for oil development.

“Mary nurtured a group of trouble-makers who were willing to stand up for this place,” says Northern Plains Sierra Club organizer Kathryn Hohmann. “She sustained our network by doing the footwork, phone-banking, writing mailers, researching agency decisions—everything from talking with national news outlets to booking hotel rooms. Her work even took her to Washington, D.C., where members of Congress heard the intensity of our purpose.”

Mary employed her talents of media outreach and coalition-building to bring together activists, local and national tribal members, local and national legislators, geologists, attorneys, archeologists, oil industry representatives, and BLM personnel. Ultimately, the corporation holding the drilling lease dropped its plans and donated its lease to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. No one deserved more credit for the victory than Mary.

“She impressed everyone who knew her with her extraordinary poise and her well-honed strategic sense,” says LeGate. “Her gentle nature belied her fierce devotion to protecting our nation’s environment.”
In May 2003, Mary was promoted and relocated to Albuquerque, where she worked on the successful campaign to prevent coal mining in Zuni Salt Lake, another sacred site, and joined the campaign to protect Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico from natural gas development. She was recently appointed to be the lead organizer in the Building Environmental Communities program in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

“Mary was only in the state a short time and had already made tremendous contributions to protecting New Mexico’s health and environment,” says Jeanne Bassett of the New Mexico Public Interest Research Group. “It’s an enormous loss to the conservation community,” agrees Stephen Capra of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Jennifer McKee, a Billings Gazette reporter when Mary was in Montana, says Mary’s sunniness belied her strength. “At first, one thought Mary’s sweetness would be quickly crushed by the toxicity of environmental fights in the West. Mary proved them wrong. She fought for the land she loved, but did not sacrifice her lightness or her optimism to the cause. Mary was not a cynic. She graced her friends and the land she cherished with all her gifts. She was infectious, sincere, but above all, the sweetest person I have ever known.”

Mary is survived by her mother, Sandra, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; her father, Ray, of Bowbells, North Dakota; a sister, Ann Gerber, of Los Angeles; and a brother, Robert, of Minneapolis.


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