‘Grandmother of Nevada wilderness’ had poise, tenacity
For more than 50 years Marge Sill was a leading voice for Nevada wilderness.
On Sunday that voice went silent. Sill, 92, died at her home in Reno just hours after falling ill, according to her niece.
As news of Sill’s death spread it prompted grief everywhere from the tiny offices of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a group Sill helped found, to the halls of Congress where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., penned a note of condolence.
“She was a mentor, like a mother to me, a grandmother to my daughter,” said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness. “She was an inspiration in every way a woman can be.”
Born in Bakersfield, Calif., on Dec. 2, 1924, Sill majored in English and math at University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1949.
She joined the Sierra Club shortly after college and then, along with her husband, Richard Sill, moved to Nebraska where he was pursuing a PhD.
Her love affair with the rugged Nevada backcountry began in 1953 when the couple was returning to California and stopped to camp near the Snake Range between Ely and Baker.
In 1959 Richard Sill accepted an assistant professorship in Reno at University of Nevada and Marge Sill became a math teacher at Sparks High School.
The couple became active in the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club with Marge Sill becoming an important voice behind the passage of The Wilderness Act in Congress in 1964.
Among other things, the act established Nevada’s first designated wilderness at Jarbidge.
And Sill didn’t stop there. Not even close.
In addition to her ongoing wilderness advocacy, Sill was a longtime Sierra Club hike leader.
“She knew the benefit of getting people outdoors to make them future advocates,” said David Von Seggern, chairperson of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club.
From Sill’s arrival in Reno until her death the Sill home was a gathering place for conservationists from Nevada and beyond.
In addition to field organizing and advocacy work, Sill offered hospitality to visitors young and old.
“Marge’s was sort of a stopover,” Von Seggern said. “As a conservationist you had to come and say hello to Marge, her arms were open, her door was open.”
As a wilderness advocate Sill remained active throughout her life. She was influential in the founding of Great Basin National Park in 1986 and the 1989 wilderness designations at Mt. Rose near Reno, the Ruby Mountains near Elko and Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas.
And advocacy was critical because Nevada in the 1980s was a crucible for the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion movement, which included hostility toward wilderness designations.
“It was a fight with death threats and roomfuls of miners and others who said we are threatening our country as we know it,” Netherton said.
But Sill was known for a positive attitude and a level head. It was a style that worked.
“You have to carry poise to do that,” Von Seggern said. “I think it was just somewhat natural.”
It helped that Sill, along with several other Nevadans, had the foresight in 1984 to found Friends of Nevada Wilderness as an in-state voice on behalf of wilderness.
The move helped counter the perception that pressure to conserve was coming from outsiders.
At the time of Sill’s death she was one of three founders still on the board, along with Roger Scholl and Karen Boeger.
Sill’s niece, Marian Coensgen, of Pasadena, Calif., still recalls one moment she saw first-hand the significance of her aunt’s advocacy.
It was during a trip several years ago to Great Basin National Park, located in an area where Sill once went door-to-door to advocate on behalf of its formation in a skeptical community.
“People were just lining up to meet her,” Coensgen said. “It was really eye-opening.”