NEW YORK — William Turnage, who changed the Wilderness Society from a grass-roots organization devoted to protecting public lands to a more professional advocacy group in time to do battle against Ronald Reagan’s environmental policies, died Oct. 15 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 74.
His brother Robert said the cause was stomach and esophageal cancer.
Mr. Turnage had spent time in forestry school and as the business manager for celebrated photographer Ansel Adams when he was hired by the Wilderness Society as its executive director in 1978. He reinvented the society by phasing out the old guard on its staff and hiring a cadre of economists, foresters, and lawyers who brought authority to its lobbying and studies.
He also hired Gaylord Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin with a strong record on environmental issues, as an adviser.
“Bill was a leader in a time of generational transition,” T.A. Barron, an author and longtime member of the society’s governing council, said in an interview. “The founders were big-hearted conservationists who sat around the campfire in the Smoky Mountains and conceived the idea of a Wilderness Act that would protect the wilderness — which, at the time, was a radical idea.”
But by the time Mr. Turnage was hired, Barron added, “The society was running low on its original fuel.”
Mr. Turnage began his conservation work when the president was Jimmy Carter, whose friendly environmental policy was illustrated by the enactment in 1980 of the Alaska Lands Act. The legislation, spearheaded by Carter’s interior secretary, Cecil D. Andrus, designated more than 100 million acres for national parks, wildlife refuge, and wilderness.
“Seward bought Alaska and Andrus saved it,” Mr. Turnage said, referring to William H. Seward, the secretary of state who negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867.
But Mr. Turnage had no amicable feelings for James G. Watt, Reagan’s interior secretary, whose stated goal was to transfer significant amounts of federal land to private timber, energy, and mineral interests for development.
Mr. Turnage became a frequent and barbed critic. In July 1981, the Wilderness Society published “The Watt Book,” a loose-leaf compendium of actions taken by Watt that the organization deemed dangerous to the environment — among them imposing a moratorium on acquiring new national parkland and failing to protect national parks from increasing pollution.
“It is both incredible and tragic,” Mr. Turnage said in introducing the book at a news conference, “that a Cabinet officer can go astray so quickly that he prompts production of a 4-pound book on his actions during his first six months.” He called on Reagan to fire Watt.
But Watt was not dismissed and continued to pursue what he described as a “market-oriented, people-oriented” policy to sell public lands and raise money to reduce the federal debt.
When 307 parcels of federal land were about to be sold to private interests in 1982, Mr. Turnage said, “The Reagan administration is pirating the public treasure for public benefit.”
William Albert Turnage was born in Tucson, on Dec. 9, 1942. His father, William V. Turnage, was an economist for the federal government. His mother, the former Erna Rassow, who was born in Panama, was a homemaker.
‘Bill was a leader in a time of generational transition.’
After graduating from Yale with a degree in history and studying history at Balliol College, Oxford, Mr. Turnage worked at the Alliance for Progress, an economic assistance program for Latin American countries established by President John F. Kennedy.
He attended Yale Law School but transferred to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, while also working as an associate fellow at the Yale Chubb Fellowship. He met Ansel Adams, whose black-and-white pictures of Western American landscapes made him one of the world’s most famous photographers, when Adams was invited to be a fellow. Mr. Turnage left the school soon after to accept Adams’s offer to become his business manager.
While they were working together, Mr. Turnage persuaded Adams, then in his 70s, to stop making prints in his darkroom. “I said, ‘You could continue to concentrate on books,’ ” Mr. Turnage told The New York Times in 2013. “ ‘They’ve been very successful. Your needs aren’t huge. You don’t need to make $3 million a year. You’ll free yourself from the darkroom.’ ”
Adams agreed — and his photographs became even more ubiquitous, not only in books but also on posters and in calendars.
During his time at the Wilderness Society, Mr. Turnage helped arrange a meeting in 1983 between Reagan and Adams, who had described Reagan’s environmental polices as “disastrous.” After the meeting, which lasted nearly an hour, Adams told The Washington Post, “I got a feeling he doesn’t have any fundamental interest or knowledge in the environment as a concept.”
Mr. Turnage left the Wilderness Society in 1985 and took a sabbatical in Europe. While in Kitzbuhel, Austria, he went to a store to buy hiking boots and met Annemarie Murauer, the manager. She eventually became his third wife.
Mr. Turnage returned to the United States to work at the publishing rights trust established by Adams, who had died in 1984.
In 2010, Mr. Turnage and the trust became embroiled in a legal dispute over a claim that a box of negatives bought at a garage sale in Fresno, Calif., by Rick Norsigian, who worked in a school maintenance department, were the work of Adams, from the 1920s and ’30s.
The trust sued Norsigian, saying the sale of prints from the negatives was a trademark violation; Norsigian countersued, claiming that Mr. Turnage, the managing trustee, had slandered him on CNN by saying that attempts to authenticate the negatives as Adams’s were the work of a “bunch of crooks.”
The dispute was settled in early 2011 with an agreement by Norsigian not to sell prints and posters using Adams’s name or likeness. Mr. Turnage continued to work at the trust until last year.
In addition to his brother Robert, he leaves his wife; his sisters, Margaret Hebson and Diane Keedy; and another brother, James. His earlier marriages were to Andrea Stillman and Charlotte Wilson.
Although Mr. Turnage was not born to environmentalism — his brother Robert said the family was not “super outdoorsy” — he became a strong advocate at the Wilderness Society.
“Bill helped us transition to being the leading voice in protecting and conserving the wilderness, one of those amazing elements of our national heritage,” Barron, the author, said. “He knew how precious and fragile those places are.”