Our History and Heritage

What started as a cartoonist’s dream has turned into the largest grassroots conservation organization in the country. Today the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) boasts over 4 million supporters and 47 state affiliates.  NWF continues to be the voice of conservation for diverse constituencies that include hunters, anglers, gardeners, bird watchers, scientists, outdoor enthusiasts, and families raising the next generation of habitat stewards.

From climate change to mining reform, from wilderness to energy development, from backyard habitats to connecting people to nature, NWF has the professional expertise and grassroots power to make a difference for wildlife and our children’s future. All of this didn’t happen by chance, however, and understanding our past will propel us into the future.

The Early Years

To understand NWF’s beginning, we must look back to the roots of conservation in this country. American wildlife conservation is grounded in the belief that wildlife belongs to the people, a concept commonly known as the Public Trust Doctrine or the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

The Public Trust Doctrine was formally established during an 1872 Supreme Court Case, Martin vs. Wadell. A private landowner, Martin claimed to own both the land alongside and underneath New Jersey’s Raritan River, tracing his title to a grant from King Charles to the Duke of York in 1664 which purported to convey, "all the lands, islands, soils, rivers, harbors, mines, minerals, quarries, woods, marshes, waters, lakes, fishings, hawkings, and fowlings."

Martin claimed that the oystermen, Wadell, owed him for the taking of oysters. In his ruling Chief Justice Robert Taney stated, "[w]hen the people of New Jersey took possession of the reins of government, and took into their own hands the powers of sovereignty, the prerogatives and regalities which before belonged to either the crown or the parliament, became immediately and rightly vested in the state." 

Wildlife now belonged to the people but conservation was not yet part of America’s fabric. In the late 19th century on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, market killing of the buffalo, waterfowl, and other wild game species began decimating America’s wildlife to support the growing work force and urban appetites. In response, dedicated hunters and anglers from New York to Montana pushed for the nation’s first game laws, restricting the numbers and methods of take for wildlife. 

With laws established to sustain healthy wildlife populations, conservation minded leaders emerged to challenge the values by which American’s perceived wildlife.

Theodore Roosevelt

After the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, the great hunter and outdoorsman, Theodore Roosevelt, moved into to the White House and the bully pulpit. Roosevelt’s conservation ethic was formed through the eyes of the hunter during trips west to South Dakota and Montana.

In his own words: “Above all, we should realize that the effort toward this end is essentially a democratic movement. It is...in our power...to preserve large tracts of wilderness...and to preserve the game...for the benefit all lovers of nature, and to give reasonable opportunities for the exercise of the skill of the hunter, whether he is or is not a man of means.”

And later: “It is foolish to regard proper game laws as undemocratic. On the contrary, they are essentially in the interests of the people as a whole, because it is only through their enactment and enforcement that the people can preserve the game and prevent its becoming purely the property of the rich. The man of small means is dependent solely upon wise and well-executed game laws for his enjoyment of the sturdy pleasure of the chase.”

Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t all talk, however. He acted on his convictions and before he ended his term as president in 1909, he endowed the United States with 230 million acres of protected landscapes for the conservation of wildlife—approximately 84,000 acres for every day he was in office. With Americans and legislators beginning to embrace the concepts of conservation as a core, fundamental value, the first National Wildlife Refuge, National Forests, National Monuments, and Game Preserves were created.

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