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How Conservation Grew from a Whisper to a Roar

A special report highlighting the century's milestones and achievements

  • Doug Stewart et al.
  • Dec 01, 1999
At the end of the last century, the notion of conservation was a mere whisper in the popular consciousness. Although it was generally known that a few prominent naturalists condemned what Henry David Thoreau had once called the "war with wilderness," their voices had little effect. Speculators eyeing the views of the Grand Canyon were plotting to develop land at the famous rims. Wading bird populations were being wiped out so their plumage could adorn women´s hats in chic millinery shops in New York City and elsewhere. In parts of the Midwest, white-tailed deer were being hunted to near-extinction.

The year 1900 marked the beginning of a new ethic, starting with an act of Congress to save the birds that were decorating women´s hats. And over the next 10 tumultuous decades, the idea of conservation grew from a whisper to a roar. This century has brought momentous change in our young nation´s attitudes, environmental laws and understanding of the natural world. "The history of America," wrote President John F. Kennedy in 1963, "has been the story of Americans seizing, using, squandering and belatedly protecting their natural heritage."

Today, on the eve of another century, many of the nation´s less complex natural-resource problems have been addressed, while those that remain will be a major challenge to bring under control. Among them are toxic waste, climate change, ongoing habitat loss and runoff pollution. As different as those dilemmas may be from those of halting the killing of birds to garnish hats or the setting aside of key places like the Grand Canyon, the nation´s conservation mechanisms are now largely in place after this century of action. And only by understanding the milestones of the last 100 years, many of which are highlighted on the following pages, can Americans start to cope with the conservation and environmental issues of the twenty-first century.

1900-1909: The Nation Wakes Up to Conservation

A little more than a century ago, breeding season for egrets, spoonbills, ibis, herons and other showy birds along the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States meant carnage. That´s when commercial plume hunters slaughtered vast numbers of adult birds, wiping out whole rookeries and leaving nestlings to starve or become easy prey for predators. The birds´ feathers, and sometimes even their stuffed bodies, had adorned ladies´ hats since the practice became a fashion rage in the 1880s. But in March of 1900, President William McKinley signed into law the Lacey Act, which prohibited the shipment from one state to another of birds and other animals killed in violation of state laws.
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The landmark legislation was a sign of a new era of progressivism and reform in a decade soon dominated by bully conservation champion Theodore Roosevelt, who occupied the White House from 1901 to 1909. The Lacey Act, however, accomplished little at first. The federal government initially employed fewer than half a dozen game wardens, and the observance of state game laws was spotty at best, but the new president quickly pushed for tighter enforcement.

In 1903, inspired by a camping trip in Yosemite with naturalist John Muir, Roosevelt began an expansion of the national forests, which more than quadrupled to 172 million acres by 1909. To sidestep a balky Congress, the President resorted to executive decrees. In 1903, he established the first federal wildlife refuge, Florida´s Pelican Island bird preserve. By the end of the following year, he named 53 more. In 1906, Roosevelt used the newly passed Antiquities Act to declare the Grand Canyon a national monument, reportedly only hours after learning of a likely land grab along the canyon´s rims.

The same year, Roosevelt summoned Congress, the Supreme Court and the nation´s governors to a conservation conference. "The natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue," he scolded his captive audience. Roosevelt´s powerful forestry chief, Gifford Pinchot, defined the word "conservation" as meaning the careful husbanding of resources for "wise use" by humans. "Conservation," Pinchot wrote, "means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time."

1910-1919: Reforms Advance Amid Disputes and Setbacks

A ripple effect from public outrage over the 1905 murder of Guy Bradley, an Audubon warden, as he worked to protect Florida birds from plume seekers, helped lead to the 1913 passage of the Migratory Bird Act. The legislation set uniform limits on hunting. Also, by declaring that birds flying over state lines were a form of interstate commerce, the act overruled conflicting or lax state laws. Spring hunting and night shooting were banned, though defiance was widespread, reflecting the nation´s deep divisions over conservation.
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After the 1918 arrest of Missouri´s gun-toting attorney general worked its way through the courts, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the law as well as a new companion treaty with Canada: "But for the treaty and the statute, there might soon be no birds for any powers to deal with."

In 1913, William T. Hornaday published Our Vanishing Wildlife. The taxidermist-turned-conservationist played a large role in promoting much of the conservation action of the time--including the saving of American bison from extinction and the 1911 fur seal treaty--and his impassioned tract blamed indiscriminate shooting for the plummeting numbers of game birds and other wildlife. In 1914, a passenger pigeon named Martha, the last of what was once perhaps the most plentiful bird species on Earth, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

The fledgling field of ecology got a boost from the Migratory Bird Act--with its consequent bird counts and studies of breeding grounds and flyways. In 1916, the National Park Service was created, thanks in part to energetic, self-financed lobbying by Chicago businessman Stephen Mather, who was appointed its first director. The following year, Alaska´s Mount McKinley became a national park.

In other areas, conservation lost out. San Francisco´s demand for water led to the 1912 damming of Yosemite´s spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley. John Muir lashed out, "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have perfect contempt for nature." In 1915, the Bureau of Biological Survey began an extermination campaign against wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears and other predators. Meanwhile, Americans who survived exposure to poisonous gases in World War I got an early education in the century´s recurring lesson that toxic substances can cause lifelong health problems.

1920-1929: Game Managers Learn Hard Lessons

On the Kaibab Plateau along the Grand Canyon´s North Rim in the early 1920s, a game-management failure taught a gruesome lesson: With mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes eradicated from the mesa by a predator-control program, the number of native mule deer soared to at least 30,000 (some say 100,000). To ecologist Aldo Leopold, the deer-ravaged vegetation looked "as if someone had given God a new pruning shears and forbidden Him all other exercise." During several hard winters, many thousands of emaciated deer died at Kaibab. The conventional view of game management--that setting aside reserves and removing predators would create Gardens of Eden for wildlife--was not working.

Other game-management failures also made news: Following the widespread extermination of owls, hawks and coyotes in Kern County, California, in 1927, mice overran homes, and road-killed rodents made driving slippery. Through the late 1920s, numbers of migrating waterfowl fell steadily--despite limits imposed by hunting licenses that became routine during the decade; the establishment of federal waterfowl refuges, starting with the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924; and the release of pen-bred game birds. A chief culprit in the declines proved to be habitat destruction as wetlands were drained for farming. Meanwhile, for the first time more Americans now lived in urban areas than the countryside.

Halfway through the decade, Leopold advanced a new, scientifically grounded approach to wildlife management with the publication of his landmark theory of game management. He urged attention to animals´ habitat, behavior, breeding habits, food supply and competition for resources. Leopold favored controlled hunts on federal lands such as Kaibab, for which the Supreme Court opened the door in 1928 by overruling state objections.

Yet most wildlife managers still talked of "innocent" wildlife and "cruel" predators. Federal biologist E.A. Goldman announced in 1924: "Large predatory mammals, destructive to livestock and game, no longer have a place in our advancing civilization." Even conservationist gadfly William Hornaday urged that peregrine falcons be shot on sight. Due to federally sponsored predator-eradication programs, wolves virtually disappeared from the West during the 1920s. Prairie dogs and ground squirrels were poisoned with abandon.

1930-1939: Public Interest in Wildlife Takes Off

When Roger Tory Peterson´s first Field Guide to the Birds appeared in 1934, the nation was deeply mired in the Great Depression. Despite the weightier concerns of the day--or perhaps because of them--the book encouraged many Americans to watch and value wild birds. Across the country, a new public interest in wildlife developed. The virtual disappearances of such creatures as whooping cranes and trumpeter swans became matters of wide public concern.
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Konrad Lorenz, the founder of ethology (the study of animal behavior in the wild), popularized the study of biology in the field in addition to the lab and the pen. At the same time, from 1933 to 1942 the Civilian Conservation Corps gave conservation a nonpartisan, even patriotic, cast by putting two million people to work planting trees and restoring rangeland and wildlife refuges.

State and federal wildlife managers, mostly self-trained amateurs, sought more education. To aid in their training, cooperative wildlife research units were set up in 1935 at land-grant colleges, the brainchild of J.N. "Ding" Darling. A political cartoonist who often lampooned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Darling nonetheless served as FDR´s federal wildlife chief for a year before leaving in 1936 to found a society of state wildlife clubs, which became the National Wildlife Federation.

Federal money for wildlife management increased dramatically, thanks to duck stamps sold to waterfowl hunters at post-office windows starting in 1934 and a 1937 excise tax on guns and ammunition. In a foreshadowing of today´s laws, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1934 required those proposing projects on federal lands to "consult" wildlife officials.

Still, the conservation picture was far from rosy: Across America, poor land management, habitat destruction and drought drove the wild duck population to what Darling called "an all-time low." Bounty hunting and habitat destruction had wiped out big mammals such as mountain lions, wolves and deer in vast sections of the nation. In the Midwest, drought triggered the Dust Bowl, and black clouds of soil darkened the skies in cities as far away as Boston and Washington. A note of hope came with the 1935 establishment of the Soil Conservation Service and the understanding that soil erosion could be controlled with sound farming practices.

1940-1949: Wartime Advances Bring Complex Problems

When the Disney blockbuster Bambi came out in 1941, the same year Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the movie touched a national nerve. Bambi was an innocent menaced by such "evils" as fire and predators--a potent tale during a war rife with models of good and evil. The impact of such symbolism on conservation was mixed. Americans patriotically applauded federal protection for the bald eagle, once shot on sight as a carrion-eater and fish thief. (Alaska, however, paid a bounty on bald eagles until statehood in 1959.) Another cartoon animal, Smokey Bear, created in 1945, wrongly taught generations that all forest fires (now appreciated as playing a critical role in ecosystems) were a threat.
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Farming and ranching interests considered vital to the war effort took priority over conservation. Long-lived insecticides developed during the war years--including DDT and organophosphates related to nerve gas--entered the environment for the first time and then haunted it for the rest of the century. Weapons in the ongoing battle against predators also grew more sophisticated. A chemical called Compound 1080 poisoned rodents, wolves and coyotes and later proved, like the new insecticides, to persist from animal to animal through the food chain. When sulfur gases from petroleum refineries, auto exhaust and sunlight interacted in the atmosphere, the phenomenon of smog appeared in some areas. In the steel town of Donora, Pennsylvania, at least 20 people died in 1948 after a misty blanket of blast-furnace fumes and zinc-smelter emissions settled over the town for five days.

Not all the conservation news was bleak: In 1940, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was formed, with its own wildlife-enforcement role. Concern over whales led to the 1946 formation of an International Whaling Commission. States began rescuing and relocating large mammals that were declining in some areas: pronghorn, elk, white-tailed deer, mountain goats and beavers. The decade´s influential books included Rachel Carson´s Under the Sea Wind and Marjory Stoneman Douglas´ The Everglades: River of Grass. Both took a scientifically based, web-of-life approach to nature. Ecologist Aldo Leopold´s masterpiece A Sand County Almanac appeared in 1949. Every living creature, he wrote, belongs to "one humming community of cooperations and competitions."

1950-1959: Development Boom Accompanies Baby Boom

One November day in 1954, a necktie worn by a University of Southern California student changed colors before his classmates´ eyes. Scientists later concluded that substances in air pollution had reacted with dyes in the material. In one day that same month, reduced visibility in Los Angeles due to smog was blamed for 2,000 auto accidents.
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That toll was just one example of Americans´ growing realization that humans are a vulnerable part of the environment. In other cases, homemakers in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, protested that air pollution dirtied clean laundry as it hung drying. And downstream from Omaha, Nebraska, the Missouri River held so much slaughterhouse waste that crows took to riding on floating chunks of solid grease--in the same water used by people.

The postwar Baby Boom was underway, and housing construction, road building and traffic were booming along with it. Vacationers drove in record numbers to the national parks, which they often regarded more as unfenced zoos than remnants of wilderness. Federal agencies engaged in massive reshaping of the landscape--dam building, swamp draining, river channelizing--with the underlying goal of safeguarding a fast-growing nation´s food supply.

Skeptics made their voices heard. "Let´s settle once and for all time whether we may have wilderness areas in these United States," testified conservationist William Vogt at Department of Interior hearings in 1950. Five years later, outraged citizens doomed plans for a dam that would have flooded part of Utah´s Dinosaur National Monument. The same year, protests blocked the U.S. Air Force from extending a bombing range that abutted the country´s only wintering ground for whooping cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas. And Los Angeles citizens crowded public meetings wearing gas masks to protest high levels of smog, only to learn belatedly that their own tailpipes were a chief cause of the problem.

An excise tax on fishing gear was approved by Congress in 1950 to help pay for fisheries management. The measure eventually provided millions of dollars for programs to protect aquatic habitats and other related efforts. A first step toward federal action to safeguard water supplies was taken with the passage of the 1956 Water Pollution Control Act.

1960-1969: Environmental Calamities Kindle New Concerns

At the start of the 1960s, birds occasionally dropped dead out of the sky, and no one knew why. Then biologist Rachel Carson published her 1962 bombshell Silent Spring, which attacked America´s reliance on "elixirs of death," and explained how pesticides and other toxic chemicals can move through the food chain. Carson wrote, "For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals." Ironically, at the same time, Americans in Vietnam started testing a new war tactic of defoliation, a strategy that eventually exposed troops to potent herbicides. In the wild, scientists soon linked the pesticide DDT to the thinning of eggshells in ospreys, bald eagles and pelicans. Suddenly it seemed that what we were doing to wildlife we were doing to ourselves.
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The modern era of environmental awareness was launched--and the decade became a mixture of tragic consequences, increased understanding and political wrangling. Wildlife entered the living room in the form of Marlin Perkins´ television show Wild Kingdom, which debuted in the early 1960s. The first piece of what became known as the Clean Air Act passed in 1963; stricter amendments followed later. With the population still growing fast, and roadless wilds vanishing, in 1964 a National Wilderness Preservation System set aside millions of acres where "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled" and where road construction was illegal. The first legislative attempt to prevent extinctions, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, was passed in 1966, though it was virtually toothless at the time.

In 1969, one of the century´s most important pieces of environmental legislation was passed, the National Environmental Protection Act (often called NEPA). The law set up a comprehensive national policy for environmental protection, and for the first time, it required federal agencies planning major projects to file environmental impact statements.

A tragic reminder of the need for such efforts came in the form of a catastrophic offshore oil spill in 1969, when two blowouts at a Santa Barbara oil platform coated beaches in a blanket of crude. Countless grebes, cormorants and other birds died. A few months later, the oily, garbage-choked Cuyahoga River became an instant environmental symbol when it burst into flames. A burning slick of kerosene and oil floated downstream through the city of Cleveland.

1970-1979: Grass-Roots Activists Get Results

On April 22, 1970, Earth Day festivals drew crowds nationwide. In July, responding in part to public pressure, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate and strengthen federal environment programs. Congress continued to pass new clean-water and clean-air legislation, providing more money and broader mandates than earlier laws. In 1972, DDT was finally banned (though with a few loopholes) in the United States. Lawmakers eventually passed almost two dozen major environmental bills in this decade.
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One milestone was passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which gave enforcement muscle to two earlier versions. In a controversial early use of the law, construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority´s Tellico Dam was held up because of likely disruption to the habitat of a small freshwater fish, the snail darter. Another major environmental bill was the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, motivated in part by public outrage over porpoises drowned in huge tuna nets. That same year, a United Nations conference agreed to regulate commercial whaling, and in 1973 a boycott of Japanese imports protested the country´s whaling practices.

Arab embargoes caused oil prices to soar, supplies to dwindle and lines to form at gas pumps in the early 1970s. Declaring energy conservation "the moral equivalent of war," President Jimmy Carter turned down the White House thermostat in 1977. Broad-based opposition to a new 800-mile oil pipeline across Alaska, though unsuccessful, revealed that many people now regarded tundra, like swamp and desert, as habitat worth protecting.

For every conservation or environmental solution, a new problem seemed to surface. In 1974, scientists discovered that lighter-than-air chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from spray cans and refrigerators can destroy the upper atmosphere´s ozone, which protects the Earth from the sun´s rays. In 1978, the United States banned the use of CFCs in aerosol cans. After salamanders in New York State were found to be sterile in 1976, the culprit was found to be another newly discovered phenomenon, acid rain created by emissions from far-away industries. In 1978, leaking drums of toxic chemicals led to a government buyout of blighted homes near upstate New York´s Love Canal. Public outrage over the lack of regulations on toxic dumping led to passage of the "Superfund" Act two years later.

1980-1989: Conservation Takes a Backseat in the Me Decade

Early in the 1980s, outspoken Interior Secretary James G. Watt helped set the tone for a new federal attitude when he called environmentalists "a left-wing cult." Though he resigned under pressure in 1983, a war by the Reagan administration on what it saw as excessive regulation endured. EPA enforcement actions, for example, quickly dropped by 70 percent.

Though many of the conservation initiatives of the 1970s were toned down, if not gutted, there were notable victories: During the waning days of the Carter administration in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act set aside more than 150 million acres of federal land as parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness and national forests. Wildlife habitat on farmland got a big boost in 1985 with new provisions in the Farm Bill. In 1987, Congress reauthorized the Clean Water Act (over Reagan´s veto), and a new federal rule required shrimpers to install devices that release endangered sea turtles from nets.

Also in 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the nine remaining wild California condors as part of an untried captive-breeding program. Another such program attempted to bring the black-footed ferret back from the verge of extinction, using 18 animals discovered in a midwestern prairie in 1985. Both programs succeeded in captive breeding, though wild releases were to prove more difficult.

Alarming news punctuated the decade. A 1984 congressional study found that 3,000 lakes and 23,000 miles of streams in the Northeast had been seriously affected by acid rain. The first tentative evidence of human-caused global warming was published in mid-decade. In 1985, British researchers reported a hole in the stratospheric ozone layer high above Antarctica. The press ridiculed Energy Secretary Donald Hodel for advocating life-style changes (such as darker sunglasses and stronger sunscreen) instead of a total ban on CFC production. In 1987 the Reagan administration agreed with 23 other countries to a phaseout of the chemicals.

In 1989, the National Wildlife Federation released its "Toxic 500" study, a list of dangerous airborne chemicals released by 500 U.S. companies. That same year, the Exxon Valdez tanker galvanized public opinion by running aground and spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska´s wildlife-rich Prince William Sound and beyond.

1990-1999: Old Problems Sound New Wake-Up Calls

In 1993, flooding caused billions of dollars of damage to midwestern farms and towns. Ecologists, aware of such consequences of development on wetlands and floodplains, were not surprised. Nor were waste managers when the EPA concluded early in the decade that the nation was producing a ton of toxic waste annually for every citizen. Global warming, too, had been predicted, and many scientists agreed it was the probable cause of record-high temperatures in 1998. Yet Americans still settled on riverbanks, generated toxic waste and burned fossil fuels with abandon--even buying up gasoline-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. It seemed that one of the nation´s biggest conservation challenges would be to make the best use of the understanding afforded by science.

Offshore, the total catch of commercial fisheries, beset by overfishing and pollution, spiraled downward through most of the decade. In the Gulf of Mexico, a seasonal "dead zone" caused by nutrient runoff from the Mississippi River grew in size, and along the East Coast the toxic organism Pfisteria caused massive fish kills and sickened people.

Still, conservationists found hope in the laws and conservation ethic the nation had developed over the decades. Milestones in the 1990s included a nationwide ban on the use of toxic lead shot for waterfowl hunting and an all-time high of curbside recycling in mid-decade as nearly 7,000 U.S. communities participated.

The case of the northern spotted owl in the early 1990s highlighted how far wildlife conservation had come since birds were slaughtered for their plumes a century earlier. Not only was the owl federally listed as threatened, there was no question that saving the bird meant saving its ecosystem: old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest. The release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 also reflected an appreciation for ecosystem health, as did the aftermath of the 1999 listing of salmon and trout species in the Pacific Northwest as endangered or threatened. The latter likely would mean sacrifices for the region´s human inhabitants, yet there was little outcry. At the start of the new millennium, the dominant view seems to be that what´s good for salmon is good for Americans.

This article was reported and written by Massachusetts journalist Doug Stewart, Senior Editor Lisa Drew and Editor Mark Wexler.

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