75 Years of Conservation

A sampling of National Wildlife Federation’s notable moments and accomplishments during its first 75 years

  • Mark Wexler
  • Jan 19, 2011

THERE WAS REAL GENIUS behind J. N. “Ding” Darling’s idea of uniting anglers, hunters, hikers and members of garden and conservation clubs throughout the country. By doing so, he hoped to give them more clout with Congress, and history has demonstrated he was right. The following chronology highlights just a sampling of NWF’s notable moments and accomplishments during the past 75 years:

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1930s: Big Ideas but Empty Pockets

1936: General Wildlife Federation is formed to “make effective progress in restoring and conserving the vanishing wildlife resources of a continent.”
1937: New organization is instrumental in passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson), which for the first time provided funds for many wildlife programs. NWF annual meeting in St. Louis stresses the imminent need to clean up our nation’s polluted waters.
1938: Name is changed to the National Wildlife Federation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaims the first National Wildlife Restoration Week (right). “Ding” Darling paints 16 different animals for first sheet of NWF conservation stamps.
1939: David Aylward succeeds Darling as president. Noted field guide artist Roger Tory Peterson paints 16 species of birds for NWF stamp sheets, which generate contributions to help keep the young organization in business.

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1940s: Fledgling Group Expands Reach

1940: Famed wildlife explorer Osa Johnson chairs Wildlife Restoration Week. NWF produces Save America, a radio program that airs regularly on more than 350 stations in 45 states.
1941: NWF creates Conservation Information Service to keep public abreast of pending legislation in Congress. Federation publishes a series of education booklets for primary school students. For the first time, the organization finishes the year in the black financially.
1942: At NWF’s annual meeting, delegates vigorously oppose a proposed plan to extend waterfowl shooting season and use of live birds as decoys. The Federation publishes The Foundations of Conservation Education, a book outlining the challenges of teaching children about resource issues.
1943: Organization receives tax-exempt status as a not-for-profit educational institution.
1944: The phrase “environmental impact statement” is used (perhaps for first time) at NWF annual meeting in Chicago, where a resolution is passed calling for analysis of projects that will affect wildlife or environment before construction begins. South Dakota affiliate plays key role in creation of a state program earmarking nonresident hunting fees for habitat acquisition.
1945: Federation begins producing Conservation News, its first monthly publication. Initial issue focuses on need for national antipollution legislation.
1946: NWF releases report on water pollution problems created by the synthetic rubber industry, which developed during World War II. It also launches the Legislative Report Service to keep affiliates and other leaders informed on issues.
1947: Acclaimed wildlife artist Walt Weber becomes art director of the Federation’s stamp program. NWF begins selling its first nature-related merchandise.
1948: NWF’s growing educational effort leads to publication of a series of landmark books, including Botany and Our Social Economy. The Federation also begins field service training programs for its 30 state affiliates to help make the groups more effective.
1949: NWF hires its first full-time executive director, Richard Borden.

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1950s: Hitting New Ground in Education

1950: After strong push on Capitol Hill by NWF to ensure passage of the Dingell-Johnson Act, President Truman signs the measure into law, providing financial aid for restoring the nation’s fisheries.
1951: The Federation issues a report outlining the environmental concerns of the state affiliates, region by region. For the first time, National Wildlife Week highlights an endangered species, the Key deer. NWF publishes additional educational materials highlighting the wonders of wildlife.
1952: Roger Tory Peterson becomes NWF art director. The Federation sets up scholarship fund for college undergraduates pursuing wildlife degrees.
1953: NWF sponsors its first annual conservation conference, inviting other groups to participate in discussions about key legislation pending before Congress.
1954: Controls on grazing in U.S. national forests are vigorously supported by NWF delegates at annual meeting in Chicago.
1955: Ernie Swift, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Eisenhower, becomes new NWF executive director. Federation publishes the first edition of its annual Conservation Directory, the only listing available of all of the country’s groups and agencies involved in natural-resource and environmental issues.
1956: Meeting in New Orleans, NWF delegates urge Congress to protect the nation’s wildlife refuges from the threats of oil and gas development. Federation ‘s annual working budget tops $1 million for the first time.
1957: As U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forges ahead with several sweeping projects, NWF urges federal lawmakers to demand that cost-benefit studies of reservoir projects be conducted beforehand. Through the efforts of the Federation and the Boone and Crockett Club, the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge is established in Florida.
1958: Ranger Rick (right) and his friends, created by NWF official J.A. Brownridge, first appear in print in a book titled The Adventures of Rick Raccoon. NWF delegates pass resolution urging better standards to control interstate highway advertising and more research on the effects of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides on people and wildlife.
1959: NWF growth prompts groundbreaking for a new headquarters building in Washington, D.C. The Federation urges Congress to prevent federal authorities from licensing hydroelectric dams without also providing for conservation of affected fish and other wildlife. The Michigan affiliate successfully stops a potentially destructive mining project in the state’s Upper Peninsula.

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1960s: Taking Off in Size and Influence

1960: Thomas L. Kimball, former head of the state fish and wildlife departments in Arizona and Colorado, takes over as executive director of the Federation.
1961: President John F. Kennedy dedicates the new NWF headquarters building (left) in ceremony launching vigorous new growth for the organization. Wildlife Week theme: “MultipIe Use of Our Natural Resources.”
1962: NWF board of directors agrees to launch National Wildlife® magazine (below); its initial issue’s circulation exceeds 65,000. Pennsylvania affiliate helps push through nation’s first surface-mining act, requiring return of mining lands in the state to their original contours.
1963: Congress passes first Clean Air Act, which was a high priority for NWF staff.
1964: U.S. Wilderness Act, supported strongly by NWF and the Wilderness Society, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. NWF establishes national Conservation Hall of Fame®. First inductee: President Theodore Roosevelt.

1965: Nation’s first awards for outstanding achievement in the field of conservation are sponsored by NWF. Initial recipients: Lady Bird Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller.
1966: NWF produces its first film, At War With Waste. Nation’s first Endangered Species Preservation Act, pushed by NWF, is signed into law.
1967: Ranger Rick® magazine is launched. NWF publishes the best-selling book A Conservation Saga by Ernest Swift.
1968: First overseas travel safari sponsored by the Federation. National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, supported by NWF, becomes law. Wildlife Week theme: “Learn to Live With Nature.”
1969: In National Wildlife, NWF publishes its initial “Environmental Quality Index,” the country’s first annual report card on status of our environment and natural resources. Joining forces with its Idaho affiliate, the Federation stops a mining operation that threatened a scenic recreation area. 

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1970s: Tackling Environmental Threats

1970: To help mark first Earth Day and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NWF hires its first full-time attorney to advocate for compliance and enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws. To provide quality outdoor experiences for families, the Federation launches its annual Conservation Summit. Virginia affiliate helps secure passage of a state law to ensure minimal environmental damage from development projects.
1971: NWF initiates campaigns to ban the pesticide DDT and to force interstate highway construction to comply with EPA regulations. It also begins legal efforts to protect vital habitat in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. Wildlife Week theme: “Wildlife: Who Needs It?”
1972: NWF distributes more than 40,000 Wildlife Week education kits free to schools around the country. It also publishes a series of booklets about the environment for children. The federal Clean Water Act is passed with NWF support. Michigan affiliate helps pass legislation to set up a trust to use oil and gas royalties from development on public lands to buy more lands.
1973: First Lady Patricia Nixon dedicates NWF’s Laurel Ridge Conservation Education Center in Virginia. North Carolina affiliate goes to court to force guidelines for future stream channelization in the state. NWF engages in its first legal battle over ocean dumping of sewage, and its sides with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in favoring nontoxic steel shot over lead for hunting waterfowl. Screen star Shirley Temple Black chairs Wildlife Week. The theme: “Discover Wildlife: It’s Too Good to Miss.” NWF launches a program to officially certify backyard wildlife habitats(below).

1974: Federation donates 1,100 acres of bald eagle habitat in South Dakota to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
1975: NWF initiates campaign with Natural Resources Defense Council to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enforce laws on dredge-and-fill disposal projects in the nation’s wetlands. Wildlife Week theme: “We Care About Wildlife Habitat.”
1976: NWF establishes the Raptor Information Center to disseminate data about the status of the country’s birds of prey. It also creates a new Resources Defense Division, made up of a team of attorneys working with staff scientists, lobbyists and other resource experts on a wide range of environmental and conservation issues. Wildlife Week theme: “Save Our Wetlands.”
1977: NWF negotiates a first-of-its-kind legal settlement of action against a company’s environmental destruction in Nebraska: the Grayrocks case, which establishes a $7.5-million trust fund to protect the hydrological and biological integrity of habitat for sandhill and whooping cranes on the Platte and Laramie Rivers. Oregon state affiliate helps push through the nation’s first bottle bill to encourage recycling of beverage containers.
1978: NWF establishes regional legal clinics in four areas of the country, staffed by NWF attorneys to work at the grassroots level with affiliates and other local organizations on conservation problems.
1979: The Federation develops its CLASS Project, an environmental education effort funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. It also creates a full-time Affiliate Services Department to assist its state partners. 

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1980s: Stepping Up on Several Fronts

1980: NWF’s strength at organizing grassroots support is a strong factor in two major conservation victories: passage of Alaska Lands Act, which protects millions of acres of wilderness for future generations, and the Superfund Act, which provides the means for cleaning up toxic dump sites. Western state affiliates join forces to help develop a groundswell of public opinion against Reagan administration policies on public lands. Federation distributes more than 100 different educational booklets to schools nationwide, and publishes the first preschool wildlife publication, Your Big Backyard®.
1981: Wildlife scientist Jay D. Hair succeeds Thomas Kimball as executive vice president of the Federation, which by then is the nation’s largest citizen’s conservation group. NWF steps up its efforts to fight pollution problems not only in the United States but on a global level. It also initiates a campaign to stop acid rain contamination.
1982: NWF forms Corporate Conservation Council to encourage private enterprise to cooperate with conservation groups on a range of issues. NWF successfully convinces Congress to better protect barrier islands and beaches along Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

1983: Muppets star Kermit the Frog (left) chairs Wildlife Week, which kicks off a major NWF campaign promoting cleaning up the nation’s water resources. NWF attorneys win some three dozen court cases involving environmental abuse.
1984: NWF is rated by independent sources as one of top two lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C. Federation representatives testify at 34 congressional hearings on such issues as Superfund, acid rain, and enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Arizona affiliate stops uranium mining on wildlife preserve near the Grand Canyon. Hawaii affiliate helps bring successful settlement over heptachlor contaminant in milk. Representatives from 18 other NWF affiliates lobby federal lawmakers for reforms on grazing on public lands.
1985: NWF launches Nature NewsBreak on the Mutual Radio Network, a series of topical wildlife news shows narrated by television host Marlin Perkins. Working together, Michigan and Indiana affiliates force a major industrial polluter to accept new federal water-quality guidelines protecting fisheries. NWF joins with other conservation groups and industry to found Clean Sites, a joint effort to speed toxic-waste cleanup.

1986: To commemorate its 50th anniversary, the Federation establishes the J.N. “Ding” Darling Medal (right)—an award presented annually to outstanding conservationists for their ongoing efforts to protect America’s natural resources. More than 500,000 free Wildlife Week education kits are distributed nationally.
1987: NWF launches campaign to reestablish populations of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and other areas of the Northern Rockies. Federation attorneys file lawsuit to block U.S. government from setting weak precedent for settlement of damages caused by toxic wastes under federal Superfund law.
1988: NWF initiates major effort to educate the public about value of wetlands and the Swampbuster provisions of federal law, which deny benefits to farmers who drain such areas. Federation issues report detailing violations of state and federal laws by oil and gas developers on Alaska’s North Slope.
1989: NWF grassroots campaign helps persuade Interior Department to drop plan to permit strip mining on millions of acres of national parks and other protected lands. Federation study details threats to human health caused by eating contaminated Great Lakes fish. NWF and partners file lawsuit requiring Exxon to repair damages caused by Exxon Valdez spill. 

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1990s: Going to Court to Protect wildlife

1990: NWF files nation’s first lawsuit challenging U.S. government’s lack of enforcement of Swampbuster law protecting wetlands. Federation launches “Cool It” project on college campuses across the country, urging students and administrators to take action to combat global warming.
1991: After years of legal battles, NWF and its Wyoming affiliate succeed in permanently removing controversial fence that blocked pronghorn movements. Federation releases major report outlining steps needed to protect Lake Superior from further degradation. Wildlife Week theme focuses on global warming threats to the planet’s polar regions.
1992: NWF and its Nebraska affiliate reach landmark agreement with the state’s largest irrigation district on a plan to protect the Platte River. Federation publishes report showing that 43 percent of all U.S. endangered and threatened species rely on wetlands for survival.
1993: NWF-funded study identifies strategies to make the White House a model of energy conservation and waste reduction. Federation lawsuit convinces U.S. authorities to suspend permit for oil and gas development in area adjacent to Montana’s Glacier National Park.
1994: Federation initiates Earth Tomorrow®, an environmental education program aimed at urban teenagers. NWF issues report showing the negative effects of livestock grazing on 45 million acres of endangered species habitat. Two decades of NWF efforts to educate the public about protecting bald eagle habitat pay off when the bird is reclassified from endangered to threatened status in the Lower 48.
1995: NWF and its Michigan affiliate play key role in the second largest environmental damage settlement in U.S. history, providing funds for Lake Michigan fisheries projects. EPA study confirms NWF’s findings about health risks posed by dioxin. Federation secures funding to send low-income children to summer wildlife camps. Wildlife Week theme: “Home Is Where the Habitat Is.” NWF launches its first website.
1996: NWF lawsuits persuade Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw an illegal scheme threatening Alaska wetlands and defeat an effort by the livestock industry to prevent reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho. Federation broadcasts live satellite TV show about the importance of wetlands to thousands of classrooms nationwide.
1997: Federation launches landmark program with 40 Native American tribes to restore wild bison (left) to tribal and public lands in the West. NWF plays key role in program to move 10,000 buildings out of flood plains in Midwestern states. It also releases a report demonstrating how clean water and healthy stream flows contribute significantly to New England’s economy.
1998: Federation certifies nation’s first Community Wildlife Habitat: Alpine, California. NWF produces innovative guide to help other organizations and individuals make sure their states are adequately protecting watersheds, and it issues a landmark report showing problems with national flood insurance program. Federation’s educational giant-screen film Whales becomes one of the 25 largest-grossing movies ever.
1999: NWF initiates national campaign to ensure that grasslands on public lands are managed primarily for wildlife rather than livestock grazing and wins lawsuit to protect salmon streams in Oregon from mining pollution. Federation attorney successfully argues case before U.S. Supreme Court to safeguard endangered sea turtles in Florida. 

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2000s: Confronting Global Warming

2000: NWF issues report showing dangerously high levels of mercury in rain falling on Upper Midwest cities. It also establishes a fund to support innovative projects that benefit endangered species. Smart Money magazine names NWF as nation’s best environmental group for responsibly spending its members’ donations.
2001: NWF successfully argues in federal court that Army Corps of Engineers is violating U.S. Clean Water Act in operating Snake River dams, damaging salmon habitat. It also opens its new, environmentally friendly headquarters building in Virginia and launches the Texas Living Waters initiative to ensure that wildlife needs are included in the state’s water resources plans.
2002: Federation sets up partnerships with organizations in Mexico to educate citizens in that country about conservation. It releases The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Global Warming (right) detailing how climate change is affecting songbirds. NWF honors first school district in the nation—Orinda, California—for having certified wildlife habitats at every facility.
2003: Federation issues reports outlining threats to Alaska’s Prince William Sound and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s importance to wildlife. It also brokers an innovative agreement to remove livestock grazing from public lands near Yellowstone National Park.
2004: Federation reports detail how the Bush administration is using flawed economic data to weaken endangered species protections and failing to create plans that balance wetlands losses with gains. Federation and its Florida affiliate win major legal case protecting endangered Florida panther habitat.
2005: NWF issues report providing data on the impact of invasive species on the Great Lakes and helps form new coalition to restore the lakes. It also helps produce nation’s first comprehensive study on global warming’s impact on wildlife.
2006: NWF Campus Ecology® program initiates campaign to show colleges how to reduce their global warming pollution. Federation and its Arkansas affiliate win legal case stopping Army Corps’ plans to divert water from endangered species habitat.
2007: Federation convenes a conference of 55 Native American tribes to discuss effects of climate change on tribal lands. It also initiates a sustainable tourism project in Alaska, and it releases the Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming, a study providing solutions to millions of American property owners.
2008: NWF’s longest-running education program, National Wildlife Week, celebrates 70th year by focusing on getting people outdoors. Campus Ecology program issues report showing how universities can step up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—one of several NWF studies released during the year that detail effects of climate change on people and wildlife.
2009: Federation initiates Be Out There™ campaign to encourage parents and youngsters to get outdoors. NWF is honored by nonprofit Alliance for Workplace Excellence as a “visionary employer that is paving the way for environmentally sustainable workplaces.” 


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