NWF: 70 Years on the Front Lines of Conservation

NWF has been a leader in U.S. conservation efforts for seven decades; here are seven examples of the wildlife that has benefited from the organization's work

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Feb 01, 2006

SOMETIME BACK IN 1935, 58-year-old Jay N. "Ding" Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Des Moines Register and the son of a Midwestern minister, had an idea that he hoped would revolutionize how politics and conservation mixed in America. He was himself steeped in both fields of endeavor. He had served on the Iowa state game commission and worked as the head of the U.S. Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). He also had led the effort to create the federal duck stamp, still the main source of funds for waterfowl management, and had drawn the artwork for the first stamp. Against this background, he concluded that achieving conservation goals in the United States ran afoul of two simple political facts: Wildlife doesn't vote, and neither, he said in the 1930s, do conservationists.

He wanted to change that equation and engender a potent political force by creating state conservation groups that would unite into a larger federation to influence wildlife management at all levels of government. He got his chance when he persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to call a special meeting in Washington for the discussion of conservation issues--the North American Wildlife Conference, which turned into a series of annual meetings that continues today.

At that first meeting in February 1936, attended by some 2,000 conservationists including farmers, hunters, anglers and representatives of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs and garden clubs, Darling rose on the dais to say, "Our scattered and desultory organizations--36,000 of them--have never, to my certain knowledge, influenced so much as the election of a dog catcher. . . . [With] all this potential voting strength, the wildlife conservationists together exert less influence on our governments, both state and national, than the Barrel-Rollers' Union in Pumpkin Center. . . ." The solution, he said, was to unite their votes into a block that could influence elected officials. From that meeting came a new organization to do just that--the National Wildlife Federation.

In the years since, NWF and its state affiliates have been leaders in wildlife conservation at county, state and national levels. In doing its work, NWF has focused on protecting a wide range of species, some of which have woven as threads through the fabric of NWF history. On the following pages, we look at some of these animals and at issues related to them as NWF celebrates its 70th anniversary.

Waterfowl: Protecting Habitat Across America 
Waterfowl protection has stood at the forefront of NWF work ever since the organization was founded in 1936 with a focus on saving ducks and geese during the Dust Bowl era. NWF over the years has fought off attempts by elected officials and by federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to redefine wetlands so fewer of them would be protected. The Federation has used legal tactics to force the Corps to protect wetlands that the agency chose to ignore in Texas and other states.

Old battles continue: NWF recently reached an out-of-court settlement in which the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed to cancel its plan to redefine wetlands in South Dakota's prairie pothole region in such a way that thousands of waterfowl breeding ponds could have been drained. NWF's ongoing Greening the Corps campaign has stopped projects that would have damaged wetlands in North Carolina and Arkansas and along the Mississippi River and has initiated changes in the funding and mandates of the Corps to make its work friendlier to waterfowl and other wildlife. In addition, NWF has addressed the new challenges imperiling waterfowl today, releasing a report last June on global warming's effects on ducks and geese and warning that the birds face serious declines in the decades ahead.

Fisheries: Preserving Waters in Jeopardy 
In the mid-1940s, NWF and its affiliates worked to protect the Rhode Island clam industry and to stem water pollution in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The group played a lead role in getting the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Recreation Act, also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act, signed into law in 1950, setting the stage for current state fisheries funding and management.

NWF has played a key role in protecting one of the world's largest freshwater systems, the Great Lakes. When power plant turbines in the 1980s were killing millions of fish yearly on Lake Michigan, NWF sued on behalf of sport anglers and in 1994 won a $172-million settlement for fish protection--one of the largest environmental-damage settlements in U.S. history. Since the 1980s, NWF's science staff has issued periodic fish-consumption warnings for the Great Lakes and other waters and has developed a uniform approach to evaluating these risks.

More recently, particularly during the past two years, NWF has fought legal battles to protect the salmon of the Pacific Northwest from threats posed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to dredge Washington state's lower Snake River; from a Bush administration plan to slash protections for thousands of miles of streams, from southern California to the Canadian border, that may provide habitat for federally protected salmon and steelhead; and from an administration proposal to include hatchery-reared salmon in population counts for endangered Pacific salmon species, eroding federal protection of these vanishing fish.

NWF in 2004 released a major report on U.S. mercury pollution and fought administration plans to reduce mercury clean up from polluting industries. Forty-five U.S. states and territories have issued fish consumption advisories because of mercury contamination, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that nearly one in six U.S. women of childbearing age has mercury blood levels above the safety point for an unborn child.

Whooping Cranes: Safeguarding Homes for Rare Species 
NWF generated political support for enactment of the Endangered Species Act and has supported it on Capitol Hill since the law's first incarnation in 1966. The Federation continues to work for stronger protection of vanishing species. One of these creatures is the world's most imperiled crane, the whooping crane. NWF began fighting for the crane in 1970, when the species numbered fewer than 50 birds, all in one population that migrated between Texas and remote Canadian wetlands. NWF supported FWS in a then-controversial plan to take eggs from the wild and establish a captive breeding population, a project that helped to establish today's nonmigratory flock in Florida as well as a flock that migrates between Florida and Wisconsin.

In 1977, NWF filed a lawsuit against a Wyoming water-diversion project, Grayrocks Dam, that threatened key crane habitat along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Other dams along the Platte and its tributaries already had reduced water flows into the area used by the birds during migration. The reduced flow allowed the growth of woody vegetation that made the cranes vulnerable to predators and also reduced the size of wet meadows essential to crane survival. NWF reached an out-of-court settlement on Grayrocks a year later, establishing the Platte River Trust to monitor and restore crane habitat. The settlement also provided $7.5 million for the trust and set flow rates for the river.

Today, whooping cranes number 453 captive and wild birds. Of these, 215 belong to the last naturally surviving population, which still migrates through Nebraska. Dozens of citizen-scientists now volunteer as part of Whooper Watch, a program started in 2001 by NWF and its Nebraska affiliate to monitor the central Platte River and provide data for habitat management there. Through its Texas Living Waters Initiative, NWF also is working to protect the Texas estuaries where whoopers find their primary winter food, blue crabs.

Grizzlies: Bringing a Species to Recovery 
The grizzly bear is one of the most controversial species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, but it is also an example of how vanishing species can recover under the law when strongly supported by groups like NWF, its affiliates and its members.

Human encroachment reduced the grizzly in the Lower 48 from an estimated 50,000 animals early in the 1800s to about 1,200 today. The primary cause of adult grizzly bear deaths is conflict with people. To reduce these conflicts, NWF has been working for about 15 years now in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to buy federal grazing allotments on which bears have clashed with livestock interests. Under this program, between 2002 and 2005 nearly 225,000 acres of grazing allotments were closed to grazing and returned to habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife.

In 1994, NWF began promoting grizzly reintroduction in central Idaho and western Montana, developing a plan with other conservationists and with various local interests, including the timber industry, to create within 50 years a reintroduced population of more than 200 grizzlies in 3.7 million acres of designated wilderness in the Bitterroot ecosystem, where the bears were wiped out half a century ago. The reintroduced animals would be designated an experimental population, allowing the removal of individuals that pose problems to people. However, this plan, created with local participation and approved by the FWS, has been placed on hold by the Department of the Interior for political reasons.

NWF currently is supporting an FWS proposal to remove the Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bear population from the federal endangered and threatened species list. Grizzlies living in and around the park now number about 600, up from about 200 in the early 1980s--a speedy recovery in biological terms (see National Wildlife December/January 2006 for details).

Bald Eagles: Reinforcing Wildlife Laws 
Vermont is the only state in the Lower 48 that lacks nesting bald eagles, but NWF is working to fix that problem. In 2004, NWF launched the Vermont Bald Eagle Restoration Initiative, designed to reestablish breeding pairs in the state by releasing as many as 30 eagles in the Lake Champlain Valley.

Such measures are the most recent in a series of efforts yielding rapid progress in bald eagle recovery. In the 1970s, the species south of the Canadian border numbered fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs, all imperiled by pesticides and industrial pollutants that caused reproductive failure. Our national symbol also was threatened by dwindling habitat and by people who shot them even though killing the birds was criminalized by the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act. NWF in 1971 stepped in to strengthen eagle protection, offering a $500 reward for information leading to the conviction of eagle killers. Since then, NWF has never ceased to be an advocate for the birds. In 1972, NWF went to work to save 1,000 acres of Missouri River bottomland on the South Dakota-Nebraska border that FWS wanted to acquire as an eagle refuge. The bottomland was the winter home of about 300 bald eagles, more than 10 percent of the Lower 48 population. NWF soon partnered with the 7-Eleven food-store chain to raise the needed $300,000 for the purchase.

NWF went on to lead successful efforts to protect eagle habitat in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, Chesapeake Bay and other sites. Work on eagle protection led NWF to found the Raptor Information Center later in the 1970s to gather data in the field and serve as a clearinghouse for information on bald eagles and their relatives.

Today, more than 8,200 bald eagle pairs are breeding in the Lower 48, and the species soon will be removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list.

Pronghorn: Defending Access to Public Lands 
The woven-wire fence was 6 feet high and 28 miles long, put up in 1983 by a rancher on a checkerboard of public and private land in Wyoming's Red Rim, a winter home for thousands of pronghorn, a place where winds blasted away snows, revealing forage plants, and where gullies provided shelter. But when blizzards struck, the pronghorn piled up against the fence on open ground and died by the hundreds. NWF joined its state affiliate, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, in a landmark suit for removal of the fence. A federal judge agreed with the two conservation groups, and the fence went down after locking pronghorn out of winter habitat for two years. The case established a legal precedent as one of dozens of NWF actions to protect wildlife access to public lands.

Soon after the court case was settled, a new threat imperiled public lands in the West as the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began opening 185 million acres of public lands to private commerce, such as mining, in violation of three federal laws. NWF sued, and in 1985 a federal judge restored strong protection for this land.

Despite that legal history, today--with White House urging--vast tracts of wild lands that provide vital winter grazing for pronghorn and mule deer are being opened to oil and gas development under an accelerated BLM program that ignores most safeguards for wildlife as thousands of wells are drilled on prime habitat. NWF recently submitted proposals for management plans that would protect wildlife and now is monitoring BLM development proposals. 

Songbirds: Confronting Global Warming 
Songbirds are probably the wild species with which all Americans, from city dwellers to farm workers, are most familiar. These species frequent city parks as well as remote forests and come to feeders in backyards, but their presence in the future is not assured. NWF during the past few years has studied and reported extensively on how these animals are likely to be affected by global warming. NWF's website, www.nwf.org, provides information on a wide range of songbird species, from golden-cheeked warblers in Texas to bobolinks in southern Minnesota, likely to disappear from some areas where they now live. Studies indicate that global warming is altering the months in which birds arrive on seasonal grounds and disrupting the appearance of prey species and plants essential to songbird survival in North America.

To combat the effects of global warming, an NWF priority, the Federation submitted comments in 2004 to the National Commission on Energy Policy outlining a five-point plan to reduce greenhouse gases and other toxic emissions and to protect habitat while boosting the economy. NWF called for passing a federal law to limit greenhouse gases, for increases in fuel efficiency in cars and SUVs, for new standards for renewable power, for investing in clean and efficient energy technologies and for reducing power-plant mercury emissions by 90 percent. Investing in clean energy technology could net U.S. firms much of the $10 trillion that will be spent worldwide for energy supply technologies over the next 20 years, according to a statement issued in 1999 by the President's Committee on Science and Technology. And the protection of our popular songbirds will depend upon technical and behavioral solutions to reducing greenhouse gases.

As part of its educational outreach efforts, NWF also is showing individuals how to help safeguard songbirds and other species by participating in NWF's backyard habitat program, in which people receive guidance on how to turn their backyards into miniature wildlife sanctuaries. To date, NWF has certified nearly 60,000 backyard havens nationwide--a total of 120,000 acres of habitat. Visit www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat to learn more.

Senior editor Roger Di Silvestro's new book,In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, was published in January.

People Make It Possible 
NWF could not have achieved 70 years of success in conservation without the dedicated volunteers who made Ding Darling's dream a reality. "Our organization's effectiveness has always been rooted in our volunteers," says NWF president Larry J. Schweiger. "From our board of directors and state affiliates to our member activists, literally thousands are directly involved in every aspect of the work we do." Here are three people who exemplify the caliber and commitment of NWF volunteers:

Jerome Ringo, a life-long resident of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was introduced to NWF through the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now, an affiliate of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. His first undertaking, in 1991, was a marsh restoration project. "I signed on with NWF because it was already reaching our state legislature and our members of Congress to address the issues that impacted people back in southwest Louisiana," he says. "With its large membership, NWF represented strength in numbers."

By the 1990s, Ringo already had years of conservation work behind him. Employed in the mid-1970s by the petrochemical industry, he saw the negative effects of industrial pollution in southwest Louisiana and responded by helping communities there to organize activist environmental groups. "Louisiana is ground zero in the world of industrial pollution," he says. "The amount of toxic chemicals discharged is through the roof, and so is the incidence of cancer."

After retiring from the petrochemical industry in 1994, Ringo launched Progressive Resources, Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on improving the quality of life in industrial southwestern Louisiana. In 1996, he joined the NWF board of directors and became chairman in 2005--the first African-American to head the board of a major conservation group. He represented NWF at the Global Warming Treaty negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, in 1998 and at a 1999 United Nations conference on sustainable development. "Being chairman is more than fulfilling a position," he says. "For me, it's an opportunity to be a pioneer for minorities, to show young people that, regardless of the challenges in life, if you persevere, nothing is impossible."

For the past 10 years, Ringo has been traveling the nation to speak about the importance of a minority presence in conservation. "NWF recognizes that it will not be successful in the future if it doesn't build broad coalitions that involve African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups," he says.

That future will bring serious challenges for conservationists everywhere, he says: "Climate change is the single most important issue facing the environmental community today. It is going to require a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases."

Ron Coleman is typical of the people across the nation who give up free time to work for one of NWF's 47 state affiliates. Coleman, who has worked in Missouri for more than 30 years as a park and recreation planner and administrator, is a board member of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He also heads the Coleman Group, Inc., a consulting firm for conservation and open space, and serves as executive director of the Open Space Council for the St. Louis region and as president of the Missouri Parks Association. He has helped to protect thousands of acres of parks and open space in southwest Missouri, including hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails. Recently, he worked successfully for renewal of a state sales tax measure that generates $80 million yearly for parks, soil and clean-water projects.

Early in 2005, Coleman traveled with a team of Missouri conservationists to Louisiana at the request of Lisa Madry, regional representative for NWF's Gulf States Natural Resource Center, to study how activities along the Mississippi River in Missouri affect Louisiana coastal habitat. He and the team met with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and learned about the threats that a hurricane could pose to the delta state. "Today," he says, "many of the issues we were introduced to in Louisiana have become our worst nightmare." He and other Missouri conservationists are working to resolve some of the interstate activities that affect the Mississippi Delta region.

Dr. Bonnie New, a Texas medical specialist, can attest to the value of such local activism. An NWF member since 1989 and, since 1998, one of NWF's 80,000 activists, she has participated in the Texas Living Waters Initiative, designed to ensure that rivers are protected for wildlife such as whooping cranes, and has urged elected officials to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

As medical director for chemical companies in Houston, New works on health issues stemming from contact with industrial chemicals. Sorting out the effects of industrial pollution on human health, she says, is a challenge. Although cancer deaths are tallied, insufficient data are available on nonfatal cancer rates and on non-cancer effects of pollution, such as reproductive and neurological problems.

Conservation is part of New's personal as well as professional life. "I keep up with NWF's backyard habitat program and have incorporated many of its suggestions into my yard and gardening," she says, referring to a program that has certified nearly 60,000 backyards nationwide as wildlife sanctuaries. "My yard is not yet certified, but I have a great compost pile with worms as long as pencils. Turning the compost pile used to be a discipline option for my now grown kids. These days, I enjoy doing it myself."

Activists, board members and state affiliates are the building blocks of the National Wildlife Federation. "NWF is not just a conservation group, it is also a sort of neighborhood made up of residents from all walks of life who share an interest in making the world a better place to live in," Schweiger says. "Jerome, Ron and Bonnie represent the best that NWF has to offer--people committed to protecting wildlife for future generations." --Roger Di Silvestro

NWF at Work: Something for Everyone 
NWF's long history of wildlife protection is reflected today in the Federation's many conservation projects, including Frogwatch USA™, which studies amphibian populations and the factors affecting them; combating mercury contamination; protecting wetlands; the Greening the Corps project, which seeks to create a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more attentive to environmental concerns; the Tribal Lands Conservation Program, which works with American Indians on wildlife protection; water-resource and forest protection; and projects with individual species, ranging from bison and salmon to sage grouse. For more information on NWF and its programs, go to www.nwf.org.

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