Eight Bright Ideas That Have Powered NWF Through Six Decades

Forty-five years ago, NWF adopted a resolution stating that the organization should "go to the defense of any species that is in any way endangered as to its existence."

  • Thomas A. Lewis
  • Apr 01, 1996
1. The wildlife lobby was there all along: As America was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression of the 1930s, its government from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on down was concentrating on economic recovery. The need to protect the country's wildlife habitat, precious topsoil and other resources seldom came to the public's attention; natural resources had few advocates powerful enough to raise the subject on a national level.

One exception was Jay N. "Ding" Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist from Iowa. He knew that throughout America thousands of small groups of sportsmen, gardeners and campers, hikers and bird-watchers cared deeply about wildlife and natural resources. In 1936, he persuaded President Roosevelt to convene the nation's first North American Wildlife Conference. Fifteen-hundred sportsmen and conservationists representing groups from all across the country were invited to attend the Washington, D.C., meeting.

In creating the event, Darling had a bright idea: If these small clubs could be united in the common cause of "restoring and conserving the vanishing wildlife resources of a continent," their combined voices would be too powerful to be ignored. During that February 1936 meeting, the organization that became the National Wildlife Federation was founded. And the idea—that "the strength of the National Wildlife Federation is in the grassroots of America"—flourishes today. NWF now speaks with the powerful voice of more than 4 million members and supporters, as well as 45 state affiliate organizations.

2. Education is key to conservation: The founders of NWF believed that Americans would do the right thing if they had the right information. From the beginning, the organization concentrated much of its efforts on developing materials that people throughout the country could use to educate children, legislators and others on the need to conserve natural resources. In 1938, NWF launched National Wildlife Week, which every year since has promoted a particular aspect of conservation. This year's Wildlife Week education kit focuses on the ecological importance of wetlands and was distributed free to 620,000 classroom teachers.

Since 1940, when NWF initiated "Save America," a series of radio programs broadcast on 365 stations in 45 states, the organization has worked to reach as many people as possible with its messages. Today, its magazines—National Wildlife, International Wildlife, Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard—have a combined circulation of more than 1.7 million. NWF reaches millions more through its work with the press and news media and with public-service announcements.

Other programs stimulate conservation awareness among more-specific groups: The Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, for instance, has certified the creation of small habitats by more than 17,000 homeowners. For the past 25 years, NWF's annual week-long Conservation Summits have provided nature education to more than 20,000 people. And two other programs, NatureLink and Animal Tracks, now provide opportunities for inner-city kids and other urban residents to learn about and experience nature.

NWF's nine regional offices also produce education materials for local use. The Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center in Montana, for example, has designed and distributed teaching tools on wolves and prairie ecosystems that have been used by nearly 50,000 schoolchildren in the region in the last four years. "It's difficult to assess how much better off America's wildlife is today than it was 60 years ago," says Lynn Greenwalt, NWF vice president for conservation programs. "But one thing is certain: There has been a remarkable raising of public consciousness about wildlife and its habitat needs."

3. All species are vital to preserving Earth's biodiversity: At its 1951 annual meeting, NWF adopted a resolution stating that the organization should "go to the defense of any species that is in any way endangered as to its existence." That same year, for the first time, NWF focused its concern for the conservation of wildlife on a specific species: the Key deer, a subspecies of the whitetail found only in the Florida Keys.

Its habitat shrinking due to uncontrolled development, the small deer's numbers had fallen to fewer than 50. With those animals' extinction imminent, NWF made "Save the Key Deer" the subject of its annual Wildlife Week and initiated a national campaign to draw attention to the creatures' plight — a campaign that years later helped gain protection for the deer under the Endangered Species Act. Two years ago, NWF's Southeastern Natural Resource Center successfully went to court to protect Key deer habitat from improper use of federal flood-insurance programs.

In the years since 1951, saving endangered species has remained a major focus of NWF actions. In 1970, the Federation initiated programs supporting efforts to restore endangered whooping cranes to the wild and to protect all species of birds of prey from illegal hunting. Two years later, NWF began a "Save the Eagle" campaign to draw attention to the declining numbers of America's endangered national symbol. In the next few years, NWF set up a data bank on bald eagles to help researchers throughout the country, spearheaded an annual bald eagle count and helped establish a new refuge for the birds. The efforts paid off in 1994, when the eagle's continuing recovery enabled U.S. authorities to downgrade the bird to the less-dire "threatened" status in its Lower-48-states range.

Two years ago, as part of a plan to restore Yellowstone's ecosystem to a natural state, NWF successfully campaigned to return timber wolves to the park. The organization is now implementing an ambitious program to involve communities in conservation of such imperiled species through grassroots education and advocacy work. NWF also is working on Capitol Hill for reauthorization of a strong Endangered Species Act.

4. Protecting nature is protecting our selves: By the time Rachel Carson's 1962 classic book Silent Spring alerted the nation's attention to the dangers of pesticides, NWF had already been at work on the problem for 15 years. The Federation had worked hard to ensure passage by Congress of a 1947 federal insecticide law that required that all "economic poisons" be registered and labeled with instructions to avoid injury to non-target organisms. But as the use of agricultural chemicals steadily increased, NWF helped convince lawmakers to pass the 1958 Pesticide Research Act, which directed the federal authorities to study the loss of wildlife due to pesticides with a view toward finding solutions to the problem. Five years later, NWF launched a campaign, with Walt Disney as spokesman, against the misuse of toxic chemicals.

Federation efforts also helped ensure passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, requiring testing and regulation of dangerous chemicals. In 1989, NWF released its "Toxic 500" study, which for the first time informed Americans about the high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals that were being emitted into the air by 500 U.S. industrial facilities. That study was followed by several others, including Fertility on the Brink: The Legacy of the Chemical Age, a 1994 NWF report that provided information about the health implications of certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and the options for phasing them out.

NWF also has examined chemical-pollution threats on a regional basis. In the late 1980s, for instance, NWF's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center compiled data showing that people in the region who consume certain sportfish from the Great Lakes have a significantly elevated lifetime risk of cancer. Additionally, the center played a key role in the creation of the nation's first comprehensive ecosystem-based approach to controlling toxic pollution. "The Great Lakes demonstrate how the fate of people and wildlife is intertwined," says Mark Van Put-ten, NWF eastern division staff director. "If we're polluting these lakes, we're also poisoning the wildlife and people of the region."

5. Think globally, act globally: As the United States was coming alive to environmental issues in the 1970s, NWF was acting on the realization that conservation problems clearly are global in scope. In 1971, the Federation launched International Wildlife magazine to help keep, its members informed about wildlife conservation and environmental issues in foreign countries. In 1982, NWF created its International Division to concentrate on resource degradation around the world.

Since then, NWF's enlarged International Affairs Division has found that it could bring maximum leverage to bear on these problems by urging reform of the financial institutions that were making loans for destructive projects as, for example, paving a road into the heart of the western Amazonian rain forest. After more than a decade of pressure by NWF and other groups, the World Bank agreed last year to begin assessing the global environmental costs of its projects, taking into account impacts on biodiversity and climate change. Similarly, NWF helped convince the Export-Import Bank of the United States to integrate environmental assessment guidelines into all of its overseas projects — guidelines that the NWF staff helped prepare.

The Federation also worked with the Clinton Administration and Latin American conservation groups to develop the Declaration of Principles adopted at the 1994 Summit of the Americas. Those principles commit the signing nations to a number ofenvironmental actions, including phasing out lead from gasoline and reducing their use of dangerous pesticides.

6. What's good for the environment is good for the economy: The environmental revolution of the 1970s frequently pitted proponents of protective regulation against advocates of free enterprise. As the rhetoric sharpened in the 1980s, NWF moved to help resolve at least some of the conflicts with the 1982 founding of the Corporate Conservation Council. The organization brought 12 of the country's largest oil, chemical, timber and power companies into a relationship with NWF to search for mutually acceptable policies of environmental stewardship. "We'll do the job quicker, cheaper and easier if we work together, rather than approaching each other as adversaries," observed former NWF President Jay D. Hair.

Since its creation, the council has acted as a catalyst for a number of innovative joint ventures between its corporate membership and NWF. "As a result, we have attained a far better understanding of how each other perceives important issues," says Mike Pierle, chair of the council and a vice president at Monsanto Company.

The council has brought business leaders and environmentalists together on several occasions to deal with confrontational issues. It also has created a program that integrates environmental management into graduate business-school curricula. Currently, more than 100 of the nation's business schools are offering courses based on the council's teaching tools.

7. The best defense is a good defense: When NWF learned in 1969 that a mining company proposed to open a vast open-pit mine in Idaho's pristine White Cloud Mountains—part of a national forest—the Federation went to court for the first time, in this case to force the Forest Service to deny the permit. "Are we going to become a more activist organization?" asked a NWF director at the time. The answer was a resounding "Yes."

The next year, after the White Cloud mining permit had been denied, the Federation won another landmark ruling. Siding with NWF, a federal court said that the Atomic Energy Commission had to do an environmental-impact study and effect a "careful balancing" of environmental and economic factors in order to build a nuclear plant on the Chesapeake Bay shore. Since then, NWF attorneys repeatedly have gone to court, often on behalf of private citizens or a government agency that asked them to intervene to safeguard public natural resources.

Four years ago, for instance, a Nevada cattle rancher sued the U.S. government for allowing elk to water and graze on land in the Toiyabe National Forest where he held grazing permits. The rancher's claim: His permits gave him a preemptive private-property right to use public lands for his own ranching enterprise. At the request of officials in Nevada, attorneys at NWF's Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center in Colorado interceded in the case to assist the government in defending the public landsagainst this frivolous private-property claim.

Similarly, NWF's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center successfully intervened in a case on behalf of area citizens to protect a key fisheries resource in Lake Michigan, where millions of adult and larval fish were being killed annually by a power plant's turbines. In 1994, the case culminated in a $172-million settlement—one of the largest environmental-damage settlements in U.S. history.

Not every legal case has required court action. Between 1979 and 1995, NWF's Surface Mining Project tracked down more than 2,000 controllers of unreclaimed mine sites and forced them to pay for cleanup as required under federal law. The program has resulted in millions of dollars of mine cleanup in this country.

8. Common sense conservation means taking a balanced approach: "Too many people have been taken in by the false notion that they must choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy," says NWF President William W. Howard. "The truth is that a healthy economy ultimately requires a healthy environment. The Federation has always stood for the idea of balancing resource use today with the needs and rights of future generations. In the short term, balance is simply common sense. In the long term, it's our moral responsibility."

Increasingly, NWF is examining how common-sense solutions to conservation problems involve entire ecosystems. Its nine regional centers are organized to study and respond to the needs of such ecosystems as the Interior Columbia Basin of the Northwest, Alaska's wetlands, the prairie potholes of the Upper Midwest, the Florida Bay-Everglades system and the Great Lakes. This holistic environmental health approach is a bright idea of the 1990s.

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