100 years of conservation Stops & Starts 100 years of conservation

After a quiet decade for conservation, the federal government expands its role in conserving natural resources.

By Frank Graham Jr.

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Prohibition goes into effect. Congress passes the Mineral Leasing Act, which regulates mining on federal lands. William Dutcher dies, and T. Gilbert Pearson officially becomes president of the National Association of Audubon Societies.


Aldo Leopold, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service, formulates a wilderness concept for the lands his agency oversees. It leads, three years later, to the setting aside of 575 acres for wilderness and recreation in the Gila National Forest, in New Mexico, where Leopold works.


Will H. Dilg, a loud, fast-talking Chicago advertising man, organizes the Izaak Walton League, named for the "patron saint" of sport fishermen.


Conservationists help expose the misdeeds of Albert B. Fall, President Warren G. Harding's secretary of the interior. After Congress documents his role in the illegal sale of drilling rights in the nation's oil reserve at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, Fall resigns and eventually goes to prison.


The Audubon Association opens its first sanctuaries: the Rainey Sanctuary in the Louisiana marshes, a gift of Grace Rainey Rogers, and the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary on Long Island, given by the Roosevelt family. Will Dilg uses his political influence to have the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge approved by Congress.


Aldo Leopold expresses his theory of game management: "We have learned that game is a crop, which Nature will grow, and grow abundantly, provided only we furnish the seed and a suitable environment." But President Calvin Coolidge -- no conservationist, he -- reflects the temper of the times: "The business of America is business."


Apparently the country is out to lunch this year. Diligent research reveals that absolutely nothing happens.


A history of serious floods on the Mississippi River prompts Congress to reauthorize the Rivers and Harbors Act, directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade navigation, water power, flood control, and irrigation for more than 200 U.S. streams. Feds charge bootleggers of liquor with bootlegging wild ducks to the market.


Americans buy 6.5 million hunting licenses, compounding pressures on waterfowl that are already reeling under liberal bag limits and the widespread drainage of wetlands.


The Great Depression descends on the nation. Audubon's long campaign to preserve waterfowl culminates in the passage by Congress of the Norbeck-Andersen Act. The legislation provides funds to federal agencies to buy key wetlands for use as refuges.



Congress establishes the Food and Drug Administration and designates New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns (home to millions of bats) as a national park. The courts strike down an attempt to build a bobsled run for the 1932 Olympic Games through "forever wild" land in New York's Adirondack Park. The run is finally built on private land at Lake Placid.


Rosalie Edge, a New York reformer and life member of the Audubon Society, discovers that Louisiana fur trappers are being permitted to take muskrats at the Rainey Sanctuary. Though Pearson argues that the rodents are depleting vegetation used by waterfowl, Edge and her supporters force him to back down. From then on, Edge leads a bitter attack on Pearson's policies.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected to the first of his four terms as president of the United States. Not since his cousin Theodore's administration have conservation issues enjoyed such high priority in the White House. Among FDR's public-works projects to fight the Great Depression is the Civilian Conservation Corps, which puts 2 million unemployed young men to work on forest protection, soil conservation, and other jobs in the national parks and forests.


Despite cries from private power interests that legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority is tantamount to socialism, FDR signs it into law. The dams and reservoirs built at Muscle Shoals, on the Tennessee River, provide the nation's most poverty-stricken major river basin with electric power and flood and erosion control.


The Audubon Association's membership, decimated by the Depression and Rosalie Edge's vendetta against Pearson, falls to 3,400, from more than 8,000 in the late 1920s. Pearson is forced out, and John Baker, an investment banker and birdwatcher, takes over as executive director. Publication of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds converts thousands of people to Baker's favorite pastime.


The Audubon Association buys Bird-Lore from Frank Chapman, who has owned the magazine since its inception. Bill Vogt is named editor and works with Peterson to redesign the magazine. Robert Marshall organizes the Wilderness Society.


The National Wildlife Federation is founded, at the suggestion of cartoonist and activist J. N. "Ding" Darling.


Congress, through the Pittman-Robertson Act, uses an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition to fund wildlife-restoration projects. Waterfowl enthusiasts form Ducks Unlimited. Ornithologist James Tanner receives Audubon support for a study of the ivory-billed woodpecker -- just as the bird edges toward extinction.


Audubon buys a building on Fifth Avenue, opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for its office. Margaret Brooks, Vogt's assistant, becomes editor of Bird-Lore.


An act of Congress transfers the Agriculture Department's Bureau of the Biological Survey to the Department of the Interior, creating the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. John Baker funds studies on two more endangered species, the California condor and the roseate spoonbill. The results are published, along with those of the ivory-bill study, as the first of the landmark Audubon Research Reports.

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