Open Spaces: Looking Back: Spotlight on Rudolph Dieffenbach

Looking Back: Spotlight on Rudolph Dieffenbach

Every so often it's good to look into the past to revisit the people who got us where we are today. Looking Back is a new series on the people who helped shape the National Wildlife Refuge System. The series is based on "A Look Back," a regular column written by Karen Leggett, from the Refuge System Branch of Communications, which appears in each issue of the Refuge Update newsletter.

Dieffenbach

Rudolph Dieffenbach acquired more land for American wildlife than any other figure before or after his era.  Born in 1884 in Westminster, MD, Dieffenbach spent 44 years working for the federal government, 27 of them for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Dief,” as associates called him, began his career as a junior forester with the Forest Service.  In 1925, he was asked to organize the acquisition of land for the newly authorized Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge. 

After Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Conservation Act in 1929, Dieffenbach took over the new Branch of Lands, where he oversaw the appraisal and acquisition of land for 272 national wildlife refuges.  He also became the first Secretary of the Migratory Bird Commission, which one of his associates called “an exacting job at no pay which he handled ably for 18 years.”

An extraordinarily energetic and efficient public servant, Dieffenbach was selected in 1945 to head the new Office of River Basin Studies, created when it became evident that protecting fish and wildlife resources required coordination with the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation on flood control, hydroelectric and irrigation projects.

Shortly before his retirement in 1952, Dieffenbach was a delegate to the International Union for the Protection of Nature in Caracas, Venezuela, where he presented a paper on the effects of dams on fish and wildlife resources.

Rudolph Dieffenbach was honored with the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award and an impoundment at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland bears his name. The Refuge System’s Division of Realty presents an annual Rudolph Dieffenbach Award to honor employees who make outstanding contributions to the Refuge System’s land protection mission. 

When “Dief” died in 1968, he left his wife Anne, five children and 15 grandchildren, and colleagues who said he was “kindly and gentle, fond of people and possessed of a keen wit.”

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Last updated: June 21, 2012