The Greatest Conservation Story Never Told
Pittman-Robertson Act 75th Anniversary Day proclamation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.
It was 1933. The Dust Bowl was lifting 100 million acres of America’s heartland into the air, sending clouds of topsoil from Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas billowing eastward as far as New York City. The “black blizzards” blew straight into the nation’s capital, sending an environmental wake up call to a country already reeling from the Wall Street crash of 1929. 2.5 million Americans were on the move in search of a better living, and unemployment was soaring to 25%. The very fabric of our cultural and ecological heritage was unraveling and turning to dust.
Out of such enormous loss, our environmental consciousness awoke with a cry. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lost no time in launching programs to reverse the environmental degradation of our landscape. The Soil Conservation Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps were created and sprang into action.
The story of the federal government’s successful efforts to mend the environmental disasters of the 1930s is well-known. But there’s another story that needs to be told. It’s about a group of people who, since the early 1900s, had been tramping the forests, fishing in the streams, hunting the mountains and plains of America. They had been watching the dust clouds of environmental degradation brewing in the skies for 30 years. And for 30 years, they had tried with all their might to do something about it.
They were composed largely of America’s elite sportsmen and naturalists. They were lawyers, businessmen, politicians, foresters, and zoologists whose first love was the natural world. They had come together to preserve what they knew in their hearts was this country’s greatest—and most gravely threatened— treasure: its mighty salmon churning up our Western rivers; its pronghorn antelope streaming across the plains, and waterfowl flying across the skies. They had pledged themselves to saving America’s fish and wildlife legacy.
Many of them had shouldered the job of managing fledgling state fish and game agencies, only to be repeatedly frustrated by ineffective and incomplete laws, limited information, and political interference. They struggled to manage fish and wildlife species about which very little was known — other than that they leaped, crawled, and flew across state lines. Territorial squabbles between federal, state and local governments, industry and sportsmen were common at a time when most Americans were more concerned about preserving their right to use wildlife resources than to care for them. And nobody wanted to foot that bill.
But somebody had to. And people like Aldo Leopold of Wisconsin and Ding Darling of Iowa knew that something had to be done before one of the richest fish and wildlife legacies in the world was but a footnote in our history books. Nevertheless, securing the massive and continuing amounts of funding needed to guarantee the restoration and management of wildlife in America seemed utterly impossible. As the country slid further and further into an economic depression, fish and wildlife restoration became a luxury that Americans simply couldn't afford.
In 1929, a weary A. Willis Robertson, then director of Virginia’s state fish and game agency, wrote to a good friend : “I have been rushed to death all of the summer and owing to the unsettled political conditions, or the inactivity of our wardens, or a growing consciousness of the value of wild life, I have gotten more kicks recently concerning various and sundry matters than at any time during the past three years and it has kept me busy trying to keep the various complainers and criticizers satisfied. Anyone who has an idea that a public job is a bed of roses should just lie on it for a few months and he will so find that the thorns are more prominent than the perfume.”
It is difficult to imagine the determination required of these dedicated individuals—the faith, really—to keep up the battle to save this nation’s wildlife. These were not young 20-year-olds fueled by idealistic fervor who had yet to feel the sting of reality. These were aging gray-haired, battle-weary visionaries. They believed in the power of the democratic process to effect social change. But they were under no illusions about how long it would take. As the great sportsman, conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote in 1930, “Reforms are attained by evolution, not by prescription, of ideas. Real reforms are always home-made.”
It wasn't until 1936 that the opportunity arose to divert an existing federal excise tax on sporting guns and ammunition to support the restoration of America’s wildlife. Legislation was crafted to allocate the proceeds from the excise tax to states to be matched hunting license fees for the sole purpose of wildlife restoration. America’s sportsmen and sportswomen would foot the bill.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. More than $6.4 billion has been generated through what has proved to be the most powerful and successful wildlife restoration and management program in the world. It birthed the science of fish and wildlife management and removed it from the political arena of budget battles and shifting economies.
It provided the funding necessary to complete long-range research projects to understand species requirements and the money to design on-the-ground management projects to restore their numbers. It provided the funds to purchase millions of acres of wildlife habitat, and restore millions more. A companion bill, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act aimed to restore America’s fisheries was passed 13 years later. Since 1950, that legislation has provided more than $5.4 billion for fisheries research, habitat restoration, recreational boating access, construction of fish hatcheries, and aquatic education.
The Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program has been nothing short of revolutionary. It is the cornerstone of conservation in this country. And it has been a more than $12 billion investment by this country’s sportsmen and sportswomen, anglers, boaters, and shooters.
Because of WSFR, a hunting and fishing license is not about grabbing a one-day or one season ticket to the outdoors. It’s a 24/7 investment in fish and wildlife conservation. And it’s not the exclusive privilege—or responsibility— of the angler, boater, hunter or shooter. We’re all in this together. We all have the opportunity to hear a turkey gobble on a mountain ridge at sunrise, or to watch a buck in velvet lift his head to test the wind and to know for a single moment how much greater, how much grander the world is than we ever imagined it from our office windows. It’s your birthright. It’s your nature. Because of WSFR, we have the opportunity to rediscover it.