Creation of National Wildlife Federation

Theodore Roosevelt inspired a nation to conservation during his presidency at the turn of the century, but it didn't take long for his ideals to slip.

By the 1930s, ill-advised farming practices encouraged by the federal government led to the Dust Bowl. The lid had come off of the prairie and Iowa cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling began the vision for what would become the National Wildlife Federation.

A Conservationist's Vision

Ding Darling saw the impacts from the Dust Bowl first hand as an avid waterfowl hunter and he began letting people know about it. His cartoons and conservation ethic caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him the head of the U.S. Biological Survey in 1934 (the forerunner to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Aldo Leopold had just published his classic text, Game Management, and Darling was instrumental in making the service a professional agency implementing the practice of scientific management of fish and wildlife.

He led the development of the Federal Duck Stamp, which is still the primary source of revenue for waterfowl management and purchased by all waterfowl hunters to this day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with NWF conservation duck stamp sheet

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a sheet of duck stamps.

Since Darling illustrated that first duck stamp, the program has generated more than $750 million to purchase and lease over 5.3 million acres of wetland habitats in the U.S. Most of these lands are now protected in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wildlife Refuge System.

The National Wildlife Federation is Born

For all the good work that Darling and others were engaged in, there was no nationwide constituency to support policies and funding for the conservation work that needed to be done. Many people cared about wildlife conservation, but nobody was organized in any fashion to advocate or influence policy decisions. In his own words, "Wildlife doesn't vote and neither do conservationists…"

Darling proclaimed, "It is hard to start a fire with one stick of wood!" He valued the importance of multiple stakeholder participation and accepting the attitudes, values, and beliefs of many groups. He dreamed of a federation promoting conservation interests, encouraging social diversity, and demanding action from Congress.

Darling understood that unity was politically powerful and paramount to the success of what would become the National Wildlife Federation. In one of his most famous illustrations, Darling conjures marching crowds of advocates from Federated Rod and Gun Clubs, Soil Conservationists, Ornithologists, Mammalogists, Big Game Hunters from the West, Audubon Society, State Game and Fish Commissions, Federated Garden Clubs, Women's Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, forestry and water experts, 4-H Clubs, and other concerned citizens storming Capitol Hill en masse.

Darling's dream became reality in 1936 when he convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to invite over 2,000 hunters, anglers, and conservationists from across the country to the first North American Wildlife Conference in Washington, DC at the Mayflower hotel.

Addressing the crowd, Darling stated, "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…"

There, the General Wildlife Federation (later changed to the National Wildlife Federation) was formed with the idea of uniting sportsmen and all outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts behind the common goal of conservation and Ding Darling became the first president of the organization.

National Wildlife Federation's State Affiliates

This first conference was such a success that energized and motivated participants returned home to organize federations in each of their states. These affiliates became the backbone of the National Wildlife Federation, and today, they return each year to NWF's annual meeting, providing governance for the organization, as well as the vision and grassroots needed to achieve our joint conservation goals.

Darling’s vision to unite the voices of conservationists continued as National Wildlife Federation was responsible for passing many laws and policies at the national level.

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