Water Wagon

For the past 100 years, the Izaak Walton League of America has carved out a unique role, promoting conservation and citizen science locally while advocating for strong state and national policies to protect our air, water and wildlife. From community conservation to groundbreaking legislative victories, no other organization has done more to protect our nation's woods, waters and wildlife.

During our centennial, we celebrate our greatest accomplishments from our first century of conservation leadership.

  • On January 14, 1922, 54 hunters and anglers met in Chicago to establish a national organization dedicated to taking action to combat water pollution and threats to wildlife and habitat. They named their new organization the Izaak Walton League of America – and what happened next was nothing short of remarkable.

  • In August 1922, the League launched a magazine that has continuously published articles about conservation and the League’s work for 100 years. While the format, the focus, and even the title changed from time to time, the magazine – now called Outdoor America – regularly featured prominent writers and information on the most important environmental topics of the day.

  • In 1923 the League – already numbering tens of thousands of members – hosted its first annual convention in Chicago. Hundreds of attendees discussed and agreed on the principles and goals of the organization, laying out a fourteen-plank platform for the protection of natural resources and outdoor recreation. Today, the League’s national convention still features this type of member-driven direction-setting.

  • Within two years of the League’s founding, Ikes secured their first advocacy victory when Congress established the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The refuge, which follows the Mississippi River through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, protects one of the most diverse and complex ecosystems in America. This rich habitat likely would have been drained and converted to farmland if not for the League’s efforts.

  • In the early 1920s, articles in Outdoor America exhorted League members to request bass fry from the Bureau of Fisheries, pick them up at the nearest railroad station, and put them in any water body. To facilitate rapid action, the articles included a sample request form and ideas about where to release the fish. The campaign was a success, helping to restore populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass across the country.
Elk in Jackson Hole - credit USFWS
Elk in Jackson Hole - credit USFWS
  • During the 1920s, the League helped save the now-thriving Jackson Hole elk herd by purchasing several thousand acres in Wyoming to provide food and range land for the struggling, dwindling herd. The League donated the land to the federal government, allowing for the expansion of the National Elk Refuge.

  • In its early years, the League worked to correct a loophole in the Lacey Act, which banned interstate shipment of wildlife taken in violation of state law. States interpreted the Act as applying only to mammals and birds, and overfishing continued – so much so that largemouth and smallmouth bass, collectively known as black bass, were threatened with extinction. The League’s advocacy on this point resulted in the Black Bass Act of 1926, which made it clear that the Lacey Act protected fish as well. The League then immediately tackled the other obvious loophole: the lack of state laws prohibiting commercial bass fishing.

  • The creation of the Outdoor Writers Association of America occurred at the Izaak Walton League national convention in 1927. Possibly the first organization to spin off from the League, OWAA is still thriving today, with an active community of writers, photographers, podcasters and other outdoor communicators.

  • In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge commissioned the Izaak Walton League to conduct the first national survey of water pollution in the United States. The League sent questionnaires to state health officials, and all 48 states responded (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet joined the Union). The results showed that millions of Americans were dumping raw sewage into waterways, as most sewer systems were not yet connected to even basic treatment facilities. In response to the findings, seven states rapidly passed laws to address water pollution.

  • In the 1920s and ‘30s, the League led a national push to build sewage treatment plants in every community. Individual victories by numerous chapters led to widespread success on this front. As just one example, the Sioux Falls Chapter in South Dakota persuaded local voters to approve a $600,000 bond for a sewage plant. A plaque commemorating that plant, and the League’s role in its construction, still hangs in the chapter’s clubhouse.
Boundary Waters - credit Alan Strakey
Boundary Waters - credit Alan Strakey
  • The League helped develop and pass into law a 1930 bill to prevent damming of the Boundary Waters and flooding in the Superior National Forest, a region that would ultimately become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Recognizing the conservation and recreation values of the region, the League worked to acquire land, which was donated to the Forest Service, to preserve the forest as wilderness.

  • In 1932, the League adopted a resolution to create an annual migratory bird stamp as a means of raising funds for waterfowl sanctuaries. Waterfowl populations had suffered due to drought, agricultural expansion and unregulated hunting. In 1934, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, a landmark law based on the League’s proposal. League member Jay “Ding” Darling designed the first of what would be known as the Duck Stamp.

  • In the early 1930s, Grover Ladner, president of the League’s Philadelphia chapter, proposed a federal agency to combat water pollution in every principal watershed in the U.S. and enforce uniform standards. The League found an ally in Senator Augustine Lonergan, who introduced a bill in 1936 to achieve these goals. In 1948, a weak version of this bill passed through Congress. Not satisfied by half-measures, the League continued fighting for clean water, right through the 1972 Clean Water Act and the still-ongoing battle over the Waters of the United States rule.

  • In the 1930s, sportsmen were aware that many game birds were lost when hunters wounded them and then were unable to retrieve the still-fleeing bird. To address this problem, League chapters began offering skeet shooting facilities, where hunters could hone their marksmanship in conditions that mimicked what they faced in the field. The practice paid off and led to other benefits as well: League members from California almost immediately placed second in a national skeet competition.

  • League advocacy led to the passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937 – indeed, Senator Absalom Willis Robertson was himself an Ike! The Act directed tax revenues raised from the sale of firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows to state wildlife agencies, to fund wildlife restoration, habitat conservation, and hunter education. That’s provided a steady stream of funding for these important programs, adding up to more than $2 billion over time.
Kankakee River Grand Marsh
Kankakee River Grand Marsh
  • After more than a decade of work with leadership from the Indiana Division, the League celebrated enactment of a law designed to restore the Kankakee River Grand Marsh. In the 1960s the League successfully advocated for preservation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which was redesignated as a national park in 2019.

  • In 1943, the Izaak Walton League Endowment was created as a separate nonprofit entity to help raise funds for conservation. Initially, the Endowment purchased lands for later transfer to the U.S. Forest Service. In the 1960s, the Endowment shifted to providing grant funds to League chapters to support conservation projects of every kind.

  • As early as 1945, the League published concerns about the pesticide DDT and its effect on wildlife. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the League was increasingly vocal about the dangers of DDT. In 1962, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought the issue to a head. The League seized the moment, testifying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964 and then suing the agency over its failure to respond. In 1972, the newly created EPA banned the use of DDT in America.
  • The great success of the Pittman-Robertson Act in funding wildlife management led to the passage of the analogous Dingell-Johnson Act in 1950. Dingell-Johnson uses funds raised by taxes on fishing gear to support protection of fish habitat. Later amendments expanded the Act to receive the revenues from taxes on motor boat fuel and to fund boating access and angler recruitment.

  • The League’s Portland (Oregon) Chapter created a program in the early 1950s called “Don’t Be a Litter Bug,” endorsed by the national leaders at the 1953 convention. The program grew in popularity and by the late 1960s, thousands of students were pledging to fight litter.

  • At the 1953 national convention, the League launched a program to include more youth in natural resource issues. The first honorary chair of the “Young Outdoor Americans” program was actor Gary Cooper. While the program ended in 1959, the practice of including youth grew over the years and remains a top priority for the League.
Hunters - credit Howard Communications Photo Library
Hunters - credit Howard Communications Photo Library
  • In Oregon during 1954, 13 hunters were killed and 37 injured by mishandling firearms. In response, the League’s Portland Chapter launched a program called “Red Hat Day” to encourage safe hunting and adherence to Red Hat safety rules. The idea was adopted nationally by the League, endorsed by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and embraced broadly by many outdoors organizations in the years following. The program, later called “Hunt America Time,” grew to encompass outdoor ethics as well as safety.

  • In the 1950s, League Conservation Director Joe Penfold brainstormed the concept of an Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, which would assess the nation’s need for public lands to support growing demand for outdoor activities. Congress implemented Penfold’s idea in 1958. The Commission then proceeded to set forth various outdoor policy recommendations that would guide the nation for decades. It also inspired creation of historic conservation statutes including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act.

  • By the 1950s, American farmland was in trouble. Farmers had increased production – mainly by plowing more acres – to support the war efforts. After the wars, the government began buying up the surplus, which helped farmers in the short term but didn’t solve unsustainable agricultural practices. In 1955, the League created a soil conservation plan and presented it to key government leaders, who promptly formed a new committee to study the idea. The following year, Congress passed the Soil Bank Act, which incorporated key League priorities into a conservation reserve program.
  • In the 1950s and early 1960s, the League – and especially its conservation director, Joe Penfold – was instrumental in pushing the concept of federally protected wilderness. That idea culminated in the Wilderness Act of 1964. Through congressionally approved additions over the decades, the Act now protects more than 700 wilderness areas covering 111 million acres.

  • Due to the hard work and inspiration of League Conservation Director Joe Penfold, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was enacted in 1965. One of the nation’s most effective conservation programs, LWCF takes a small amount of revenue from drilling in public offshore waters and invests those dollars in local parks, rec centers and ball fields, as well as national parks and other public lands.

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