In January 1922, a group of concerned anglers and hunters gathered in Chicago to create an organization that would stop the destruction and degradation of America’s streams, natural areas and wildlife habitat. They named the organization after Izaak Walton, a 17th century conservationist and author of the Compleat Angler.
During the 1920s, industrial pollution, raw sewage and soil erosion threatened many of the nation’s waterways. Forests and other wild areas were suffering as road building, development and commercial hunting and fishing took an immense toll.
Today, the League continues to face down increasingly dire threats to the nation’s land, waters and natural resources including climate change, pollution and loss of habitat. As League looks to a second century of work, it’s worth noting its achievements since 1922, which include now-established, bedrock conservation practices, policies and laws that protect outdoor America.
Below are milestones that mark some of the League’s remarkable achievements on:
- Clean water
- Protecting public lands
- Healthy soil, improving farm practices
- Outdoor creation and traditions
- Renewable energy
- Clean air
- Fish and wildlife habitat
- Community-based conservation
1922—Founded in Chicago
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 after the author of the classic fishing handbook, The Compleat Angler.
1922—Launch of Outdoor America
In August 1922, the League launched its magazine that has 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, Outdoor America has regularly featured prominent writers and information on the most important environmental topics of the day.
1923—First national convention
Already numbering tens of thousands of members, the League hosted its first annual convention in Chicago. Attendees discussed and agreed on the principles and goals of the organization, laying out a 14-point platform focused on natural resources and outdoor recreation. Today, the League’s national convention still features the same member-driven process.
1924—Wildlife refuge for the Upper Mississippi
Within two years of the League’s founding, members secured a victory when Congress established the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The League’s action saved one of the nation’s most diverse, complex ecosystems from being drained and converted to farmland.
1920s—Restoring threatened bass populations
In the 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 stock them in a local water body. The campaign was a success, helping to restore dwindling populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass across the country.
1920s—Helping the Jackson Hole elk herd
The League helped to 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.
1926—A law to protect fish
Overfishing of largemouth and smallmouth bass (black bass) threatened the two species with extinction. So the League worked to enact the Black Bass Act of 1926, expanding the Lacey Act to prohibit illegal shipment of fish as well as protected mammals and birds. The League then tackled the other loophole: the lack of state laws prohibiting commercial bass fishing.
1927—Outdoor Writers Association of America
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.
1927—First national survey of water pollution in the U.S.
President Calvin Coolidge commissioned the Izaak Walton League in 1927 to conduct the first national survey of water pollution. The results showed that raw sewage was being dumped into America’s waterways. In response to the findings, seven states rapidly passed laws to address water pollution.
1920s and 30s—Making water treatment a priority
In its early decades, the League led a national push to build sewage treatment plants in every community. Action by numerous League chapters led to widespread success on this front. The Sioux Falls Chapter in South Dakota persuaded voters to approve a $600,000 bond for a sewage plant.
1930—Protection for the Boundary Waters region
The League helped develop and pass a 1930 bill to prevent damming and flooding in a portion of the Superior National Forest that later became the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Recognizing the area’s conservation and recreation values, the League worked to acquire land that was then donated to the Forest Service to preserve the area as wilderness.
1932—Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act
In 1932, the League proposed a bird stamp to fund sanctuaries for waterfowl, which were suffering due to drought, expansion of agriculture and unregulated hunting. In 1934, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, a landmark law based on the League’s proposal. Member Jay “Ding” Darling designed the first of what would become known as the Duck Stamp
1936—A long fight against water pollution
Grover Ladner from the Philadelphia chapter proposed a federal agency to combat water pollution and enforce uniform standards. Senator Augustine Lonergan introduced a bill to achieve those goals in 1936. In 1948, a weak version of that bill passed in Congress. But the League kept fighting, until enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act and continuing today in the battle over the Waters of the United States rule.
1930s—Hunting skills and ethics
In the 1930s, sportsmen and women were aware that hunters often lost gamebirds that they had wounded during a hunt. So chapters began offering skeet facilities where hunters could hone their marksmanship in conditions that mimicked what they faced in the field. League members from California almost immediately placed seventh in a national skeet competition.
1937—The Pittman-Robertson Act
To fund wildlife restoration, habitat conservation and hunter education, the League led the push to pass the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937. The Act directs tax revenue from the sale of firearms, ammunition and bows and arrows to state wildlife agencies. Since it was enacted, the law has delivered more than $2 billion to wildlife agencies. Bill sponsor Senator Absalom Robertson was a League member.
1940s and 50s—Protection of the Kankakee River and Indiana Dunes
After more than a decade of work with leadership from its Indiana Division, the League worked to restore the Kankakee River Grand Marsh. And in the 1960s, the League successfully advocated for preservation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which was redesignated as a national park in 2019.
1943—Izaak Walton League of America Endowment
The Izaak Walton League Endowment was created as a separate nonprofit entity in 1943 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 began providing grants to League chapters to support conservation projects of every kind.
1945—Banning the pesticide DDT
As early as 1945, the League published concerns about the pesticide DDT and its harmful impact on wildlife. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the League grew increasingly vocal. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring raised widespread awareness, and the League seized the moment, testifying to USDA in 1964, and then suing the agency. Finally in 1972, EPA banned use of DDT.
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 motorboat fuel and added funding to support boating access and fishing.
1950s—“Don’t be a litterbug”
The League’s Portland, Ore. Chapter created a program in the early 1950s called “Don’t Be a Litter Bug,” endorsed by the national leaders at the Izaak Walton League’s 1953 convention. The program grew in popularity across the U.S. and by the late 1960s, thousands of students were pledging to fight litter.
1953—Young Outdoor Americans
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 engaging youth grew over the years and remains a top priority for the League.
1954—“Red Hat Day” hunter safety
In Oregon during 1954, 13 hunters were killed and 37 injured by the mishandling of firearms. In response, the League’s Portland Chapter launched the “Red Hat Day” program to encourage safe hunting. The League adopted the program nationally, and it was endorsed by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Later called “Hunt America Time,” it grew to encompass outdoor ethics too.
1955—The Soil Bank Act
By the 1950s, American farmland was in trouble due to increasingly unsustainable farming practices. In 1955, the League created a soil conservation plan and presented it to key government leaders. Experts studied the idea and the following year, Congress passed the Soil Bank Act, which incorporated key League priorities into a conservation reserve program.
1958—Outdoor Recreation Commission leaves a legacy
Izaak Walton League Conservation Director Joe Penfold launched the idea and drafted legislation to create an Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission to assess the need for public lands to support outdoor activities. Congress agreed and passed the law creating the Commission in 1958. The Commission’s recommendations guided policy for decades and inspired bedrock laws like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act.
1964—The Wilderness Act
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the League, and especially Conservation Director Joe Penfold, was instrumental in pushing the concept of protecting wild public lands as 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.
1965—The Land and Water Conservation Fund
One of the most effective conservation programs in America, the Land and Water Conservation Fund 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. League Conservation Director Joe Penfold inspired the 1965 program. See a map of LWCF-funded projects: iwla.org/lwcf-map.
1968—Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
The League was a key proponent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects rivers with outstanding value for present and future generations. This landmark law was another inspiration that came out of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, established by Congress in 1958 thanks to the leadership and guidance of League conservation director, Joe Penfold.
1969—Save Our Streams
In 1969, the League launched a clean-up program called Save Our Streams. Members were asked to adopt a local stream and work to keep it clean. The idea, conceived by the Rockville Chapter in Maryland, spread rapidly to other states.
1972—Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act is another bedrock conservation law that incorporated key principles the League had been advocating for since the 1930s. The Act established a comprehensive approach to limiting water pollution and improving water quality and federal funding to build and upgrade sewage treatment systems.
1973—Lawsuit Curtails Clearcutting
In the early 1970s, the League’s West Virginia chapters mobilized to stop excessive clearcutting in the Monongahela National Forest. The League filed and won a lawsuit against the National Forest Service (Izaak Walton League v. Butz ). As a result of the League’s victory, forest policy shifted away from clearcutting to a broader range of management outcomes including wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.
1975—The Water Wagon
The League converted a Coachmen RV into a vehicle for education and outreach dubbed the “Water Wagon.” Dave Whitney took to the road to spread the League’s message. Tens of thousands of people at schools, chapters and lakesides learned about clean water and Save Our Streams thanks to Whitney and the wagon, which logged 130,000 miles.
The importance of recycling was a key issue for the League beginning in the 1970s. Many chapters served as recycling centers or drop-off locations for materials. League volunteers filled this important role until municipal recycling programs with curbside pickup were established in later decades.
1978—Expansion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The League has worked to conserve the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota since the 1920s. Led by Sigurd Olson and other conservationists, Ikes defeated efforts to build roads and exploit mineral resources. In 1964, the area was designated as a federal wilderness, and in 1978, that acreage was expanded through congressional action. The fight goes on. The League is now working to prevent sulfide-ore copper mining that could permanently contaminate this pristine landscape.
1985—Sodbuster, Swampbuster, Conservation Reserve Program
The League achieved big wins in the 1985 Farm Bill: The Sodbuster rule requires farms to create soil conservation plans for highly erodible soil if the farmers want to benefit from taxpayer-funded programs like crop insurance discounts. Swampbuster requires farmers to agree not to drain or fill wetlands. The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take marginal land out of crop production and instead plant grasses or trees that reduce erosion and polluted runoff and provide wildlife habitat. These programs help to conserve millions of acres across the nation.
1990s—Fish Kill Advisory Network Advances Wildlife Protection
This network informed the public about fish kills and their causes in the Upper Mississippi River. As part of the program, the League published the first report that systematically collected and analyzed state agency data on the water-quality impact of animal feedlots. In the years that followed, state and federal agencies used the League’s data to develop and enforce environmental protections.
1998—Wind on the Wires
The League pushed for renewable energy in a 1998 report for utility managers about how to incorporate wind into their community’s energy mix. The report evolved into a program focused on harnessing wind, which spurred upgrades in power transmission lines. Today, the work continues under the name of the Clean Grid Alliance.
2000—American Wetlands Month
The League became the national coordinator for American Wetlands Month, originally created by EPA. Hosting conferences and workshops, the League tackled invasive species in wetlands, produced two television programs and launched a major campaign to ensure wetlands would remain protected by the Clean Water Act. Today, we still celebrate American Wetlands Month each May.
2002—Combatting Irresponsible Recreation
The League released a groundbreaking report about the environmental impacts of irresponsible use of all-terrain vehicles, ATVs. The report, “Caught in the Treads,” focused on the advertising practices that encouraged unethical behavior among recreationists. Written from the League’s trademark common-sense, non-partisan perspective, the report earned praise even from ATV advocacy groups.
2005 –Scholarships for Undergrads in Conservation
Since 2005, the League has awarded scholarships to undergraduate students pursuing degrees in conservation or the environment. Thanks to funding from the Izaak Walton League Endowment, the program has supported 34 future natural resource professionals since its inception. The two $2,500 scholarships given out each year complement the roughly $125,000 awarded annually by chapters and divisions.
2007—Clean Boats Campaign
In April 2007, the League started the Clean Boats campaign that has informed millions of boaters and anglers how to properly clean their gear to avoid spreading aquatic invasive species.
2007—Missouri River Initiative
Working with its Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota divisions, the League partnered with state natural resource agencies to create an initiative focused on managing the Missouri River for the benefit of people as well as fish and wildlife. A major focus is high-level engagement with the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which provides guidance to the Army Corps of Engineers on habitat restoration along the river. The League helps coordinate major Missouri River cleanups that have removed over 70 tons of litter and trash from the river in those three states.
In partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, the League began a nationwide effort to engage kids ages 10 to 14 in hands-on, STEM education using streams and other waters as living classrooms. Some of the very first participants thought “Creek Freaks” would be a cool name—and it stuck. By 2014, the League had trained more than 600 educators and had reached more than 12,500 students.
2010—Outdoors Alliance for Kids
The League doubled down on its commitment to youth by helping to launch the Outdoors Alliance for Kids. The following year, the League worked to get the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act introduced in Congress. A similar proposal called Every Kid Outdoors Act passed in 2019, creating a program that provides free entrance to public lands for fourth graders and their families.
2018—Winter Salt Watch
Salt Watch raises awareness about chloride pollution of our streams and lakes which happens when too much salt and other chemicals are applied roads, sidewalks and parking lots during winter weather. Now completing our fifth season of this next-generation volunteer science initiative, the League received 3,900 data samples from Salt Watchers in 24 states.
2018—Clean Water Hub
With help from partners at the Water Data Collaborative, the League established this Hub as a flexible, user-friendly website that stores and displays water quality data from all types of volunteer monitors. This first-of-its-kind resource brings together the findings from disparate monitoring programs, puts all that data on the same national map and helps people to better understand water quality. Visit cleanwaterhub.org.
2020—The Great American Outdoors Act.
This law provided, for the first time, permanent funding for the League-inspired Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). One of the most important and far-reaching conservation laws in the nation, LWCF uses a sliver of the federal royalties from offshore energy production and invests those dollars in national parks and local recreation centers, making it easier for Americans in every corner of the nation to enjoy the outdoors and recreation.
2022—Celebrating a Century of Leadership from Women
Since 1922, women have served vital roles at the Izaak Walton League, beginning with Gene Stratton-Porter, who is profiled in this issue. Women held the League’s executive director position as early as the 1950s. In 2021, the League elected Vicki Arnold, a leader from Dubuque, Iowa, as national president.
For 100 years, the Izaak Walton League has fought for clean air and water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat and conserving natural resources for future generations. Today, the League plays a unique role in supporting local community-based science and conservation and shaping national policy. See www.iwla.org.
Media contact: Michael Reinemer, Communications Director, email@example.com.