Press Release

Upper Mississippi Refuge represents an enduring example of why we conserve woods, waters and wildlife for future generations


Statement by Jodi Labs, National President, Izaak Walton League of America, June 7, 2024

In June, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. After decades of protection as a Refuge, we might take the landscape, abundant fish and wildlife  and world-class outdoor recreation for granted. But 100 years ago, this outcome was by no means assured – in fact, it was in great jeopardy.

Will Dilg and the other founders of the Izaak Walton League knew the value of the wetlands, marshes, forests, fish and wildlife and the outdoor recreation that would be lost if wetlands throughout this region were drained and filled.

Under Dilg’s leadership, the League crafted an audacious plan to conserve these incredible resources by convincing Congress to create what would be the largest wildlife refuge of that time spanning, four states. This successful campaign transformed the League from a fledging organization in 1922 to the leader of a national, grassroots conservation movement only two years later. 

Members of Congress and observers at the time said the refuge proposal had no chance for success. Yet, in the first six months of 1924, Congress debated and passed, and President Calvin Coolidge signed the League’s refuge bill into law.

Now 100 years later, the Refuge is an anchor for conservation protecting 250,000 acres of wetland, marsh, forest and other critical habitat along the river. It supports more than 500 species of fish and wildlife—from bald eagles to large and small mouth bass and dozens of species of native mussels that naturally filter pollutants from the river.

The Refuge attracts nearly four million visits annually for hunting, fishing, paddling and hiking, which generates an estimated $125 million annually for the region’s economy.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge represents the enduring value of conserving natural resources and habitat for future generations. It also demonstrates that maintaining conservation values and benefits requires constant vigilance, hard work and sustained advocacy.

We thank U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson of Iowa and five cosponsors of a bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Upper Mississippi Refuge. Cosponsors included Reps. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.), Derrick Van Orden (R-Wisc.), Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) and Brad Finstad (R-Minn.).

The Legacy that the League Created

We are also honored that the Museum will induct Will Dilg into the National Rivers Hall of Fame. Dilg, a League founder and its first president, is less known than other conservation giants already honored in the Hall of Fame, like Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and Ding Darling.

But Dilg was innovative as the driving force behind the campaign to establish the Refuge, and his campaign created the template for successful conservation campaigns we still use to safeguard our woods, waters and wildlife for future generations. Specifically, he:

  • Developed a mass membership of 100,000 ordinary Americans,
  • Used grassroots advocacy and fundraising,
  • Engaged the media to raise awareness,
  • Discussed the proposal with key lawmakers in Washington,
  • Enlisted a diverse coalition, including the two-million-member General Federation of Women’s Clubs, who backed the proposal. .

With this campaign, Dilg and the League set the stage—and set the precedent—for many vital conservation victories that were achieved in the United States in the decades that followed.

There is a rich history to celebrate, and for the Izaak Walton League, it’s especially gratifying. As we celebrate, we also recommit ourselves to tackling the challenges today and in the future.

The League was founded to protect habitat and outdoor recreation nationwide, not just along the Upper Mississippi River. In 1924, under Dilg’s watchful eye, League members in Iowa waged a David v. Goliath fight to save the Cedar River in Iowa from every type of pollution imaginable. And under his leadership, the League was the only national conservation organization in the 1920s advocating for federal laws to reduce water pollution, fund construction of sewage treatment facilities and set basic standards for water quality.

What Now?

The Refuge is not an island, isolated from threats. It is buffeted by challenges—polluted runoff, soil erosion, climate change, and invasive plants and animals.

So, protecting habitat, fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation on the Refuge requires scaling up conservation across the surrounding landscape, reducing pollution at the source and redoubling efforts to address problems that seem might seem “last century,” but are still serious today.

Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League fights for clean air and water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat and conservation of our natural resources for future generations. The League plays a unique role in supporting community-based science and local conservation and has a long legacy of shaping sound national policy. See www.iwla.orgContacts 

Michael Reinemer, Communications Director,; 301-548-0150 ext. 220  

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