A Year for the Birds
Compiled by Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation Naturalist
This is an important year for birds with many celebrations upcoming across the nation. Birds are common and often taken for granted, but each individual species, their history, and shared worlds have played an important role in human life.
Last month on this site, we shared a tiny introduction to what makes a bird a bird, “Feathers...of course.” This brief introduction to feathers brings forward global awareness of how birds have inspired significant environmental conservation actions in the Americas.
Many conservation pioneers throughout history have Iowa ties, each having a deep concern for our local and global species, lands, and waters. To continue celebrating birds, International Migratory Bird Day, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial, we introduce you to John F. Lacey, known as the Pioneer of federal conservation legislation. Lacey moved to Mahaska County, Iowa at the age of 14. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888. Prior to his arrival, there were very few pieces of legislation concerning the environment and very few voices for wildlife protection. In 1894, Lacey wrote and sponsored the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. One of Lacey’s most important successes was the protection of migratory birds, known as the Lacey Bird Act of 1900.
John F. Lacey
Reprinted with permission from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, photo courtesy Mahaska County Conservation
Before Silent Spring...
Before Ding Darling...
Before Teddy Roosevelt...
There was Major John F. Lacey!
Here you can learn about this unsung hero -- the first strong Congressional voice for conservation in America. A century ago, he led the passage of legislation that still protects wilderness areas, wildlife, and migratory birds today! The lasting success of this "Iowa boy" in environmental policy should inspire us common folk to speak out for conservation today, too.
"The great cause--the protection of the forests, game, and the preservation of antiquities--had little interest to the average citizen of Iowa, but to the nation as a whole, in particular to generations yet to come, it will mean much. Today, we have him to thank for many of our scenic national parks and monuments, the vast national forest system, and the priceless federal wildlife refuges. We can see the results of his conservation efforts from coast to coast."
- Louis Pammel, the father of Iowa's state park program
Thanks to Greg Beisker and Jay Olson, who gathered and wrote most of the information contained on this webpage.
John F. Lacey: Champion for Birds and Wildlife Iowa's (Almost) Forgotten Conservationist
by Greg Beisker, reprinted with permission from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
Father of American Conservation.
This title could apply to many great early conservationists. Among them would be: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt and Steve Mather. Each excelled in their own field of conservation. However, this title has also been bestowed upon the relatively unknown Major John F. Lacey, who was called superlative titles: "Father of Federal Conservation Legislation," "First Congressional Champion for Birds and Wildlife," and "Father of Federal Game Protection."
Lacey served as U.S. Representative for Iowa's Sixth District for 16 years (1889-1891,1893-1907). As chairman of the House Public Lands committee for 12 years he helped usher in the turn-of-the-century conservation movement by authoring and sponsoring most of the early legislation affecting our national parks, forests, and wildlife. His environmental concern, legal know-how, and political savvy established him at the right man in the right place at the right time to do a great and lasting work for his fellow countrymen. While Lacey's first concern was for the care of wild birds, he also secured protective legislation for other wildlife, national forests, and national parks and monuments. He truly was a prominent brain child and actuator of the early conservation movement. (Photo at left courtesy Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)
In 1888 Lacey was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. While he received ridicule from his fellow Congressmen for his early concerns about wildlife protection, he soon silenced them by proving himself to be one of the ablest legislators in Washington. By 1907 when Lacey returned to private life, he had become recognized as THE Congressional authority on all conservation fronts. Lacey himself admitted that during his 12 year tenure as chairman of the Public Lands Committee very few pieces of conservation legislation passed Congress which he had not authored or at least rewritten. Theodore Roosevelt leaned heavily on Lacey during these years in pursuing his conservation policy. By this time, conservation issues had become an important and legitimate concern of the nation and congress could no longer consider them trivial or laughable.
Lacey's conservation concerns were many and diverse. Those areas in which he expressed the greatest concern included bird protection, wildlife protection, establishment of federal wildlife sanctuaries, management and expansion of federal forest reserve system, management and expansion of the national park system, proper management of the rest of the public domain (unsettled federal lands), and preservation of antiquities (Indian ruins).
The Lacey Bird Act of 1900 was the Major's first effort as far as bird protection was concerned. This act was an extension of interstate commerce regulation. It outlawed the interstate transport of game taken illegally according to state laws. Before this law went into effect, once illegally taken game was transported across state lines, both state and federal law enforcement officials became powerless to do anything to stop the lawbreakers. This law helped eliminate the huge, illegal portion of the game market enterprise. Many consider this law to be Lacey's greatest legislative victory.
At the turn-of-the-century, it was fashionable for women to wear hats adorned with bird plumage and sometimes even entire birds. As grotesque as it may seem, this was the millinery fashion rage. Lacey tried to raise the conscience of women in that day towards conservation of the wild birds via a change in fashion. On May 12, 1905, Lacey addressed the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs in Waterloo, Iowa. After praising them for their many good deeds and thanking them for their support of forest preservation he then chided them. "In the preservation of our birds, the women of America were slow to act, but they are now doing a great part. We have a wireless telegraph, a crownless queen, a thornless cactus, a seedless orange, and a coreless apple. Let us now have a birdless hat!" His appeal was heard and the Federation went on to become one of Iowa's strongest conservation organizations in the 1910s and 1920s.
Lacey was successful in initiating federal wildlife protection. He authored the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act in 1894. This act turned the park into the first national wildlife preserve in which all hunting and trapping was forbidden. He secured funding for the creation of two federal buffalo herds. The establishment of Witchita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, the first Congressionally-designated area of this type outside a national park, was largely Lacey's doing. Lacey was also responsible for several other wildlife protection measures and national park areas like Crater Lake, Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks.
Forest protection and management was an area of much interest to Lacy. He helped draft the legislation which created the forest reserve program in 1891. If it weren't for Lacey, the entire program may have been scuttled in 1897. He was continually calling for the proper administration of the reserve system. The Major worked closely with Gifford Pinchot, the father of American forestry and the head of the Bureau of Forestry (predecessor of the U.S. Forest Service), in securing a workable federal forestry program.
Lacey's record of conservation and human rights legislation marked him as a man of great vision, concern, and drive. Unfortunately, the esteem held for Lacey by political leaders in Washington and conservationists and sportsmen across the nation did not pervade his constituents back in Iowa. He had labeled himself a Standpat Republican, opposed to most economic and foreign trade reform measures being advocated by the increasingly popular Progressives. The voters of Iowa viewed him as being out of step with their wishes on "pocketbook" issues. Consequently they handed him a stunning defeat in 1906. While Iowans correctly identified Lacey with old fashion, reactionary economic policies, they largely failed to credit him for his monumental legislative work for conservation.
The election loss did not stop Lacey's work for conservation reform. He concentrated his efforts on approval of a migratory bird law and expansion of the wildlife reserve system. As a member of the American League of Sportsmen Committee on Conservation, Lacey had a platform from which to "preach" his message.
Lacey lived to see the enactment of the Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act. He even served on the National Advisory Council which formulated the regulations by which this act came to be enforced. The growth and management reforms of the wildlife reserve system came slowly until finally in 1934 the National Wildlife Refuge System Act was enacted. At last the nation had "caught up" to where Lacey had been 32 years earlier when he was proposing that all forest reserves have a wildlife reserve within them.
The results of Major John F. Lacey's selfless dedication to conservation issues are still evident to us today in the form of national forests, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, migrating waterfowl, and many other outdoor wonders.
- Lacey Land Act - How the 2008 Amendment is helping with illegal tree harvest (Sierra Club)
- Remembering John F. Lacey, Oskaloosa Herald, 8/8/2016
- John F Lacey Congressional Biography
- John Fletcher Lacey, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa
- John F. Lacey is mentioned in Episode 2 of The National Parks: America's Best Idea a PBS series produced by Ken Burns
- Important Iowa Conservationists – Iowa Natural Resource Heritage Series, Iowa Association of Naturalists
- Mahaska County Conservation Board does have a John F Lacey display in their conservation center. Staff can help students who visit the center with details for school reports and projects. Visit their website or call them at 641-673-9327.