My paper focused on a little known, but I feel important, piece of legislation to create wildlife refuges that dragged on for most of the 1920s. My argument is that this bitter debate between different groups of wildlife protectionists shattered a coalition that had achieved striking success in the decade before the introduction of the refuge bill. In short, the goals that the preservationist wing (led by William Hornaday) and the sportsmen or utilitarian wing (led by John Burnham) differed in fundamental ways, which created mistrust between the two groups. I won't say anymore; you can read the full version below.
My presentation did not go as well as I would have liked. For some reason, I stumbled over several words and lost my place once or twice. I felt I was reading too fast, even though several practice runs at a slower pace had me coming in well within the time limit.
The theme of our conference today is “disagreement, debate, and discussion.” My paper focuses on the disagreement, debate, and discussion within the conservation movement over three bills between 1923 and 1929 to establish federal migratory bird refuges. In the short term, this acrimonious, internecine battle stalled an important piece of legislation. This delay exacerbated the conditions that the legislation sought to relieve. In the long term, it wrecked a coalition that had only a decade before achieved historic victories to protect American birds.
First, it needs to be stated that all wildlife conservationists supported the main effort of the legislation to create migratory bird refuges. Refuges were deemed essential to meeting the obligations of the landmark 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act with Canada, and for creating breeding and propagation safe havens for a variety of bird species. Led by Chief Edwin Nelson, the federal Bureau of Biological Survey expressed its growing alarm over the devastating effects that increased drainage of marshland for farming was having on critical migratory bird breeding habitat. If they agreed on the importance and purposes of creating refuges, what then did wildlife protectionists argue about for almost an entire decade? First, they disagreed about how to pay for refuge acquisition. This was no small consideration. A sustainable and reliable source of revenue was necessary to construct a flourishing refuge system. Who paid for land purchases opened up the second question, which was, should hunters receive special access to the refuges, since migratory game birds were an important economic asset?
As John Reiger points out in his seminal American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation, the early enlightened hunters – men like George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt -- supported forest and water conservation largely because they understood the importance of habitat to the protection of their game. By 1921 many sportsmen concluded that they deserved to enjoy the fruit of their conservation labors after several decades of hard work. Their leading spokesperson was John Bird Burnham, president of the American Game Protection Association (AGPA), [and this is a very important part of the story] a conservation organization financed by a conglomeration of gun and ammunition manufacturing companies such as DuPont, Remington, and Winchester. Burnham also served as the chairman of the influential Migratory Bird Advisory Board, which was created in 1913 to advise the secretary of agriculture on federal hunting policy and regulations. Burnham believed that American wildlife was in what he in 1923, called, “a vigorous and hopeful renaissance,” largely due to the efforts of sportsmen to put sound conservation measures in the local, state, and federal statute books. Echoing his idol Theodore Roosevelt, Burnham wanted hunting to be an accessible sport to all Americans, not just the wealthy who could afford costly excursions to remote areas. He wished to expand, as he said, "the [American] system that aims to preserve for all the people the benefits that otherwise will accrue only to those blessed with considerably more that an average share of wealth."
Burnham envisioned a refuge system paid for by hunters through a $1 federal license to shoot migratory waterfowl. He reasoned that if sportsmen financed the refuges, they should benefit from them in the form of public shooting grounds on or adjacent to the refuges. Public shooting grounds would provide good hunting opportunities to Americans of all income levels.
In 1921 Senator Harry New of Indiana and Congressman Daniel Anthony of Kansas introduced a bill written by John Burnham that included the $1 hunting license and public shooting grounds. To increase the popularity of their bill in rural areas they packaged it as relief to the farmers and landowners who felt besieged by hunters requesting access to their land. Burnham marshaled almost unanimous support for this legislation from within the conservation movement, including the National Association of Audubon Societies. One prominent conservationist, however, was absent from the roster of supporters. In what was a strange display of apathy on his part, William Temple Hornaday, the irascible Director of the Bronx Zoo, didn’t think it necessary to get involved because he reasoned that the bill could not possibly pass the Congress. This proved to be an accurate prediction. Although it cleared the Senate, it failed in the House. Those who voted nay did so largely because they opposed the federal government purchasing lands within the states and requiring a license to shoot migratory waterfowl.
If Hornaday had not been thinking deeply about the New-Anthony Bill, he did formulate his own proposals for hunting regulation. He envisioned himself as the representative of the millions of Americans who did not hunt. This predominately urbanite constituency mirrored the 44 million people who visited the zoo over his thirty-year tenure. Unlike Burnham, Hornaday believed American wildlife was in a state of precipitous and dangerous decline. He was alarmed by the growing numbers of hunters who took the field, like so many George Babbitts, with their new gadgets, more effective guns, and most especially their automobiles that granted them unprecedented access. He knew he could not stop them from taking the field, but be believed strongly that some restrictions could counter the negative effects that growing numbers of hunters were having on wildlife populations. At the December 1923 meeting of the Migratory Bird Advisory Board, Hornaday introduced a measure to reduce the daily bag limits on duck and geese. Although he was voted down by the decisive vote of 16-2, the issue of bag limits became thoroughly entangled with discussion of the migratory bird refuge legislation.
In early December 1924 Hornaday and Edwin Nelson met at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City to discuss bag limits. Nelson felt caught between rival conservation factions. On the one hand he did not want to anger the hunters. The federal government had too few wardens and Nelson was forced to rely mostly on their voluntary compliance to fairly new and not necessarily popular federal hunting regulations. On the other hand, Nelson gave some consideration to Hornaday’s position that waterfowl populations were declining in number, if only because it seemed the logical effect of shrinking breeding grounds. Before committing himself, however, Nelson wanted to conduct a population survey. In 1925 he issued a report that supported Burnham’s position wildlife increase and claimed that game populations were in fact increasing between 10 and 200 percent depending on location. As a result of this report Hornaday came to view Nelson as a dishonest broker standing in the camp of the gun makers and their minion, John Burnham. As Chairman of the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund — a well endowed organization of which he was essentially the only member — Hornaday issued a press release that found its way into a front page article in the New York Times. Hornaday publicly proclaimed that Burnham and Nelson were nothing less than "paid agents of the big corporations who make and sell guns and ammunition." The tone of Hornaday’s inflammatory comments weighed heavy on the wildlife protection community. While not defending Burnham, some newspapers felt that Hornaday’s rhetoric was entirely too scathing and too personal. Two years later Burnham successfully sued Hornaday for libel over the press release.
Within several weeks of Hornaday’s attack on Burnham, a convention of state game commissioners met in Denver, Colorado. The atmosphere was tense bordering on hostile. "A gleaming spear was poised at every tepee entrance," T. Gilbert Pearson, the secretary of the Audubon Society, wrote later. Through several difficult meetings the factions forged a deal, referred to as the Madsen Compromise, after Utah game commissioner David Madsen that removed the hunting license provision from the refuge bill. This compromise would give the sportsmen the public shooting grounds they demanded and Hornaday an alternative revenue stream he demanded. Ironically, neither Hornaday nor Burnham trusted the other enough to support the deal. Hornaday felt that without a bag limit reduction to offset the public shooting grounds, the compromise was nothing more than an empty gesture designed only to disarm him and his supporters. "John Burnham's influence for evil is perfectly amazing," he wrote in disgust to Will Dilg of the Izaak Walton League. To an extent, Hornaday was correct to be suspicious. Burnham openly admitted to friends that he felt no obligation to be bound by the "compromise" for he felt that, as he wrote, one correspondent, that Hornaday and his allies had "laid a trap" for him in Denver. As the two most dominating, powerful, and respected personalities in the wildlife protection movement grew more divided they drowned out the vast majority in the middle who were willing to work with each other in good faith.
In 1926 a migratory bird refuge bill was re-introduced into the Congress with the hunting license and public shooting grounds provisions. Supporters were cautiously optimistic that it would pass this time. Capturing this mood, T. Gilbert Pearson of the Audubon Society wrote to Frank Chapman in February 1926, “Altogether I feel the situation is pretty good for its passage this year, if no one of a dozen or more flourishing monkey-wrenches do not happen to land in the works.” Inopportunely Hornaday lobbed such a monkey wrench in the form of a bill sponsored by Senator Royal Copeland of New York and Representative Schuyler Merritt of Connecticut to reduce bag limits. Hornaday viewed the reduction as absolutely essential to equalize the impact of the proposed public shooting grounds, but it seemed to his adversaries as nothing more than an irresponsible provocation. The bag limit bill was highly controversial among conservationists because it challenged the Progressive Era assumptions that policy was best made by interested parties and trained experts. Putting nuts and bolts wildlife management decisions in the hands of untutored Congressmen seemed downright dangerous.
On April 29, 1926, during a debate on the Migratory Bird Refuge bill in the House, New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia denounced the public shooting grounds proposal as a sham, “under the guise of conservation.” Then he proceeded to read into the Congressional Record excerpts of confidential correspondence between John Burnham and the bigwigs of the gun and ammunition manufacturing firms. Burnham wrote in one such missive in 1924, "The sentimentalists led by Doctor Hornaday are demanding cuts in the bag limits and seasons, which if carried to the logical conclusion means the reduction of shooting opportunities to the vanishing point. Of course, if this happens, the sale of firearms and ammunition will be seriously affected." Such comments impeached Burnham's credibility, and seemingly validated all that Hornaday had been saying about the conflict of interest between Burnham's role as Chairman of the Migratory Bird Advisory Board and his position as president of the conservation organization funded by the nation's largest gun and ammunition corporations. Speaking of the effect of the publication of Burnham's correspondence on the pending legislation, Massachusetts state Ornithologist and stalwart Hornaday ally Edward Howe Forbush commented, "If he wrote those letters, he has killed the game refuge bill."
Four weeks later Hornaday announced his retirement as Director of the Bronx Zoo, a position he had held since 1896. It was rumored at the time that he had in fact been forced to resign. Frederic Walcott of the Bronx Zoo's Board of Managers wrote that Hornaday had paid what he called “the extreme penalty” for both the bag limit proposal and the LaGuardia attack. Over the course of three decades Burnham and George Bird Grinnell wrote often to Hornaday's superiors at the zoo, arguing that the Director's inflammatory public comments embarrassed their pubic-spirited, family oriented organization. Burnham must have felt enormous satisfaction when he learned that his adversary had finally received his just desserts.
Regardless of what was rumored at the time, it is open to debate if the seventy-one year old director was pushed out or retired on his own accord. Nevertheless, Hornaday’s departure from the zoo did not diminish his voice or dampen his vigorous opposition to public shooting grounds. The House voted down the migratory bird refuge bill shortly after LaGuardia's performance. After failing for the second time to shepherd a favorable migratory bird refuge bill through the Congress, the gun and ammunition corporations withdrew their funding from Burnham's AGPA. Now it was Hornaday's turn to feel immense satisfaction at his rival's fall from grace.
In January 1928 Senator Peter Norbeck, a progressive Republican from South Dakota, introduced a migratory bird refuge bill. Hornaday saw Norbeck as an honest player and wrote to the Senator to inform him that his proposed legislation based on the principles of the New-Anthony bill, “is not at all the good-conservation bill that you think it is.” Furthermore, Hornaday appealed to the senator’s progressivism by declaring in a bit of overstatement that the public shooting grounds provision would “put the federal government into the business of founding and maintaining duck-shooting resorts.” Convinced that the most important feature of the bill was refuge creation, Norbeck responded that in his bill only 10-30 percent of the refuges would have public shooting grounds. This mollified Hornaday who accepted it as something of a compromise. But Hornaday’s adversaries were alarmed by his seeming influence on Norbeck. Carlos Avery, an ally of Burnham’s, warned the senator to be careful of taking advice from Hornaday, “because if you do there will be not much left of the bill.” As it turned out, Avery was right to be concerned. Daily Norbeck received disheartening letters from all the key players in the wildlife protection movement expressing vehement support for one provision or another and casting aspersions on other conservationists. Surprised and exasperated over such infighting over what he considered secondary issues, Norbeck barked to Edmund Seymour of the Camp-Fire Club and a staunch Hornaday ally, “I am for the Sanctuary bill with our without shooting grounds.”
If Norbeck found the conservationists frustrating to deal with, his colleagues in the Senate presented additional obstacles. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine them in detail, but in the end Norbeck’s bill was amended to resemble all that Hornaday had wanted. The public shooting grounds provision and hunting license were struck from the bill. Instead, treasury would pay for land requisition like any other Congressional appropriation. The revised migratory bird refuge bill passed the Senate in late 1927 by a unanimous vote, a fact that Hornaday described in his memoirs, Thirty Years War for Wildlife, as, “an AMAZING MIRACLE.” The bill’s sponsor did not share Hornaday’s sense of triumph. To the contrary, the former governor and experienced legislator vented, “I am frankly sick over the whole situation.” “I have wasted so much effort on this matter and I look upon it as the biggest failure I have ever been connected with,” he wrote to another. Norbeck vowed that he would not lift a finger to get a comparable version through the House.
Hornaday feared that Burnham and his allies would outflank him in the House by restoring the hunting license and public shooting grounds provisions in the lower chamber and then using the conference committee to refashion the Senate bill. Speaking on behalf of the National Committee of 100 – a lobbying front he formed with Edmund Seymour after retiring from the Bronx Zoo in 1926 – Hornaday launched what could only be described as a media blitz in support of the Senate version. This vociferous campaign throughout 1928 made the Committee into something of an obnoxious pariah. Even Hornaday's ardent admirer, author Thornton Burgess, commented that he was "bitterly assailed" for being associated with such an organization and that "men whom I had long looked up to, and whose regard and good opinion I cherished, turned against me."
Hornaday’s fears proved unfounded. The entire conservation movement was too tired and drained by the long battle to fight anymore over these issues. There remained absolute consensus on the need for refuges, and the devastating effects of drainage and drought had only worsened. On February 9, it passed the House unanimously by a vote of 219-0. President Coolidge signed it shortly thereafter. Within a decade, the migratory bird refuge system consisted of 85 refuges containing nearly 700,000 acres.
Hornaday had won an impressive victory against difficult odds, but his success came at a price. The conflict between he and Burnham, which they both must share blame, wrecked and exhausted a powerful coalition of scientists, sportsmen, nature enthusiasts, bird watchers, and urbanites, who had achieved so much working together, during the progressive era. A decade later President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted a grand bargain of sorts to recast the movement. The result was a duck stamp to pay for land acquisition and a reduction in the bag limit, among other reforms, favored by Hornaday. Structurally, the administration sponsored the National Wildlife Federation, which was designed to serve as an umbrella organization to unite sportsmen and non-sportsmen. Despite these efforts, the coalition could not be resurrected to resemble its former self and the divide between these groups, first sharpened during the debate over the Migratory Bird Refuge Act, echoed throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.