National Wildlife Federation: 85 Years Advancing Conservation

In February 1936, 2,000 conservationists, hunters, farmers, gardeners, and other outdoor enthusiasts met in Washington, D.C. for the first North American Wildlife Conference. With wildlife populations declining, they united their shared conservation interests to form the General Wildlife Federation (changed two years later to National Wildlife Federation). Helmed by J. N. “Ding” Darling, the National Wildlife Federation set out to restore wildlife across the country.  

In 85 years, the organization has expanded to include six million members and 53 state and territorial affiliates. Read on to learn why, as the National Wildlife Federation grew, we expanded our scope of action.

Foundations of the Federation

A wood duck takes flight
Wood ducks, common game animals, declined in the nineteenth century from market hunting. Today, they’re considered a conservation success story. Photo by Colin Durfee.

The National Wildlife Federation’s first milestone legislative victory came in 1937 with the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also known as Pittman-Robertson Act). Foundational to U.S. conservation, Pittman-Robertson redistributes the revenue from excise taxes on firearms to states for wildlife and habitat management or restoration. Modeled off Pittman-Robertson, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (1950) allocates the tax revenue from sport fishing equipment to support state management of fisheries. Together, these landmark laws have generated billions of dollars for wildlife conservation.

While state wildlife management and restoration seems commonplace today, it was revolutionary at its inception. This first action also speaks to the central role of sportsmen and women at the organization’s outset, continuing to today.   

Save a Species, Save a Habitat, Save People

A mule deer in front of grass
Only about 25 Key deer survived in 1951 when the National Wildlife Federation started working to conserve the species. The Federation was instrumental to the creation of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1953. Photo by Gerry Tucker/USFWS

But monitoring wildlife populations and guarding them from overhunting wasn’t enough. 

During the twentieth century, conservationist advocates realized that every element of a habitat contributes to its proper functioning. This greatly expanded the National Wildlife Federation’s focus. Not only did we need to advocate for sensible wildlife management, but also for clean water, land, and air; reducing environmental toxins and pollutants; recognizing agriculture’s role in maintaining good habitat; and setting aside public lands for wildlife (and human recreation). 

A slew of legislation that the organization helped pass accomplished this, including but not limited to: the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (1964), Wilderness Act (1964), Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966), and Endangered Species Act (1973), the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, various iterations of the Farm Bill (including versions passed in 1985, 1990, and 2002), and the Toxic Substances Control Act amendments of 2016.  

In 2020, we pushed for the bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Teaching and Empowering Conservationists of All Ages

A screengrab of kermit the frog fishing
In 1983, Kermit the Frog presided as chair of National Wildlife Week. Photo by National Wildlife Federation.

Since 1938, education has been at the heart of our work. Since the first National Wildlife Restoration Week — now called National Wildlife Week — the Federation has engaged in a week of thematic wildlife education for the past 83 years. In addition, our magazine publications, including National Wildlife and Ranger Rick Magazines, instill a conservation ethic and inspire wonder in adults and children alike. 

As a grassroots organization, the National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates empower people to advocate for wildlife conservation in state legislatures and Washington, D.C. We encourage action at home through recommendations from the Garden for Wildlife program and making your yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat to help struggling pollinators like monarch butterflies.

Adopting a Regional and Global Approach

A group gathered at an advocacy event
Members of National Wildlife Federation’s International team attended the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in 2019 in Madrid, Spain. From left to right: Hillary Fenrich, Julia Jeanty, Marina Silva (Brazilian politician and ex-minister of the environment), Nathalie Walker, Mariana Empis, and Kiryssa Kasprzyk.

Disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 demonstrate the need for a collaborative, regional approach to conservation. The passage of the RESTORE Act (2012) started the process of cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, and the National Wildlife Federation helped guide these restoration efforts

For over 30 years, the organization has acted globally by focusing on stopping deforestation, ensuring that international development projects receive proper environmental review by supporting legislation like the environmental changes to the International Development and Finance Act (1989), and spearheading the recognition of forests’ capacity to store carbon in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.    

Responding to Climate Change

Solar panels with a clear sky
Topaz Solar Farm in California is one of the largest solar farms in the world. Solar energy is one of the ways we’ll transition to a clean energy grid. Photo by Sarah Swenty/USFWS.

Without action on climate change, both wildlife and people are in trouble. We began to ramp up our work in the 1990s to more aggressively confront climate change and its disastrous impact on people, wildlife, and ecosystems. Many solutions are needed to reduce America’s carbon emissions and increase mitigation and resiliency efforts to the damage already done. 

We know that advancing renewable energy, investing in natural infrastructure and a clean energy grid, and sequestering carbon in forests and agricultural lands will reduce carbon emissions. In addition to keeping critical wildlife habitat intact, these investments will create jobs and power the economy. 


Centering Environmental Justice and Equity

A group of people gather to talk about environmental justice
Environmental justice conversations led to the groundbreaking of the Flint Water Lab. Photo by Simone Lightfoot, featuring environmental justice advocate Martin Luther King III at the pre-groundbreaking of the lab.

From the beginning, the conservation movement — National Wildlife Federation included — failed to truly include and advocate alongside Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other communities of color. This culture of exclusion has persisted over time, contributing to racial health disparities, uneven access to the outdoors, and increased vulnerability to climate change for these communities.  

We recognize our historical lack of action, and we are committed to advancing equity and justice to ensure benefits for both wildlife and people alike. With programs and partnerships like the Urban Initiatives and Environmental Justice program; Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors; the Tribal Partnerships Program; Sacred Grounds; and Women in Conservation Leadership, the organization aims to transform conservation into a movement that collaborates with all Americans to achieve equitable, effective, and wide-reaching impacts. When humans are healthy and safe, so are wildlife, and advancing environmental justice and equity is the only way to achieve the wildlife safeguards we’ve been working toward since 1936. 

To learn more about the history and goals of the National Wildlife Federation:

Join us today in celebration of an 85-year commitment to America’s wildlife. Please add your name and pledge to be a strong voice for wildlife this year.

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