Conservation Movement People

Ansel Adams | John James Audobon | Albert Bierstadt | George Catlin | Thomas Cole | Anna Botsford Comstock | Charles Darwin | Marjory Stoneman Douglas | Ralph Waldo Emerson | Dorothea Lange | Aldo Leopold | John Muir | Gifford Pinchot | Teddy Roosevelt | Ellen Swallow Richards | Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton | Henry David Thoreau | J.M.W. Turner | Henry Wallace |

Ansel Adams b. February 20, 1902 d. April 22, 1984

Close friend of abstract expressionist Georgia O’Keefe, Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist whose black and white photos have become iconic images of the nature and landscape of the western United States. Adams became one of the first artists to capture the beauty of the environment consumable for a mass audience. As a writer, he also worked closely with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations to publish essays, letters and articles on the importance of protecting wilderness. Adams fought for the passage of legislation such as the Wilderness Act and against the building of highways and billboards. Yet, the cause that is perhaps best exemplified in his photographs was for the protection of Yosemite and the other national parks, as depicted in his reverential images of undisturbed nature.


John James Audubon b. April 26, 1785 d. January 27, 1851

John James Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) but later came to live on a family estate outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment by tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes and observed that birds return to the same nesting spot each year. Audubon proceeded to travel around the United States to draw birds of local environment. Upon sailing to England, Audubon found a welcoming public for his work that eventually earned him fame and allowed him to publish the first edition of The Birds of America, with several more editions published before his death. Audubon’s drawings are recognized and remembered as an early crossover between science and art, as well as their technical skill and popularity with the public. The quality of his work in documenting birds was a significant contribution in the fields of art, ornithology and natural history, which furthered the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior. In his honor, the National Audubon Society was later created in 1905.


Thomas Cole b. February 1, 1801 d. February 11, 1848

Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire, England but immigrated to the United States with his family, where he moved around various industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Ohio and Philadelphia. Cole was a largely self-taught artist who began with portraits, but became enchanted with the landscape of the Catskill Mountains in New York. Cole gained fame with his realistic and inspiring portrayals of the American landscape and wilderness. Thomas Cole is generally regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an art movement that is characterized by themes of romanticism and naturalism and reverence for nature and landscapes.


J.M.W. Turner April 23, 1775 d. December 19, 1851

While controversial in his day, Turner, more than anyone, moved the art world from portrait or history painting to landscape painting. This transference not only enshrined Romanticism as a dominant system of 19th century thought, but it also laid the groundwork for future interpretations of nature through art, including the Impressionists and the American landscape painters. Turner was known as “the painter of light,” and one can perceive his legacy in evoking the natural setting or ambience of a place in his works.


Albert Bierstadt b. January 8, 1830 d. February 18, 1902

Building on the work of Turner and Cole, Bierstadt carried the landscape tradition further into the western United States. Regarded as one of the most important American painters in the late 19th century, Bierstadt helped to found the Rocky Mountain School and stoked the American interest and expansion of western lands. His paintings were often gigantic in scale and size, seeking to inspire wonder and reverence in the viewer, even changing items of the given landscape to meet his Romantic vision.


Anna Botsford Comstock b. September 1, 1854 d. August 24, 1930

Working with her husband John, the chief entomologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1879 to 1881, Comstock drew the illustrations for the 1880 Report of the Entomologist. Inspired by this work, she returned to Cornell, after previously dropping out after two years, to study natural history. Subsequently, Comstock was appointed to the New York State Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. She developed curriculum with a large focus on nature and the environment. During a time when few women attended college, Comstock became the first female assistant professor at Cornell. She is credited as being one of the first educators to bring her students outside to study nature from observation, as well as a founder of the nature study movement. Comstock went on to write several books, including the influential Handbook of Nature Study, intended to educate teachers in the first hand study of nature.


Charles Darwin b. February 12, 1809 d. April 19, 1882


One of most influential persons in human history and originator of the Theory of Evolution, Darwin’s ideas are taught as the scientific foundation for the life sciences. In The Origin of Species, Darwin lays out his thoughts on natural selection; the idea that species have descended and evolved over time from common ancestors. Many of Darwin’s theories originated from his time spent on the H.M.S. Beagle. During this five year stretch of time, Darwin explored the geology and natural history along the coasts of Australia, Africa and South America. Along the way, Darwin began collections and gathered information, which served as the basis for his monumental study. Upon his return, Darwin continued his research and conducted experiments that he eventually detailed in his writings. Although Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary and challenged scientific, religious and philosophical conventions, they are now generally accepted around the world, though much controversy remains.


Dorothea Lange b. May 26, 1895 d. October 11, 1965

Dorothea Lange was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration charged with documenting the Depression era across the United States. Lange’s well known photographs brought attention to the human plight during the Depression era. She traveled around the western United States to capture the economic and environmental devastation of the time period through a human lens, often capturing migrant workers and the otherwise anonymous and transient people of the era. Lange is remembered as the creator of some of the most powerful and emotional images of the 20th century. The second photo is one of the most iconic images in Lange’s portfolio.


Aldo Leopold b. January 11, 1887 d. April 21, 1948

Born in Burlington, Iowa, Aldo Leopold was inspired throughout his life by the time he spent wandering the woods near his childhood home. After college, Leopold joined the U.S. Forest Service and was assigned to game and fish work in the Arizona Territories. During his time with the Forest Service, Leopold witnessed the destruction of the environment first hand, such as clear cutting of forests. While in the Grand Canyon area, he saw the harm tourists could inflict on natural areas with garbage strewn about and neon sounds blocking out the stars. When he was transferred to a desk job in Madison, Wisconsin, Leopold was able to concentrate on his writings, which he committed himself to fully after he left his job in 1928. In 1933, Game Management, a seminal book on the management and restoration of wildlife was published. Leopold helped found The Wilderness Society and later, a collection of essays was posthumously published in book form and gained significant notoriety. This work, A Sand County Almanac, is considered by many to be a landmark treatise in environmental thought and has helped to shape the environmental movement ever since. Though Leopold is best known for his development of a “land ethic” and a renewed understanding of “conservation,” he also wrote on the power of conservation education to further the overall movement: “Acts of conservation without the requisite desires and skill are futile. To create these desires and skills, and the community motive, is the task of education.”


John Muir b. April 12, 1838 d. December 24, 1914

John Muir was an early conservationist and advocator for the preservation of wilderness. A native of Scotland, John Muir spent his first decade in the United States working directly from the Wisconsin lands as a shepherd. His connections with nature intensified during his walk from Indiana to Florida, a 1000 mile or 1600 km trek, which he recounted in his book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. The next part of Muir’s life was spent in Yosemite, where he continued his writings and took on different ventures, such as the invention of a water-powered mill to cut wind- felled trees. Muir made numerous contributions to the sciences as with his discovery of an active glacier below Merced Peak, which gave credibility to his theories that glaciers sculpted the features of the valley and surrounding areas. Muir also became a high profile figure in the quest for “preservation” of natural land, as opposed to “conservation” efforts like those of Pinchot. A result of his interest in wilderness preservation was the formation of the Sierra Club with Muir as President in 1892. Muir’s influence was far-reaching; then President Teddy Roosevelt even called upon Muir for counsel to further shape the National Park Service’s development.


Gifford Pinchot b. August 11, 1865 d. October 4, 1946

Gifford Pinchot came from a family that was linked closely with the timber industry. Pinchot became the first scientifically trained forester in America, studying for his degree in France. Upon returning to the United States, Pinchot became one of the first people to promote ideas of long- term efficiency and prosperity for forests over the standing unsustainable ideas of unmitigated clear-cutting. He gained respect for his ideas, and in 1896, was appointed to head the new U.S. Forest Service by President Grover Cleveland. Pinchot had great success in this position, especially under his friend, Theodore Roosevelt. However, President Taft and Pinchot clashed over the ideas of conservation management, and he was fired as a result. Afterwards, Pinchot moved to Pennsylvania and completely revamped their forest industry before serving two terms as Governor.


George Catlin b. July 26, 1796 d. December 23, 1872

Noted 19th century American painter, Catlin focused almost exclusively on cataloguing the custom and culture of Native American leaders and tribes through paintings and lectures. His depictions, though they received a lukewarm reception at the time, have gained significance over time. Though some have questioned the authenticity in his works, the importance of the subject matter and what Catlin conveyed – natural lands and Native American peoples losing ground to an encroaching westward expansion – remains transcendent today. Catlin is also credited with being the first person to develop the idea of a national park system in 1832: “by some great protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park... a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”


Teddy Roosevelt b. October 27, 1858 d. January 6, 1919

The 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt engrained many initial and early conservation practices into the American psyche and system of governance. Under his tenure as President, over 107 million acres of land were protected, including the creation of the Grand Canyon National Park. Roosevelt helped to enshrine the American framework of national forests, parks, and wildlife refuge systems, as well as game protection laws. Though he was an avid hunter, killing or trapping over 11,000 animals on his post-presidency African safari alone, Roosevelt was a friend of many conservationists, including Muir and Pinchot.


Ellen Swallow Richards b. December 3, 1842 d. March 30, 1911

Ellen Swallow Richards was already a woman who could claim many firsts – the first woman to be accepted at a scientific school, the first American woman to get a degree in chemistry, the first woman to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – when she started work at MIT’s new laboratory of sanitary chemistry, the first lab of its kind. It was at this job that Richards conducted her research for the Massachusetts State Board of Health on the quality of inland bodies of water in the state. Richard’s and her colleagues kept records on the vast amount of industrial waste and sewage they found, which led to the eventual implementation of state water-quality standards, the first in the nation, as well as the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant. Richards continued to work for M.I.T. while also working as the official water analyst for the State Board of Health.


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton b. February 15, 1874 d. January 5, 1922

Ernest Shackleton was an Irish merchant navy officer who joined the race to the South Pole three times before he died of a heart attack on his fourth attempt. He defined his place in history by courageously leading his men through severe weather and some of the harshest conditions on Earth to become the first men to reach the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole, in addition to the first men to see and travel on the South Polar Plateau. Shackleton gained wide respect because of his ability to turn his men home, even upon the brink of discovery, when he knew conditions were too risky. Shackleton’s belief system can be summarized in a remark once articulated to his wife: “I thought you'd rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." He is best remembered for his embodiment of the unrelenting desire to explore the last unknown land on Earth.


Henry David Thoreau b. July 12, 1817 d. May 6, 1862

Thoreau is best known for his publication of Walden (first published with the alternative title, Life in the Woods), a journal of his time spent living in a cabin in the woods outside of Concord, MA for two years, two months and two days. While Thoreau’s works were poorly received in his lifetime, Walden, along with several other essays such as “Walking,” have had profound implications for global environmental thought. Student of Emerson and advocate of Transcendentalism, Thoreau helped to create the American perception of nature. Renowned American poet Robert Frost would later comment on Thoreau’s lasting legacy: “In one book ... he surpasses everything we have had in America.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson b. May 25, 1803 d. April 27, 1882

Perhaps more than any American, Emerson defined the American ethic of conservation thought through his 1836 essay Nature. A foundation for Transcendentalism and the American adaptation of Romanticism from Europe, Nature inspired countless adherents, including Thoreau and Whitman. In his description of nature, one finds the strict adherence to the individual’s relationship with the natural world, including a reverence that is almost religious at times. The relationship is also expansive; it is not defined by borders or histories but all-encompassing. This proposed appreciation of nature laid the groundwork for the budding conservation movement, but it also had additional ramifications. Specifically, it provided an intellectual rationale for seemingly limitless westward expansion. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life -- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.”


Henry Wallace b. October 7, 1888 d. November 18, 1965

Born in Iowa, Wallace was a very adept agriculturalist who was known for his own research on the cross breeding of crops. Throughout his career, Wallace’s dedications and interests remained with agriculture, and he actively endorsed investment into research and innovation in this field. He was eventually named Secretary of Agriculture under President Roosevelt and went on to serve as Vice President. Wallace later retired back to the rural homeland and continued to pioneer new avenues in the science of agriculture.


Marjory Stoneman Douglas b. April 7, 1890 d. May 14, 1998

Though born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Douglas would later become a writer for the Miami Herald, where she led the crusade to save the Florida Everglades beginning in the 1920s. She wrote The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, the same year President Harry F. Truman established the Everglades National Park. The book helped to transform people’s understanding of the area as not a swamp, but a functioning ecosystem of varying interconnected abilities. Many of the present-day efforts to preserve and restore the Everglades have their legacy in the “Grande Dame of the Everglades” and her tireless efforts.