Rosalie Edge, conservation hero

Rosalie EdgeWe are grateful to Dyana Furmansky for turning a suitcase full of letters into a fascinating biography of an important conservationist, Rosalie Edge. (1) Rosalie Edge was one of the first ardent defenders of wildlife—particularly birds—in America.  She came to this mission late in life, from unlikely previous experience.  Her life is therefore an interesting story, but it also interests us because her experiences as a conservationist shed light on our struggle to preserve our urban forest.  Specifically her struggle with the Audubon Society foretold our attempts to convince the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) that some of their policies are harmful to birds.

From privilege to the trenches of conservation warfare

Rosalie was born Mabel Rosalie Barrow in New York City in 1877 into a family of great wealth and privilege.  She married Charles Noel Edge in 1909 and followed him around the Orient for several years while he earned his living as a civil engineer and then as an investor.

They returned home, where Rosalie joined the woman’s suffrage movement in 1915.  She wrote passionate pamphlets for the suffragists, which later became her hallmark as a conservationist.   When women won the vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Rosalie didn’t have much time to find another mission.   Her husband fell in love with another woman, effectively ending their marriage, which continued in name only to their death.

At the age of 44, in 1921, Rosalie was grief-stricken about the failure of her marriage.  She found solace in walks in Central Park in New York City and soon discovered that watching the birds gave her comfort.  The birders of Central Park were a community in the 1920s as they still are today.  They took Rosalie under their wing.  Soon she was embroiled in the organizational politics of the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS), the precursor to the National Audubon Society.  She learned that NAAS was engaged in activities that some members considered harmful to birds:

  • The President of the NAAS was taking donations from manufacturers of guns in exchange for adopting policies that were supportive of hunting birds.
  • NAAS also refused to oppose policies and practices that are harmful to birds, such as:
    • Killing birds to use their feathers in women’s hats, and
    • The policy of the federal government that paid large bounties for dead birds of prey, such as bald eagles.
  • NAAS was trapping and selling fur-bearing animals on its bird reserve in Louisiana to pay the salaries of their staff.

With only the force of her strong personality, Rosalie tried to shame the NAAS into abandoning these practices by attending their annual meetings.  When that approach failed, she sued NAAS for its mailing list and won.  With the mailing list of the 11,000 members of NAAS, Rosalie was able to communicate directly with the membership.  This approach put substantially more pressure on NAAS leadership as well as reduced its membership.   She had very little help with this effort.  She named her operation the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC), but she was a proverbial one-woman-band.

Many of the NAAS policies to which Rosalie objected where eventually changed.  However, she was alienated from most members of NAAS and its successor NAS, until shortly before her death in 1962 at the age of 85.  She attended their banquet in 1962, along with 1,200 conservationists, where she was given a standing ovation.  Rosalie said, “’I have made peace with the National Audubon Society.’” (1)

The accomplishments of the Emergency Conservation Committee

The accomplishments of the ECC are particularly impressive if you keep in mind that most were achieved in the 1930s and 40s.  In the 1930s, there was very little money for anything other than creating jobs and putting food on the table.  In the 1940s the cost of World War II was our highest national priority.  Conservation was perceived as a luxury by both the public and the government.  Yet, Rosalie and those who helped her, accomplished many great things.

  • Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary.  Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives
    Migrating hawks shot in one day prior to establishing sanctuary. Courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Archives

    Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania was a place where wind currents funneled tens of thousands of hawks during their fall migration. It was therefore a popular place for hunters to stand on the mountain and shoot the birds out of the air.  Tens of thousands of hawks were slaughtered every year, which was just too much to bear for Rosalie.  Nearly penniless during the deepest years of the depression, Rosalie borrowed $500 from a friend with an interest in the hawks to lease Hawk Mountain.  Fortunately the land wasn’t useful for most purposes and economic conditions depressed land values, so she was eventually able to buy it.  It was the first privately acquired property for the sole purpose of conservation.  It was considered the model for The Nature Conservancy by one of TNC’s co-founders, Richard Pough.  Today, Hawk Mountain is visited by tens of thousands of visitors every fall to witness the migration.  There are far more visitors to see the birds than there had been to shoot them in the past.  The data gathered at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary about immature hawk and eagle migration were very helpful to Rachel Carson in making her case against DDT.

  • When Franklin Roosevelt became President, things got a little easier for Rosalie because his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, shared her interest in conservation. Together they collaborated to create Olympic National Park in Washington State, to incorporate a sugar-pine forest into Yosemite National Park, and to create King’s Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada in California.  None of these achievements was easy.  The story of how opposition was overcome would sound familiar today.  Timber and other economic interests had to be satisfied or neutralized by overwhelming public support.  Rosalie’s passionate pamphlets were instrumental in creating public support.
Olympic National Park.  NPS photo
Olympic National Park. NPS photo

Familiar themes

Rosalie’s experiences with the National Association of Audubon Societies sound familiar to us.  Despite the organization’s stated mission of protecting birds, economic interests sometimes influence its policies and practices.  The paid staff of an organization is under constant pressure to fund its salaries.  The temptation for quid pro quo arrangements is great, particularly during hard economic times.  Although Rosalie was successful in ending such arrangements, the temptation is always there.  Therefore, constant vigilance is required to prevent it from happening again.

Towards the end of her life, Rosalie’s unpublished memoir explains why her Emergency Conservation Committee was successful:

“In her memoir, she had commended volunteerism as the most meaningful way to bring about change.  ‘I beg each one to keep conservation as his hobby, to keep his independence, his freedom to speak his mind,’ she had written years before.  She had seen too many professionals become jaded or fall captive to special interests.  She, on the other hand, had spoken freely.  There would always be a need for those who could do that, she warned.” (1)

We believe that the local chapter of the Audubon Society (Golden Gate Audubon Society) is supporting projects that are harmful to birds.  We have detailed those projects in a recent post and won’t repeat them here.  The story of Rosalie Edge’s confrontation with the National Association of Audubon Societies warns us that changing those policies will not be easy.  However, we are inspired by Rosalie’s success and we follow her lead:  We are a loose confederation of volunteers who work collaboratively, but independently.   We are compensated solely by the occasional success of our venture to save our urban forest and the animals that live in it.  We cannot be compromised by any economic interests.

(1) Dyana Z. Furmansky, Rosalie Edge Hawk of Mercy, University of Georgia Press, 2009