Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Environmental lawyers, scientists, and concerned citizens formed one of the world’s most effective and respected environmental organizations when they founded the Environmental Defense Fund. The fund’s first major victory was to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail the use of DDT in agriculture.

Summary of Event

The scientists and other concerned citizens who founded the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 1967 originally organized to oppose the spraying of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane[Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane] Pesticides (DDT) in the Long Island area of New York State, because they feared the potent pesticide was wiping out the osprey population. The osprey is a fish-eating hawk; its disappearance in the Long Island region was an example of Rachel Carson’s contention that DDT became increasingly deadly when it was concentrated in gradually increasing quantities while passing up the food chain. It had been proven that DDT was affecting the average thickness of the eggshells of some bird species, including the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the California brown pelican. This led to a higher mortality rate among these birds’ offspring and threatened some species with extinction. Environmental organizations;Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund [kw]Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded (Sept., 1967) Environmental organizations;Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund [g]North America;Sept., 1967: Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded[09410] [g]United States;Sept., 1967: Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded[09410] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept., 1967: Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded[09410] [c]Environmental issues;Sept., 1967: Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded[09410] Yannacone, Victor John Wurster, Charles Frederick Setzer, Gene Willis Carson, Rachel

The EDF began as a local environmental discussion group called the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Coalition Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Coalition (BTNRC). The discussion group was composed of scientists, including Charles Frederick Wurster, from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, along with some local residents. Group members had been described as “middle-class bird watchers” and “Rachel Carson fans.” Like many others, they had become aware of the dangers of DDT through the warnings of Carson, whose most important work, Silent Spring Silent Spring (Carson) (1962), explained how DDT sprayed on agricultural plants was ingested by insects and small animals and passed up the entire food chain, threatening entire species and ultimately the health of human beings. Although their concerns included other aspects of environmental degradation such as sewage pollution and badly managed dump sites, it was their outrage at the effects of widespread spraying of pesticides in Suffolk County that held the group together and marshaled them into action.

In May of 1966, the group joined forces with Victor John Yannacone, a flamboyant, aggressive Long Island lawyer who typified the antiestablishment spirit of the 1960’s. This began a partnership between lawyers and scientists that made EDF one of the most effective environmental groups in the United States. The lawyers needed the scientists to provide evidence that could be used in court battles, petitioning, and lobbying, while the scientists needed the lawyers to handle the litigation and interaction with government officials.

In September of 1967, the Yannacone/BTNRC group approached the prestigious National Audubon Society National Audubon Society in an effort to get support for their proposed “environmental legal defense fund” with the hope of eventually achieving a national ban on DDT. The leaders of the old, conservative Audubon Society refused to support Yannacone’s proposals for militant legal tactics and confrontations staged for media. Gene Willis Setzer, the chair of the Audubon Society, blocked the Yannacone/BTNRC proposal by getting it referred to Audubon’s general counsel, Donald C. Hays Hays, Donald C. . Hays insisted that such a defense fund as Yannacone and his associates proposed could not be created under the auspices of the Audubon Society, even though both groups had a common interest in the preservation of wild birds. Yannacone and his associates felt they had no alternative but to establish their own organization. They obtained funding from the Ford Foundation, as well as limited support from the Audubon Society through that organization’s Rachel Carson Memorial Fund, and called their group the Environmental Defense Fund.

In bringing a series of class action suits and cases before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EDF succeeded in helping to get the use of DDT drastically curtailed throughout the United States. These victories, mostly under the leadership of Yannacone, brought national attention and respect to EDF. Its membership roster grew from a handful of Long Island residents who were mostly scientists to a nationwide total of 200,000 members representing a broad spectrum of the American public. From its simple beginnings as an organization of bird watchers and nature lovers, EDF became one of the largest, most sophisticated, and most effective environmental groups in the world. The success of EDF was largely the result of its gradual adaptation to a strategy of persuasion and cooperation rather than confrontation and litigation.


Under its original leader, the aggressive and charismatic lawyer Yannacone, EDF was a militant organization with the motto “Sue the bastards!” Lawsuits Yannacone’s policies reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s, one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history. The termination of the Vietnam War marked the end of the so-called Sixties Revolution and the beginning of an era of much greater accommodation between government, business, and environmental activists.

In 1971, in response to lawsuits initiated by EDF, the state of California adopted the first standards for reducing lead emissions from gasoline. Later, the federal government began to phase out leaded gasoline altogether. In 1978, EDF threatened to sue the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to put a halt to the company’s plans to build ten new power plants in California. At the same time, EDF worked with PG&E officials to show how it would be more profitable to look for alternative energy sources.

The Environmental Defense Fund published the bimonthly EDF Letter reporting on the organization’s environment-related activities. The organization was also responsible for the publication of a great number of authoritative books, articles, and reports on environmental concerns. It is one of the most active and effective environmental groups in the world, both in fighting legal battles to protect the biosphere and in conducting campaigns to educate the public about matters of environmental concern. EDF became one of the most respected and successful environmental groups in the United States because of its policy of working with rather than against the big corporations that were responsible for much of the nation’s environmental problems. Environmental organizations;Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, John H., et al. An Environmental Agenda for the Future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1985. A comprehensive discussion of global environmental problems and proposed solutions. Published by the Group of Ten, a powerful organization that included the EDF and incorporated its principles in its overall agenda. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Richard N. L. Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. A thorough history of environmental policies in the United States that began hundreds of years ago and not, as many claim, at the beginning of the 1970’s. Appropriate for students of as well as specialists in environmental history and policy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Burford, Anne Gorsuch, with John Greenya. Are You Tough Enough? New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. Presents an alternative but not necessarily hostile view of environmental issues, written by the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during Ronald Reagan’s administration from May, 1981, until March, 1983. Deals with the many problems involved in working with pressure groups, lobbyists, congressmembers, and others affected by environmental legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. One of the most widely read and influential environmental books ever written, this exposé of the dangers of pesticides to birds and other wildlife was an inspiration to the lawyers, scientists, and other concerned Americans who founded the EDF.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning up America’s Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides a history of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its powers to regulate environmental policy. Discusses notable cases, controversies, and the EPA’s future, and provides a chronology of key events in the agency’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlap, Thomas R. DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A history of the use of DDT in the United States. Contains appendixes dealing with the technical aspects of DDT contamination, production, and metabolism. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Food for Thought.” The Economist, August 29, 1992, 64-66. Describes the history of one of the Environmental Defense Fund’s most celebrated achievements, the long campaign to persuade McDonald’s to abandon its “clamshell” polystyrene containers and initiate a recycling program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. An excellent history of the environmental movement from the 1930’s. Describes the founding of the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967 and its gradual evolution from a policy of radical confrontation to one emphasizing persuasion and cooperation. Includes seventy-four pages of detailed endnotes and a comprehensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazarus, Richard J. The Making of Environmental Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. An excellent source for studying the history of environmental law and environmental protection in the United States. References, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roe, David. Dynamos and Virgins. New York: Random House, 1984. An informally written, first-person account of the campaign to persuade the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to cancel power-generation projects that were threatening to damage the environment. Written by an EDF lawyer who played a leading role in the highly publicized controversy. Explains the “demand-based model” that EDF recommended to the utility industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Marion Lane. Acorn Days: The Environmental Defense Fund and How It Grew. New York: Environmental Defense Fund, 1990. Includes a history of the EDF and essays by staff members and leaders of the organization. Covers the period from the organization’s birth as a discussion group sponsored by the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Coalition through the mid-1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shabecoff, Philip. A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. An authoritative overview of environmental activism in the United States written by a journalist who covered environmental issues for The New York Times. Discusses the EDF and describes many prominent personalities, including Yannacone and Wurster. Useful bibliography.

First Modern Herbicide Is Introduced

Nature Conservancy Is Founded

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Carson Publishes Silent Spring

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness

Reich Publishes The Greening of America

Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded

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