Izaak Walton League Is Formed

The Izaak Walton League of America was one of the first national conservation organizations to promote the preservation of wildlife habitat, wilderness, and water quality.

Summary of Event

In January, 1922, Will H. Dilg, a Chicago advertising executive and avid sportsman, founded the Izaak Walton League of America (IWL), one of the first national conservation organizations concerned with wildlife protection and water pollution. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the IWL pressed for state and federal legislation to create wildlife refuges, fishing and hunting bag limits, and pollution control statutes. The performance of the IWL during this period served as a model for environmental groups for the remainder of the twentieth century. Izaak Walton League of America
Wildlife conservation
Wilderness preservation
Environmental organizations
[kw]Izaak Walton League Is Formed (Jan., 1922)
[kw]Walton League Is Formed, Izaak (Jan., 1922)
Izaak Walton League of America
Wildlife conservation
Wilderness preservation
Environmental organizations
[g]United States;Jan., 1922: Izaak Walton League Is Formed[05540]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan., 1922: Izaak Walton League Is Formed[05540]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan., 1922: Izaak Walton League Is Formed[05540]
[c]Natural resources;Jan., 1922: Izaak Walton League Is Formed[05540]
Dilg, Will H.
Reid, Kenneth A.
Hough, Emerson

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the purpose of hunting Hunting;recreational and fishing Fishing;recreational in the United States shifted from primarily food-gathering activities to outdoor recreation, especially for the growing populations in large cities. Between 1910 and 1920, for example, the number of licensed sportsmen doubled, from six to twelve million. This expansion reflected the growing affluence of Americans, the beginning of shorter workweeks and paid vacations, the personal mobility provided by automobiles, and the yearnings of individuals living in urban environments to experience more natural settings and ways of life. The rise of outdoor recreation, however, caused a rapid decline in wildlife populations and put pressure on existing recreation areas. In addition, the nation’s growing population and industry produced high volumes of pollution that degraded water quality and killed wildlife.

Dilg founded the IWL to address such environmental concerns and to promote the protection of the nation’s natural heritage, to preserve it for Americans’ enjoyment of outdoor recreation. The organization was named for Sir Izaak Walton, Walton, Izaak a seventeenth century English philosopher and writer. Walton’s The Compleat Angler: Or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653) is considered one of the great books on the philosophical value of fishing and human beings’ relationship with nature.

The IWL’s first chapters were located primarily in the central United States. By 1927, the organization consisted of nearly three thousand chapters in forty-three states, with a total of approximately one hundred thousand members. Local chapters served as clubs—gathering spots where sportsmen could discuss hunting, fishing, and related issues. Represented in the IWL’s membership were people from most walks of life, including politicians, professionals, and business leaders. Individual chapters planned outings, presented films and other entertainment, sponsored speakers, and also involved members in conservation activities, such as fish stocking, stream maintenance, and landscape improvement.

The organization’s magazine, Outdoor America, Outdoor America (magazine) kept the members informed of their shared efforts as “Defenders of Woods, Waters, and Wildlife.” In its first issue (August, 1922), editor Emerson Hough cited water pollution as the most urgent problem threatening the American people and exhorted members to stop the destruction taking place in the nation’s streams. Outdoor America articles sought to educate IWL members on subjects relevant to outdoor recreation, wildlife, and water pollution. Articles concerning water pollution discussed such topics as effects of pollutants, damage to wildlife habitat, and legal and political aspects of pollution control.

Through Outdoor America, the IWL marshaled members into a politically active force. Under Dilg’s leadership, the organization attained enough national influence to persuade the U.S. Congress to create the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924. This action protected marshes and wetlands in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The Upper Mississippi refuge was among the first of many wildlife areas across the country secured in part through the efforts of the IWL and other conservation organizations. Another early IWL-supported wilderness area, the Superior Roadless Area, Superior Roadless Area covered nearly 1.3 million acres in the Superior National Forest. When it was created in 1930, it was one of the first and largest primitive areas designated by an act of Congress.

In the 1920’s, the IWL and other conservation organizations promoted the establishment of bag limits on waterfowl. Birds, protection These efforts were made primarily at the state level, but they also affected hunting Hunting;regulation on federal lands. In many areas of the country, duck and geese populations had been reduced dramatically because no limits existed on the number of animals any given hunter could take. In a fight that required considerable effort, outdoor conservation and recreation groups successfully pressured state governments to establish limits—usually ten a day—on the number of birds that one hunter could legally kill, thus helping to maintain populations for future hunting.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the IWL supported the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps
New Deal;Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC recruited young, unemployed men to build trails, roads, and campgrounds, to clean streams, and, in general, to improve the conditions of the nation’s woodlands and waterways. The program proved to be beneficial as a work-relief measure and as a means of improving access to the country’s outdoor recreation areas. The CCC introduced thousands of urbanites to the pleasures of the American landscape and the value of conservation.

The IWL also promoted the adoption of clean-streams programs on both state and federal levels. Through its vast membership, the organization monitored local stream conditions and pressed for improved water quality within individual states. On the national level, the IWL pressured agencies such as the U.S. Public Health Service and the Army Corps of Engineers for action. In Congress, the league lobbied for the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, Oil Pollution Act (1924) the first federal legislation designed to prevent the use of an industrial pollutant.

In the 1930’s, IWL executive director Kenneth A. Reid became one of the country’s leading advocates of the prevention of stream pollution. He wrote numerous essays, delivered speeches, and lobbied Congress and state legislatures. Reid’s efforts helped to secure water laws in several states and served to encourage the federal government to expand its involvement in pollution issues. Federally conducted surveys of water quality in the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as Water Pollution in the United States (1939) and the Ohio River Pollution Control Survey (1944), and other federal studies resulted in part from Reid’s efforts and the influence of the IWL. These surveys provided the rationale for projects financed by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration. Works Progress Administration Federal programs constructed hundreds of sewer systems and sealed thousands of pollution-producing mines in the Appalachian coal regions.

After World War II, the IWL pushed Congress to pass the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, Water Pollution Control Act (1948) the first pollution legislation designed to promote a working relationship between the federal and state governments. The IWL also pressured businesses to manage water pollution created by industrial processes, but in this effort it met with limited success. Many IWL members were prominent business leaders, however, so the league’s antipollution efforts did have some influence on the disposition of industry toward the issue of responsibility for water quality.


Outdoor recreation and conservation groups existed in the United States before the IWL. For example, the Boone and Crockett Club, the “club of American hunting riflemen” founded by Theodore Roosevelt, and the Sierra Club, Sierra Club cofounded by John Muir, called attention to the nation’s wildlife and natural landscape in the late nineteenth century. These groups, however, directed their influence toward select issues, such as hunting or the protection of the Sierra Nevada in California. Often, too, these groups had conflicting philosophical approaches, with some advocating “multiple use” of the nation’s woodlands and streams and others favoring the preservation of wild areas, keeping them free from development but open for recreation.

The IWL was different in that it brought outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists together into one organization that addressed environmental questions both on a national scale and locally. While the league championed the protection of wilderness areas, its leadership also realized that development was necessary for the economic prosperity of the country. The IWL proposed managed conservation that included pollution abatement and a wilderness system that would protect significant watersheds for fish and waterfowl. This approach reflected the individual concerns of the group’s members, but with an eye toward overarching environmental issues.

The IWL educated outdoor enthusiasts about problems concerning wildlife, landscape degradation, and pollution. In doing so, the league involved a wide variety of citizens in conservation questions. Many early members joined the organization to share recreational interests and then discovered the connection between those activities and clean water and a healthy landscape. The IWL’s ability to organize a vast membership in nearly every state gave it considerable power to influence state and federal government policy. Environmental organizations that emerged in the 1960’s and later followed the model created by the IWL in the 1920’s and 1930’s, building large grassroots followings that could be marshaled into strong political forces.

The preservation of wilderness lands is an important example of the IWL conservation legacy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the value of preserving large sections of the landscape has been a topic of government policy debate in the United States, producing conflicts over the economic importance of resource extraction and over the rights of state governments versus federal authority. The IWL came into existence at the beginnings of the wilderness debate and has remained a force in efforts to preserve pristine domains. In the mid-1950’s, the IWL, in association with the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club, promoted the creation of a national wilderness system. These actions led to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Wilderness Act (1964) which withdrew from development 9.1 million primitive acres of U.S. Forest Service lands.

Another important function of the IWL, both in its early years and as it continues to operate in the twenty-first century, has been conservation education. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Outdoor America targeted members of the local chapters whose primary interests centered on protecting fishing and hunting grounds; this publication continues to provide information on league activities concerning the environment. In 1968, the IWL established the Save Our Streams (SOS) program, which educates elementary and high school students about issues concerning water quality. In 1994, SOS involved nearly ten thousand individuals in various educational activities across the United States. As of 2005, the IWL’s membership stood at approximately fifty thousand.

The original members of the IWL joined because they enjoyed outdoor recreational activities, and as they became involved in issues of conservation and protection of water quality, they produced significant changes in American attitudes and policies concerning the natural environment. The Izaak Walton League was one of the first important conservation groups to attract a large membership that worked to protect the quality of the American wilderness. Izaak Walton League of America
Wildlife conservation
Wilderness preservation
Environmental organizations

Further Reading

  • Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Follows the creation of the U.S. wilderness system up to the 1980’s. Presents political arguments and shows how conservation groups have often disagreed about the meaning and value of “wilderness.” A good account of the motivations of those involved and the political compromises made.
  • Dunlap, Thomas R. Saving America’s Wildlife. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Discussion of wildlife and the beginning of wildlife policy from the late nineteenth century to the 1980’s. Illustrates how myths associated with animal life in the United States served as a force for social and political change.
  • Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Classic historic assessment of the Progressive conservation movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Hornaday, William T. Thirty Years War for Wild Life. 1931. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1970. An early work on wildlife conservation from a noted enthusiast. Describes the destruction of game animals and the efforts by sportsmen’s groups to persuade Congress to develop progressive policies. Provides valuable insight into the temperament of the era as well as information on the founding of the Izaak Walton League, bag limits, establishment of game refuges, and government policies.
  • Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Examines perceptions of the American landscape from the colonial era to the mid-twentieth century. Discusses culture, science, and public policy in ways that reveal the American public’s attitudes toward and relationship with nature. Suggests that American conservation ideals have been exported around the world.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness. Begins with the earliest days of European contact.
  • Reiger, John F. American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. 3d ed. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. Argues that sportsmen initiated the conservation movement by establishing a code of conduct that protected landscape and wildlife habitat. Offers a particularly good assessment of the emergence of nineteenth century hunting and fishing periodicals. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • Scarpino, Philip V. Great River: An Environmental History of the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1950. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Examines the history of the headwaters of the Mississippi and the impact of industrialization on the river. Discusses the work of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Fisheries as well as the Izaak Walton League and the struggle for wildlife refuges. Reviews conservationists’ efforts to involve the federal government in water-pollution abatement.
  • Trefethen, James B. An American Crusade for Wildlife. New York: Winchester Press, 1975. Published in association with the Boone and Crockett Club. Presents the history of American wildlife from the perspective of a prominent conservation activist. Describes the growth of outdoor recreation and its consequences as well as the rise of conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League.

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