Conservation's First Lady

  • Rosalie Edge (center right) standing with Irma and Maurice Broun (left) and Clayton Hoff.

    Used by permission of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary archives, image courtesy University of Georgia Press.

"Fancy how I trembled."

That was activist Rosalie Edge's tongue-in-cheek response to an incident in the 1930s, when an Audubon Society attorney accused her of being a "common scold." A thorn in the conservation organization's side for decades, Edge badgered board members and directors for bowing to sportsmen's influence and ignoring dissenting voices.

Although her name is unfamiliar to most, Edge's legacy pervades today's environmental movement. A New York socialite sparked to action after reading a 1929 paper, "A Crisis in Conservation" -- in which three scientists criticized environmental organizations for not halting the "annihilation" of species -- Edge fought to protect hawk habitat in Pennsylvania and set aside national parks in California and Washington. She influenced the Sierra Club's first executive director, David Brower, as well as The Nature Conservancy's founder, Richard Pough, and supplied data to scientist Rachel Carson, who linked the use of DDT to declining bird populations in her best-selling book, Silent Spring. And yet much of this history would be lost if not for Dyana Furmansky's new book, Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists.

Furmansky serves up something akin to insider's gossip, touching upon the founding of The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Edge's own Emergency Conservation Committee; she also sheds necessary light upon some of Edge's contemporaries. In recent years, for example, the nation's first Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, has been afforded a green halo of sorts, especially in comparison with Bush administration appointees. It's worth remembering, though, that Pinchot was adamant that when it came to forests, "trees and other reserve natural resources were for economic use."

At a time when the future of environmentalism -- and the planet -- is in question, Furmansky's book pays tribute to a woman who protected ecosystems during difficult economic times, penning inflammatory pamphlets to incite public outrage, harassing the staid leaders of organizations such as Audubon, and lending her voice to scientists too nervous to publicly question common practices, such as poisoning and trapping wildlife.

Edge had fire in the belly -- and Furmansky's book serves as a timely reminder that today's conservation movement could use a few more firebrands. 

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