- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

Rosalie Edge wanted help from the Audubon Society to help stop the decimation of hawks in Pennsylvania, where hunters collected government pay to shoot them down. Fortunately, the organization refused. Otherwise she might not have taken the job on herself, setting an example in environmental protection that conservationists could learn from even today.

The year was 1929, a time better known for other reasons, and the place was Hawk Mountain, located among its Appalachian relatives in eastern Pennsylvania. Hawks, falcons and other birds of prey migrate south along the ridges, and the prevailing winds and topography make the area a superb place to watch, and to shoot, them as they pass.

State and local governments of the time considered these raptors to be vermin as well as serious threats to poultry and game birds. So they paid hunters to shoot them; the bounty for goshawks was $5 each in 1929. The slaughter was so intense that one man collected spent shells for scrap brass.

In New York, an avid bird watcher named Rosalie Edge learned of the Hawk Mountain shooting gallery and began pressing local wildlife organizations to protect the birds. A relative of Charles Dickens and James McNeill Whistler, she complained that conservationists were only concerned with ensuring the survival of game birds and waterfowl because they made good targets for hunters.

She formed an organization known as the Emergency Conservation Society to take up the cause of other birds and in 1933 began pressuring the National Association of Audubon Societies to buy Hawk Mountain to stop the slaughter. But as R.J. Smith, a senior scholar at the D.C.-based Center for Private Conservation, tells the story, Audubon wasn't interested. Mrs. Edge became increasingly hostile toward the organization, and in October 1934 explained her frustrations to an Audubon affiliate, the Hawk and Owl Society:

"The indifference of the Audubon Association to hawk protection, the fact that in certain of its publications it recommends the pole-trap and that it uses steel traps on its chief sanctuary; that it believes in the 'control' of many valuable species and in general urges the protection only of the 'birds of lawn and garden' makes it undesirable that the Audubon Association shall have a controlling voice in the policies that shall regulate the sanctuary at Hawk Mountain."

What did Mrs. Edge do? She went out and raised the $3,500 to buy Hawk Mountain herself. In addition, she hired a young naturalist from Massachusetts named Maurice Broun in 1934 to post the property and to patrol and guard it. Such was her animosity toward Audubon that she initially insisted on keeping the hiring secret to make sure the organization didn't find out about it.

Mrs. Edge died in 1962, but her legacy lives on in the form of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, a private, member-supported organization whose budget has grown to more than $1 million annually. Some 70,000 people a year visit the sanctuary (http://www.hawkmountain.org) to watch the hawks soar past, as well as the profusion of flora and fauna that now make their home there.

The point here is that Mrs. Edge didn't have to wait for Earth Day to perform her good works. Nor did she have to rely on an environmentalist-inspired regulatory apparatus to do the job for her (though the association's educational efforts have doubtless helped lead to the passage of laws to protect certain species). Writes Mr. Smith, who first visited Hawk Mountain more than 30 years ago, "The history of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary offers a striking example of the role of private initiative in achieving major accomplishments in wildlife conservation."

Hawk Mountain is hardly the only example of private conservation. Today the Audubon Society operates a private refuge in Louisiana on which it has erected oil drilling operations, proceeds from which help run the preserve. Virginia's most famous natural landmark, Natural Bridge, remains in private hands to this day, an environmental bequest dating to Thomas Jefferson's day. "I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view," said Jefferson after buying it from the king of England. Private ownership is protecting that public trust.

These days environmental groups reserve most of their donations not to buy land and protect it themselves, but to build vast concrete-and-steel headquarters inside the Beltway, to lobby the feds to buy (and mismanage) more land and to send out requests for more donations. That's their legacy right now. They should aim higher, much higher, to a legacy like Mrs. Edge's Hawk Mountain.

E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com.

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