Although he has been described as the father of the conservation movement, John F. Lacey may have distinguished himself primarily as a protector of wild birds. His most lasting legislative effort, the Lacey Bird Act of 1900, came at a time when the public seemed largely unaware of the interdependence of all living things.
Lacey's passion to spread the word about conservation 100 years ago made him a voice in the wilderness that was loud and clear.
Every year, hundreds of people enjoy the beauty of nature in one of Iowa’s largest State Parks, Lacey Keosauqua.
And while these woods cradle many hidden surprises, the par'k's biggest secret is probably the story behind its namesake, Major John Fletcher Lacey.
A modest plaque on a boulder calls him an “eminent lawyer, statesman, soldier and citizen,” which still doesn’t shed much light on this man’s legacy; especially considering that, in his day, Lacey was known far and wide as “the father of the American conservation movement.”
Perry Thostensen: “As I became aware of John F. Lacey, it just amazed me that a person that has accomplished so many things in conservation and for the country in terms of developing a conservation ethic, national parks, national forests, wildlife, all across the board in this realm.
“He was way ahead of his time, he was largely forgotten in history not only in his home state but in his hometown it seems we’re doing him a great disservice by ignoring his accomplishments.”
Perry Thostensen is a Mahaska County Conservationist who’s responsible for a resurgence of interest in Lacey. Both Perry and Gerald Schnepf, founder of Iowa’s Natural Heritage Foundation, are touting this Iowan’s achievements.
Gerald Schnepf: “I’m surprised that he got as much accomplished as he did. Before the turn of the century. But he must have been pretty influential, must have been a good spokesperson and must have commanded a fair amount of respect.”
Lacey was born in 1841, in what is now called West Virginia.
At age 14, he moved to Oskaloosa, Iowa with his family, walking across miles of unplowed prairie, an experience that rooted his interest in wild lands.
At age 20, he enlisted to fight in the Civil War, was taken prisoner, and after his release, re-enlisted.
In his off-hours, he read law by firelight.
After the war, he returned to Oskaloosa, married, and became a lawyer for the railroad industry.
This gave Lacey the opportunity to travel widely. He loved the wilderness, and fell in love with Yellowstone and the West.
His passion for preservation led him to run for Congress, and in 1889, he was elected. It was here, in Washington D.C. that he would begin his most notable work: protecting America’s wilderness as head of the Public Lands Committee.
Perry Thostensen: “He was ahead of his time. Other people -- John Muir, Gifford Pichot -- have greater reputation or renown but the guy that was in the trenches was John F. Lacey. John F. Lacey did all the work and Roosevelt got all the credit”
One of Lacey’s first major successes involved Yellowstone. While the park had already been established, there was no law made for its protection, so he pushed for a National Park Service.
Gerald Schnepf: “It was he that wrote the first management plans and passed the first management legislation for Yellowstone. And subsequently then, he was involved in Yosemite and Sequoia National Park.”
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, John F. Lacey was going against the tide; Americans were still bent on destruction of wilderness in the name of “progress.” Lacey had watched the forests of southern Iowa vanish, and this added to his growing concern.
Gerald Schnepf: “He saw a lot of destruction going on. So he thought, ‘If it’s happening here, I see it happening across the nation. So we better act quickly to protect those big reserves.’
“So he helped to write the legislation that set aside forest reserves in our nation. In other words, the forerunner to all the national forests that we have now, and the reason you have so much public land in the western United States.”
Lacey found success in many areas: preserving forests, prairies and even the very last herd of wild buffalo; but perhaps his finest hour was the passage of the first major U.S. wildlife protection law: the Lacey Bird Act of 1900.
Gerald Schnepf: “They were shooting passenger pigeons, pigeons, to extinction. They were shooting ducks out of northern Iowa and bringing trainloads of ducks in barrels down here to ship to the markets in Chicago.”
Lacey positioned himself as the man who “spoke for the birds,” and took his message everywhere, even facing off against fashions of the times. One of his most notable speeches, given to a ladies group in Waterloo, Iowa, must have ruffled more than a few feathers.
Gerald Schnepf: “As he looked out across this sea of women and hats, with all these feathered plumes in ‘em. And most of the plumage that he was looking at came from endangered and rare birds, and everything else.
“He made the comment to ‘em, he said, ‘We now have a crownless queen, a thornless cactus, a seedless apple, can we not have a featherless hat?’
“And I often wondered, when he said that, whether he got applauded or run out of the place.”
The Lacey Act prevented interstate shipment of migratory birds. It was one of the very first wildlife control laws in the U.S., and it worked.
Gerald Schnepf: “And it’s still used today, still in existence. So you, there’s not many things that you can say that about that have lasted over 100 years.”
While his major accomplishments had to do with animals and natural lands, Lacey was also an advocate of working class people, passing laws protecting railroad employees and coal miners.
And he also reached out to the most overlooked group of post-civil war times.
Perry Thostensen: “He established the Antiquities Act, which protected American Indian ruins and was also very interested and concerned about the affairs and well-being of American Indians. Which at that time was also quite unusual.”
So, with all his accomplishments, the mystery remains how Lacey’s story became lost to history. Although he was soundly defeated in 1906 because of his “Stand-Pat Republican” views on international trade tariffs, Lacey remained popular. He declined a federal position offered to him by Teddy Roosevelt, instead opting to return to his law practice in Iowa.
John F. Lacey died in 1913, at the age of 72. A few years later, an Iowa Conservation group published a Memorial Volume that contains much of what we know about Lacey. Some of his writings have also been collected by the State Historical Society in Des Moines.
These are but few reminders of a man who was thought to have “done more to protect wildlife and to stimulate forestry than any other man in our national life.”
Perhaps Lacey’s modest gravestone in the Oskaloosa Cemetery provides the most important clue to why Lacey’s accomplishments are buried so deep in Iowa’s history.
Perry Thostensen: “I do believe he was fairly modest. Just by what he's written and what I've read about him, I think he had a greater cause in mind than his own self-aggrandizement.”