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Original Issue


Richard Pough, a true ward of Mother Nature, is as tough—and well organized—as the old lady herself

It may well be that Richard H. Pough—rhymes with dough—is the most effective and least publicized conservationist in the U.S. Surely he must hold a record for conservation organizations joined; he spends $1,400 a year for dues alone. He holds office or a directorship in a couple of dozen of them. And right now he is president of four: the Natural Area Council, the Open Space Institute, Defenders of Wildlife and America the Beautiful Fund. In this multitude of capacities he has helped raise money and inspire citizens' groups across the country to rescue tract after tract from the developer's bulldozer and lumberman's saw. He cannot estimate the acreage whose fate he has influenced, but the names roll by like a gazetteer: Florida's Corkscrew cypress swamp, Island Beach Slate Park in New Jersey, the Calaveras sugar-pine stand in California, Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona, the Eagle Lake Attwater's prairie chicken sanctuary in Texas, and on and on.

Such matters have been his life's interest. Just ask Mrs. Pough. One day before their marriage years ago, he took her down to the Jersey shore to watch birds. Spotting something that appeared to be whitewash on the trunk of a tree, he informed her there was a hawk's aerie above. Later he showed her some pellets on the ground. "Look, Moira," he said. "Owls." As they were driving back that evening through Newark, Moira noticed something on the street and said, "Elephants have been here." Pough dismissed her observation out of hand, but a block later 20 elephants appeared, marching into town for the circus. Moira recalls, "He shouted, 'Elephants! You were right! Elephants!' Soon after Dick proposed to me."

Many men his age—he was 69 last month—would be satisfied with what he has achieved, but not Pough. At present he is hot after the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina where landlocked striped bass from Lake Marion spawn, and he is pushing for a tall-grass prairie national park in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Indeed, his big ambition is to establish preserves in every one of the 116 different ecological units in the conterminous 48 states, on the grounds that the organisms there are "biological treasures," the products of billions of years of evolutionary development. "Scarcely a week goes by that I don't read of some new use for a once obscure mold, bacteria, plant or animal," Pough says. "Compared to chemistry, biology is in its infancy, but unlike chemical elements these biological elements can never be produced again once they are lost. That is one reason to save them. I also believe we have a moral obligation."

Those who think Pough cannot achieve his big ambition might not be reckoning with his singlemindedness. For example, shortly after World War II he and his longtime naturalist friend, Roger Tory Peterson, toured Europe together and decided to inspect the Camargue, the great marsh at the mouth of the Rhone in the south of France. Both Pough and Peterson were so preoccupied with their exploring that they kept pushing farther in, until they came upon the exploded carcass of a cow. They suddenly realized they had ventured into a prohibited area that had been mined by the Germans. As they both stood stock-still, Peterson, who had spent the war as an Army draftsman drawing enemy mines, recalled his experience and explained to the rigid Pough that this had given him some insight into the German military mind. The Germans, he said, would have planted the mines beneath the tussocks rather than in the surrounding mud. Pough disagreed. Peterson, he feels, is sometimes vague about non-birding matters, and Pough argued that his friend had it wrong. The Germans, Pough said, would have mined the mud not the tussocks. The two men could reach no agreement so they gingerly attempted to retrace their steps, with Peterson taking the mud route and Pough going from tussock to tussock, each expecting the other to be blown sky high. "I can laugh now," Pough says, "but it was no joke then. We had to go a quarter of a mile."

On another occasion, while leading a nature tour of Greece, Pough and his companions stepped off their bus to picnic along a poplar-lined causeway at Marathon. Unknown to the picnickers, the Greek air force had set up oil drums as strafing targets in an adjacent field. Pough was commenting on a great reed warbler when the first plane came roaring in. Despite the racket from the machine guns, Pough kept talking while the members of the group sat tight. By the time Pough had exhausted the subject of the great reed warbler, the strafing had stopped. Everyone got back aboard the bus feeling he had learned a good deal. "It takes a lot to upset bird people," Pough says.

Pough's debonair manner and wide-ranging expertise put him in demand as a lecturer, and he is a prolific author as well. He has written numerous articles in addition to his noted three-volume work, Audubon Water Bird Guide, Audubon Land Bird Guide and Audubon Western Bird Guide, which have sold more than a million copies so far. Unlike A Field Guide to the Birds, written by Peterson, Pough's books are artfully compressed encyclopedias designed to give the reader insights into each bird's role in the ecosystem. Pough, who disdains the nature-trail school of identification because it smacks of environmental stamp collecting, is big on people getting the whole picture of the dynamics of nature, from fungi to cloud cover. As befits his MIT training, he treats a forest as a chemical factory powered by the sun.

Pough's ties to his various organizations and activities are literal ones. To discover who he is today, one need only look at his necktie or tiepin. Should he attend a meeting of the Bahamas National Trust, of which he is a founder-member by act of the assembly, he will show up in Nassau sporting a tie patterned with flamingos. At an Audubon directors meeting, he wears either a swallow or an avocet tie and for the Marine Resources Committee—of which he is vice-chairman—a whale of a tie sets the right mood.

Whenever Pough meets with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he adorns his tie, be it fish or fowl, with the pin of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honorary society equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. A few years ago, while attending a meeting of the Thorne Ecological Institute (Pough is a trustee of that organization), he wore his Tau Beta Pi pin and much impressed General William F. Cassidy, then chief of the Corps of Engineers. "Pough, are you an engineer?" asked the general, who was used lo fending off wild-eyed antagonists of pure dickeybird background. Pough purringly allowed that he was an honor graduate in chemical engineering from MIT, class of '26. Every morning he went to breakfast with the general, where he conducted what amounted to an environmental lecture. Six months later Pough learned that his tiepin and lectures had scored when a friend from Washington exclaimed, "You've brainwashed General Cassidy! All he's talking about is ecology!" Two years ago Pough and five other prominent conservationists were named to the new Environmental Advisory Board to the chief of the Corps of Engineers, and Pough has not wasted that opportunity. He has gotten a grant from the Ford Foundation to retain Lester MacNamara, the retired fish and game director of New Jersey, to work, as Pough puts it, "up and down the coast with the corps to make sure that its eyes are fully opened to what it might do in a constructive way. My position on the board enables me to backstop MacNamara if he runs into trouble."

Pough's primary occupation is president of the Natural Area Council, an umbrella conservation organization funded by contributions from foundations. His method is to concentrate on specific goals. "You get a lot of prima donnas in conservation who want to save the world and solve all the problems," he says. "Too many conservationists are purely emotional. They stand around wringing their hands and name calling, and then they don't come up with a single accomplishment. I try to get people to concentrate on one given area of concern: a forest, a marsh, a species of wildlife. Instead of saying all is lost and just standing around, I ask, 'Well, who owns it? Let's go and buy it. Let's save it!' And I show people how to do this, how to take advantage of tax write-offs, how to raise money. And when they do it, I move on to the next thing."

Whenever Pough hears of a new project, or a tract to be saved, or the name of a newcomer active in any field of conservation, he jots the data down on a note pad that he always carries. He also does the same should he read or hear about an interesting fact, say the amount of boron in a detergent. At the end of the day he enters all the information on index cards which he then files under the headings of people, places and facts. He also cross-references the cards geographically so that if he finds himself going off on a trip to Idaho, for example, he can reach into the file for the Idaho cards and, after disposing of whatever conservation business brought him to Boise in the first place, begin making calls on strangers, saying, "Hello, I'm Richard Pough, and I'm very much interested in what you're doing with grizzly bears."

On occasion, Pough will also jot down some rule of conduct for himself and enter it in the file under the subheading of "Values." Some of these injunctions to himself read, "Don't talk, talk, talk; let your dinner companion shine," "Never make hasty identifications in the field" and, "If you don't know something, admit it. The dumber you admit you are, the more you learn."

Pough credits his thrust in life to his mother, a biology teacher and a graduate of MIT, as was his father, Francis Harvey Pough, who taught chemistry. Pough was born in Brooklyn, but his mother always impressed upon him that his forebears dated back to the Pilgrims, that the United States was his country and that whenever he found a wrong, he was to right it. "She was a typical Boston woman of determination, a suffragette, all the right things," says Pough.

After attending schools in Brooklyn and St. Louis, where his parents moved while he was in his teens, Pough enrolled at Washington University and then transferred to MIT. "MIT was a snap for me," he says. "I can't understand why it has a reputation for being so tough. It took me only 10 minutes after classes to get my work out of the way, and I went to all the deb parties at night and birding every weekend." After graduating, Pough shifted a few streets westward in Cambridge to the Harvard Graduate School, where he primarily studied Oriental art at the Fogg Museum for a year before taking a job as an engineer at a sulfuric acid plant in Port Arthur, Texas. He found this work not in the least challenging and he got himself appointed night superintendent so he could study birds during the day on the beach between Port Arthur and Galveston.

Tiring of Texas, Pough went to Europe, where he studied birds and art, and then returned to St. Louis to work for a foundry. When it went bankrupt during the Depression, he moved on to Philadelphia where he bought a photographic equipment company at a bankruptcy sale and nursed it back to financial health before turning it over to his youngest brother, Harold, several years later. While in Philadelphia, Pough not only resumed his natural history interests, but also served as president of the local MIT club where he became friends with such alumni as Pierre and Irénée du Pont. In time he got to know most of the du Ponts, including Crawford Greenewalt, who became president of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company and who also has done a superb photographic study of hummingbirds in flight.

"Crawford has an engineer's mind," says Pough, "and he was interested in the technical problems of motion. What better way to study this than hummingbirds? I remember one night when I was having dinner at his house. There was a startling bang and flash of light every once in a while from a nearby room, and finally his wife Margaretta said, 'Pay no attention to that, Crawford is doing time-lapse photography of an orchid opening. That's the camera going off.' "

Pough's entrée to the big rich has stood him in good stead in the cause of conservation. A friend says, "The essence of charm is Dick Pough talking to an elderly moneyed lady." Pough shrugs off such comments, remarking, "The rich people I know are public-spirited and great."

One spring day in Philadelphia while Pough was reading the Wilson Bulletin, he noted that returns from goshawk bounties were curiously clustered near Pottstown, Pa. Suspecting something wrong, Pough went to Pottstown where he was told, "You must want to go to Hawk Mountain. That's where we shoot hawks."

Pough went up to the mountain, and there were 100 Pennsylvania hunters firing away. "I tried to get the state to do something—hawks were not protected—on the grounds that Sunday shooting was prohibited," Pough says. "No luck. I even tried to get help from the Lord's Day Alliance, but no luck. I spoke about the shooting at a joint meeting of the Audubon and Linnaean societies in New York, and a Mrs. Rosalie Edge, who was in the audience, called me some months later to say, 'Could you meet me there at Hawk Mountain with a real estate man?' I said I certainly could, and we wound up negotiating purchases of 1,295 acres at $1.50 an acre."

Turning Hawk Mountain into a sanctuary proved a boon to the area. The old gunning stands became observation posts, and boardinghouses did capacity business. More than 20,000 hawks, eagles and vultures have been recorded flying along this single ridge in the course of each fall, and the sight of them stimulated study into the previously unknown migratory routes of Eastern birds of prey, now plotted as running along the Appalachians from northern New England and the Catskills down into Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico. More important, the public began to appreciate that birds of prey were not creatures to be condemned and shot, but predators that have a necessary place in the ecosystem. (Pough is quite fond of predators. His secret ambition is to restock the East with cougars. "Think of what they would do to control the deer herds," he says.)

Pough's saving of Hawk Mountain prompted an invitation, which he accepted, to join the National Audubon Society as the director of a campaign to protect persecuted species. He undertook the task with characteristic zest.

While at Audubon, Pough made another of his unusual contributions to conservation. He met a Consolidated Edison salesman named Joe Hickey who was interested in birds of prey and used to drop by the Audubon library after work. Hickey lacked funds to continue his education, but Pough urged him to seek out Aldo Leopold, then the professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold got money for Hickey to continue his schooling and Hickey eventually got his doctorate, succeeded to Leopold's position at Wisconsin and authored the definitive study of the effects of DDT on the peregrine falcon.

Appropriately, to bring the matter full circle, Pough was among the first conservationists to sound alarms about the dangers of DDT. In 1945 Pough, then the Audubon Society's ecologist, warned that when and if the Federal Government released DDT for civilian use, nontarget insects, fishes, frogs and birds would suffer.

As with Hickey, Pough had luck with another drop-in, Charles Broley, a 60-year-old retired banker from Winnipeg. While on the way to his retirement home in Florida, Broley stopped by to see Pough in New York with the idea that he could do something useful. Pough suggested that Broley band eagles. Very little work had been done on eagles; only 58 had ever been banded. Broley, who knew next to nothing about eagles, which put him on an equal footing with most experts, agreed to try and headed south with bands and a few words of advice, both provided by Pough.

In Florida, Broley set to work. Using a rope ladder to climb up through tree branches, he began banding bald eagles with a vengeance. Pough had told him that no eagle or other bird of prey would ever attack with its beak but would instead try to claw with its talons. Despite Pough's warning, Broley turned his back a few times on great horned owls, which are fond of taking over eagles' nests, and was slashed twice. Once an owl struck from behind, ripping into his right shoulder and almost knocking him from the tree. But nothing deterred Broley. By the time of his death in his late 70s, he had banded more than 1,200 bald eagles, including one confused female that was trying to hatch a rubber ball.

In 1954 Pough sought to have the Audubon Society save the Corkscrew cypress swamp in Florida. But John Baker, then the Audubon president, doubted sufficient money could be raised and put the project off. With only 10 days remaining before a lumber company would start logging the swamp, Pough asked Baker if he could have a crack at raising the necessary $145,000 for purchase. With a doubtful laugh, Baker told Pough to try. "I talked to Theodore Edison, the son of the inventor, and he said he'd put in some money," Pough recalls. "I spoke to Horace Albright, a friend of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and told him that Mr. Rockefeller should contribute. I said, 'The cypress is the redwood of the East.' Word came back that Rockefeller would put up half. Rockefeller always puts up half. Then I got Paul Mellon's Old Dominion Foundation to contribute, and we beat the deadline by one day. But what got me is that Baker wanted Rockefeller's pledge in writing!"

In 1948 Pough, left Audubon to become chairman of the department of conservation and general ecology at the American Museum of Natural History, where his brother Frederick, author of the Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals, was curator of the department of physical geology. Pough planned and supervised the exhibits in the Hall of North American Forests, in which he demonstrated forest dynamics by showing growth and successful change. On other fronts, he urged the late Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy, then the Lamont curator emeritus of the bird department, to prove that the cahow, or Bermuda petrel, was not extinct (he did), got Arthur Vernay, a museum trustee, to establish a sanctuary for flamingos in the Bahamas, assisted Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of the novelist, in setting up an underwater park on the Exuma Cays, and helped found The Nature Conservancy, a land acquisition organization that came into existence because of Pough's impatience with the old Ecologists Union. "The members of the union were all wonderful ecologists," Pough says, "but they couldn't have known less about how to get land, deal for land, buy land. For this you need businessmen. The success of The Nature Conservancy is due to the fact that we brought in businessmen. A vice-president of the conservancy, Patrick F. Noonan, is an ex-real estate man. I think we make a mistake in conservation in getting naturalists for all the jobs. When you've got something to do that's straight public relations, for example, you don't want a naturalist, you want a man who's been on newspapers or Madison Avenue for 20 years."

The Nature Conservancy holds land in its own right, but in some cases it endeavors to transfer parcels to organizations specifically interested in maintaining them. Should an organization fail to live up to its deed, say by attempting to clear-cut or develop the land, ownership will revert to The Nature Conservancy. Most important to beleaguered and broke conservationists intent upon saving a threatened piece of land is the fact that The Nature Conservancy has a $3.4 million revolving loan fund. This fund got its first major boost at a luncheon Pough had with Mrs. DeWitt Wallace of the Reader's Digest. After hearing out Pough on the need to save land with emergency funds, Mrs. Wallace immediately wrote a check for $100,000. "The idea in setting up The Nature Conservancy," Pough says, "was to strip away from conservationists every possible excuse for not saving worthwhile acreage. I can say to them, 'You're tax exempt! Here's the down payment! Are you a man or a mouse? Save it!' " Unfortunately for Pough, the Museum of Natural History trustees did not look with favor on all his campaigns, and he resigned in 1956 with what he calls "their mutual consent."

Leaving the museum did not slow Pough. He promptly moved on to help establish the Natural Area Council and later began the Open Space Institute, which has pursued with unusual vigor and potent economic arguments the setting aside of preserves and sanctuaries in the countryside surrounding the Greater New York area. "We hired an ad man, Chuck Little, to write a book called Stewardship, which we published," says Pough. "It dealt with case histories of what landowners had done to conserve land—often to their tax advantage. Then we went to the tax rolls and found out who owned 20 acres or more of undeveloped land within a 125-mile radius of New York City. We sent every one of these people a little letter saying we had a book, Stewardship, we would like to send them if they were interested. We got 10,000 replies. Then we got a young woman with a marvelous telephone voice, the wife of a Connecticut minister, to call these people about 10 days after they had gotten the book and ask them how they liked it. If they had liked it, she would ask if one of our field men could see them. It has been a very successful program. We got a good many million dollars' worth of land given, one way or another, to private or public agencies.

"We also had Little do a second book, Challenge of the Land, which we sent to municipal officials and civic leaders. It deals with specific case histories of how communities have been able to hold down municipal costs and save open space at the same time."

At present Pough is also busy with the America the Beautiful Fund, which dispenses "seed grants" of up to $1,000 to applicants needing help with programs ranging from water conservation to historic preservation. And so, where Pough goes money flows. Recently a deceased banker, who had been fond of inviting his pet African lion into board meetings, had willed Defenders of Wildlife $2 million. Pough was very pleased. He was twice as pleased when the attorneys wrote a week later to say that there had been a miscalculation—the sum was $4 million. Moreover, the will decreed that Defenders of Wildlife was not to bank the money, but to spend it all on wildlife as soon as possible. "I don't think we'll have any trouble," Pough says.