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Joe Penfold, No Ordinary Joe

By Jack Lorenz

If I were asked to name the most important conservationists of the 20th century, three names come immediately to mind: Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Joe Penfold.

Joe who?

While the first two names are familiar to many Americans and almost everyone involved in protection and enjoyment of our natural resources, very few people appreciate the remarkable contributions of the small, humble conservation director of the Izaak Walton League. As the late Congressman Morris K. “Mo” Udall once told me, “Joe Penfold was the creative genius and driving force behind the most important and far reaching conservation legislation in American history.”

Just what did this soft-spoken winner of the OWAA Jade of Chiefs award (1962) do to merit such glowing praise from one of the conservation community’s most revered members of Congress? A brief look at Penfold’s record will make it clear.

In 1958, his ninth year of service with the League (as conservation director and Western regional representative), Penfold conceived and drafted the basic legislation which led to the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wilderness Act, the Recreation Advisory Council and the President’s Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty. The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Committee (ORRRC), which spawned those monumental achievements, was also Penfold’s brainchild. Like a spring freshet that just wouldn’t dry, Penfold’s inspired creations excited both a fledgling environmental community and a Congress that quickly learned that votes followed conservation leadership. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1964) was another piece of now revered legislation that grew from this new fountain of protection for the nation’s most treasured natural wonders. The first Earth Day, the event many will point to as the catalyst that launched the environmental movement, became a reality a few years later, but it didn’t just “grow like Topsy.” A climate had to be built for it and Joe Penfold was as formidable a climate builder as anyone in the nation.

Penfold was quiet, but a ferocious gut fighter. I knew him for just five months. When I joined the Ikes’ national staff as editor of Outdoor America in ’73, my office was right next to Penfold’s. Frail and weakened by kidney disease, he crept in to work every day and “went to the mattresses” with the resource exploiters, polluters, dredgers, drainers — all the bad guys. I learned more through my walls in the short period Penfold had left with us than at any time in my conservation career. The man loved the League, its members and especially the resource base he was fighting for. He also loved OWAA. He’d had many close friends in the organization and often talked about how proud he was to be a “jaded chief.”

A list of Penfold’s honors is almost as revealing as his roster of accomplishments. Here are just a few: American Motors (now Chevron) Conservation Award; the Izaak Walton League’s highest honor, the “54 Founders Award”; the Interior Department’s Conservation Service Award; American Forestry Association Distinguished Service Award; the National Park Service Honorary Park Ranger Award; citations from governors of states where he had been especially helpful; and special recognition from state fish and wildlife agencies. Other conservation pros who worked with Penfold praise him to this day.

Noted conservation leader Dan Poole, an OWAA member for nearly 50 years, and fellow member of the Circle of Chiefs, remembers his old friend: “Slim and trim in appearance, Penfold embodied an ‘outdoor’ person. He looked like he could swim deep rivers and climb high peaks. He was sincere, pleasant and well spoken. In action, he was knowledgeable, direct and decisive. He led development of far-sighted outdoor recreation policies and programs. Some stand yet today as testaments to Penfold’s dedication, interest and knowledge.”

One thing that almost no one remembers about Penfold is that he was a pioneer in the environmental movement’s now widespread active concern over the impact of air and water pollution on urban America. In 1970, Penfold took a bold step and hired a young black college student to launch a new Izaak Walton League department of urban environmental affairs. Shortly after I came on board as the League’s information director, I asked him why such an initiative was housed in the offices of a group comprised almost exclusively of sportsmen-conservationists who lived in rural America on farms and in small cities and towns. He smiled and said in his special way that told you that you were asking an intelligent question (whether you were or not): “If we can’t save our environment for everyone, we can’ save it for anyone.” That’s the sort of daily tutoring I received in the first half of 1973. Legends earn their status not just by doing. They also earn it by teaching — by making others effective. And by inspiring. Penfold did that as few others have.

We lost Penfold in mid-May of ’73, but before we let him go, we held a very special party for him in Washington, D.C. We called it “A Tribute to Joe” and the turnout was unbelievable. Penfold was in his wheelchair and dozens of the nation’s most powerful conservation leaders, legislators and government natural resource agency officials attended. Each took time to stop by and wish Penfold well and to thank him for what he had given the nation. It was one of the most moving tributes any of us ever attended. We knew we were saying goodbye to one of America’s true conservation giants.

Leopold, Carson, Penfold. When we look back on the past 100 years, we must thank all three, especially the brilliant, humble, feisty little guy who created outdoor recreation, conservation and environmental legacies that will enrich America for generations to come. Joe Penfold not only performed in legendary fashion, he was the model for all who hope to be remembered as “a conservationist.”

Jack Lorenz served as executive director of the Izaak Walton League from May 1974 to June 1992. He won OWAA’s top conservation award, the Jade of Chiefs Award, in 1985. Lorenz has been an OWAA member since 1968.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America