For those who lauded the recent historic signing of agreements that would by 2020 bring down four hydroelectric dams blocking salmon and steelhead migration and depleting thousands of acres of wetlands on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, it is worth noting that in early 1926 – ninety years ago, to be exact –children’s author and naturalist Thornton Burgess called on his Radio Nature League listeners to protest drainage of the Lower Klamath and the environmental devastation it caused.
A Cape Cod native who settled in western Massachusetts, Thornton Burgess is best known as the prolific 20h century author of 70 children’s books and 15,000 newspaper columns. In fact, the writer was a deeply committed conservationist who used his animal stories and a pioneering radio program to advocate for game limits, fair hunting practices, steel leg trap restrictions, anti-littering, and wetlands protection, among other issues.
Established in 1925, Burgess’ Radio Nature League on WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts was instantly successful, gaining nearly 5,000 members within three weeks. Membership required pledging to “do everything possible to preserve and conserve all desirable American Wildlife, including birds, animals, flowers, trees, and other living things; also the natural beauty spots and scenic wonders of all America.”
As a radio host he involved the public in collecting ruffed grouse specimens for parasitic studies, and solicited ornithological data on snowy owls, mocking birds, and other species for scientific research and environmental education.
One of the earliest members of the Radio Nature League was Burgess’ friend William Lovell Finley. A respected nature photographer, biologist, and Oregon’s game commissioner, Finley had written Burgess: “The Radio Nature League is the child of a big idea. It will encourage greater love and interest in the out-of-doors. Please enroll our family of four.”
The two men may have met when Burgess attended Finley’s talks in Boston for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, but perhaps Finley’s children had introduced their father to the writer’s popular animal stories. They had much in common for both were professional lecturers, photographers, and contributors to the prestigious Nature magazine. In fact, Burgess and Finley were making plans to collaborate on a children’s book that would utilize Finley’s superb inventory of nature photographs and a Burgess story about a young visitor to the West and the theft of a condor egg. Apparently their literary project did not materialize.
However, on January 27, 1926, Burgess invited William Finley to speak on his half-hour Radio Nature League program about the environmental impact of the federal government’s drainage of Lower Klamath Lake. In order to provide water for agricultural needs, magnificent sprawling wetlands were drained, destroying an essential habitat for resident and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and other wildlife. According to the Oregon Historical Society (www.ohs.org, “Birds of a Feather”), by 1915 the waterbody was reduced from 80,000 acres to 53,600, and by 1922 all that remained of the lake was a 365-acre pond.
After Finley’s talk, Burgess told the audience he was sending a petition to protest Klamath Lake conditions to Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and promised to forward any letters or signatures he received. The immediate and overwhelming response shocked him.
“A week ago Finley was here and I had him tell his Klamath Lake story on the air,” he wrote to his good friend ornithologist Dr. Alfred Gross at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “I followed it by the statement that I was going to send a petition to the Secretary of the Interior, asking him to turn the water back into Klamath Lake. I invited those who were listening in, who felt this was the thing to do, to send in their names to be added to that petition. They have poured in so fast I have not had a chance to count them. I know that already I have between two and three thousands, if not more.” (Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess, p.177)
For months after Finley’s Radio Nature League talk on the Klamath, Burgess continued to receive and forward signatures to the Secretary of the Interior. He noted to Austin Clark, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, that one petition alone contained more than 1,000 names.
The regulatory history of the Klamath River is controversial and evolutionary. State, federal and tribal agencies continue to wrestle with complex rights and conflicting needs for the Klamath’s water. In 2016, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell authorized removal of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River as a first step in the largest river restoration project in American history.
How interesting to realize that a children’s writer used mass media in the early 20th century to promote environmental protection for this great western waterway and the fish and wildlife that depend on it!
Furthermore, it is intriguing to speculate that public opinion intentionally generated in 1926 by Thornton Burgess may have provided some degree of momentum for President Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 decision to restore a portion of Klamath Lake and establish the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.