OOS 53-2
A legacy preserved?: ESA co-founder Victor Shelford and his devotion to saving land for science's sake

Wednesday, August 12, 2015: 1:50 PM
329, Baltimore Convention Center
Kathleen Fichtel, History, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

Many histories of environmental protection in the United States highlight foundational contributions made by individuals during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, conservation and landscape management underwent an important shift beginning in the 1910s. The key difference between earlier attempts to preserve wild spaces and what would become new standards of environmental management was the professionalization of ecology. The close relationship between conservation and ecology was fostered by a small cadre of ESA members, spearheaded by ESA co-founder and first president Victor E. Shelford.

In this case study, Victor Shelford's contributions to the evolution of American conservation practices in the 20th century are presented as fundamentally important. As a student, Shelford valued his opportunities to participate in field studies. This solidified his belief in the importance of ensuring the preservation of land for future researchers.

In 1917, Shelford formed the Committee for the Preservation of Natural Conditions within the newly-incorporated ESA. Seven years later, they published their assessment of land tracts of ecological interest in the Naturalists' Guide to the Americas. He continued to be an advocate for science-based preservation and land management throughout his career. This was a revolutionary notion, even to foresters and members of the National Park Service.

Shelford and other members of the preservation committee split from ESA to form the Ecologists' Union in 1947. Preservation and advocacy were to be their chief function. By 1950, the group changed its name to the Nature Conservancy, which has since grown to be one of the largest land preservation NGOs in the world.

This case study is supported by letters and documents located in the Victor E. Shelford papers at the University of Illinois. They are juxtaposed against articles in periodicals such as ESA's Bulletin and Science to highlight the rising importance of ecology to environmental protection during the 20th century.


The Nature Conservancy continues to emphasize the scientific benefits of land trusts. Victor Shelford's lifelong passion for saving land for the sake of science irrevocably changed the conservation conversation. The integration of ecology and environmental protection is not without criticism. However, regardless of how one understands the relationship between the two, there is no denying that they are now inextricable. This development is due in large part to Shelford's view that it was ecologists who were best equipped to implement environmental management, partly for the benefits this conferred to long-term ecological studies.