Richard Pough

Founder of the US Nature Conservancy and author of best-selling bird guides
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The Independent Online

Richard Hooper Pough, conservationist and writer: born New York 19 April 1904; Roving Warden, National Audubon Society 1936-48; Chairman of Conservation and General Ecology, American Museum of Natural History 1948-56; President, Nature Conservancy 1950-56; married Moira Flannery (died 1986; one son, and one son deceased); died Chilmark, Massachusetts 24 June 2003.

Richard Pough was a successful environmental campaigner in the United States who was the architect of the country's network of privately owned nature reserves. He was a founder of the Nature Conservancy, a leading American wildlife charity analogous to Britain's county wildlife trusts, and named after Britain's first official nature conservation body. He was also, with Roger Peterson, the author of the world's first best- selling field guides on wild birds.

Pough was a soft-spoken man of quiet integrity. In one of his first campaigns, to save an Indian burial ground from the attention of souvenir hunters, a local legislator asked him, "What's in it for you?" The answer was nothing, but, Pough recalled, "it taught me a lesson I never forgot. There was never going to be anything in it for me in any civic activity I undertook. It's a principle I've adhered to all my life."

Richard Hooper Pough (pronounced Poe) was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1904, the son of a chemist and amateur mineralogist, but grew up later in St Louis. His lifelong love affair with wild birds began in childhood after he noticed that the bushes along the Rhode Island coast were alive with birds during the autumn migration. Later he took advantage of family rock-collecting expeditions to become acquainted with birds and plants across the American continent. He trained as a chemical engineer, but birding always took precedence: he volunteered for the night shift at his first job, at a Texas oil refinery, so that he could devote the day to studying bird migration along the Gulf Coast.

One day in the early 1930s, Pough visited Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and encountered a large group of men blasting the birds out of the sky with rifles. The next week he retrieved 230 dead hawks, and sent photographs of them piled high to Bird Lore, the magazine of the National Audubon Society, America's equivalent of the RSPB. The pictures caused an outcry, and, teaming up with the bird activist Rosalie Edge, Pough was able to raise funds entirely from private donations to purchase 1,400 acres of Hawk Mountain as America's first privately run bird sanctuary.

In 1936, Pough became a "roving warden" for the society, documenting America's rare birds and investigating abuses of wild birds. He highlighted the use of feathers of rare birds like the Orillard Pheasant and the Roseate Spoonbill in the millinery trade. The Audubon Society's campaign attracted support from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and the actress Mary Pickford, and ultimately obtained legislation banning the sales of wild-bird plumage. He was also one of the first to draw attention to the unforeseen impacts of DDT on wild birds. His warning to The New Yorker magazine that "If DDT should ever be used widely and without care we would have a country without freshwater fish, serpents, frogs and most wild birds" preceded Rachel Carson's environmental classic Silent Spring by nearly 20 years.

In 1946, The Audubon Bird Guide, the first of three field guides written by Pough, became a best-seller, and gave him the financial independence to pursue his goal of a network of nature reserves across America. While heading the new nature conservation department at the American Museum of Natural History, Pough took hold of a small group called the Ecologists' Union and had it renamed the Nature Conservancy.

As its first President, he toured the United States at his own expense, lecturing and fund-raising. In his soft-spoken style, he was able to charm the wealthy into supporting the cause, and, setting up a Land Preservation Fund, was able to secure such places as Corkscrew Swamp in Florida, Little Cumberland Island in Georgia, Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona and Devil's Den in Connecticut for permanent preservation. Meanwhile, he led the fight to stop the Echo Park Dam on the Colorado River and a plan to drive a highway through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. In 1981, he received the Audubon Medal for his achievements in conservation and environmental protection.

Richard Pough retired from full-time conservation in 1984, aged 80. In his 1990 book The Audubon Ark, Frank Graham described Pough as having "practically invented the land-preservation business in [the US]". He was never a prominent media personality, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes, and is surprisingly little-known in Britain. Yet his ability to appeal to the conscience of America's wealthy citizenry to support private-sector nature conservation produced results well in advance of what Britain's wildlife charities achieved over the same period.

Peter Marren