SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
May 28, 1973
Richard Pough, a true ward of Mother Nature, is as tough—and well organized—as the old lady herself
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May 28, 1973

An Earth-saving Bulldozer That Runs On Money

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

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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."

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