Iowa Conservationists: John F. Lacey

Posted on June 10, 2016 in Blog

John LaceyBefore Silent Spring...
Before Ding Darling...
Before Teddy Roosevelt...

There was Major John F. Lacey!

Here you can learn about this unsung hero -- the first strong Congressional voice for conservation in America. A century ago, he led the passage of legislation that still protects wilderness areas, wildlife, and migratory birds today! The lasting success of this "Iowa boy" in environmental policy should inspire us common folk to speak out for conservation today, too.


John Fletcher Lacey was born on May 30, 1841 in New Martinsville, West Virginia. In 1855 his family moved to Iowa. They arrived at Keokuk by steamboat and then drove a team of horses across the mostly unbroken prairie to Oskaloosa, where they settled. Lacey considered this trip through the wild prairie as one of the most memorable times in his life. In 1856, the Lacey family moved to a farm in Mahaska County on the Des Moines River near Cedar Bluffs, a beautiful natural area of forests, cliffs, and stream. John began acquiring a keen interest in nature during his teenage years here on the farm. Evidently this was also the time he began to develop an environmental awareness and a deep concern for conservation matters. He studied diligently during these years at academies in Oskaloosa.

Lacey joined the Union Army on his 20th birthday, May 30, 1861. He served his country illustriously during the Civil War for four years. He attained the rank of Major before being discharged in July 1865. Upon arriving back home he immediately started practicing law and soon married his sweetheart of many years, Mattie Newell. He continued to practice law until his death on Sept. 29, 1913, establishing himself as a most respected, knowledgeable, and successful attorney.

Mattie and John had four children, but only daughters Berenice and Eleanor survived beyond infancy. Berenice described her father as the ideal husband and father. He loved his family and always took time to be with them, no matter how busy his schedule. When he was in Washington, one of his favorite activities was to take the family to the zoo or parks for a picnic on Sunday afternoon. Berenice remembered her father as always having had a great love for the outdoors and that it pained him to see the increasing degree of wanton destruction of forests and wildlife in the in the late 1800's. The family also traveled extensively. Lacey visited every state and many territories over the years, enriching his mind and soul along the way. He always looked forward to returning home to Iowa, though.

Policy Changes

Forest Reserve Act of 1891 

Legislation which permitted the President to set aside federal forest reserves (now called national forests) from the public domain (unsettled federal lands). Lacey helped draft this legislation as a member of the House Public Lands Committee. The act did not define the purposes of the of the reserves however. Subsequently, they were viewed as preserves or parks in which all mining, logging and grazing was prohibited. This created a furor among Western legislators causing problems for the forest reserves program for years to come.

Yellowstone Protective Act of 1894 

A comprehensive and detailed law providing for the administration of Yellowstone National Park. This act was introduced by Lacey on March 25, 1894. It also established Yellowstone as an inviolate wildlife refuge, the first such refuge in the country. The act was the first legislation to establish definitive national park management rules and it was also the first federal wildlife protection law. This is considered a piece of landmark legislation.

Bird Act of 1900

Lacey's daughter, Berenice, shared a story about how her father won support for his bird act in the House. Representative "Uncle Joe" Cannon, of Illinois, a very powerful member of the House, was prepared to derail Lacey's bill any way he could. Lacey knew that Uncle Joe loved apples. So he filled his pockets with beautiful apples except they all had worm holes. Lacey then gave some of the apples to Mr. Cannon and asked him if he remembered there being many worm eaten apples when he was a boy. Uncle Joe replied that it was only a recent phenomenon. Lacey explained to Uncle Joe that it was the killing of so many birds which ate the worms that caused the condition. This was enough to convince Uncle Joe and he removed his objections to Lacey's bill. The Major demonstrated his wit in staging such a sly performance.

Antiquities Act of 1906

This act allowed "the President to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks...and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on (federal) land to be national monuments."

Representative Jonathan Dolliver, another Iowan (for whom Dolliver State Park was named), first introduced an antiquities preservation bill on Feb. 5, 1900. Soon it was Lacey who became the "moving spirit" behind this legislation. He grew somewhat weary of continually trying to get Congress to establish national parks. He put his emphasis on this legislation because with it a President could essentially declare an area a national park. It's title would just be different - national monument. In fact, most national parks created by Congress since 1906 were first designated as national monuments by various presidents.

This act was primarily intended to save the prehistoric Indian ruins of the Southwest, but over 200 national monuments, including many large, scenic parklands, have been established. Jimmy Carter used the provisions of the law to set aside 56,000,000 acres in Alaska as national monuments in order to preserve many pristine areas. Lacey would have definitely approved.

Roosevelt declared Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument on Sep. 24, 1906. Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa's only "national park", was established by Harry Truman on Oct. 25, 1949 under the provisions of this act.

Three legislative acts have been referred to as the "Magna Carta of American Conservation". These are the Antiquities Act of 1906, Park Service Act of 1916 and Wilderness Act of 1964. This statement indicates the true significance of this "Lacey Act."


Learn about John F. Lacey's life, accomplishments and legacy by checking out these links:

Congressional Biography
Antiquities Act of 1906