Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way
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On a December day in 1968, DDT went on trial in Madison, Wisconsin. In Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way, Bill Berry details how the citizens, scientists, reporters, and traditional conservationists drew attention to the harmful effects of “the miracle pesticide” DDT, which was being used to control Dutch elm disease.
Berry tells of the hunters and fishers, bird-watchers, and garden-club ladies like Lorrie Otto, who dropped off twenty-eight dead robins at the Bayside village offices. He tells of university professors and scientists like Joseph Hickey, a professor and researcher in the Department of Wildlife Management in at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who, years after the fact, wept about the suppression of some of his early DDT research. And he tells of activists like Senator Gaylord Nelson and members of the state’s Citizens Natural Resources who rallied the cause.
The Madison trial was one of the first for the Environmental Defense Fund. The National Audubon Society helped secure the more than $52,000 in donations that offset the environmentalists’ costs associated with the hearing. Today, virtually every reference to the history of DDT mentions the impact of Wisconsin’s battles.
The six-month-long DDT hearing was one of the first chapters in citizen activism in the modern environmental era. Banning DDT is a compelling story of how citizen activism, science, and law merged in Wisconsin’s DDT battles to forge a new way to accomplish public policy. These citizen activists were motivated by the belief that we all deserve a voice on the health of the land and water that sustain us.
“Fred” Baumgartner of Stevens Point was in the latter category. Bespectacled and diminutive, Baumgartner’s presidency of the CNRA was marked by its brightest moment: when the DNR hearings thrust the organization into the national spotlight. Baumgartner had risen to the presidency of the CNRA in the midst of its early legal maneuvering over DDT, as Roy Gromme left for India. Baumgartner’s name seldom made its way into the thousands of news reports on the controversy. But records show he was
Stevens Point in 1965, both holding doctoral degrees in ornithology from Cornell University. Fred took a faculty position with the rapidly growing Wisconsin State University–Stevens Point’s Department of Natural Resources. He had served as an associate professor of wildlife conservation in the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University for twenty years before coming to Wisconsin. Marguerite wrote columns for the Stevens Point Journal. The often-lengthy columns (two-thousand-plus words)
on wildlife. Lucille Stickel’s work on eggshell thinning—brought on by dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE), a breakdown product of DDT—would be a major contribution to the body of knowledge and would engage Hickey in another key research effort. When the conference concluded, Hickey had the task of summarizing the findings. “Then, this was a long process of translating the spoken English at this conference into the written English which are two different languages,” he later recalled. “It was
Gusey said. “But criticism is of little value if some sort of remedial action is not offered.” Pesticide critics had failed to provide advice or guidance to the chemical companies, “other than casually. About the only thing they (the industry) ever heard was ‘stop,’ or ‘ban,’ and in a sense this wasn’t particularly helpful.” It was becoming obvious that the NACA wasn’t going to score any major victories. Yannacone’s grasp of the science and his badgering style of cross-examination were holding
on farms the following year.25 On the federal level, Senator Gaylord Nelson had been asking for a DDT ban since as early as 1966. He continued to push for federal action, and in 1969 the Nixon administration was moving in that direction. On May 19, 1969, Leslie Glasgow, an assistant secretary of the US Department of the Interior, said the use of hard pesticides like DDT should be prohibited within three to five years to protect fish, wildlife, and the human environment. “We’ve been talking for