As of Feb. 12, 2016, Tennessee Wildlife Federation has been serving as champion of our state’s great outdoors for an amazing 70 years.
It was on that date in 1946 that a group of 53 sportswriters, business leaders, and outdoorsmen gathered at the Read House in Chattanooga to put into place an organization that would forever change the landscape of conservation in Tennessee.
They created the Tennessee Conservation League (TCL), what we know today as Tennessee Wildlife Federation.
When they formed TCL, the original members saw an urgent need to create a coalition of Tennessee’s sportsmen — mainly by forming the many hunting and fishing clubs of the day into a cohesive group that could move the needle on conservation issues. Another goal, although less publicized on the front end, was to remove politics from the State Game and Fish Division of the Conservation Department, according to Marge Davis’ 1997 book, Sportsmen United: the Story of the Tennessee Conservation League.
TCL’s first president, Lou Williams, told the group it was his “burning desire to get the Conservation Department itself out of politics,” wrote Davis. From its very beginnings, the organization was willing to buck convention to advocate on behalf of what was in the best interests of Tennessee’s wildlife, natural resources, and rich heritage of hunting and fishing.
For the next 26 years, the League would tackle conservation issues as an entirely volunteer organization, building its clout as the decades passed. By 1972, TCL was ready to hire its first full-time staff member, an executive director to raise the organization’s profile in the public consciousness and actively advocate on behalf of Tennessee’s sportsmen and women on Capital Hill. The hiring committee shrewdly chose 32-year-old New Mexico wildlife officer Tony Campbell, a Pennsylvania native.
Campbell’s 23-year stint as director of TCL would become legendary in the annals of the Tennessee conversation story. Under Campbell’s direction, TCL helped convert the old Tennessee Game and Fish Commission into the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency—a science-based, not political-based, state fish and wildlife agency—in 1974. He helped created Project CENTS—Conservation Education Now for Tennessee Students—that became standard curriculum for that state’s school system for many years. Working closely with longtime TWRA Director Gary Myers, Campbell was one of the chief architects of the Wetlands Acquisition Act in the mid-1980s, resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres of protected wildlife habitat.
In the late 1990s and under the direction of CEO Mike Butler, following Campbell’s retirement, TCL began to evolve from a mostly policy-shaping organization to a broader, program-based non-profit. The League added the Tennessee Scholastic Clay Target Program and Hunters for the Hungry as boots-on-the-ground methods to engage people in the great outdoors, create future conservationists, and combine wildlife management with community services like hunger relief.
By 2004, the TCL board felt that it needed to update the organization’s name to place a greater emphasis on wildlife, so the Tennessee Conservation League became Tennessee Wildlife Federation. Over the past twelve years, Tennessee Wildlife Federation has continued to serve as the voice of reason on Capital Hill on behalf of Tennessee sportsmen and women while actively engaging people in the Great Outdoors. Since early 2015, the Federation has also added its Youth Hunting & Fishing program and ramped up its efforts to restore wetlands habitat through its Tennessee Ecological Services activities.
It is an exciting time for an organization that, even at age 70, continues to expand, take on new challenges, and innovate in the field of wildlife conservation.