Today, on Earth Day 2013, the most burning environmental issue is global.
In 1875 — 95 years before the first Earth Day was founded — the eldest son of Springfield’s most influential family launched the nation’s first environmental crusade in response to the deforestation crisis on the North American continent.
John Aston Warder was 18 in 1830 when his parents, Jeremiah and Ann Aston Warder, left the comfort of Philadelphia with most of his brothers and sisters to resettle on family land in Springfield.
In a memorial tribute to him in August of 1883, the American Journal of Forestry poetically said his parents had “moved into the Western forest and established another ‘Woodside’ near Springfield, Ohio.”
Woodside Avenue in the city’s Warder Park area is named after the Warder family home in suburban Philadelphia, a home in which John met John Joseph Audubon, the nation’s most famous ornithologist, and other of America’s early naturalists.
Multiple sources say the eldest son attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia largely because agricultural education had not yet been established and because of his interest in anatomy, as well as nature.
Graduating in 1836, he married Elizabeth Browne Haines of Germantown, Pa., and moved to Cincinnati, establishing a practice and, like his family in Springfield, becoming active in his community. He served on the school board, joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science, helped to found the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, developed an interest in astronomy, then in 1855 did what his father had done: traded in his original career to pursue agricultural interests.
A tribute to him in the Mississippi Valley Horticultural Society described the transition elegantly: “As the sea shell, though ever so long and far away from its home in the surf, will, when placed to the ear, always moan of its ocean home, so this great and tender soul ever yearned for a life among the flora (plants) and sylva (trees) of his youth.”
He did that at North Bend, Ohio, buying land on bluffs above the Ohio River from the widow of President William Henry Harrison and turning it into an early agricultural experimental station.
Warder by then had finished a four-year run publishing the Western Horticultural Review and turned his attention to entomology, hedges and evergreens.
As a member of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society, he was also involved in founding and landscaping Spring Grove Cemetery in the 1840s and 1850s. During and after the Civil War, the man who published widely on rural cemetery landscaping also likely advised his Springfield brothers William and then Benjamin Warder on the development of Ferncliff Cemetery.
The war that led Springfield to open Ferncliff saw Dr. Warder practice battlefield medicine as brigade surgeon with the First Brigade of the Ohio Militia. But the war didn’t end his work in agriculture.
Warder’s “Report of the Flax and Hemp Commission” for the Ohio Department of Agriculture came in 1865, followed by “American Pomology”, a 750-page book on apples that had taken 16 years to produce. In 1867, he edited “Vineyard Culture,” focusing on grapes used in wine.
Warder’s focus on forestry emerged in the 1870s, and that interest deepened and accelerated in 1873, when he was appointed U.S. commissioner to the World’s Fair at Vienna.
During his visit, he consulted with Europe’s most skilled foresters. And the man the German foresters called “Herr Praktischer” for his practical ways, produced his “Report upon Forests and Forestry,” then turned from writing to action.
Conventions he organized in Chicago in 1875 and Philadelphia in 1876 established the American Forestry Association. Coupled with the founding of the federal forest service, the association “marked the beginning of the forest conservation movement in the United States,” wrote Henry Clepper, author of multiple books on early conservation.
Its success, he added, was “due in large part to the leadership of John Aston Warder (who) crystallized public opinion on the need to protect forests.”
In 1882, Warder helped to merge the American Forestry Association with the American Forestry Congress, creating American Forests, an organization that still advocates on forestry issues.
The passing of more than a century and the image of Smoky Bear may make forest conservation seem a quaint older relative of environmentalism.
But at a 2010 conference in Denver, Chief Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Service described the scale of the cutting.
”In the second half of the 19th century, America lost about 200 million acres of forest, an area almost six times the size of New York. Almost all of that loss was due to land clearing in the East and Midwest for timber and agriculture.”
The Ohio Division of Forestry estimates that before European settlement, forests covered 95 percent of the state. By 1900 that percentage was at 15 and in 1940 it had been shaved to 12.
In a portrait of John Warder in the Summer 1989 edition of “Queen City Heritage,” author Roberta L. Schachter spelled out the obstacles Warder faced as a “horticultural missionary.”
“For too long, settlers in their eagerness to clear land had tended to think of trees as enemies, of forests as everlasting. Wood was for burning or building. Of erosion, soil depletion and barren landscapes, the public seemed unaware.”
In an address to the Mississippi Valley Horticultural Society, Warder said “that where the cupidity of man has ruthlessly destroyed the natural arboreal covering … the perennially and gently flowing rivulet has … become the uncontrollable mountain torrent, which, in its rapid course to the lower levels, bears everything before it.
“It first takes away the accumulated soil, produced by ages of decay (and) long since gathered from the atmosphere by nature’s chemistry. Then the rocks themselves yield to the tempestuous current, the mountain sides are scored and gashed, rent into frightful fissures.”
Nor did Warder spare the rod in trying to correct the powerful.
“Thanks to the lavish aid of our government,” he said, the railroads “are in possession of millions of acres; they hold large principalities of lands just where forests are most needed to meet their own enormous demands.”
“When,” he asked, “will our great railway companies become creators and conservators as well as consumers and destroyers of our forests?”
He made others nervous when he called the destruction of the woodlands “a subject that calls for the most serious consideration of the statesman, and perhaps also for the interference and care of government.”
Privately, legislators and captains of industry may have breathed a sigh of relief when Warder, who had been appointed in 1883 as a USDA agent to report on the forests of the Northwest, died that July 14.
His friends did not. The American Forestry Association called Warder’s passing “an almost irreparable loss” to the cause of forestry in a fond remembrance.
“Skillful as a writer, he was even more happy in off-handed addresses, and we recall with sad pleasure the graceful style and playful humor with which he conveyed to us the most valuable information. The thought that we shall see his friendly face and hear his kindly voice no more fills us with deep sadness.”
Warder is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.