Richard Pough, Conservation Pioneer
Passionate Advocate for Wild Places Is Dead at 99
By JOHN WALTER
Richard H. Pough, the groundbreaking conservationist who died Tuesday, summered near Abel's Hill for 40 years. Quietly and surely, over decades, he helped frame the discussion of conservation on the Vineyard just as dramatically as he inflenced that debate nationally.
His scholar's knowledge helped Islanders understand that a portion of the Vineyard is geologically important as sandplain habitat. And he was an early voice in the quarter that said, "Enough tourists already; stop promoting the Vineyard."
Death came in early evening at his Chilmark home; he was 99.
Audubon magazine described Mr. Pough - it rhymes with "though" - as the man who "practically invented the land conservation business in this country." He was the author of the famous Audubon bird guides.
Sports Illustrated called him "the most effective and least publicized conservationist in the U.S."
Richard Goodwin, who followed Mr. Pough as president of The Nature Conservancy in the mid-1950s, once said: "He was a bloodhound. He sniffed out opportunities and ways of preserving our natural landscape."
Robert Woodruff, executive director of the Great Pond Foundation and former executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said yesterday, "He had knowledge, perspective, and vision - extraordinary in one person. He always had sound advice, and a wonderful sense of humor."
And the Vineyard's Polly Hill, speaking of him in the present tense, said his passions were "birds and food - he'll eat anything with great enjoyment." You could always find him, Mrs. Hill said, "down around the marshy places, where the birds are."
Mr. Pough had visited the Island for years before purchasing the Chilmark property, overlooking South Beach, in 1961; he and his wife, Moira, bought three-plus acres of a former sheep pasture. "We mow the grass to keep the meadow," he once said. "It's our attempt to preserve the great views."
He served as an unofficial consultant to the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club, and as an adviser to the Vineyard Conservation Society, and he supported the Vineyard Open Land Foundation.
"I started the conservation society," he said in an interview in 1987, "because there needed to be somebody or some group that was concerned with what was happening here and see where land could be left undisturbed or have an easement put on it, to prevent it from ever being subdivided."
Sometimes he sounded pessimistic about the Vineyard's future.
In 1971 he and Moira wrote a letter to the Gazette marking the tenth anniversary of their Chilmark purchase.
"Recently," they wrote, "we stood on our porch and surveyed the local change in terms of the telephone and utility poles we can see. We are privileged to record no fewer than 78. The little lane by which we approach our cottage had but seven houses and there now are 15 poles with three more sites about to be built upon. Some of the families have three cars."
They went on to say: "This multiplication of pressures and loss of serenity and peace is to be found everywhere throughout the Vineyard. The all too ephemeral quality and charm that once gave us all respite from the city is fast fading away."
Years later, he said: "I'm not terribly hopeful for the Vineyard. This Island is going to get chopped up into sized units that the zoning allows. And then with the tax pressures and inheritance and all the rest, I don't see anything we can do to prevent it."
And he said: "There are too many people, too much money, too much publicity for the Vineyard. If I had my wishes, there's nothing I would wish for more than they'd stop advertising the Vineyard. They're crazy. They're going to ruin the place and ruin their own business. There should be absolutely no advertising of the Vineyard on the radio or on anything else. There are too many people coming already."
Still, he saw hope in such organizations as the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation and the land bank, and "thank goodness for the state forest."
Mr. Pough said of such efforts: "If we keep working parcel by parcel, we'll tie up the land so that it will remain open."
Mr. Woodruff said Mr. Pough always kept a perspective on this place.
He knew that "sweeping preservation" here was impossible, because the Island was under such pressure to develop. On the other hand, "He thought we could do what we have tried to do - preserve 20 per cent of the land mass through varied means … and focus on the fragile habitats."
Mr. Woodruff remembers walking with Mr. Pough through the sandplain - "we didn't call it that then" - and "I remember him pointing out plants, and showing that this was part of a continuous prairie, one vast prairie that extended from Chesapeake Bay and way seaward to Georges Bank."
Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said such conversations helped in "creating the vocabulary" for Island conservation as we know it today. Crinkled onion-skin copies of 50-year-old letters written by Mr. Pough, Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough and others, in which they discussed legal methods of preserving land, reside in the conservancy's files. Ultimately, Mr. O'Neill said, Mr. Pough believed that for conservation to work you "put responsibility for protection of a place where the control lies, in the combined action of the landowners." And he trusted Vineyarders "to do the right thing."
Born in Brooklyn on April 19, 1904, Dick Pough spent summers as a child on Block Island, and he credited his mother, an MIT graduate in biology and public health, with interesting him in Gray's Botany and the living world. His father was a geologist and mineralogist. The family moved to St. Louis when he was 15, and he spent summers driving around the West, camping and hiking and occasionally putting up at the Harvey Houses, then just beginning to draw tourists west.
He followed his mother to MIT, graduating in 1926; he pursued a year of graduate study at Harvard in fine arts. Then he went off to work as an engineer at a sulfuric acid plant in Port Arthur, Tex.; he chose the night shift so he could spend days watching the bird migrations along the Gulf Coast.
Later, in Philadelphia, at a bankruptcy sale he bought a chain of camera stores and nursed them back to health: "That was my undoing. I had no one to answer for my time, so I began to get involved in trying to save endangered wildlife and especially critical habitats."
His first strong environmental activism involved fighting for hawks, and against the killing of them for sport.
The first land he fought to preserve was a 1,200-acre site atop a ridge in Pennsylvania, an area now called Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
That led to him joining the staff of the National Audubon Society.
After World War II, he became curator of conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. It was in these years that he wrote the famous bird guides.
Eventually his work led him to join the Ecologists Union, which in 1950 was transformed into The Nature Conservancy, a land acquisition organization. Today the Conservancy with its many state chapters has built the country's largest privately-owned sanctuary system.
"He had a wonderful manner," his Chilmark neighbor, Barbara Pesch, recalled. "He could talk anybody out of their land. He put it in such a plausible way that you couldn't not do it. You'd walk away with your pockets empty." And then she said: "He was a living legend."
Mr. Pough knew Margaret Mead, Rachel Carson, Prince Philip, Lady Bird Johnson, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Charles Lindbergh. And though he was somewhat shy in initial conversation, he'd generally open up and become garrulous - "the world according to Pough," his friends called it.
"One of my favorite mottoes," he once said, "is, ‘Are you man or are you mouse?' Stop talking and do something! I'm pretty action minded."
And on another occasion: "I couldn't have had a more satisfying life."
As for the Vineyard, there is poignancy in the letter the Poughs wrote the Gazette back in 1971.
"Are we leaving our two sons the heritage we had hoped, or will we bequeath them merely a forest of poles obscuring the polluted beaches, our roadside vegetation dying from diesel fumes and nerves jangling from the deafening roar of buses, planes and motorcycles? Having devoted 35 years to the cause of conservation, can it be that the Vineyard has been our most heartbreaking and frustrating effort, the one project in which we, ourselves, have such an immense, personal involvement?"
Mr. Pough was preceded in death by his wife, who died in 1986; son Edward W. (Wren), and granddaughter Juliette Pough. He is survived by brothers Frederick, of Reno, Nev., and Harold, of Wynnewood, Pa.; son Tristram H.; daughter in law Victoria G.; granddaughter Louisa and grandson Graham of Larchmont, N.Y., and daughter in law Marguerite, of Seattle, Wash.
A memorial service on the Vineyard will be held this fall at a date to be announced. His son, Tristram, said those wishing to contribute or donate in memory of his father should simply "plant a tree."