While the environmental movement may seem like a recent hot topic, it has actually been a concern in the United States for more than a century. From political leaders to writers, the love of the environment has created influential conservationists in every generation.

Robert K. Watson (1946- )

Watson made his mark in the global community by founding Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in 1993. As an internationally recognized green building program, LEED provides guidelines for implementing green building construction, design and maintenance solutions and certifies buildings that meet sustainable standards. Under Watson’s leadership LEED has become the standard by which green buildings are measured. Today, LEED projects have been established in 135 countries, with projects outside of the U.S. accounting for 50 percent of LEED-registered buildings.

Frances Beinecke (1960- )

Beinecke has a life-long love of the environment, which has led to a long career in the environmental arena. She has served as the president of the Natural Resources Defense Fund (NRDC), one of the United States’ most influential environmental groups, since 2006, though she has been with the organization for more than 30 years. Under her leadership, the organization has started a campaign that focuses efforts on clean energy, curbing climate change, defending endangered wildlife, preventing pollution, ensuring safe drinking water and fostering sustainable communities. In her free time she serves on the board of several other environmental groups.

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

Born in Kenya and educated in the United States, Maathai developed a deep love for the environment. While she was known for many things, perhaps her most influential venture was founding the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977. The GBM provides Community and Empowerment Education seminars to inform individuals of their economic, political and environmental circumstances. In recent years, the GBM has focused internationally on climate change, Africa’s rainforests and recycling. Maathai was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development.

William O. Douglas (1898-1980)

Douglas, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court for 36 years, was an outdoorsman who devoted much of his personal time to environmental issues. He is credited with saving the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1954 and inspiring an effort that later turned the area into a national park. His environmental beliefs helped shape American policy through his promotions of stronger laws to protect environmental integrity and democratic action for conservation during a time the nation’s government did not favor environmental protection.

Gaylord Nelson (1926-2005)

Nelson began a career as a politician and environmental activist after he returned from World War II. While he is best known for establishing Earth Day in 1970, the U.S. senator from Wisconsin was instrumental in several environmental efforts. During his three terms as senator, Nelson created the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program that saved around 1 million acres of park land. He also helped pass the national Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Wilderness Acts.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Carson’s book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the environmental movement. The book, published in 1962, focused on environmental problems that she believed were caused by pesticides. Her writing prompted a policy change for national pesticides, leading to a ban on DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), an insecticide that is believed to produce negative impacts on the environment. The book is also said to have created a grassroots environmental movement that eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

John Muir (1838-1914)

Muir dedicated much of his life to preservation. He was instrumental in establishing and preserving several national parks including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, earning him the name Father of the National Parks. He also co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, which is now one of the most prominent conservation groups in the U.S.

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