Berry's book takes look at the banning of DDT in Wisconsin

Anyone who thinks that individual people can’t make significant changes in the way that the environment is managed should read Bill Berry’s new book and they will find out otherwise.

Banning DDT – How citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way brings out the human side of the battle undertaken by Wisconsin citizens to get the pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) banned in 1970.

Wisconsin led the nation when the DNR held special administrative hearings on the pesticide once promoted by agriculturalists and commonly sprayed in communities to kill beetles that spread Dutch elm disease.  But DDT was found to have a long life span in the environment.  It was absorbed and eventually built up to levels in fish and birds that threatened their survival.

The Citizens Natural Resources Association of Wisconsin spearheaded the movement, with assistance from the Environmental Defense Fund, resulting in a six-month long hearing in Madison that produced 4,500 pages of testimony on DDT.

Eventually the result was that Wisconsin was the second state in the nation to ban DDT.

The 264-page book documents the fascinating story of how the hearings came about and the passion of average citizens who gave time and money to lead the way.

For example, several important people, whom Wisconsin natural resource enthusiasts should never forget, are:

• Joe Hickey, professor of wildlife ecology at the UW-Madison Department of Wildlife Ecology.  Hickey, an avid birder, learned that birds of prey, especially peregrine falcons, were not reproducing.  He had his graduate student survey eyries in North America and analyze egg shells, comparing them to eggs in collections from decades before.  In the end he learned that DDT was responsible for thinner-than-normal egg shells that broke under the weight of nesting birds.

• Laurie Otto, a housewife from Bayside, is representative of the “garden club ladies” who were the backbone of the hearings and did much work behind the scenes to bring in technical experts and keep pressure on the DNR to ban DDT.  Otto knew something was wrong when she found dead robins following DDT spraying.  She went on to found the natural landscaping group, The Wild Ones, and spearhead the movement for native plants.

• Don L. Johnson and Whitney Gould, reporters for The Milwaukee Sentinel and The Capital Times, respectively, covered the hearings and brought the problem into the living rooms of the public.  Johnson particularly told me, before he passed away in 2006, that Walter Scott, then assistant to DNR Secretary Lester Voigt, had made it possible for Johnson to see “secret files” detailing the persistence of DDT in Wisconsin lakes and fish.  Johnson ignored threats from ag and chemical interests that wanted him to hold off reporting on the problems of DDT.

These Wisconsin heroes, some of whom are already in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, blazed a trail for future citizens to emulate.

Berry’s book is available for $18.95 from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press ( or in many book stores.


Categories: Wisconsin – Tim Eisele

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