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An enduring environmental influence


It wasn’t always easy being green.

Ethyle Strike Bloch, who died recently at 94, was an environmentalist back when that point of view was unusual and often misunderstood.

Even in the 1950s, when those who sensed the emerging problems of American industrial growth were dismissed as tree-huggers, Bloch understood how precious and vulnerable the natural world had become. Thankfully, she and handfuls of others had the foresight to start planning for a day when the idea of respecting and preserving nature was more than an odd pursuit to be laughed at and marginalized.

Bloch and her husband, William Bloch, both served in World War II – as an Army accountant, she witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor – and moved to Fort Wayne at the end of that conflict. They soon became involved in a different kind of struggle that they carried on for the rest of their lives: fighting against pollution and looking for ways to preserve pristine areas.

Ethyle Bloch’s particular passion was northeast Indiana’s waterways. She told an interviewer in the mid-’90s that she remembered when the St. Joseph River was a crystal-clear stream as it ran through Fort Wayne.

“It isn’t today,” she said. “It is chocolate brown all the time. People were even swimming in the St. Joe by the Johnny Appleseed Park, and that soon disappeared after a few years. And the water kept getting worse and worse.”

Her passionate dismay at the degradation of our resources led Bloch to join the Izaak Walton League, for which she eventually served as its first female state president and on the conservation group’s national board.

Long before the environmental movement became cool and the Environmental Protection Agency was created to worry about such things, Bloch and her friend, the legendary advocate Jane Dustin, were paddling down our local rivers looking for the telltale sludge pipes of industrial polluters.

After Fort Wayne’s floods brought a different kind of concern about the rivers, Bloch was one of those who urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try more ecologically friendly approaches to controlling the waterways.

Many disagreed with her views then, but in the larger picture, her sense of how important and valuable Fort Wayne’s waterways can be has been vindicated by new efforts to control storm sewer runoff and plans to include the waterways in the future of downtown development.

Bloch also was a founding member of the ACRES land trust, which oversees 86 natural preserves comprising 5,082 acres in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

William Bloch died in 2002, and Ethyle Bloch moved to Wisconsin soon afterward to be near relatives. But her influence here may live on as long as Hoosier streams run wild and free.