Balancing human needs with the health of the natural environment may be the most pressing global concern of the twenty-first century. Yet the environment has been a mainstream political issue for less than 40 years. New York States history underscores the youth and rapid growth of environmental affairs. This paper outlines some of the major events, leaders, laws, and groups that brought the environment from obscurity to prominence in New York. The paper is part of an effort to support those who identify and collect relevant documents concerning environmental affairs in the state. Its two goals are to organize the subject in the minds of its readers, and to provide clues and inspiration for environmental document-hunters.
The history of environmental affairs in New York is the story of how New Yorkers decided to use their natural resources, and how they still struggle to use soil, timber, water, air, and wildlife in ways that do not decrease their value. New York is a huge place for human settlement -- it is larger than Greece and more than half the size of the United Kingdom -- but European immigrants began spreading across the state only about 200 years ago. In that relatively brief time, New Yorkers have developed the states 976 miles of ocean coastline and dug 524 miles of State-maintained canals. New Yorkers largely deforested their land within 100 years of establishing the state; today, forests once again cover the majority of the land, and the amount of forested land in New York is increasing. New York farms were mostly subsistence operations in 1800, but today they send $2.9 billion a year in products to market and spread over 7.3 million acres.
Slightly less than half of New Yorks land is taken by metropolitan areas. But large rural tracts are still appropriated for urban needs as reservoirs, power plants, or dumps, often in the wake of bitter controversy. And perhaps the most valuable open spaces in New York are also reserved for city-dwellers: New Yorks 261,000 acres of state parks and recreation areas attract more than 64 million visitors and their spending money every year. As the old saying goes, 100 tourists equal the income from one acre of potatoes, and the tourists are much easier picking.
Before 1870, most New Yorkers lived in rural areas. In that place and time, "nature" was not seen as a park. It was an overwhelming force sometimes viewed with awe, but most often with loathing. Early farm and village residents may have appreciated wild forests, clean air, and pure water, but their lives and property were regularly threatened by wild animals, extreme temperatures, drought, and floods. Absorbed in a daily struggle to make water, land, and timber yield essential food, shelter, and fuel, the majority of early New Yorkers could not have understood that nature would soon be viewed as a precious thing that needed protection.
Appreciation of wilderness began in the cities, when men and women who were separated from the struggle with nature began to see it as something beautiful or sublime. New York City has been Americas largest urban center since the 1790s, and its sophisticated residents led the nations shift toward nature appreciation. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made New York the economic capital of North America, and it also eased the journey of New Yorkers to western wonders like Niagara Falls. A few decades later, railroads made it a simple matter to visit Lake George or climb the peaks of the Adirondacks. But early nature fans did little about the loggers, hunters, and farmers who were rapidly consuming the states wild areas. Indeed, they often belonged to those groups themselves. George Bird Grinnell, a founder of the National Audubon Society, was the wealthy publisher of a hunting magazine based in New York City.
Scientists were the first to argue that people should protect natural resources out of self-interest. In 1864, George Perkins Marshs Man and Nature introduced the idea that human activity can inflict permanent damage on a landscape. Five years earlier, Darwins On The Origin of Species argued that nature is a constantly-changing system with an uncountable number of interacting parts, and that changing one part of nature might change it all. Marsh, Darwin, and other early ecological thinkers provided some of the intellectual fuel for political efforts to control timber-cutting, regulate game hunting, and protect watersheds . Political support also came from the growing ranks of wealthy camp owners, middle-class tourists, physicians, and others who valued the therapeutic aspects of wild nature. But the most powerful force for protection was the New York Chamber of Commerce, whose members feared the long-term economic consequences of rampant logging.
The campaign for forest protection bore fruit in the mid-1880s when the state legislature created the Forest Preserve and hired game wardens. It triumphed in 1894, when voters ratified the "forever wild" clause in the State Constitution. Over the next two decades, the Forest Preserves defenders fought off repeated attempts to re-institute logging and building. Yet much of the land they fought to protect had already been cut over. Enormous fires caused by continued cut-and-run logging on private land ravaged the new park. Game wardens struggled to enforce the laws and were often frustrated. It took decades for deer, beaver, and other game animals to recover from near-extermination.
The early years of the twentieth century were dominated by the "conservation" movement, which favored the scientific control of natural resources to maximize sustained yields. The movement was lead by Theodore Roosevelt, who published an article on the birds of Franklin County at the age of 19, and forester Gifford Pinchot, the son of a wealthy New York financier. Conservation sciences made rapid progress in the young State University of New York system, lead by the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. The Roosevelt-Pinchot era also produced the first laws for the regulation of New Yorks water, timber, and wildlife. But conservation leaders did not halt the widespread destruction of forests by poor logging practices and fires, and they did not prevent the dumping of raw sewage into urban waterways. While conservationists opposed the rampant mining of natural resources, their main purpose was to promote the harvesting of nature.
In the 1920s, the drive to protect nature gained momentum when a huge wave of New Yorkers began touring the countryside in their automobiles. Outdoor recreation and the preservation of natural areas were always linked in the minds of people like Roger Tory Peterson, the world-famous birder who moved from Jamestown to New York City in his teens and became a new member of the Bronx County Bird Club in the late 1920s. In 1928, the five-year-old Adirondack Mountain Club endorsed a policy that combined advocacy in three areas: conservation, recreation, and education. During the Great Depression, state and federal assistance programs accelerated the growth of state forests and parks, especially in central and western New York. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Adirondack Mountain Club and others scored several victories in the courts. Environmental activism grew slowly, however, and it was largely restricted to one branch of small, mostly male sporting clubs -- until the 1960s. Then, suddenly, everything changed.
Americas mass acceptance of environmental ethics has been traced to three social shifts. First, the rapid development of nuclear weapons in the 1950s made it apparent that humans could destroy the planet; at the same time, contamination from radioactive fallout was detected around the globe. Second, advances in the natural sciences provided proof that a relatively new concept -- pollution -- could inflict long-term damage on natural systems. In 1962, the publication of Rachel Carsons Silent Spring in The New Yorker brought this message to the mainstream. Third, the Apollo space program yielded images of the planet that made Earth appear fragile, lovely, and small. After the first moon landing, novelist and physicist C.P. Snow wrote: "As a result of supreme technological skill and heroism, we are faced not with the infinite but with the immovable limits."
Between 1968 and 1978, memberships on file at the Manhattan headquarters of The National Audubon Society increased from 88,000 to 388,000. Membership in the Adirondack Mountain Club tripled between 1965 and 1972. And on Earth Day 1970, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation establishing the Department of Environmental Conservation, a powerful bureaucratic machine charged with coordinating and strengthening all aspect of natural resource protection and pollution control.
The ideas first advanced by Marsh and Darwin in the 1860s gained a sense of urgency in the 1960s, super-charging the environmental movement. According to historian Alfred W. Crosby, "the new environmentalists wanted to preserve as much of primordial nature as still existed because of its intrinsic value, an almost religious yearning, and to defend an allegedly damaged biosphere so that they human species might survive, a yearning thrumming with anxiety."
Between 1970 and 2000, this new eco-centric philosophy made rapid inroads among the public and elected officials. A majority of Americans now say they worry "a great deal" about water, air, ocean, and soil pollution, according to the Gallup Organization. But most Americans also say they are "somewhat satisfied" with environmental protection measures, a reflection of the governments progress in this area. Meanwhile, science is accumulating more and more evidence that human activities are permanently changing nature on a global scale. The cycle is clear: scientists and naturalists sound alarms, activists take up causes, the public demands change, politicians reform laws, and the furor abates until a new alarm sounds.
Today, the focus of environmental affairs in New York is increasingly global and relentlessly local. As the home of more than 100 non-governmental organizations dedicated to environmental protection, including the United Nations, New York remains at the forefront of environmental thinking and action on global issues. Leading-edge New York activists are exploring the links between environmental damage and consumer spending, population growth, climate change, and poverty. As environmental thinking spreads throughout society, new areas of concern are emerging. A growing number of executives support sustainable or "green" business practices, for example. The sprawling growth of suburban communities is a major concern in Rochester, Long Island, and other areas. "Environmental justice" activists fight against the disproportionate effect of pollution on the poor. Those who are alarmed at the pervasive spread of environmental affairs have even formed groups to fight the pollution fighters.
But to the vast majority of New Yorkers, environmental issues are not global -- they are intensely local. Environmental affairs means the successful campaign to prevent construction of a nuclear power plant on Cayuga Lake; the clean-up of Love Canal and other toxic waste sites in Erie and Niagara Counties; and the struggle to prevent a regional dump from opening near the tiny Lewis County hamlet of Harrisville.
TABLE 1: Selected National and International Environmental Groups with Headquarters in New York State
- Amanakaa Amazon Network, New York, NY
- American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, New York, NY
- American Nature Study Society, Homer NY
- Association of State Wetland Managers, Berne, NY
- Atlantic States Legal Foundation, Syracuse NY
- Camp Fire Club of America, Chappaqua, NY
- Center for Environmental Education, Valhalla, NY
- Center for Environmental Information, Rochester, NY
- Dragonfly Society of the Americas, Binghamton, NY
- Environmental Defense Fund, New York, NY
- Fund For Animals, New York, NY
- Girl Scouts of the USA, New York, NY
- Garden Club of America, New York, NY
- Great Lakes United, Buffalo NY
- Green Party USA, Blodgett Mills, NY
- INFORM Inc., New York, NY
- Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY
- League of Women Voters Committee on the Environment, Chappaqua, NY
- Marine Environmental Research Institute, New York, NY
- National Audubon Society, New York, NY
- Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, NY
- Planned Parenthood Federation of America, New York, NY
- Population Communications International, New York, NY
- Property Rights Foundation of America, Stony Creek NY
- Rainforest Alliance, New York, NY
- Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY
- World Environment Center, New York, NY
- World Parks Endowment, New York, NY
Sources: The Environment Encyclopedia and Directory, Europa Publications Limited, London, 1994; National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Directory, 45th Edition, National Wildlife Federation, Vienna, Virginia, 2000.
As in 1900, environmental affairs in New York is mostly the story of well-educated city dwellers insisting on changes that have the greatest impact on rural residents. Like a century ago, the political support for environmental reform is based on popular interpretations of scientific research, interpretations that are sometimes incomplete or wrong. But unlike 1900, environmental organizations are now found in every corner of New York, and officials in the most rural townships are now required to consider the environmental impacts of their actions.
Every year, hundreds of New York organizations, from the World Environment Center (in Manhattan) to the Chautauqua County Environmental Management Council (in Jamestown) create boxes upon boxes of records. Every year, hundreds of state and local laws are passed on behalf of New Yorks environment, and each new law is preceded by a trail of documents. The following essay is intended to be a guide to the ideas that underlie New Yorks vast infrastructure for environmental protection . Think of it as a map for those who want to find their way through the wilderness of environmental records.