4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
Courts, Citizens, and Cash
The environmental laws of the 1970s were pushed into existence by determined groups of citizens. Some were lawyers who seized new opportunities to sue on behalf of nature. Others harnessed the publics concern and created powerful lobbies in Washington and the state capitols, beginning with Albany. Others worked behind the scenes to secure large donations from foundations and the wealthy, getting the money that made the machine run. And for all three groups -- the lawyers, the activists, and the fund-raisers -- the center of the action was in New York City.
The lawyers got their first break on December 29, 1965, when the Second Circuit Court Of Appeals ruled that a group of citizens calling themselves the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference had the legal standing to sue an electric utility to stop its building plans at Storm King Mountain. The Court also ruled that the Federal Power Commission had to consider the projects impact on the "unique beauty and historic significance" of the area before it could grant Con Edison a building permit. The field of environmental law was born on that day, and it grew up fast. In 1970, environmental statutes filled fewer than 30 pages of the Environmental Law Reporter. By 1989, they filled more than 800 pages. Many of the statutes were written to answer questions raised by court decisions.
Two New York groups led the legal efforts that widened the reach of environmental law. After leading Scenic Hudsons legal campaign, David Sive and several colleagues went on to start the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which still maintains its headquarters in New York City. In 1971, the NRDC led the campaign for passage of the Clean Water Act, which allows citizens to sue directly for environmental harm. In 1973, the group began actions that lead to the phase-out of lead in gasoline. In 1978, it succeeded in removing ozone-depleting chemicals from aerosol cans. In 2000, the group has over 400,000 members and is active around the world.
In 1966, a Patchogue lawyer named Victor Yaccone sued the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission to prevent it from further use of DDT. The plaintiff in the suit was Yaccones wife, Carol, and the energy behind it came from the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee. The suit drew on research that showed the destructive effects of DDT on fish and birds in the area -- the same research cited by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring. After winning a local injunction, the group re-organized in 1967 as the Environmental Defense Fund and pushed for a permanent ban.
Early support from the National Audubon Society and the Ford Foundation allowed the Environmental Defense Fund to expand its focus beyond DDT, and also beyond New Yorks borders. In 1970, it brought whales onto the US Endangered Species List. In 1972, it won a permanent nationwide ban on DDT. In 1978, it helped save a 114-mile stretch of the Delaware River from a dam planned for Tocks Island. In 1992, its computer models helped convince New York State legislators that energy from a huge hydroelectric project in James Bay, Quebec might not be needed; New York canceled its contract for the power, killing the project. In 1997, Environmental Defense celebrated its 30th anniversary as an international organization devoted as much to education as to litigation, with more than 300,000 dues-paying members.
Non-profit environmental organizations in New York gained members steadily through the 1970s. In 1976, they also gained clout in Washington when Elvis Stahr, President of the Manhattan-based National Audubon Society, persuaded Barber Conable, a Congressman from upstate New York, to lead an effort to reform the tax laws. The "Conable Act" allowed smaller non-profit organizations to spend up to 20 percent of their budgets on lobbying activities without endangering their tax-exempt status. Larger organization could spend up to $1 million a year. The Act created a new and powerful force -- the environmental lobby.
The Conable Act became necessary in 1966, when the IRS revoked the Sierra Clubs tax exemption for excessive lobbying. The Club survived that blow, grew steadily, and developed a reputation for organizing dramatic grassroots campaigns. In the 1980s, Club members in New York State organized as the Atlantic Chapter. In 2000 that chapter had 32,500 members, including nearly 12,000 in New York City. Unfortunately, the Clubs reputation for waging epic battles also extended to its internal politics. In the late 1990s, a dispute between members of the New York City group escalated into lawsuits that cost the national organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The National Audubon Society is an international organization with 550,000 members, 500 chapters, and more than 250,000 acres of wildlife sanctuaries, but its roots are in the better neighborhoods of Manhattan (see chapter 3). In 2000, Audubon had 30 formally organized chapters and almost 42,000 members in the Empire State. It also had informal ties to at least 29 more bird clubs in New York, and its nature education programs served dozens of nature education centers around the state.
The Nature Conservancy is another international group with New York roots (see chapter 4). It protects millions of acres of land around the world through the ownership of nature preserves and conservation easements, including more than 277,000 acres in New York State. The Conservancy has 900,000 members, making it the worlds largest private conservation group. Eight percent of its membership (70,000 people) lives in New York State. Independent from the group, but using the same tools, are smaller private organizations that protect even more of New Yorks sensitive and sacred lands. In 2000, at least 86 land trusts were active in New York. Like the Nature Conservancy, the land trusts own nature preserves and easements that permanently restrict the development of private property.
The publics interest in outdoor adventure exploded in the 1970s, and groups devoted to hiking and recreation grew to meet the new demand. Between 1964 and 1974, the Adirondack Mountain Club started 12 new chapters that stretched from Niagara Falls to northern New Jersey. Trout Unlimited, a national organization that protects wild rivers, has 37 chapters in New York. In 2000, Ducks Unlimited signed an agreement with federal, state, and local governments to restore up to 10,000 acres of wetlands on Long Island.
In addition to the national organizations, dozens of statewide and local groups emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. Many were ad hoc organizations organized in response to a crisis, such as the Citizens Committee to Save Cayuga Lake, which was formed in the late 1960s to monitor plans for a nuclear power plant. But even the most rural areas of New York now have permanent citizens groups. Each county has a Conservation Commission or an Environmental Management Council (EMC), usually staffed by volunteers, to coordinate public and private action on behalf of the land. The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators created its EMC in 1971 to promote "the preservation and improvement of the quality of the natural and man-made environment" by "fostering unified action on environmental problems among local governments and among public and private agencies and organizations." The groups 15 members include five educators, two law enforcement officers, a wildlife biologist, and a heavy-equipment operator.
Most of the money that runs the environmental movement comes from membership dues and small contributions. But foundation and corporate giving has been central to the success of many groups, particularly in the early years. In 1971, for example, a $285,000 grant from the Ford Foundation was critical to the survival of Environmental Defense. New York City, the undisputed center of the grant-making world, is home to many foundations that loyally assist the movement. The biggest donor in 1990 was the Ford Foundation, in midtown Manhattan, which gave $13 million to environmental causes. The Rockefeller Foundation, a few blocks away, gave $11 million. Many other New York foundations also have environmental leanings. The Beinecke Foundation of Rye gave more than $250,000 to the NRDC and $200,000 to the Open Space Institute in 1990. That same year, the Mary Flagler Cary Trust of New York City gave $295,000 to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
One of the most influential forces in the world of environmental funding operates from a small office at 437 Madison Avenue. Since 1987, the Environmental Grantmakers Association has held annual retreats where activists and funders court each other and discuss long-range strategies. Over 160 foundations belonged to the Association in 1993. In 2000, the Association also maintained working groups on such topics as sustainable agriculture, the economy, transportation, minorities, toxic waste, and growth management. 
Law groups, activist groups, foundations, and smaller donors have developed well-organized systems that can act rapidly to protect land and pass environmental legislation around the globe. To a great extent, the headquarters of this cartel is in New York City.