4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
Wildlife and open space
Ecology, which for decades had been a neglected stepchild of the sciences, finally got some respect in the 1970s. Ecological terms like "biodiversity" and "carrying capacity" entered the ordinary persons reading list. Scientists began using ecological management techniques to restore damaged areas and re-introduce wild animals to areas where they had been wiped out. Combined with these trends, New Yorks forest cover increased steadily through the last quarter of the 20th century. There was rapid growth in public use and appreciation of natural areas. Responding to the increased interest, the state embarked on a major expansion of land holdings in the 1990s.
In July 1971, New Yorks first state endangered animal protection law was enacted. Two years later, the federal Endangered Species Act passed, and in 1974 endangered plants were added to the list. Protecting these animals fell to the DEC, and they came upon an innovative way of finding the money. In 1982, New York state tax returns began including a "return a gift to wildlife" feature, which allows taxpayers to make voluntary payments into a wildlife protection fund. In 1998, the feature raised $600,000.
It was comparatively easy to save endangered species in most of New York, because large sections of the state have smaller human populations in 2000 than they had in 1970. Outside of the states metropolitan corridors, former farms are turning back into forests, the population is aging, and human impact on the land is stable or declining. Open space protection is therefore different in New York than it is in California or Florida. Advocates here had an opportunity to protect entire ecosystems west of the Hudson and north of Albany with relatively little public opposition, and at a relatively low cost.
The DEC used its wildlife funds in a variety of ways, including the re-introduction of many species wiped out early in the 20th century. Fishers were released in the Catskills in 1976. Wild turkeys were released across the state in 1979 and have staged a stunning comeback; they are now a popular game bird for hunters, and are common from the Alleghenies to Long Island. In 1980, the DEC began work on a comprehensive breeding bird atlas of New York State, with the assistance of Cornell Universitys Lab of Ornithology. The atlas has become indispensable in environmental analyses and planning. In 1989, a 13-year program concluded to re-introduce bald eagles to New York when 10 nesting pairs were confirmed in the state. In 1992, Lake Sturgeon were re-introduced in the Oswegatchie and Grass rivers of the Adirondacks, and osprey nests were placed in the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area. In 1994, the number of nesting bald eagle pairs had increased to 23.
Important wildlife habitat was protected statewide in 1971, when Agricultural Districts were created to protect rural farmland from developers. But the real push to protect habitat came from outdoor enthusiasts, who became a major political force in New York in the 1970s. In 1975, the state added 1,000 miles of rivers in the Adirondacks to the national wild and scenic rivers program. Also in 1975, Theodore Hullar and other New York environmentalists proposed that the Delaware Water Gap become a park instead of being flooded by a dam on Tocks Island. Eventually that stretch of the Delaware was also added to the scenic rivers system, and the dam was stopped. The New York/New Jersey Trails Commission, the Finger Lakes Trail Association, and other hiking clubs also weighed in whenever open space became available along their routes.
A major advance came in June 1992, when the DEC submitted the first of its annual Open Space Plans to the governor. Open space plans include lists of lands that the state will acquire if and when they become available. With funds from Bond Acts passed in 1986 and 1996, the state gained the money it needed. As a result, many in-holdings in state forests were consolidated, wetlands were saved, and forests protected.