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New York Environmental Affairs Documentation Project

Documenting Environmental Affairs

The challenge

The second half of the twentieth century has seen human impact on the environment emerge as one of the most critical issues we face. Concern for the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of landscapes and wildlife habitats has grown dramatically; government agencies administer environmental laws and regulations; businesses, communities, and individuals are challenged to balance environmental concerns with other areas of business practice and lifestyle. The challenge is met by organizations and groups with widely varying viewpoints and interests.

The documentary record of environmental affairs, however, is vast but uneven. Few organizations concerned with the environment devote serious attention to their records, and few repositories collect in this critical area.

The solution

The State Archives is working to identify the issues, people, organizations, and events in environmental affairs that are most critical to document in New York State. We have enlisted the advice and participation of many people and organizations active in environmental issues, as well as researchers and librarians, museums, historical societies, and archives. We produced an historical overview of environmental affairs in New York. We have also researched existing documentation and produced a Preliminary Guide to Existing Documentation of Environmental Affairs.

From the information we are gathering, we have developed an environmental documentation plan and are working with a range of people, organizations, and historical records repositories to begin implementing the plan to ensure that important resources are identified, saved, and made accessible.

The benefits

Historical records of environmental affairs can be essential resources for many individuals and organizations:

  • legislators, governmental officials, and other professionals developing policies and practices for the future;
  • advocacy and action groups representing the full range of perspectives and positions;
  • historians, scientists, and other scholars;
  • lawyers and others involved in environmental litigation;
  • teachers helping students to understand environmental issues
  • concerned citizens.

Parameters of the Project

The subject of the New York Environmental Heritage Documentation Project is the relationship, past and present, of humankind to the natural environment in New York. This vast topic includes the utilization of natural resources (air, energy, plants, animals, minerals, land, and water), their conservation and related environmental issues, the effect of environmental hazards on human populations and other life forms, and the development and implementation of public policy and planning related to the environment. Important components may include research in environmental sciences and public health; organizations established to promote or oppose environmental conservation, preservation, and increased awareness of environmental affairs through education, advocacy, or public action; industries, businesses and organizations which make direct use of natural resources or respond actively to environmental issues, and individuals prominent in environmental affairs. Also important are environmental impacts upon or actions by population groups, by economic class, cultural background, or region.

In many cases, determining whether the activities of a particular organization or individual fall within the framework of this project require judgment. Here are some guidelines:

  • Focus on New York. There are a number of national environmental organizations based in New York that began by addressing environmental issues here. Their activities related to New York issues are relevant, including New York components of national programs. Their national or international activities would not be included. Similarly, only the environment-related activities in New York of New York-based national or multinational corporations fall within the project parameters.
  • Focus on environmental affairs. Numerous businesses, educational and activist organizations, recreation clubs, and research groups conduct activities that address topics such as life forms, energy, public health, and so on but do not explicitly address environmental issues. Such organizations and activities fall outside the parameters. For example, a zoo in New York whose public programming and exhibit interpretation focuses extensively on environmental issues would be included; another zoo that explores animal life cycles and habitats with only minor emphasis on environmental affairs would not. Similarly, basic research in animal behavior or microbiology would not be included unless its findings entered the public or scholarly discourse about environmental issues; research that explicitly addressed environmental issues such as pollution would be included.

For a schematic view of the field of environmental affairs, see the environmental topics matrix.

Environmental Topics Matrix

In order to organize and better understand the scope of environmental affairs and suggest its universe of topics, the project team, with lots of help from people active in environmental affairs, has designed this environmental topics matrix. Any organization, group, or individual that generates records related to environmental affairs, and any environmental topic, should belong in at least one cell, maybe more, in the matrix. (For example, a land trust would fall under Human impact: Use; Domain: Land; Human Response: Citizen/NGO action). Populate the grid  with significant subtopics, issues, individuals, organizations, events, processes.

The grid is a three-dimensional matrix consisting of:

  • Human impact:
    • Conservation/Preservation: Natural resources, wildlife habitat, wilderness, etc.
    • Use: Extraction (water supply, forestry, hunting) & Alteration (dams, land use, bioengineering)
    • Pollution/Toxins: Substances added to the environment
  • Domains:
    • land
    • water
    • air
    • energy
    • life forms
    • public health & welfare
    • social, cultural economic life
  • Human responses:
      • Public policy formation: Legislation, executive action; federal, state, local
      • Public policy implementation : Regulation, litigation, public works; federal, state, local
      • Citizen/NGO action: Advocacy, protest, recycling, conservation, recreation
      • Business action: Compliance/non-compliance, litigation, green business, organic farming, recycling
      • Research Environmental and social sciences related to environmental activity, history
      • Education School-based, higher education, environ-mental education centers, Internet

Products from the Environmental Affairs Documentation Project

This project is part of the New York Heritage Documentation Project, which also developed documentation plans for mental health and Latino communities.