The Improbable Tree-Hugger

By  Henry L. Diamond,Former Commissioner, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

As New York’s Governor for a decade and a half, Nelson Rockefeller is remembered for many achievements – the building of a modern state university system, urban initiatives, strengthening local government, and a wide range of bold programs setting examples for the nation. His record on environmental issues, however, is not generally cited as one of his successes. Indeed, critics charged he was ecologically challenged. Some called him a mindless ravager.

Yet, Nelson A. Rockefeller was an extraordinarily good environmental governor; one of the best the nation has seen.

  • He greatly strengthened the New York State Park System which was out of date in both plant and policy.
  • He initiated an aggressive water pollution control program before other states or the federal government.
  • He created a comprehensive state department of environment, bringing together pollution control and natural resources management in one agency for the first time in the nation.
  • He was responsible for such advanced land use programs as the Hudson River Valley Commission and the Adirondack Park Agency.

What led this man who loved to erect to protect as well?


State Park System

New York State traditionally had good state parks. Early pioneers created a system of parks and historic sites which were among the first and best in the nation. Leading families of the state, not only the Rockefellers, but the Harrimans, the Perkins, the Tremains, and the Letchworths, gave substantial tracts of land to create parks and took an interest in their management. Their works still bear their family names in parks across the state.

For 40 years, from the 1920s to the 1960s, redoubtable Robert Moses presided over the park system. Moses built the system of parkways and developed mass recreation areas such as Jones Beach and Bear Mountain State Park. Although much maligned by environmentalists in later days, some of Moses’ works such as the Taconic and other parkways stand up today as models of design with nature. On a summer Sunday, Jones Beach still hosts a quarter of a million bathers.

But by the early 1960s, the system was beginning to age. It was governed by an archaic structure of independent baronies called regional commissions. They, in turn, were presided over by a State Council which was run by Moses. The system was well-suited to the days of local and individual leadership sewn together in a state-wide network by Moses’ forceful personality. It was not well-suited for the greatly increased demands a public with higher incomes, greater mobility and more leisure time was placing on state parks in the 1960s.

In 1963, Rockefeller fired Moses from half a dozen jobs including Chairman of the State Council of Parks. Nelson’s brother, Laurance, was elected Chairman. Laurance had long been involved in the state’s parks department as President of the Interstate Park Commission and as Vice Chairman of the State Council under Moses. The brothers set about modernizing the park system and revamping the highly personalized Moses structure.

In seeking to unravel the byzantine Moses structure, Nelson and Laurance were surprised to find that the state park office in Albany consisted of only three. The majority of the jobs and the political clout in the park system were in the regional commissions and particularly in the Long Island State Park Commission which was one of Moses’ power bases. Moses used the Albany headquarters primarily as a lobbying office and mail drop for state government.

Laurance and Nelson set about creating a modern organization with real budgeting, personnel and central planning in Albany. A Commissioner of Parks was named to run the operation as a regular component of state government, and the authority and power of the regional commissions was reduced.

In a major innovative move, Nelson and Laurance for the first time anywhere brought state parks to the city. A new state park along the Harlem River in New York City, later named Roberto Clemente Park, was created. Plans were started for the creation of a park atop the sewage treatment plant in the Hudson River to 179th Street. Some 25 years later, the park is a great resource serving upper Manhattan. Six million dollars from the state park budget was allotted to reinforce the roof of the sewage treatment plant so that it could support a park. Some $150 million more was eventually spent but Riverbank Park stands as a prime example of farsighted public works planning of an important environmental project.

To pay for the long-neglected needs of the park system and to fund new ones, Nelson turned to one of his favorite devices, the bond issue. In 1960 and again in 1962, he proposed bond issues and obtained legislative and voter approval of bond issues to pay for acquisition of additional parks and to upgrade facilities in existing ones. His success in securing public support for investing in parks and open space was emulated by a dozen governors across the nation.


Water Pollution

On a trip in the early 1960s, Nelson Rockefeller discovered that the State of California was spending over a billion dollars to move water from northern California to the parched Los Angeles area and Central Valley. He was impressed by the boldness and size of that public works program. On his return to New York, he found that New York had plenty of water to go around, but it was dirty.

Rockefeller decided to clean it up. This decision became the Pure Waters Program, which led to a billion-dollar bond issue in 1966. At the time, the federal water pollution program budget was about $250 million. Rockefeller’s program was four times the federal spending level, but he had faith that the federal government would come along. In fact, he provided that half of his bond issue was to “pre-finance” the federal share. This was part of his pattern of successfully betting on federal aid programs yet to be authorized or appropriated. In this and similar situations, Rockefeller gambled that federal help yet to be enacted would come to past. Indeed, he did more than wager on federal largesse, he made it happen through aggressive lobbying with the Congress. When Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills made a quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was flown to Albany in a Rockefeller plane to address a joint session of the Legislature not because of his presidential prospects, but because of his position as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The New York head start on water not only cleaned up water faster, but it saved taxpayers money as many of the projects were built before the huge inflation costs of later years. Moreover, because the state had projects well under way, New York was able to maximize its share of the federal funds when they did start flowing in the early 1970s.

Later, just before he left the Governorship, Rockefeller became the Chairman of the National Commission on Water Quality which was created by Congress to review federal water pollution policy and to recommend a much needed reform of the Clean Water Act. The Commission was made up of eight members of Congress and seven citizens; it was dominated by the old-line Capitol Hill barons of the public works field such as Jennings Randolph and Ed Muskie in the Senate and Bob Jones in the House.

Rockefeller directed his usual energy to this enterprise based on his deep faith in the efficacy of serious study groups, panels, and task forces. He continued as Chairman when he became Vice President, but he was frustrated by the collaborative policy-making process of a Commission he did not influence heavily. When he and Muskie failed to agree, the Commission’s report ended up having little impact. The point is, however, that as Governor and Vice President he was willing to take on a high profile, difficult environmental assignment.


Land Use

Perhaps Rockefeller’s boldest actions in the environment were in the field of land use. Here, even the greenest environmentalists feared to tread because of the deep-seated antipathy against land regulation. In both the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks, Nelson Rockefeller’s leadership made major strides toward rationalizing land use policy and the landscape of the state is better for it. In both cases, the efforts were stimulated by the specter of federal intervention. In both cases, Rockefeller started out with a temporary study commission, which in the way of most temporary study commissions engendered permanent commissions.

In the Hudson River Valley, the threat came from the outside. Freshman Democratic Congressman Dick Ottinger, together with the Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, talked of a national park along the Hudson. Rockefeller’s reaction and that of the Valley people was not favorable. A temporary commission was appointed to study the issue; it recommended a permanent Hudson River Valley Commission run by the State. (Laurance was the Chairman of the temporary group.)

That Hudson River Valley Commission did important work. Its regulatory authority was limited, but it did have the ability to delay projects, and that delaying power focused public attention on bad projects and brought about changes for the better. In addition, the Commission carried out a series of studies of historic sites, ecology, and history of the Hudson, which proved to be a force in tying the Valley communities together with a new, collective sense of place.

The Commission suffered from a smoldering resentment from some at any state interference in local affairs, and in some cases the Commission exercised its authority insensitively or ineptly. With the advent of the Carey Administration and the rise of increased local opposition to state control generally, the Hudson River Valley Commission fell into disuse.

However, the concept has enjoyed a rebirth. In 1991, the Legislature created the Hudson River Valley Greenway Commission which has less authority than its predecessor, but addresses the issue of rational land use as the Hudson Commission did a quarter of a century ago. It also seeks, as did the earlier Commission, to tie the Valley together historically, economically, and environmentally. The continuity is more than coincidental. Action on the new Hudson River Greenway was stimulated by a study report to the Governor urging such action. The report was initiated, supported, and carried out by Laurance Rockefeller and his associates.

The threat of federal action in the Adirondacks came from within. Laurance Rockefeller commissioned former Director of the National Park Service Connie Wirth to study the potential of a national park in the Adirondacks. As a veteran national park man, Wirth never saw six million green acres he didn’t think should be in the national park system. He recommended that be the fate of the Adirondacks.

The furor was immediate and heated. The locals wanted no part of the federal government; the sportsmen wanted no part of the hunting ban that comes with national parks; and New York chauvinists wanted no part of the federal government in general.

Again, Rockefeller adroitly retreated into the temporary commission mode. The commission he appointed came up with an overall plan for the intermingled public and private lands in the Adirondacks. The plan tried to reach an accommodation between the absolute, “forever wild” status of public lands and the “anything goes” status of private lands unhampered by any zoning. An agency to oversee a permitting system and plan for both public and private land was proposed.

The Agency was to administer a modest system of land use controls and permitting with representatives from both within and outside the Park. There was heated opposition in the Republican-controlled legislature where the Senator and the Assemblymen from the Adirondacks held great influence in their respective caucuses. In order to get the Legislature to create the Agency, Rockefeller expended substantial political capital because, left to its own, the Republican majority would have never overridden the objections of its members from the Adirondacks.

In the years since its creation, the Adirondacks Park Agency has been one of the few entities across the country where local land use in an area of statewide significance was regulated by larger, state-wide bodies. Although the Park Agency’s past has been especially troubled, and its present remains so, the Commission has been an outstanding example of political courage and will to bring about rational land use decisions. The fact that much unwise development has been avoided is testimony to Rockefeller’s political will and courage long before urban and suburban sprawl became a popular political issue.


The Department of Environmental Conservation

As the tide of environmentalism rose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller turned his talent for organization to the problem of managing the environment. At that time, the environmental responsibilities in New York were divided between an old-line Department of Conservation, which catered primarily to the hunting and fishing constituency, and the Department of Health, which had responsibility for water and air pollution, but whose central interests were elsewhere.

In 1970, Nelson brought these functions together with some odds and ends from the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Local Government to form the nation’s first environmental super-agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation. He signed the bill creating the Department on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.

All the environmental functions of the state were brought together in one place. The idea to bring the field forces of the old Conservation Department together with the scientific and laboratory capabilities of the Department of Health.

As in the case with the Adirondacks, the action required political will. The hunting and fishing groups were not happy with the consolidation because they feared, correctly, that it would dilute their considerable influence over the Department of Conservation. The Health Department, led by seasoned and able bureaucrats, opposed the move because it would reduce their turf. But Rockefeller persisted because he believed the merger was good government.

One example of the effect of merger was the ability to focus on early contamination problems such as deadly pesticides like DDT, dieldrin, and aldrin. With the Department of Environmental Conservation in place, New York State became the leader in banning these substances before they were banned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. That Agency, incidentally, which tried to bring together many of the federal pollution control functions, did not come into being until much later in 1970. The New York model was emulated by a number of other states in bringing together their environmental functions.


Other Environmental Actions

Nelson Rockefeller was an environmental author as well as a practitioner. In 1970, during the height of the original Earth Day fervor, he wrote a book entitled, Our Environment Can Be Saved. (Actually, the book was one of those specials wherein Hugh Morrow, the Governor’s communications aide, hired a writer and cooped him up in an upper floor of the 22 West 55th Street Governor’s Office until he produced an instant book.) Nelson Rockefeller may not have written it personally, but he approved and commissioned the project, and in his name, ecology was espoused. Not surprisingly, the book struck a hopeful theme that environment and economic growth could work together, rather than at odds with each other. It has taken almost a quarter of a century of environmental conflict to return to this basic premise which Rockefeller’s book put forward in 1970.

As part of his effort to reconcile development and environment, Rockefeller was especially concerned with the problem of creating a secure energy supply without doing undue damage to the environment. He tried to reconcile the difficult problems of siting power plants by creating the New York State Commission on Power Plant Siting. The concept was to bring together all the permitting approvals and the controversy in one place and get a resolution of the issue with all the parties at the table. The scheme was good in theory, but did not make the controversy over the siting of power plants go away.

There were also issues where Rockefeller applied his energy, enthusiasm and political muscle squarely on the side of development, to the dismay of environmentalists. Perhaps the most controversial was the pumped storage plant which Con Edison proposed to build in the heart of the Hudson Highlands. The idea was to pump water from the Hudson during low energy demand hours at night and release it to generate power during peak hours. Rockefeller loved the idea because it would solve a problem with ingenuity and concrete. Environmentalists hated it because they believed it would suck up fish and scar the mountain.

As eventually modified, the environmental consequences would have been less dire than feared but the issue became a full-blown cause célèbre. As a symbol and as a legal precedent, Storm King became an environmental icon and Rockefeller and Con Ed backed down.

Two other well publicized flaps also involved pitting Rockefeller’s love of building against environmental concerns. In both cases it was roads.

The first was the proposed Oyster Bay-Rye Bridge, connecting the north shore of Long Island to the south shore of Westchester County, across Long Island Sound. This had been a long-time dream of Bob Moses. In fact, Moses had employed a favorite device of his – building access parkways on each side of the planned span – creating the inevitable logic of a bridge connecting the two. The opposition to the bridge as a generator of traffic and a destroyer of wetlands was furious on both sides. Rockefeller’s sister and niece, who resided on the Long Island approach in Oyster Bay, were leaders of the opposition.

The other favorite project was the Hudson River Expressway, which would have bypassed Tarrytown and the communities adjoining the Tappan Zee Bridge in Westchester County. This was a long-favored project, perhaps inspired by frustrating waits in traffic along over-loaded Route 9 driving to his home at Poctanico.

In 1973, however, Rockefeller reluctantly agreed to abandon both projects. In both cases the withdrawal was stimulated by environmental opposition and well-calculated political judgments. For Rockefeller, these must have been painful concessions to environmentalism, giving up long-held dreams of major construction projects with hundreds of jobs and millions of tons of concrete.

Finally, as a patron and participant in good architecture and design, Nelson Rockefeller was an important influence on the man-made environment. Often, building is not considered an environmental activity, but the fact is that most people now spend most of their time in an environment built by man rather than in the natural world. Rockefeller’s insistence on good design for state projects and his appreciation of architecture and good planning helped create a better environment for New Yorkers.

The much criticized South Mall, now the Nelson A. Rockefeller Plaza, is an example of a project roundly scorned by many, but which has enhanced the environment of the capital. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the art center in Buffalo, the state office building in Harlem, and campuses of the State University system are other examples of Rockefeller’s productive impact on environmental quality through good design.


* * *

Nelson Rockefeller’s environmental record was outstanding. In the years since Rockefeller left office, there has been no comparable record of environmental achievement.

If the environment was not a high personal priority for Nelson Rockefeller, then how did his extraordinary environmental record come about?

First, as the consummate politician, Nelson Rockefeller saw, before others did, the political attractiveness of the issue. The fact that bond issues for parks and clean water attracted substantial majorities of New York voters in the early- and mid-1960s was not lost on him. He sensed, long before Earth Day of 1970, that this was an issue the public cared about and would support.

Second was the strong family tradition of his father’s interest in parks. His brother Laurance had a continuing major influence on him, not only with respect to parks but in conservation generally. Nelson and Laurance were very close and conservation was one of Laurance’s main interests. Laurance played a major role in creating Nelson’s record.

Third, some elements of environmental quality involve building things – such as sewage treatment plants. Of course, Nelson Rockefeller loved to build and to figure out creative ways to pay for construction. In fact, building sewage treatment plants is quite labor-intensive, and that was a politically attractive feature to a governor courting union support.

Finally, and probably most important, Nelson Rockefeller was a solver of public problems throughout his career. He relished taking on tough issues and bringing together good minds and large dollars to bear on them – be it U.S. influence in Latin America, a home in New York for the U.N., arms inspection, an inadequate state university system, or a highway bypass in Horseheads, New York.

In the mid-1960s, the environment was emerging as a tough public issue. The nation and New York were coming to realize that their water and air was fouled and their open space was vanishing. As a problem solver, Rockefeller rushed in to meet these issues with typical Rockefeller relish, energy, and efficiency.

As the history of his extraordinary 15 years as Governor is now being analyzed with a perspective of his lifetime, the Rockefeller environmental record emerges as one of his major achievements. Although he did not think of himself as an ardent environmentalist, and although often criticized as a pro-development foe of the environment, Nelson Rockefeller was a major force for the better for the environment of New York State. His skills in organization and his enthusiasm and support for bold new ventures helped create a better New York.


This article is adapted from remarks Mr. Diamond made on November 6, 2008, at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College.