If there’s one group of constituents of retiring representative Maurice Hinchey (D-Saugerties) who’s going to miss him the most, it’s arguably the green crowd. So there was a bittersweet feeling in the air at Mohonk Mountain House as the Gardiner Democratic Committee gathered community activists, current and former public officials, staff from various land trusts and environmental organizations and other local luminaries to review some highlights of Hinchey’s career and give him a sentimental sendoff. But the event also represented a passing of the torch, as Ulster County environmentalists face life-after-Maurice with mingled determination and dread.
The tribute to Hinchey on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 9, kicked off with Mohonk Mountain House’s marketing director Nina Smiley welcoming the crowd, standing at a podium in front of a slideshow of photos of the congressman with people famous and unknown, from local Boy Scouts to the Dalai Lama. Smiley then introduced Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who performed a short set of fiddle and guitar tunes. They marked the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth with a rousing chorus of “This Land Is Your Land,” throwing in a brand-new verse with a valiant effort at a rhyme for “Hinchey.”
Then Kathy Hudson, an environmental attorney who sits on the Town of Gardiner Planning Board, introduced Cara Lee, who heads the Shawangunks chapter of the Nature Conservancy. In her former position at Scenic Hudson, Lee spearheaded the campaign to force General Electric to clean up 1.3 million pounds of toxic PCBs that it had dumped into the Hudson River, and she gave Hinchey props for his key role in prodding the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to crack down on the polluter. “From the Assembly to Congress, Maurice fought against the numerous attempts to avoid and delay the cleanup,” said Lee, noting that the remediation process is now more than half-done, with more than a million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment already removed.
“Maurice, you are our hero,” said Lee to wild applause, launching into a long list of Hinchey’s accomplishments, both during his 18 years in the New York State Assembly and his ten terms in the US House of Representatives. Among many other actions, she cited the Assembly’s investigation, under Hinchey’s leadership, of the infamous Love Canal toxic waste site near Buffalo; the drafting of the nation’s first law to control acid rain; the Hudson River Fisheries Act, precursor to today’s Hudson River Estuary Program; Hinchey’s role in developing the statewide system of Urban and Cultural Parks; his authorship of the legislation creating the Hudson River Valley Greenway — currently being celebrated with hundreds of outdoor events through the annual Hudson River Valley Ramble — and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area.
Bringing his long career of public service into the present, Lee praised Hinchey’s co-authorship of the “Frack Act, which would mandate public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydrofracking and allow the EPA to regulate fracking activities under the Safe Drinking Water Act.” She also noted his sponsorship, less well-known in the Hudson Valley, of legislation to protect the spectacular Red Rocks Wilderness area of southern Utah.
Glenn Hoagland, executive director of the Mohonk Preserve, followed up Lee’s keynote speech with an account of Hinchey’s efforts closer to home to protect land and natural resources in and around the Shawangunk Ridge. He harked back to the young Assemblyman’s support for Citizens to Save Minnewaska back in the 1970s, when the Marriott Corporation was angling to build a huge resort at Lake Minnewaska that would have erected hundreds of condos along the crest of the Ridge. Today, Hoagland noted, Minnewaska is “considered the crown jewel of the New York State Park system… In this and other fights, Maurice’s involvement became in many cases the turning point.”
Hoagland cited Hinchey’s leading role in passage of New York State’s Conservation Easement Statute in 1983 — a crucial tool for land trusts like the Preserve: “So today, thanks to Maurice and his colleagues in the Legislature, we have literally hundreds of thousands of acres protected by conservation easements here in the Hudson Valley and across New York State.” He also thanked Hinchey for the federal funding that he has helped obtain over the years for the work of the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership and for the development of the Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway.
Hoagland called Hinchey “a champion in the fight to save the Awosting Reserve” — a campaign in which many in Sunday’s audience had been actively involved. He went on to cite federal and state grants that Hinchey had helped the Mohonk Preserve obtain to rehabilitate old trails and bridges and build new ones. He wrapped up his comments with an anecdote about his disappointment as a child when his mother told him that the Green Giant on the vegetable can label was not real, but said that thanks to Hinchey’s work, “We now know that there really is a Green Giant!”
Former Gardiner town supervisor Laura Walls took the podium to reminisce about her five years as a Constituent Services staffer in Hinchey’s Kingston office in the 1980s. She cited Hinchey’s opposition to the approval of electric rate increases and sponsorship of New York State’s original Bottle Bill and a Bill of Rights for Mobile Homeowners, as well as his active intervention in the problems of individual constituents from all walks of life. “Maurice genuinely and empathetically cared that people be treated fairly, that they be treated with respect and that they not be gamed or disenfranchised in any way,” Walls said. “Justice resides in Maurice’s heart.”
Julian Schreibman, the Democratic candidate seeking election this fall to represent the new 19th Congressional District, which will replace Hinchey’s old seat under the recent redistricting plan, called Hinchey “a national treasure.” In Ulster County, he said, “We know how important it is to carry on that voice,” and admitted that if elected, he has “big shoes to fill.” He listed ways in which the incumbent Republican congressman differs markedly in approach from Hinchey, saying that Chris Gibson has “accumulated a horrible environmental record: championing a new nuclear plant in the Hudson Valley and blaming global warming on sunspots.”
Janet Kern, a former Save the Ridge activist who is now a member of the Town of Gardiner’s Environmental Conservation Commission, focused on Hinchey’s role in the divisive Awosting Reserve battle that began in 2002. Hinchey, she said, although busy with “the weightiest issues of our national resources, of war and peace, of life and death, also found the room in his fine mind and his capacious heart to concern himself with what was happening in this 5,000-citizen community that had turned into a roiling cauldron of antagonism.” She then screened documentary footage of Hinchey’s dynamic speech at a public hearing at Wallkill High School that was packed with hundreds of Gardiner residents, calling the Awosting Ridge proposal an example of suburban sprawl that would “be accessible to only the very wealthy” and pose a “significant threat to unique and irreplaceable natural resources.”
After the video, an impromptu rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” broke out from the crowd as Hinchey himself took the podium. He thanked all the speakers and event organizers effusively and expressed his endorsement of the Schreibman campaign. “The fight to keep the Shawangunk Ridge free from an out-of-scale development that would have essentially devastated the pristine views is something that I am very pleased to have been a part of,” said Hinchey, acknowledging the many Gardiner environmental activists in the room. “Saving the Ridge was truly the perfect public/private partnership.”
Though the focus of the evening was to honor the retiring public servant, Hinchey insisted on turning the tables. “I am deeply humbled by the support that I have received from the people of Gardiner over the course of my time in public service…Whether it’s been protecting the Shawangunk Ridge, fighting to get the Hudson River cleaned up, to stop fracking from ruining our water supply, protecting and preserving our historic, cultural and environmental assets and more, I have been proud to fight for the issues that we all value. But without your support, I could not have been successful.”
Hinchey wound up his brief speech with a clarion call to future action: “We cannot allow the assault on our environment, our natural resources and the working and middle class to go unchallenged,” he said. “It is so important for all of you to continue to carry the torch of our core ideals and pass them on to the next generation of leaders.”
With reference to the health crisis that triggered his decision to step down from office, the congressman reassured the cheering crowd that he was feeling “stronger and stronger, better and better” of late. “Forty more years!” responded one audience member. The official proceedings of the evening ended with a presentation to Hinchey by longtime Gardiner Environmental Conservation Commission member David Straus of a framed photograph by Steve Jordan of the iconic southward view of the Trapps from Copes Lookout.