Learn how the Hudson River gave birth to the modern American environmental movement

(Photo by Julie O’Connor)

In what amounts to a history of environmental consciousness in America and the birth of the modern conservationist movement, David Schuyler’s exhaustively researched  Embattled River: The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism (Cornell University Press) positions the Hudson at the very center of the storm. The despoliation of the historic American waterway came to symbolize the ravages of unchecked development and unregulated corporate license nationwide. The river’s (ongoing, uncertain) redemption and protection have become an often-cited testament to the efficacy of vigilant stewardship and environmental action at all levels, from federal courts and commissions to grassroots resistance and the visionary actions of individuals. To mix a metaphor, the Hudson River was, and remains, the very turf of America’s battle to protect its resources and to honor the aesthetic and recreational necessity of nature in our quality of life.

To understand why the Hudson – hardly America’s only or principal toxic river and despoiled resource – assumed this iconic significance in the environmentalist struggle, one might consult Schuyler’s previous book, 2012’s Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909, a work that earned the Franklin & Marshall professor several awards, including the prestigious Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York. In Sanctified River, Schuyler establishes the Hudson’s primacy in American history and, especially, in American aesthetics.

Schuyler contends that the Hudson was not merely cast in this central role by accident and circumstance. There is something about the region that favored it as the birthplace of environmentalism and as America’s first great bone of contention between the interests of development and the interests of preservation/restoration. It was the majesty and mystery of the Hudson Highlands that powered the first wave of truly original American art and literature.  “I think that the Hudson really inspired American environmentalism,” Schuyler said. “I traced the roots of this in Sanctified Landscape by focusing on the careers of Thomas Cole, Washington Irving, A. J. Downing and others, who were inspired by the river and whose works made the Hudson a national icon.”

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View of the Hudson from atop Storm King Mountain.

Embattled River begins with an event that turned out to be the kernel of modern American environmentalism: the struggle over the proposed Consolidated Edison pumped-storage facility at Storm King Mountain in the early 1960s. From Washington, DC to the affected riverside communities, Con Ed’s massive energy project mobilized resistance and popularized environmentalism in a way nothing before it had. The protracted conflict led to the formation of Scenic Hudson, and to victories both in courts and in the “court of public opinion” that thrust environmentalism into the national spotlight. The Scenic Hudson Decision established for the first time the precedent that non-property-owners can have legal standing in cases involving natural resources. The Storm King standoff also created the groundwork for the Environmental Protection Agency and for effective litigatory, legislative and direct action in the future. 

A serious storyteller who plays by the stringent rules of the historian, Schuyler expertly weaves his many strands into a 360-degree view. With no perceptible changes in tone, his account moves from highly technical legal analysis to stories of human interest, heroism and agency. The disastrously polluted condition of the Hudson in the 1960s – repeatedly described by observers as a “sewer” – forms the backdrop. One chapter concerns the role of Pete Seeger (who was initially denied membership in Scenic Hudson because his leftist politics were considered potentially divisive) and the Clearwater sloop. Another details the destruction of the river’s fish populations and the lasting legacy of the sportswriter and naturalist Robert H. Boyle.

Some of the conflicts that Schuyler documents are universally known: General Electric, the PCB contamination of the Hudson and the cleanup debate, for example. Others are news – startling news – to me: a major nuclear power facility with cooling towers proposed for the Esopus/Lloyd town line in the 1970s? I’m not sure how I missed that one, but I’d like to offer long-belated thanks to the forces that organized to defeat it.

While famous folksingers and sportswriters account for a colorful minority of Embattled River’s cast of characters and agents, the majority of the players are elected officials, lawmakers and non-famous private citizens. As the stories of conflicts mount, it becomes clear that there were typically three forces at play in each: the environmental leaders and their interests on one side; the interests of development, ownership and local control of resources on the other; and then a slippery middle group – epitomized by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s expedient and declawed Hudson River Valley Commission – where the interests of development and money assumed the garb of environmentalism. It’s the zone of appeasement, compromise or just flat-out public relations manipulation and cooptation. In the 1960s, environmentalism had gained such force as a nonpartisan cause that leaders had to acknowledge and honor it, even if disingenuously. One wonders if, in today’s climate, decisionmakers even feel obliged to pretend.

In the 1960s, Pete Seeger described the burgeoning environmental movement as one that included “backers of every shade of political belief.” There is no doubt that environmental issues – with their direct, party-blind impact on health and quality of life – possess a rare power to unify. But in the binary political climate of 2018, has environmentalism fallen entirely to one side of the blue-and-red divide, rendering those on the other side “opposed” to it by default?

“[This was] the subject of a lively discussion I had with Riverkeeper’s Board of Directors,” Schuyler says. “Someone asked me about the polarization in our current political climate and how we can overcome it. I donned my historian’s hat and explained that it doesn’t have to be this way – that for much of the 20th century, Republicans were the most articulate champions of conservation and land preservation. But how we get back to that is the real challenge.”

“Connecting with the river is key,” the Newburgh native Schuyler says. “A generation ago there were only a few places where the public could access the riverfront. Thanks to the efforts of Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper and lots of citizens, today there are more than 100. Seeger knew that public access was key, and he did much to promote it because he realized that if citizens felt a sense of ownership of the river, they would defend it.”

Historian David Schuyler will be the featured speaker at the Open House at the John Burroughs Association’s Slabsides Sanctuary on Saturday, October 6. Programs run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Professor Schuyler’s presentation begins at noon. Inquiring Minds Bookstore will be selling copies of Embattled River at the event, and Schuyler will be available to sign them. For more information and directions, visit www.johnburroughsassociation.org.

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