If your walk of life has involved working with the natural environment in the Hudson Valley, there’s a high likelihood that you have crossed paths with Fran Dunwell. And if you have done so, there’s also a high likelihood that she has helped you out in some way – with scientific data that you needed, or a grant for a project you were working on, or with guidance as to how to plan your community’s future responsibly. Not only did she make a name for herself steering the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program for more than a quarter-century, she was actually the primary person who brought that program into being. Dunwell’s remarkable contributions to the region’s watershed and its denizens will be celebrated on Sunday, September 18 at the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s annual Pilot Gala, to be held at Diamond Mills in Saugerties.
The occasion for this well-earned tribute is Dunwell’s retirement from DEC, effective August 17. “I turned 70 in November. I decided it’s time for a younger person to take over… someone more tech-savvy,” she says. “First, I wanted to make sure the program would be able to carry on without me. Now we’ve got a great team of leaders who can step up.” The Estuary Program team is currently conducting a search for a new coordinator, and Dunwell says, “They’ve got a lot of very qualified applicants.”
The educational and professional journey that led to Fran Dunwell’s long tenure at the head of the Hudson River Estuary Program began with attending the Clearwater Festival as a youngster – she’s a Poughkeepsie native – and learning about the Clean Water Act. She participated in the first Earth Day in 1970, just before starting college, and already had dreams of a career fighting pollution. But she couldn’t find a program that offered the kind of training she would need.
“There were no environmental courses until the mid-‘70s,” she recalls, and the Biology classes at Kirkland College were geared toward pre-med students. So, she majored in Anthropology instead. “I was interested in how people relate to each other, to their cultures, to the environment. It turned out to be great preparation for an environmental career. We have so many subcultures in America, and you have to talk to people from where they come from.”
She returned to the Hudson Valley and began seeking a position in the environmental field immediately after graduation, but found out that she “needed credentials,” so she signed up for a weekly class in the Natural History of the Hudson River Estuary being offered collaboratively by four regional colleges. One of the speakers, presenting a talk on the Clean Water Act, was John Cronin, who had been running the People’s Pipewatch Program for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater before going to work for DEC. Cronin would later go on to gain fame as the first full-time Hudson Riverkeeper and the director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. But in between, he became one of Dunwell’s early mentors.
It was Cronin who recommended that she put in some time as a volunteer for the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council. Within a few months she got hired as an aide to work on the conservation of Wappinger Creek. Funding for the position soon ran out, but her time there was a “great networking opportunity,” Dunwell says. She became acquainted with a number of leading local environmentalists, many of them on the Board of Directors of Scenic Hudson, who happened at the time to be organizing a new not-for-profit to be called the Center for the Hudson River Valley. Its mission was to provide coordination among environmental groups and do educational outreach, while Scenic Hudson itself was absorbed in the ongoing legal battle over Con Ed’s proposal to build a power plant on the flanks of Storm King.
CHRV would need an executive director, and Dunwell had already made a good impression on Harvey Flad, a professor of Geography at Vassar and a major force in the environmental movement in the Hudson Valley. He referred her to the search committee and she got the job, serving as director from 1976 until 1980 when the Storm King lawsuit was resolved and CHRV was merged with Scenic Hudson, which hired her as associate director.
She became an expert lobbyist, serving as Scenic Hudson’s spokesperson in Albany and organizing bipartisan coalitions in support of various pieces of environmental legislation including the New York State Waterfront Revitalization Law (Article 2, 1981) and Conservation Easement Law (Article 49, Title 3, 1983) and advocating for the establishment of the Hudson River National Estuarine Sanctuary (now Research Reserve) by NOAA and DEC (1982). Dunwell often worked in partnership with Maurice Hinchey, who was then the State Assembly’s Environment Committee chair. “He provided very strong advocacy. None of this would have happened without Maurice,” she says. With his help, she laid the groundwork for New York State’s Coastal Management Program.
During her years at CHRV, Dunwell had begun making a case for the establishment of a National Historic District in the Hudson Highlands. That project became the main focus of her graduate studies as she attended the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (now known as the School of the Environment) under a Richard King Mellon Fellowship in 1982 and 1983, while continuing to work for Scenic Hudson part-time. The result of her research was her first book, The Hudson River Highlands (1991). Her second book, The Hudson: America’s River, was published in 2008.
When Dunwell completed her Master of Environmental Studies in 1984, she was recruited by the new gubernatorial administration to work for DEC as head of what was then the Hudson River Fisheries Program. “Mario Cuomo wanted to hire women. I was more than happy to be a pioneer for women in the agency,” she says. “Over the years I’ve been able to help a lot of other women get into the environmental field – and some great men as well.”
At DEC, Dunwell emphasized scientific data collection and began to redesign the Fisheries Program with an eye toward being more ecosystem-based. “I helped formulate the ideas that the Legislature put into the 1987 Estuary Management Act, which created the Estuary Program. Leading that Program from its infancy is my proudest accomplishment,” she writes. But a bumpy road still lay ahead: A 350-page draft Estuary Management Plan with over a thousand recommendations was completed by 1994 but “never got adopted,” partly because Assemblyman Hinchey had gone on to become Congressman Hinchey.
A Republican gubernatorial administration replaced Cuomo in 1995 and Dunwell, as a Democratic appointee, was summarily fired in 1995. But the new governor, George Pataki, was one of the last of a generation of moderate New York Republicans and, in Dunwell’s words, “an outlier from the get-go as a supporter of the environment.” She knew him from her years as a lobbyist and gave him a call asking for her job back. “He invited me to come back. I was the Hudson River gal.”
In preparation with her first meeting with Pataki, she digested the Estuary Management Plan’s voluminous recommendations down to “a sheet with ten ideas that he could accomplish in his first term. He said, ‘It’s not ambitious enough – double it.’ So, where we proposed four boat launches on the Hudson, we changed it to eight boat launches. Everything was doubled. In 1996 we released our first Action Plan.”
Financing for DEC’s new Estuary Program came from the newly created Environmental Protection Fund, a “lock box” that is funded primarily by developer fees. Governor Pataki created a line item specifically for the retooled program. “I went from having a $100,000 budget to six million dollars a year,” Dunwell recalls. “So, we did big things.” The agency made Schodack Island State Park accessible from the river shore; upgraded failing boat launches and built new ones; did studies of declining sturgeon and shad populations and established a fishing moratorium; created digital riverbottom maps; identified threatened properties between the river and railroad tracks that were good candidates for protection by land trusts, including Denning’s Point and the Kowawese Unique Area; advocated for General Electric to clean up the PCBs that it had discharged into the Hudson for decades.
With a more generous budget, Dunwell was able to hire more staff and build a “robust educational program.” She’s generous with her praise for employees who helped shape the Estuary Program, including Steve Stanne, Karen Strong, Chris Bowser, Scott Cuppett, Betsy Blair, Nancy Beard and others. They expanded their focus to include the entire Hudson watershed and launched a program to advise communities on land use planning and how to manage resources. If your town has done a Natural Resources Inventory, it probably had help from the Estuary Program’s GIS mapping office. And by 2006, climate change was on the program’s priority list.
“Over the last 35 years, the Estuary Program grants, coupled with state land acquisitions, have created new or improved access in every shoreline community and preserved a number of peninsulas on the river side of the railroad tracks. Ideas from our Estuary Actions Agendas made their way into State of the State initiatives such as the swimmable river goal, which led to major investments in the cleanup of the Hudson in the Capitol region. The Estuary Program is actively restoring river habitats and our signature fisheries. The program has inspired dozens of land trusts and local governments in the region to conserve key natural resources through sound land use practices, and has helped watershed groups and local agencies to focus attention on all of our major tributary streams. There are more Climate Smart Communities in the Hudson Valley than any other part of the state, which reflects the leadership role we have played in helping people understand how to adapt to climate change so they can effectively participate in this statewide program. The program also created a robust river education curriculum, which is used in about 80 percent of school districts in the region, and the program invested in environmental education centers from New York City to Troy. Underlying all of this is a strong foundation of science to inform decisionmaking,” Dunwell recently wrote as she looked back on her career.
One of the frequent beneficiaries of Estuary Program grants has been the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The agency has helped the Museum create and refurbish its exhibits, put up interpretive signage, improve its waterfront facilities and make them more flood-resilient, establish its program of boatbuilding workshops and launch the all-electric boat Solaris, which now takes visitors on themed educational tours of the Rondout Creek where it meets the Hudson River. So, it’s a no-brainer that Fran Dunwell would be chosen as the honoree for the Museum’s Pilot Gala in the year of her retirement.
“I’m delighted to be honored by the Maritime Museum, because it’s a great institution that’s always evolving and making such an impact here in Kingston and the Hudson Valley,” she says. “Developing the ideas for the Estuary Program and shaping it into what it is today are something I’m really, really proud of.”
The 2022 Pilot Gala will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 18 at the Diamond Mills Hotel, located at 25 South Partition Street in Saugerties. The evening will include cocktails, a seated dinner, a live auction for support of HRMM programs and raffle drawing for a private chartered cruise aboard the Solaris. For information and to order tickets, call (845) 338-0071, extension 14, or visit www.hrmm.org/gala.