Albany’s Environmental Scene: Why Doesn’t It Accomplish More?

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Eye from Albany
September 2002

Albany’s Environmental Scene: Why Doesn’t It Accomplish More?
By Paul M. Bray

As I recently watched Joe Martens of the Open Space Institute move into an office on Albany’s Hamilton Street, the exponential growth of environmental advocacy in Albany over the last three decades came to mind.

On a slightly more than one block of Hamilton Street one can find offices of Environmental Advocates (EA), Adirondack Council, Sierra Club, New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Adirondack Mountain Club and now the Open Space Institute. Jeff Jones from EA calls it the environmental village. Albany is beginning to look a bit like Washington, an outpost for public policy advocacy organizations.

That wasn’t the case at the dawn of the 1970s when environmental advocates were beginning to regularly walk the halls of the State Capital. EA under the name Environmental Planning Lobby was organized in the early 70s. Its first presence was through volunteers attending legislative committee meetings. I remember some complaining about the unhealthy donuts that Assembly Conservation Committee Chair Larry Lane provided at his committee meetings.

There were a small number of environmental advocacy organizations prior to the 70s like the century old Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks or “The watchdog of the Forest Preserve”, but their number and presence was minimal.

Now environmental advocacy has become a professional operation and the Hamilton Street Environmental Village represents only a portion of the environmental advocacy players in Albany.

Statewide environmental organizations with a voice in Albany include New York Public Interest Research Group, Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, Preservation League, New York Parks and Conservation Association, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Health Schools Network, Citizens Environmental Coalition and Citizens Campaign for the Environment. National and regional organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, Resource Renewal Institute, Scenic Hudson and League of Conservation Voters and a number of organizations in the growing environmental justice movement like Communities United for Responsible Energy and Arbor Hill Environmental Justice are also heard in various times and ways on the Albany scene.

With all this environmental fire power directed at the Capitol one has wonder why the results have been meager. How has it come to be that the one environmental highlight noted by the New York Times in its legislative wrap up is a lead sinker prohibition? Protecting loons from lead contamination is certainly an important, but what about issues like superfund, cleaning up brownfields, climate change and renewable energy that ended up dead in the water during this election year legislative session. New York’s environmental advocates did succeed in having the Environmental Protection Fund fully funded, with relatively minor compromises to the Funds integrity (raids of Fund moneys for traditional general fund items), but that was more holding the line than an advance. How could California legislature come up with ground breaking car emission standards while the issue was hardly discussed in Albany this year?

Could it be that more advocacy brings less success?

One explanation may be in the lack of unanimity on issues on the green side of the ledger. The Adirondack Council and Citizens Campaign for the Environment have been alone in the environmental community in siding with President Bush’s “Clear Sky” three pollutant air pollution control strategy that doesn’t cap CO2 as demanded by most environmental organizations. Environmentalists have also split over cleanup standards for brownfield cleanup ranging from a hardcore to what is being called a pave and wave approach.

Some legislative staffers divide the environmental organizations into two groups, the “browns” and the “greens”. The browns like the Citizens Environmental Coalition are hard core voices against pollution advocating for the highest levels of pollution control and cleanest standards for clean ups. Greens like the Nature Conservancy are more focused on land preservation through, for example, State funding for open space acquisition under the Environmental Protection Fund.

Also, divisive has been jockeying from time to time between environmental groups for primacy on this or that issue or when an environmental group gets too tied with one or the other of the political camps in Albany.

Efforts of organizing the environmental forces appear to have marginal effect. On Earth Day Lobby Day EA focuses a coalition of fifty organizations to make the rounds of the legislature. Annually the environmental leaders of organizations that have the Adirondack Park on their radar meet to compare notes and look collectively at the upcoming legislative session. Audubon organized a working group on smart growth leaving not all of its participants happy with the results. Yet, these collaborative efforts evidence more good intention than successful integrated action.

Lack of environmental success for the environmentalists in Albany may be attributable to lack of a clear, over arching environmental agenda or priority each legislative year that is a bottom line for the multi-headed environmental community. Except for the need of the Governor and legislature to react to the environmental issue de jour that blow up from time to time in public consciousness, there has been too little pressure on New York’s political establishment to get out front on environmental quality issues.

Environmentalism has come a long way since 1970 and the organizations on Albany’s Hamilton Street are one example that the environmental voice is one to be heard in the political arena. Yet, as impressive as is this transformation from being a voice in the wilderness to a very visible presence, environmentalists still have miles to go get the full range of their issues on Albany’s must do agenda.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is