Since his boyhood days in Newburgh, N.Y., the Hudson River has been a subject of beauty, fascination and concern to Franklin & Marshall’s David Schuyler.
The Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies routinely returns to his hometown on the Hudson to write about the 315-mile-long river. Schuyler’s 2012 book, “Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909,”won several awardsincluding the Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York.
In his latest, “Embattled River: The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism” (Cornell University Press 2018), Schuyler returns to examine the ongoing fight of more than half a century to protect and preserve the environment, the spectacularly scenic landscape that evokes the American ideal, and the rich history of the river and the valley through which it courses.
“I ended ‘Sanctified Landscape’ by pointing out the rediscovery of those Hudson River School painters in the 1950s and ‘60s, and how important that was to the emerging environmental movement,” Schuyler said.
From the American Revolution to the first American school of art (the Hudson River School), the river has played a vital role in the nation’s historical and cultural identity. Now, Schuyler shows how the river led the way in the environmental movement as its denizens battled threats to the landscapes and waters from utilities, manufacturers, industries and developers.
Schuyler begins his book with a project proposed in 1962 by Consolidated Edison, a New York state utility that wanted to build an enormous hydroelectric plant and pump storage reservoir linked by an underground tunnel drilled into Storm King Mountain. It involved cutting away part of the mountain, which rises along the western side of the river and is the northern gateway to the bucolic Hudson Highlands.
“It would have inflicted a terrible scar on Storm King Mountain,” Schuyler said.
Meanwhile, on the mountain along the Hudson River’s eastern shoreline, Central Hudson Gas and Electric proposed a pump storage plant at Breakneck Ridge, the other side of the northern gateway to the Hudson Highlands.
“These are just incredibly beautiful places,” Schuyler said. “The Hudson Highlands constitute probably the most beautiful and dramatic river scenery in the eastern United States, and it would have been ruined.”
As Schuyler details in his sweeping narrative, Scenic Hudson (then Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference) sued the Federal Power Commission and Con Ed. The group lost, but on appeal, the court ruled in favor of Scenic Hudson. The ruling had three significant dimensions that continue today to have repercussions for environmental protection efforts.
“First, it recognized that Scenic Hudson had standing,” Schuyler said. “Until this time, you could only claim standing in the federal judiciary if you had already suffered some kind of harm, usually economic harm. Since nothing had been built, nobody had been harmed, and yet the court gave Scenic Hudson standing. That revolutionized the federal judiciary, it opened up the courts to all kinds of citizen lawsuits, and it’s still ongoing.”
Just as revolutionary, the ruling chastised the Federal Power Commission for not considering scenic, cultural and historic concerns in determining harm to the environment, he said.
“The ruling effectively mandated the preparation of the first environmental impact statement ever undertaken, and the second and third parts of the ruling became key elements to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969,” Schuyler said.
The outcome of that, he said, was the Environmental Protection Agency, created in 1970.
The Storm King Mountain case was the first salvo to protect the Hudson and its breathtaking landscapes. As Schuyler writes in the book’s ensuing chapters, other court battles followed including one against General Electric, which dumped poisonous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the waters for decades starting in the late 1940s. In 2002, after years of court battles, GE was ordered to clean the 40 miles of river it had contaminated.
Despair over the river’s pollution drew high-profile champions such as the late folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. A Hudson Valley resident, Seeger set sail in 1966 in his sloop, “Clearwater,” to bring national attention to the river and to environmental issues. His legacy, the Clearwater Festival, is an annual music and environmental event along the Mid-Hudson’s shores.
Today, Riverkeeper, formerly the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, is an influential advocate for the environment, Schuyler said.
“It has been the organization that fights hardest for clean water,” he said. “And it led the charge to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in the state of New York.”