One of the architects of the modern environmental protections for the Adirondack Mountains died earlier this week.
Henry L. Diamond, who was on the state commission that recommended creating a special agency to oversee the Adirondacks and then served as the state’s first commissioner of environmental conservation, passed away Sunday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 83.
He’s being recalled not just as a friend of the Rockefeller family back when Nelson A. was governor, but as an environmental leader at the pivotal moment when concern about the environment moved from the weirdo fringe to being central in public policy-making.
“Conservation was an afterthought on political platforms,” he recalled in a recent article in The Environmental Forum, “slightly ahead of Esperanto and a single tax.”
That began to change in the mid-1960s, after Rachel Carson chronicled the toll of DDT and it became clear that industrial rivers were dying, smoggy skies turning an unnatural shade of lemon.
With awareness growing and youths needing a wholesome focus other than protesting the Vietnam War, the first annual Earth Day was on April 22, 1970. That same year, the word “environmental” — and with it oversight of state anti-pollution and environmental protection programs — was added to the portfolio of the state conservation department, which had previously overseen public forest lands and hunting. The DEC was born.
Diamond, who already had a national reputation as an environmental advocacy lawyer, was named by Rockefeller to head the new department.
“From day one, he was in the hot seat,” said David Gibson, a partner in Adirondack Wild, who got to know Diamond after he left DEC.
In 1967, the governor’s brother, leading conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, had floated the idea of protecting the Adirondacks as a national park — a butterfly of an idea that ran into a freight train of opposition from all sides.
But Diamond, a close adviser to Laurance Rockefeller, and others continued to look for ways to address the basic problem — that unrestrained development could tame the wild Adirondacks. Gov. Rockefeller appointed a commission of prominent people to look into the matter. One of the members of the Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks was Diamond, already a well-known environmental advocate.
The commission recommended some sort of state land use control organization, which led to the formation of the Adirondack Park and the Adirondack Park Agency in 1972.
To be sure, the idea of the APA had developers and many locals spitting nails, but the Rockefellers got the Legislature behind it.
Developers rushed to put projects forward before the APA land use rules kicked in. One of those proposals was by Ton-De-Lay Associates, which proposed cutting 18,400 acres in the town of Altamont (now Tupper Lake) into 4,000 building lots.
All it needed was water and septic system permits from the new DEC, but Diamond — as DEC commissioner — refused them on the grounds the project would have a large negative impact on the environment. It was one of the first times environmental impact was used as a justification to deny a permit; the courts upheld DEC’s action. Within a few years state law required environmental impact reviews for all major actions.
“That was one of the early precedents,” Gibson said.
“Really, what goes on in the land around us determines our quality of life in a very big way,” Gibson said.
Diamond also campaigned successfully for a $1.15 billion environmental bond act in 1972, taking a 533-mile bike trip from western New York to Long Island to promote it. The bond act included money for the state to buy 132,000 acres in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
Diamond resigned from DEC in 1973, and after that worked in environmental law at Beveridge & Diamond, a Washington law firm.
He worked for both Democrat and Republican presidents. He was on advisory panels to Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and chaired Richard M. Nixon’s Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality.