Few things in life are free of politics. And while Erin Crotty realizes that as much as anybody, she doesn’t have to like it, especially when it comes to the environment.
“I’ve always believed that environmental issues are nonpartisan issues, and fortunately there have always been other people in New York who have felt the same way,” said Crotty, former Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner for Gov. George Pataki and the new director of Audubon New York. “That’s the case with the Audubon Society. We’re about protecting birds and their habitat, and that’s just good science and makes good sense. It’s not about politics.”
Crotty is succeeding Albert E. Caccese, who became executive director of Audubon New York in 2007 when he replaced David J. Miller, the man responsible for creating the statewide chapter in 1988. State headquarters are at 200 Trillium Lane in Albany, and Crotty will be overseeing more than 30 employees staffing eight sanctuaries and education centers across the state. New York Audubon has more than 50,000 members.
“I am looking forward to working with the talented and dedicated Audubon staff, unparalleled network of centers, sanctuaries, chapters, members and partners to build on Audubon New York’s impressive conservation track record in new and creative ways for the protection of the Atlantic Flyway birds,” said Crotty, 46. “I am honored to lead Audubon New York at this time of tremendous growth and opportunity.”
According to David Yarnold, CEO of the National Audubon Society, Crotty is a perfect fit for his organization.
“Erin brings a deep knowledge base, along with her reputation for being relentless in pursuit of conservation solutions,” said Yarnold. “Those are just the qualities Audubon New York needs right now. She’ll find a terrific staff and a committed board, and we see nothing but upside for an environmental entrepreneur like Erin.”
Crotty said her first order of business — she starts Monday — will be to get to know the people working for her.
“I’m going out and visiting all the sanctuaries and centers and I’m going to listen to my staff,” she said. “The emphasis has always been on protecting bird habitat, and that will be a big priority of mine. We want to promote and protect our natural spaces, and safeguard the well being of the wildlife in those areas.”
Found her passion
Birds have always been an interest of Crotty, who grew up in Troy and went to Emma Willard School before graduating from Russell Sage with a degree in political science.
“I’ve always been passionate about nature, from a very young age, and I’ve always had an interest in birds,” she said. “I’ve always had a curiosity about them, and they’ve always been a part of my life.”
She wasn’t always so sure, however, how her love of nature was going to manifest itself in a career.
“After I graduated from Sage, I was trying to decide if I should go to grad school or law school, so I took a year off and went to work in California, the only time in my life I did not live in New York,” said Crotty. “I worked in a law firm as a paralegal, and I ended up working on all these environmental issues. It was as if I had an epiphany. Working on policy as it relates to the protection and conservation of our natural resources was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”
Crotty returned to New York and started taking graduate courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, earning her master’s in urban and environmental studies in 1992. She then went to work for New York State Sen. John Daly, a Republican from the Buffalo area. At the time, Daly was chairman of the state commission on toxic substances and hazardous wastes.
“I was craving for the opportunity to work in policy analysis, and John Daly’s district included the Love Canal,” said Crotty, referring to the 1978 discovery of 22,000 tons of waste having been buried in the LaSalle neighborhood of Niagara Falls. “He was a real leader in the creation of modern day environmental legislation in New York state, and working with him for a few years was a great experience for me.”
Later, Gov. Pataki recruited Crotty to work with his staff.
“He asked me to become a policy analyst and work on environmental issues, and from there I gradually took on more and more responsibility,” said Crotty. “I became his director of special environmental projects. I worked on policy involving watershed and landfill issues, I worked on the New York Harbor issue, and from there I became his deputy commissioner of water quality and remediation.”
Then, in 2001, Pataki named Crotty DEC commissioner, the first woman ever to be named to the post, and she served there for four years.
“I really enjoyed working with the governor and the Legislature, and I felt like we were able to accomplish many things,” said Crotty. “Governor Pataki really believed that environmental issues were economic ones. It was a fantastic job.”
At the DEC, Crotty was in charge of 3,300 employees and handled a budget of approximately $1 billion. She led the way in the development of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, developing a cap and trade program for carbon dioxide emissions, and she also oversaw the purchase of 260,000 acres of wilderness land in the Adirondack Mountains for conservation purposes. Crotty also helped craft the Superfund/Brownfields Law of 2003 and was a key negotiator in the historic New York City Watershed Agreement.
After leaving her post as DEC commissioner in 2005, Crotty created her own consulting agency, and in 2008 began working at RPI as its director of Community Relations, coordinating community partnership programs and expanding local outreach efforts. She left that post earlier this month.
Denise Sheehan, Crotty’s former deputy commissioner at the DEC and her successor there, said Crotty is the perfect person to take over the reins at Audubon New York.
“Erin’s the person who, when you’re outdoors walking in a field, will tell you what you’re looking at,” said Sheehan, now a vice president at Capitol Hill Management Services in Albany, a consulting firm dealing with financial management and government affairs services for nonprofit groups. “I’m happy and I’m thrilled for her because this position is a perfect blend of the things she loves personally and her professional career. It’s a huge positive for Audubon New York in terms of their direction. She will improve all the relationships they have, and she will elevate their status here in New York.”
Sheehan met Crotty when they were both working in state government in 1995.
“Her passion and her dedication rubs off on people,” said Sheehan. “She’s excellent at setting priorities and helping people work toward those priorities. At the DEC, we all knew and understood what our goals were and what we were trying to achieve. Erin’s very strategic.”
Crotty lives in the hilly and rural section of Rensselaer County with her husband, Jay Millington, and their son, Zachary. Their backyard, complete with bird feeders and bluebird houses, befits someone who obviously loves nature.
“I am an avid gardener, and I try to put natural grasses, native plants and bushes and other food sources in the yard for our birds,” she said. “I try to be very bird-friendly.”
She says she loves most every kind of winged creature, but she admits she does have a soft spot for the Baltimore oriole.
“I hate to single out one kind, because they’re all kind of like children,” she said. “But I have to say it’s always a special moment when I see the pair of Baltimore orioles we have nesting in the area. When they show up for the first time each spring, it’s pretty magical.”