Scenic Hudson’s 50th Anniversary: A History and the 17-Year Battle to Preserve Storm King Mountain
Fifty years ago, the environmental preservation group Scenic Hudson was formed to save Storm King Mountain from decimation. We look back at the epic battle to preserve this Valley landmark
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Con Edison’s proposed hydroelectric plant
Despite offering myriad scientific facts and poetically delivered pleas, the presentation was to no avail. After reviewing the testimony, the FPC decided in March 1965 to approve Con Edison’s license for the plant. In addition, the FPC refused to reopen the case, despite subsequent applications by Scenic Hudson and other environmental groups. Undaunted, Scenic Hudson appealed the decision to the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. That court hearing, held in October 1965, wasn’t any easier for the pro-preservationists than the FPC hearing had been almost a year earlier. Court records show, for instance, that one Con Edison lawyer dismissively referred to Scenic Hudson’s legal team as “birdwatchers” — and even argued that the power plant’s design would enhance Storm King’s beauty. All in all, more than 19,000 pages of testimony were given.
But on December 29, 1965, the three-judge circuit court delivered its ruling, a milestone that came to be known as the “Scenic Hudson Decision.” It declared that Scenic Hudson, and the citizens it represented, did have the legal right to bring forth its lawsuit.
The decision was groundbreaking for several reasons. In addition to the obvious drama of Scenic Hudson playing David to Con Edison’s Goliath, it was the first time citizens were granted the right to sue — known as legal standing — to protect the environment, in a case based on aesthetic and environmental factors.
The suit had been brought forth because of a widespread desire by Valley residents and other environmentally conscious citizens to preserve the natural beauty and historical importance of Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River’s ecology — with no financial interest in the outcome. This was a radical notion: Previously, a plaintiff such as Scenic Hudson would have had to demonstrate a claim of financial damages or economic loss before a case could gain legal standing to even be heard in court. As Circuit Judge Paul Hays wrote in the decision: “The cost of a project is only one of several factors to be considered”; in addition, “the preservation of natural beauty and national historic sites” were key factors.
The 1965 ruling was unprecedented: The Scenic Hudson Decision essentially opened the door for the entire field of environmental law, which hadn’t existed before. The decision, however, wasn’t the end of the group’s legal journey.
The FPC turned to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case — and legal maneuverings continued for another 15 years. But while the grueling battle raged on, Scenic Hudson successfully advocated to preserve other natural areas on the river. Plans to construct a hydroelectric plant on Breakneck Ridge were withdrawn in 1965, and the proposed construction of a 14-story condominium near the Bear Mountain Bridge was blocked in 1975.
Franny Reese signs the settlement allowing the state to acquire — and protect — the Storm King property
Finally, in 1979, Con Edison dropped its plans to build the power plant. The settlement was finalized on December 19, 1980, in Manhattan, with Franny Reese signing the document on behalf of Scenic Hudson. Con Ed agreed to give the land proposed for the Storm King facility to the state in exchange for trade-offs at some of its other power plants. The utility also established a $12 million fund for river research, which became the Hudson River Foundation.
Ned Sullivan, who today heads Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson, sums up the importance of the tumultuous case: “It was momentous. This was before there were environmental laws, before citizens had any voice in decisions affecting the environment. It established so many legal and environmental precedents — the whole field of environmental law essentially sprang up from it.”
Among the far-reaching changes in American law that resulted from the 1965 decision and its follow-up, Sullivan says, were the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and many others.
Klara Sauer was present at the historic signing of the agreement. “The whole process of getting to that final point was unbelievably daunting and challenging,” she recalls. “There were so many complex scientific and legal aspects involved in the case.”
And although preservationists won the Storm King battle, the war continues to rage. “It’s important to remember that the challenge to preserve the environment of the Hudson Valley — and everywhere else, for that matter — still continues to this day,” Sauer says. “As citizens, we all need to be vigilant.”