On Common Ground
He may not act or look like his hero Teddy Roosevelt, but George Pataki does a pretty fair imitation of him as a conservationist. By dint of his determination and knack for forging consensus, New York's governor has preserved more than a quarter-million acres, while showing the rest of the nation the way.
By David Seideman
George Pataki looks like George Patton, staring at a map on a pedestal in Fahnestock State Park. New York's Republican governor is bent on enlarging the park, a jewel in the Hudson Highlands, after having already spent more than $6 million in state funds to nearly double its size, to 11,000 acres. Immersing himself in the minutiae of land swaps, conservation easements, and outright purchases, he spots a 500-acre piece that may be for sale. Pataki practically jumps out of his hiking shoes. "If you find the property, we will find the way," he says, turning to several state officials and David J. Miller, executive director of Audubon New York. "We have to do it soon. We don't have a lot of time. The pressures are going to be greater, not less. And once it's gone, it's gone forever."
When it comes to buying land, Pataki has been beating developers to the punch often since he became governor in 1995. Thanks, in part, to a $1.75 billion environmental bond act, for which he furiously stumped the state, Pataki has gone on a spending spree for land unlike any that New York has seen since Theodore Roosevelt served as governor more than a century ago. All told, Pataki has set aside more than 300,000 acres, from Montauk Point on eastern Long Island to the shores of Lake Erie.
Today governors across the nation are proving their bona fides as greens. John Kitzhaber of Oregon is working hard to protect endangered salmon. Maryland's Paris Glendening is preserving vast tracts of open space. Jeb Bush of Florida is playing a pivotal role in the restoration of the Everglades. But George Pataki may well be in a league of his own. He's a "true conservationist," Miller notes. "It comes from his heart and belief system."
While running up his score as a traditional conservationist, the moderate Republican is also bolstering his credentials as a 21st-century environmentalist. Among the highlights from the past year are the passage of one of the country's strictest pesticide-notification laws (see "The Golden Rule," page 18) and a ban on the use of the bird poison Avitrol in cities.
Pataki's passion makes it harder for admirers to understand the state's plans to bring back industry along the Hudson River by, among other things, building new power plants to meet growing energy demands. "No governor in the history of New York comes close to matching Pataki's environmental initiatives and achievements," says Robert H. Boyle, founder of the group Hudson Riverkeeper and of the Hudson River Foundation. "He scores 95 on his current environmental record. But if he allows reindustrialization projects in the Hudson River valley to be built, his grade will go into a freefall." Pataki, who grew up along the Hudson River and keeps his primary residence there, insists that even the most controversial power plant will neither harm the environment nor mar scenic vistas.
Even hard-line environmental groups are careful to temper their criticism. Environmental Advocates, for example, took him to task in its 1999 scorecard for his administration's "business-friendly approach" to some polluters and "purposeful underfunding of agencies" regulating them. But Val Washington, the group's executive director, notes that Pataki has recently taken on carmakers and power-plant operators to preserve clean air. She describes his recent call for the removal of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) dumped in the Hudson River by General Electric as "very courageous." Overall, the group's 1999 and 2000 scorecards laud Pataki for "admirable conservationist leanings," for "successes [that] are significant," and for "remarkable initiatives." "I don't think there has been anyone better on land acquisitions," Washington says. "He is absolutely stellar. He likes the outdoors and spending time with his kids in the woods. And he has a real respect for the natural world. That's the big thing."
Pataki's land ethic is rooted in a passion for birds that goes back to his childhood. Reared on his family's 18-acre farm in Peekskill, he helped tend apples, pears, tomatoes, and the rest of their cornucopia. "My cousin, brother, and I would be outdoors from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night," he recalls. "We had an indigo bunting nesting in one of the peach trees," he says. "It was absolutely so beautiful that my dad couldn't get over it. He just decided to leave all the peaches on the tree."
As the sun dips below the horizon at Fahnestock, the still waters of Canopus Lake turn to black glass. Pataki, 55, holds a press conference on the shore to promote bird conservation. The governor recounts a recent visit to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, where he saw his first Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons--mounted, of course, since both species have been long extinct. "You just think how lack of foresight resulted in two magnificent endangered species' going extinct, and no one will ever see them alive again," he says, off the cuff and without notes. "I wish we had the chance to turn back the clock, but we can't. But what we can do is turn the clock forward and make sure the children of the 21st and 22nd centuries won't experience that kind of disappointment when seeing a red-shouldered hawk, a whippoorwill, or some other species--not in the wild but as a specimen in some museum."
After glancing up at the darkening sky, Pataki suddenly starts racing through the end of his speech as if he couldn't finish fast enough. He then announces, "I'm going to go look at some birds." Of all the public parks on his regular itinerary, the one he frequents most is Fahnestock. It's close to his home, and a haven for more than 100 bird species throughout the year. Pataki's tall, lanky frame covers ground quickly up and down the rolling hills, forested with oaks and hemlocks. Accompanying him are Miller and Ralph Odell, a longtime birder, hiking partner, and New York's director of natural resource protection. Bringing up the rear is a small gaggle of political aides dressed in casual office clothes and carrying cell phones that ring with urgent business from the state capital. Pataki, who with his son Ted is a regular at Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, brushes them off so that he can fix on a great blue heron as it glides over Canopus Lake. "Every time we go out, there's a great blue heron," Pataki says to Miller, flashing a lopsided smile. "It must be a plastic one you and Ralph drag out."
Near a bridge crossing the lake, a red-bellied woodpecker pounds away on a pine snag. Its steady drumbeat competes with a ringing cell phone. Peering through his binoculars, Pataki is transfixed. His press secretary is not, and she politely declines a chance to look for herself. The scene brings to mind the time President Theodore Roosevelt burst into a cabinet meeting to declare, "Gentlemen, do you know what has happened this morning? I just saw a chestnut-sided warbler--and this is only February!"
Roosevelt is Pataki's hero. He named his first son after the patron saint of conservationists, and portraits of T.R. hang in the governor's mansion and in Pataki's home. Still, the approaches taken by the two men are very different. Without Roosevelt's bluster or bully pulpit, Pataki stays true to his unassuming self. His soft facial features--a round chin and cheeks--match his mild personality. He seldom raises his voice to make a point in a speech or in conversation.
Of course, Gentle George can carry a big stick when necessary, but he believes in balance. "If you're prepared to use the stick and the carrot, you can find common ground," Pataki says. Steering a course between conservatives of his own party who are suspicious of conservationists, and those on the other end of the political spectrum who are suspicious of compromisers, Pataki has managed to frame issues in pragmatic, nonpartisan terms.
Take his Bird Conservation Area initiative; it's pure Pataki and the only state program of its kind in the nation. Based on Audubon's Important Bird Areas program, it uses scientific criteria to safeguard and enhance bird populations and their habitats on state lands. The criteria vary by habitat type: A seashore, for example, must routinely support 2,000 waterfowl or 300 shorebirds or 100 wading birds. So far the Pataki administration has designated 11 BCAs in the state, covering 46,500 acres, including Fahnestock. "The BCA can be applied to any public land owned by the state," says Miller, who helped hatch the program. "Once BCA criteria have been met, it acts as an extra level of state protection for wildlife. It's not a regulation program but an information program. It brings scientists in early on in any development process and prevents potential environmental train wrecks like golf courses or parking lots if they're going to alter important bird habitat in any way."
In the Adirondack Park, long a conservation battleground, Pataki has protected more than 100,000 acres of wilderness, while remaining sensitive to the livelihoods of local residents. Rather than shut down snowmobile trails, for instance, he tries to relocate them, partly on private lands. The economic development he has spurred, including a new bobsled run at the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, has engendered goodwill. "His cooperative efforts have made a big difference," says Tim Burke, executive director of the Adirondack Council, an environmental group. "He has a genuine enthusiasm for conservation, particularly in the Adirondacks, and he's helping create jobs there."
Much of Pataki's conservation success stems from the Nixon-goes-to-China credibility of this fiscally conservative Republican who boasts of cutting 57 different taxes. But will his land-buying binge continue if the economic downturn makes it harder to balance budgets? "Absolutely," he replies. "It would cost less. It's a question of priorities."
Where Pataki goes out on a limb is in building his environmental case on economic grounds, reeling off statistics about high employment in ecotourism and environmental cleanup. It all sounds very Al Gore-ish, and contrasts sharply with one Republican rallying cry for the past 20 years: that conservation is bad for business. During the spotted owl war, for example, when former President George Bush campaigned for reelection in Oregon, he likened the Endangered Species Act to a "sword aimed at the jobs, families, and communities of entire regions like the Northwest."
Pataki listens to the spotted owl example but won't budge. "Economic growth and environmental protection are not only not incompatible, they are synergistic," he says. "You think about places like Silicon Valley--an important factor is quality of life. People want to go out and fish in a pond. They want to go out and take a hike. They want to breathe clean air, even go out and look at birds now and then."
It remains to be seen how Pataki's agenda might play on a national stage. He talks about "raising the flag" for his bird-conservation programs among other governors. His best shot may be with the new President Bush, who is said to consider Pataki a good friend. Pataki was reportedly on the short list of vice-presidential candidates, and his high-octane defense of the presumptive president-elect during the Florida recount probably earned him extra credit.
The truest test of Pataki's convictions, though, will be to reconcile them with his fidelity to Bush and the Republican party. The White House and some Republicans are pushing to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to ease restrictions on logging in national forests, where almost all of the nation's old growth remains. No other Republican alive is better positioned to remind Bush of their party's proud heritage as conservationists. For now, Pataki prefers to reserve comment. "I have a whole slew of ideas," he says. "I hope I have the opportunity to talk to President Bush about those." If the President really wants to make a positive mark on the environment, he would do well to hear what his friend from New York has to say.
David Seideman is Audubon's executive editor.
What You Can Do
If you're interested in launching a Bird Conservation Area program in your state, or to get a copy of New York's program, write to David J. Miller, Audubon New York, 200 Trillium Lane, Albany, NY 12203. For a copy of the Audubon Society Important Bird Areas book on which BCAs are based, add $5.