>>Audubon Medal

“Doing the Right Thing”

For the past century, five generations of Rockefellers have dedicated themselves to protecting the nation's natural heritage, from the California redwoods to the Hudson River. Their environmental legacy has lasted because they have fashioned it into the American ideal of civic responsibility.

By Frank Graham Jr.



Our economy is a subsystem of the earth's ecosystem,” Steven Rockefeller said recently. “And, very clearly, industrialized society is systematically degrading the planet's ecosystem. If we do not reverse our patterns of production and consumption over the next 50 years, the damage done to the planet will be simply irreversible.”

Strong words from a member of the world's most famous industrial dynasty. Yet this 69-year-old great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founding father of the clan's fabled wealth, and son of Nelson Rockefeller, a former Vice-President of the United States, is solidly within the family tradition. For nearly a century, on grand public occasions or by maneuvering behind the scenes, one Rockefeller after another has challenged current attitudes and tried to repair the national wrongs they perceived. The Rockefeller vision, critical for progress in the arts, medical research, and historic preservation, has also helped shape the American environment.

As it marks its 100th anniversary this November, the National Audubon Society will present the 2005 Audubon Medal to the Rockefeller family for its record of philanthropy and public service. The medal recognizes the contributions by the first family of conservation as core civic values at a time when those values are threatened. The term “Rockefeller Republican” implies a rejection of the extremism that characterizes so much of the current Congress's and administration's disregard for the environment.

“Everybody in the family grew up with parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, who felt a deep responsibility to secure the beauty of the earth for future generations.”

For generation after generation, the Rockefeller approach has been bipartisan, stressing the vital center while weaving a strong pattern of land stewardship into society's fabric. “I don't know that there is another American family that has done more to protect a greater number of acres, in a more diverse array of landscapes across many generations, than the Rockefellers,” says Bill Cronon, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. “They are a model of what public–private partnership in the service of conservation can achieve. Sometimes government has the resources that private conservation can't do on its own, but sometimes the converse is true. I don't think we would now have Acadia National Park, or Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park, if it were not for the intervention of the Rockefellers.”

Of the clan, Laurance S. Rockefeller, who died in 2004 at the age of 94, was the most visibly connected with public and private conservation projects, particularly in the national parks movement. As chair of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, called by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Laurance articulated his belief that the “perception of beauty and action to preserve and create it are a fundamental test of a great society.” He had summed up the motivation of a family noted as widely for grand strokes in philanthropy as for success in business. Out of a puritanical, Christian-anchored emphasis on personal responsibility and “doing the right thing,” the dynasty's creator and his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. “The land is created by God” became a mantra running through the Rockefeller generations. Its members bought up generous expanses of this rare and beautiful treasure and conveyed it as a “gift for the ages” to the American people. Much of this philanthropic activism was rooted in a deep appreciation of the beauty found in art, old buildings, and the American landscape.

“My interest in nature and the environment came from my experiences as a child in beautiful places—hiking, camping, fishing, and birding,” explains Steven Rockefeller, professor emeritus of religion at Vermont's Middlebury College. “Everybody in the family is concerned about environmental protection. We all grew up with parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, who loved the natural world, and [later on] we all took the warnings of science from Rachel Carson to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change very, very seriously.”


In the years before World War I, John D. Rockefeller Jr. expanded the family's interest beyond art and medical research into the conservation of natural areas. He and wealthy friends around the summer resort of Bar Harbor on Maine's Mount Desert Island acted to preserve its scenic splendor for later generations. The land they assembled for protection was deeded to the federal government in 1916 and, through a series of steps, eventually became the heavily visited Acadia National Park—the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Later, on trips to Yellowstone, John D. Jr. led the way in acquiring land for Grand Teton National Park.

Inevitably, his children redoubled the Rockefeller impact on conservation. The lone daughter, Abby (or “Babs”), whose philanthropic interests ranged from cancer research to the arts, was an essentially private person. Thus the third generation became known as “the Brothers,” because of the public attention focused on the achievements of the five sons—John D. III, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David.

The eldest, John D. III, made philanthropy his career. His specialty was population stabilization, a phrase he believed less inflammatory than “zero population growth.” As a young man he had written to his father that limiting the runaway human population was “fundamental and underlying, absolutely critical to the well-being and future of the human race.” The Population Council he founded brought the issue to the front, both in the United States and abroad. In 1970 his brother Nelson, as governor of New York, followed John D. III's lead by signing the pioneering state law that removed abortion from the criminal code. Nelson also used his power as governor to push legislation that bolstered provisions to keep the 6 million-acre Adirondack State Park, the nation's largest, “forever wild.”

Laurance, in harking back to the religious vision of his father and grandfather, detected in landscapes “the majesty and beauty and glory of God.” Besides the dozens of parks (including Tallman Mountain State Park along the Hudson River) that he helped create with discreet financial support or political influence in his own state of New York, he also remained deeply involved in the national parks movement. Redwood and Virgin Islands national parks, and the expansion of Haleakala National Park in Hawaii, benefited from his contributions. A shrewd investor and a subtle negotiator, Laurance developed as a prelude to ecotourism several upscale RockResorts in unspoiled surroundings, including those at Caneel Bay, St. John's, in the Virgin Islands. What he yearned for was the “creation of a conservation ethic in America.”

Neither of the two younger brothers became as closely involved with conservation issues. Winthrop made his mark in Arkansas, where he served two terms as governor and developed a large experimental farm. David, a consummate financier and philanthropist—and, at 90, the only surviving brother—
usually left the initiative in land preservation to his late wife, Peggy.

“One day we were sailing past Devil's Island [on the Maine coast], and for the first time saw a house being built on it,” David recalled recently. “And it was obviously going to destroy the beauty.” Peggy became very active in protecting Maine's rugged islands and eventually, with the help of a friend, Thomas Cabot, founded the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Since 1970 the trust has helped to protect more than 120,000 acres of scenic land and wildlife habitat on the Maine coast, including headlands, forests, and 250 islands.


The family's fourth generation of philanthropists, two dozen undeniable individualists often referred to as “the Cousins,” has sometimes veered sharply from the clan's norm. Ranging politically from the left to moderate, or “Rockefeller,” Republicans, they tend to march to their own drummers. Jay Rockefeller, born John D. IV, for instance, served as a Democratic governor of West Virginia, and, since 1987, as a U.S. Senator. Like his cousin Steven, he attributes his interest in conservation to powerful early experiences in beautiful places, in his case, hiking in the Adirondacks. “I think [conservation] is a lot more than just goodwill and doing good work,” he argues. “I think this is also about survival. I really believe we've come to the tipping point in global climate change. You're talking about a world where angry nature conspires all of her wrath against a heated-up climate.”

Jay recoils from the right wing's current animus in Washington toward conservation. “In every single aspect of the environment, they have taken the most hostile position,” he contends. “There is virtually nothing responsible which is happening environmentally. Yes, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is technically feasible, but it isn't economically efficient. For all I know, they may sell the oil to China.”

He urges private citizens to become involved, as his family has. “The environment, happily, is an area that individuals really can do something about,” he says. “Get involved with environmental organizations. They're doing right now what the government is not doing. It's important for individuals to support environmental movements.”

Jay's sense of urgency is reflected across the “Cousins” generation. Lucy Waletzky, a daughter of Laurance who became a psychiatrist, carries on an aggressive campaign for wildlife-friendly home gardens in New York's Westchester County. Taking her cue from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the Audubon At Home program, she promotes native plants, which diminish the need for pesticides yet benefit wild birds and other animals. “There is no reason at all to use pesticides on your lawn,” says Waletzky, who served on the Audubon board. “People shouldn't teach their children to be afraid of bugs but to be afraid of pesticides.”

Mark Fitler Rockefeller is the son of Nelson and his second wife, Happy. As a child, Mark shared the experience of spectacular settings, in his case Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. A few years ago he entered the conservation trenches after learning that developers planned to build 60 condo units and a marina in the midst of a cottonwood ecosystem along the Snake River in eastern Idaho. Mark persisted in his attempts to buy the land. Eventually, he acquired five miles along the shore, where he built a home and put conservation easements on the rest of the property. Nearby landowners followed his lead, and now a 30-mile stretch of the river is protected. Like Jay, Mark reached out to conservationists. “I was very fortunate because I had a relationship,” he says, “so there was somebody there that I could call to talk to and who could help me with the process.”

The Rockefeller generations overlap in New York City. In her later years Abby emerged partially out of the shadow of her brothers by becoming active in urban conservation. In 1971 she helped create Greenacre Park, a “vest-pocket” haven in midtown Manhattan graced with trees and a cool, 25-foot-high waterfall. She also had the wit to buy the air rights from a small establishment called Joe's Bar and Grill behind the park. Now visitors are exposed to the air and sunlight that otherwise would have been blocked by tall buildings.

Abby's daughter, Abby O'Neill, and granddaughter Gail Caulkins will be carrying on her work well into the 21st century, promoting the preservation of green space among the city's towers of glass and concrete. “We have to learn to create more parks to soften life in the city and civilize it,” Abby says. And Gail adds, distilling the Rockefeller legacy: “Philanthropy is part of the DNA of our family.”



Sound off! Send a letter to the editor
about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!


The Audubon Medal

The quotations in “Doing the Right Thing” derive primarily from a video tribute to the Rockefellers, the recipients of the 2005 Audubon Medal. For additional information about the medal and about Audubon's centennial celebration, log on to www.audubon.org/centennial.