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Linda Bartlett

Swimming Against the Tide

Early in the morning at Audubon board meetings and staff retreats more than a decade ago, a trim figure with muscular arms could often be spotted swimming in whatever chilly mountain lake or northern ocean was at hand. “Brrr!” shuddered the early risers as they watched his powerful strokes. Peter Berle was testing himself again.

Disbelief mingled with sadness as memories like these overcame former Audubon colleagues on learning of Berle’s tragic death in November at age 69. Berle, a passionate environmental leader and the president of Audubon from 1985 to 1995, succumbed two months after suffering devastating injuries while taking down an outbuilding on the farm he and his wife, Lila, owned in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

“[Peter] always led from the front,” explained Brock Evans, who worked with him on Audubon’s campaign to save ancient forests and the northern spotted owl. “He never wavered.” Brock added, “He was always willing to weigh in at all crucial times when we needed real heavyweight representation. By 1994 we had succeeded in forcing the U.S. Forest Service to reduce their logging by about 90 percent, thereby rescuing millions of acres of big trees, now still standing.”

Biologist Jesse Grantham recalled Berle’s unflinching support for the California condor program during the mid-1980s, when many Audubon members protested the idea of developing a captive-breeding program, preferring to let the species go extinct “with dignity.” “Peter supported the recovery effort, and today there are 301 condors in the world population, up from 23 in 1982,” Grantham wrote. “He had great trust in his staff; he knew we knew what we were doing.”

Berle was a skilled outdoorsman from his youth. He skied competitively, was a vigorous hiker and swimmer, and served as a paratrooper and intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force. A lawyer by profession, he was drawn to politics largely because of his belief in environmental protection. Elected to the New York State Assembly, he led the floor fight during the 1970s that helped preserve the Adirondack Park’s “forever wild” character. Governor Hugh Carey appointed him chief of the Department of Environmental Conservation, where he directed both the cleanup of the notorious hazardous waste site at Love Canal and the purchase of vital conservation land. “Peter would joke that he didn’t buy mountains in ones and twos, he bought them by the dozen,” said Graham Cox, his former aide. But Berle’s opposition to a proposed superhighway in Manhattan cost him his job.

As Audubon’s president, he overcame a fiscal crisis to build a rich environmental legacy. It included the purchase and renovation of the Audubon headquarters in downtown Manhattan, a pioneering model for “green building,” and the defense, throughout his tenure, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “To make the case to Congress more genuine, he walked across it,” says Audubon’s former northeast regional vice-president David Miller, noting the special stamp Berle put on another critical issue. “In 1992 he coauthored a handbook on how you could go on a CO2 diet to reduce global warming. It was 15 years ago. Read it today—it is nothing short of visionary.”—Frank Graham Jr.

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