When he settled near what the early Dutch colonists called “Butter Hill” (because it looked like a lump of butter rising above the Hudson River), the 19th-century writer Nathaniel Parker Willis proposed renaming the mountain “Storm King,” for in those days, clouds descending its slopes in the morning were considered “the most sure foreteller of a storm.”
But the meteorological significance of the mountain now pales when compared to its metaphorical significance. Since 1962, when Consolidated Edison announced plans to build a hydropower plant on this scenic mountain in New York’s Hudson Highlands, Storm King has stood as a bellwether for protecting the environment and preserving the natural beauty of the river.
Today, the laws and oversight that resulted from that fight 56 years ago protect and preserve some of the most stunning river highlands and valley in the world. Storm King became a model used nationwide, and led to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the foundation of modern environmental law.
Indeed, a significant legal instrument for scenic preservation was written into the act. Known as the “Storm King Doctrine,” petitioners who cite injury to “aesthetic or recreational values,” in this case the beauty of the Hudson Valley and its river, have constitutional standing. For the first time in history, a citizen now had the right to bring an environmental dispute to court.
In the early years of the Con Ed fight, the turbulence Storm King caused in the American conscience reached the highest level of government. During his 1965 State of the Union Address, President Lyndon Johnson pledged to “end the poisoning of our rivers and the air we breathe” and called for a “green legacy” of more parks, seashores and open space.
A month later, in his Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty, Johnson urged lawmakers to “not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction” but to restore what was destroyed and salvage the beauty of America’s cities.
Thanks to Storm King, the winds had changed in environmental politics. The storm blowing through now caught the attention of Johnson, who signed almost 300 laws concerning beautification and conservation during his presidency. Perhaps the most important of these was the Wilderness Act of 1964, which authorized the involvement of citizens and groups in the legislative process. This ensured for the future more legislation to protect the environment.
The Hudson River’s renaissance has included significant improvements in water quality, wildlife protection and stronger regulations to accommodate appropriate development while preserving public access. To maintain and expand these accomplishments remains a work in progress. Too much poverty exists in the Hudson Valley’s cities, too much suburban sprawl consumes its valuable farmland, and too much pollution still clogs its waterways.
Myriad problems continue, from water poisoned by polychlorinated biphenyls and other chemical micropollutants that aging sewage treatment plants were not designed to treat, to more effective oversight and policing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
On a day-to-day basis, the nonprofit Riverkeeper has become the river’s guardian. Formed in 1966 from the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, which helped lead the fight against Con Ed’s Storm King hydropower plant proposal, Riverkeeper and its thousands of volunteers defend clean water, seek solutions for suitable energy sources, improve wildlife habitat and encourage state and local government to invest more in water supplies and sewage systems.
Each May, Riverkeeper volunteers spend a single day to remove 40 tons of trash from more than 100 waterfront communities, and plant trees and native grasses in place of the garbage. They also monitor water quality and have amassed a database of more than 15,000 water quality test results. Clearly significant, these volunteer efforts nonetheless need more support from government agencies, area businesses and local communities.
Storm King fundamentally shaped American environmental law and policy. As Robert Boyle, a Sports Illustrated writer, Hudson Valley resident and leading activist in the fight wrote in 1969: “the battle to stop the Storm King plant has been one of the most fierce and publicized in the history of American conservation.”
Despite a changing climate and hostility to environmental regulation in Washington, the fight for a cleaner, healthier Hudson continues, today, with renewed support from the countless local advocates who live, work and play along its storied shoreline.