By Tim Truscott
Henry L. Diamond, New York State’s first environmental conservation commissioner, who was appointed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller on the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, died on February 21 in Washington at age 83.
Mr. Diamond recalled in a recent article in The Environmental Forum that, at the time, in the early 1960s, “ecology was thought to be for eccentrics,”.
“Conservation was an afterthought on political platforms,” he continued
However, by 1970, the environmental movement had gathered momentum, prompting activists to declare April 22 of that year Earth Day and to promote it as a day of national consciousness-raising about environmental threats.
Governor Rockefeller chose that day, April 22, 1970, as the day to sign legislation creating the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and to name Mr. Diamond, at age 37, to lead it, months before Congress established a comparable federal agency, the EPA. The governor went so far as to declare that people were “ready to slow down the pace of economic progress to protect the environment.”
As DEC commissioner, Mr. Diamond biked 533 miles from Niagara Falls to his home in Port Washington on Long Island in 1972 to promote a $1.2 billion state bond issue to pay for water and air pollution controls and to purchase and protect pristine private land. The bond referendum passed.
Diamond resigned the post in 1973 to become executive director of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, a body created by Governor Rockefeller to set goals for the nation and to keep him in the limelight for a potential presidential campaign.
During his more than three years on the job, New York was in the forefront of efforts to ban certain pesticides, eliminate polluting phosphates from detergents and protect vast swaths of the Adirondacks.
It would certainly be interesting to learn what led up to the creation of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Henry Diamond’s appointment as its first commissioner, to learn what the thinking was and to learn who did the thinking.
Not to take away from Nelson Rockefeller, but I’m sure the ideas were not all his and that others were key in this venture. That was one of Rockefeller’s great strengths: He knew how to solicit thinking from other bright minds and incorporate it into what he wanted to do for New York. His younger brother, Laurence Rockefeller, a conservationist, was probably instrumental in the creation of DEC, as was Henry Diamond himself (Diamond had worked several years for Laurence Rockefeller in his conservation projects).
Diamond was very charismatic and a great force in developing an agency that didn’t exist in any other state. He brought a fervor to the emerging environmentalism that was similar to the fervor of the Civil Rights movement. Diamond also set the standard for all the DEC commissioners who followed.
What would Henry Diamond say today about crude oil trains running without ever having had environmental review? What would he say about industrial contamination of drinking water supplies, as we have witnessed in Hoosick Falls? What would say about the agency he created being gutted by politicians promoting half-baked ideas sold with half-truths?
We’ve come a long way since Henry Diamond and Nelson Rockefeller created DEC. Unfortunately, it’s all been downhill in recent years.
It’s time to reflect on what was intended in protecting the People of New York and their Environment in 1970, and to focus again on moving forward.
Sources: New York Times, Albany Times Union.
Published in March/April 2016
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