DEC gears up for 50th anniversary

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, front, signs a law establishing the state Department of Environmental Conservation on the first-ever Earth Day, April 22, 1970. (Photo provided by DEC)

RAY BROOK — The state Department of Environmental Conservation is gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary this coming year, marking when it shifted from the old Conservation Department.

The department plans to celebrate the milestone over the course of 2020 with, among other things, a geocaching scavenger hunt and staff service projects.

A bill establishing the DEC was passed by the state Legislature with bipartisan support on Saturday, April 18, 1970. Then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed that bill into law a few days later, on the first-ever Earth Day, April 22. When it was formed, it absorbed the Conservation Department, the Water Resources Commission and the Air Pollution Control Board, according to an Associated Press article at the time. Rockefeller then appointed Henry L. Diamond, a 37-year-old lawyer from Tennessee who once served as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy, as the department’s first commissioner.

The next year, Rockefeller and the state Legislature directed the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency to oversee development — the same year the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy was established under the Conservancy’s Eastern New York Chapter.

The DEC’s Ray Brook headquarters, on state Route 86 in Ray Brook, were formally dedicated on Feb. 26, 1972.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos speaks at the first-ever I Love NY Oktoberfest at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington on Oct. 4, 2019. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The DEC’s 50th anniversary celebration is slated to kick off in January with the department highlighting “environmental victories” throughout the past 50 years on its website, in its Conservationist magazine, through email and on social media with the hashtag #DEC50, according to a news release from the DEC.

Eagle restoration hailed

In a statement, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos hailed the department’s efforts to restore the bald eagle population. The department recommended the birds be removed from the state’s endangered species list in October after the number of eagles’ nests rebounded from one in 1960 to 389 as of 2015.

A bald eagle takes off from a perch in Saranac Lake in November 2009. There was just one nesting pair of bald eagles left in New York state in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, which is considered to have played a major role in saving them from extinction. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Bald eagles were at the brink of extinction in the 1960s, in large part because of the use of DDT, an insecticide. DDT was banned nationwide in 1972, the federal Endangered Species Act banning the killing of eagles was enacted in 1973, and in 1976 the state established an eagle restoration program.

The DEC’s program saw the state bring nearly 200 nesting bald eagles from other states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Alaska. Staffers also fostered and hand-reared eaglets before releasing them into likely habitats. The state’s restoration program continued until 1989, when the department reached its goal of establishing 10 breeding pairs. The number of breeding pairs has continued to climb.

Other “environmental victories”

Journalists and state officials paddle on Boreas Ponds in September 2012, around the time the governor announced the state’s intention to buy this and other former Finch, Pruyn land tracts from the Nature Conservancy. (Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

Seggos also highlighted the implementation of the first statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas, as well as “the largest addition to the Adirondack Park in more than a century, completed in 2016,” as major successes in the department’s more recent history.

The state purchased 69,000 acres of land from the Nature Conservancy, over five years, for $47.3 million. The Conservancy had purchased 161,000 acres from the Finch, Pruyn paper company in 2007, sold about 90,000 acres to a pension fund for logging and set aside the remaining 69,000 acres to sell to the state. That remaining land included the Boreas Ponds tract, the Essex Chain Lakes, OK Slip Falls, and the MacIntyre East and West tracts. Bit by bit, it was added to the state’s Adirondack Forest Preserve.

Through the DEC, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide large-scale hydraulic fracking ban in 2014. Earlier this month, on the anniversary of that decision, state Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, introduced a bill that would codify Cuomo’s ban into law.

Special events, scavenger hunt slated

Starting next month, the DEC will also begin hosting special “anniversary events,” and begin announcing staff-led service projects as part of its 50th anniversary celebration.

“As part of DEC’s year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary, DEC is planning events in every corner of the state, including the Tri-Lakes Region,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald said. “Event details will be shared as events are confirmed.”

The department also plans to launch a “Geocaching Challenge” next year. The DEC will hide geocaching canisters on 50 properties across the state with instructions on how to receive a prize, according to a news release from the DEC.

“Geocaching challenge winners will receive a NY Wildlife Viewing guide, and surprise prizes,” Ringewald said.

Next year, the Division of Fish and Wildlife will use the DEC’s 50th anniversary logo on the yearly Habitat Access pin, which will be available at licensing agencies statewide starting this coming August.

According to Seggos, the department’s anniversary celebration won’t just focus on the past.

“This year, while we reflect on five decades of victories, we will urgently direct our attention to the challenges of the next 50 years, particularly climate change, the greatest-ever threat to our air, land, and water,” Seggos said. “As Washington, D.C., abandons environmental protection and sides with polluters, DEC is committed to taking on the challenges ahead.”


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