Scenic Hudson’s 50th Anniversary: A History and the 17-Year Battle to Preserve Storm King Mountain

Fifty years ago, the environmental preservation group Scenic Hudson was formed to save Storm King Mountain from decimation. We look back at the epic battle to preserve this Valley landmark

The Hudson Valley played a key role — many call it the primary role — in the birth of our nation’s modern-day environmental movement. And in a sense, it all started around a kitchen table in a Valley home back in the 1960s.

What brought six concerned residents to that table in the Westchester County village of Irvington was a September 27, 1962, front-page article in the New York Times, which announced a proposal by Consolidated Edison to build what would be the world’s largest pumped-storage hydroelectric plant on Storm King Mountain.

Located south of Cornwall in Orange County, Storm King towers nearly 1,400 feet above the Hudson. For eons, it has been a prominent symbol of the Valley’s natural magnificence. A favorite subject of famed artists like Thomas Cole and others from the Hudson River School, Storm King has also long been a haven for hikers, birdwatchers, and other nature lovers.

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In early 1963, Con Ed was preparing to file plans seeking approval for the power plant with the Federal Power Commission. The utility company argued that the proposed plant would be a boon to Manhattan, providing downstate residents with extra electricity during periods of peak demand. In order to generate the power, the proposed facility would suck millions of gallons of water from the river; pump it upward through enormous tubes that would be buried inside the mountain; and store it in a one-mile wide, eight-billion-gallon reservoir that would be built on the summit. The water then would be released as needed, gushing back down into six giant turbines. These would crank out electricity, which would be carried through a web of power lines 15 miles long.

But the now-famous “gang of six” was outraged by the utility giant’s proposal to decimate Storm King. In large part, their fury was stoked when Con Ed published a drawing of the proposed new plant: It showed the entire side of the mountain blown off. If these plans were approved as proposed, the Hudson Highlands landscape — renowned for its natural beauty and historical significance — would be irrevocably altered.

catch and release signAbove, the Department of Conservation posts a sign authorizing only catch and release fishing. Below, kayakers protest for clean water

kayakers protest

On November 8, 1963, the group met at the Irvington home of historian and author Carl Carmer — his books include The Hudson, a collection of colorful anecdotes about life along the river. Along with Carmer was Walter Boardman, an educator and a member of the Nature Conservancy; Leo Rothschild, a Manhattan lawyer and key member of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference; Robert Burnap, an avid hiker; advertising executive Harry Nees; and antiques dealer Virginia Guthrie. That night they formed the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference. The grassroots group then set out to do whatever was legally possible to block the power plant.

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Other residents active in the early days of this environmental campaign headed by Scenic Hudson included lawyer Stephen Duggan and his wife Beatrice “Smokey” Duggan, who lived near Storm King; and Bob Boyle, a Sports Illustrated writer and fishing fan who sought to preserve the river’s aquatic bounty. As time went on, a growing list of Valley residents, from professors to fishermen, joined the effort. Pledges of support didn’t just come from locals, either — thousands of Americans from across the nation made donations and otherwise endorsed Scenic Hudson’s efforts.

Most notable of all was Dutchess County’s Frances “Franny” Reese, who joined the fight early on, served as Scenic Hudson’s board chair through the 1970s and ’80s, and remained active in the group until her death in 2003. “Without her, there would be no Scenic Hudson,” claims Klara Sauer, the organization’s executive director from 1979 through 1999. “From day one, or let’s say day two, she was the champion. She held everything together, gathered support, and was the overarching force behind defeating the Storm King project.” Reese’s activist mantra — “Care enough to take action. Do your research so you don’t have to backtrack from a position. And don’t give up” — became Scenic Hudson’s unofficial motto. 

» Read our coverage of GE’s cleanup efforts and Hudson River dredging project

In November 1964, Reese’s three strategies were put into action when the case against Con Ed came before the Federal Power Commission at a hearing in New York City.

Testimony from scientists on behalf of Scenic Hudson pointed out the potential damage to fish posed by the power plant, among other dangers. Storm King’s historical, environmental, and artistic heritage was also passionately presented to the commission. As Rothschild, then Scenic Hudson’s board chairman, put it: “I know of nothing more important than to preserve all wilderness areas in the metropolitan region, which is rapidly becoming a complex of highways and housing developments.” He added: “Some places must be left where we can — to quote Walt Whitman — ‘invite our souls.’ ”

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con edison proposed plantCon Edison’s proposed hydroelectric plant

Despite offering myriad scientific facts and poetically delivered pleas, the presentation was to no avail. After reviewing the testimony, the FPC decided in March 1965 to approve Con Edison’s license for the plant. In addition, the FPC refused to reopen the case, despite subsequent applications by Scenic Hudson and other environmental groups. Undaunted, Scenic Hudson appealed the decision to the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. That court hearing, held in October 1965, wasn’t any easier for the pro-preservationists than the FPC hearing had been almost a year earlier. Court records show, for instance, that one Con Edison lawyer dismissively referred to Scenic Hudson’s legal team as “birdwatchers” — and even argued that the power plant’s design would enhance Storm King’s beauty. All in all, more than 19,000 pages of testimony were given. 

But on December 29, 1965, the three-judge circuit court delivered its ruling, a milestone that came to be known as the “Scenic Hudson Decision.” It declared that Scenic Hudson, and the citizens it represented, did have the legal right to bring forth its lawsuit.

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» View the Scenic Hudson timeline (PDF opens in new window)

The decision was groundbreaking for several reasons. In addition to the obvious drama of Scenic Hudson playing David to Con Edison’s Goliath, it was the first time citizens were granted the right to sue — known as legal standing — to protect the environment, in a case based on aesthetic and environmental factors.

The suit had been brought forth because of a widespread desire by Valley residents and other environmentally conscious citizens to preserve the natural beauty and historical importance of Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River’s ecology — with no financial interest in the outcome. This was a radical notion: Previously, a plaintiff such as Scenic Hudson would have had to demonstrate a claim of financial damages or economic loss before a case could gain legal standing to even be heard in court. As Circuit Judge Paul Hays wrote in the decision: “The cost of a project is only one of several factors to be considered”; in addition, “the preservation of natural beauty and national historic sites” were key factors.

Among the far-reaching changes in American law resulting from the 1965 decision and its follow-up were the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and many others

The 1965 ruling was unprecedented: The Scenic Hudson Decision essentially opened the door for the entire field of environmental law, which hadn’t existed before. The decision, however, wasn’t the end of the group’s legal journey.

The FPC turned to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case — and legal maneuverings continued for another 15 years. But while the grueling battle raged on, Scenic Hudson successfully advocated to preserve other natural areas on the river. Plans to construct a hydroelectric plant on Breakneck Ridge were withdrawn in 1965, and the proposed construction of a 14-story condominium near the Bear Mountain Bridge was blocked in 1975.

franny reeseFranny Reese signs the settlement allowing the state to acquire — and protect — the Storm King property

Finally, in 1979, Con Edison dropped its plans to build the power plant. The settlement was finalized on December 19, 1980, in Manhattan, with Franny Reese signing the document on behalf of Scenic Hudson. Con Ed agreed to give the land proposed for the Storm King facility to the state in exchange for trade-offs at some of its other power plants. The utility also established a $12 million fund for river research, which became the Hudson River Foundation.

Ned Sullivan, who today heads Poughkeepsie-based Scenic Hudson, sums up the importance of the tumultuous case: “It was momentous. This was before there were environmental laws, before citizens had any voice in decisions affecting the environment. It established so many legal and environmental precedents — the whole field of environmental law essentially sprang up from it.”

Among the far-reaching changes in American law that resulted from the 1965 decision and its follow-up, Sullivan says, were the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and many others.

Klara Sauer was present at the historic signing of the agreement. “The whole process of getting to that final point was unbelievably daunting and challenging,” she recalls. “There were so many complex scientific and legal aspects involved in the case.”

And although preservationists won the Storm King battle, the war continues to rage. “It’s important to remember that the challenge to preserve the environment of the Hudson Valley — and everywhere else, for that matter — still continues to this day,” Sauer says. “As citizens, we all need to be vigilant.”

» Read our coverage of GE’s cleanup efforts and Hudson River dredging project


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