Legal champion for nature, for our nature and for the wild, David Sive, eulogized in The New York Times recently, was a man who epitomized the truth that you protect only what you love, you love only what you understand and you understand only what you are taught. According to the writers of the Times obituary, David brought Thoreau’s Walden with him to World War II and he and the book survived the Battle of the Bulge.
That is a blessing, for David Sive went on to employ Thoreau’s transcendence, his own legal training, fierce guardianship of all he loved and consummate use of the English language in the courts of law to protect the Hudson Valley and its Highlands, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, our State Parks, and many other places.
Before David Sive, the idea of a citizen and their representative gaining standing to argue for the environment in a court of law was rare indeed. Thanks to him and other pioneers, it has long been practiced. One can always wish that more of our judges were better trained and more inclined in this direction, but that is another story.
David addressed the New York Parks and Conservation Association this way in 1995, echoing John F. Kennedy: “I truly cannot tell more than a fraction of what New York State’s parks have done for me. It is clear now that the mandate I should have given myself about forty years ago, when my environmental, political and legal activism began, is, ‘Ask not what New York state parks can do for you; ask what you can do for them.’”
I cannot improve on this or the Times obituary, or the many precedents David and others in his generation of legal pioneers fought for so that our generations could gain legal redress for the environment. I can only raise some examples of how David influenced me and my generation.
I held David in some awe. He had a knack for showing up at the most crucial moments. For instance, in 1994 the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks met at Silver Bay on Lake George, and David joined our deliberations just as the meeting was to start (he was a Trustee). As a small (in budget) not for profit, we were debating the impacts of a planned Wal-Mart in Lake Placid and what we could do about it, among many other topics that day. Should we care? Yes, we concluded. How to respond was another matter. Could we, for instance, help the grassroots organizers opposed to Wal-Mart in Lake Placid by accepting money on their behalf as a pass-through, they not having a tax-exempt status of their own? We could, David argued, and he left the room, returning fifteen minutes later with a draft resolution explaining for the rest of us exactly why this mechanism was legal (it would not get us in trouble with the IRS), practical, practicable, and helpful. We adopted it verbatim and in subsequent months made our meaningful contribution to the overall effort in Lake Placid.
Later in our meeting, Governor Mario Cuomo helicoptered down to the lake to give an address and present his award to Paul Schaefer. The mood was celebratory, but also somber. The Governor’s opponent, Republican George Pataki, had just crept ahead in the polls, and Mario Cuomo sensed this might be his last visit to the Adirondacks as Governor. After he departed, the crowd wondered what a Pataki governorship might mean for the Forest Preserve, for Forever Wild. David Sive calmed us down. Forever Wild would withstand any future assaults, he assured the room, speaking with the calm confidence of someone who has fought in the Battle of the Bulge as well as in the Federal Courts for the rights of the Hudson River and all manner of life to carry on.
David was prescient because less than a year later, in July 1995, just after the great blowdown in the Five Ponds Wilderness area (and many points to the south and east) David showed up at a meeting of environmentalists in Albany very worried that DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata had signaled his readiness to order a timber salvage operation in that Wilderness. David’s calm but firm legal posture helped convince us all to sign onto his letter to the Commissioner, which indicated that the groups had the law, the will and the wallet on their side to bring suit if such salvage operations were conducted in wilderness protected by Article XIV, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution. The Commissioner backed right down. Instead, he formed a diverse citizen advisory committee to advise DEC about more appropriate ways, ecologically, legally, recreationally, in which to respond to this storm’s aftermath. That conversation was one of the most interesting and successful examples of multi- stakeholder dialogue I have ever participated in. I trace its results back to David’s persuasive letter.
The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks could not have endured into the “modern era” (it was formed in 1901) without David Sive. He was the one who acted and got the tax-exemption 79 years later which enabled the organization to receive meaningful tax-exempt gifts and contributions. That enabled me to be hired. As I say, he had a knack for action at the most crucial times. We honored David with the Howard Zahniser Wilderness Award in 2001 at a ceremony in Lake Placid, one of many he received.
I close with David’s opening in his address to the Parks and Conservation Association (now Parks and Trails New York) in 1995: “The theme of this gathering is what I have may have done for New York State’s parks, which include, of course, the Adirondack and Catskill State Parks and Forest Preserves. Without doubt they constitute the most beautiful areas of the world’s most beautiful 49, 204 square miles that is the area of New York State. I am infamous for remembering geographical trivia. Friends have described things which I may have done for those parks. I would like to reverse the process by stating briefly what those parks have done for me.”
Photo: David Sive at his home in the Catskills (c. 2000), courtesy David Sive’s grandson William Paxton.