Mario Cuomo’s Environmental Legacy: How Green was the Governor?

Posted on February 12, 2015 by Gail Port

When one thinks of New York’s late Governor Mario Cuomo, some remember an eloquent and gifted orator, a complex man of integrity and vision, or the erudite son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens, NY.  Others may remember him for his ideological “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which highlighted his “progressive pragmatism” governing philosophy.  Yet others will recall his staunch opposition to the death penalty or his investments in public infrastructure, including convention centers, stadiums, industrial parks and his controversial prison building program.  Or perhaps he will be remembered for his aggressive and strategic skills on a basketball court. It was no secret that basketball was the Governor’s great passion and it was widely known that he was ferocious on the basketball court.    

But not too many think of Mario Cuomo for his environmental legacy.  Upon the Governor’s death on January 1, 2015, however, many memorials, tributes and articles poured in from Buffalo to the Adirondacks to the Hudson Valley to Long Island, from environmentalists and  environmental organizations such as the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Adirondack Council and Scenic Hudson,  all spotlighting a rather impressive environmental legacy.

Here are some notable examples of Mario Cuomo’s environmental accomplishments during his 12 years as Governor (1983-1994):

  • He pressed for the passage of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Act of 1991, which established the Greenway Conservancy for the Hudson River Valley and the beginnings of the Hudson River Greenway Trail System  and scenic byways which now exist as a necklace of parks, hiking trails and open space on both sides of the Hudson River running the length of the Hudson Valley.  The Greenway trails have expanded from Westchester to Albany.
  • He signed the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1994, which protected over 100,000 acres of Long Island’s premier ecosystems in the pine barrens of Suffolk County.  Many believed that without the Act a large portion of these ecologically diverse pine barrens would have been sold off by the state for industrial or residential development.
  • He worked to gain passage of the 1986 Environmental Quality Bond Act, which funded a $1 billion hazardous waste clean-up program to address more than 1,000 sites throughout the State. It also enabled programs such as the Estuary Program to restore the Hudson River and provided $200 million for land acquisition and historic preservation.
  • In response to urging by Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration, the U.S. EPA reopened its “no action” determination against GE and commenced a lengthy CERCLA enforcement battle against GE that led to GE’s on-going remediation of the PCB-contaminated Hudson River.
  •  The Governor is also credited with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), following a failed effort in 1990 for another bond act. The EPF has provided billions of dollars for farmland conservation, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, parks creation, waterfront revitalization, invasive species controls, development of recycling programs and the restoration of historic sites.  Since its 1993 enactment, the EPF has invested more than $2.7 billion to conserve some of the State’s most important scenic and ecological lands and been used to buy development rights on hundreds of thousands of acres of commercial timberland in the Adirondacks.  
  • Mario Cuomo also signed legislation establishing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund for water and wastewater infrastructure, which provides low interest loans for this critical infrastructure.

The current New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner, Joe Martens, (who was an environmental adviser to Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1990s), recently observed that Mario Cuomo “was never comfortable” as a hiker or a canoeist.  “He was more comfortable in a suit or in sweat pants than he was in hiking clothes.” Nevertheless, Commissioner Martens noted, Mario Cuomo “regarded protection of the environment as almost a religious belief”, and “he talked about it in spiritual terms all the time.” Mario Cuomo will be missed, but his environmental legacy will live on.