Pioneering Environmental Law: Remembering David Sive (1922-2014)

Posted on May 2, 2014 by Nicholas Robinson

Before environmental law existed, David Sive knew that the law could protect forests and fields, abate pollution of air and water, and restore the quality that humans expected from their ambient environments.  He fashioned legal arguments and remedies where others saw none.  His commitment to building a field of environmental law is exemplary, not just historically, but because we shall all need to emulate his approach as we cope with the legal challenges accompanying the disruptions accompanying climate change.

David Sive learned to love nature by hiking and rambling from parks in New York City to the wilderness of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains.  He carried Thoreau’s Walden into battle in World War II in Europe, and read William Wordsworth and the Lake poets while recuperating from wounds in hospitals in England.  He had a mature concept of the ethics of nature long before he began to practice environmental law.

His early cases were defensive.  He defended Central Park in Manhattan from the incursion of a restaurant. He rallied the Sierra Club to support a motley citizens’ movement that sought to protect Storm King Mountain from becoming a massive site for generating hydro-electricity on the Hudson River.  Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission [FPC] (2d Cir. 1965), would become the bell-weather decision that inaugurated contemporary environmental law.  The case was based on the multiple use concepts of the Progressive Era’s Federal Power Act.  The FPC (now FERC), had ignored all multiple uses but the one Con Edison advanced.  When the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that citizens had the right to judicial review to require the FPC to study alternative ways to obtain electricity, as well as competing uses for the site, the court laid the basis for what would become Section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

When Consolidated Edison Company decided to build a huge hydroelectric power plant on Storm King, the northern portal to the great fiord of the Hudson River Highlands, citizens and local governments were appalled.  This was no “NIMBY” response.  Con Ed had forgotten that these fabled Highlands inspired the Hudson River School of landscape painting.  This artistic rendering of nature in turn inspired the birth of America’s conservation movement of the late 19th century.  The Hudson also instrumental to the historic birth of this nation; here the patriots’ control of the Highlands had kept the British from uniting their forces, and here soldiers from across the colonies assembled above Storm King for their final encampment as George Washington demobilized his victorious Army.  The Army’s West Point Military Academy overlooks the River and Storm King.  

David Sive and Alfred Forsythe formed the Atlantic Chapter in the early 1960s, despite heated opposition from Californians who worried the Club would be stretched too thin by allowing a chapter on the eastern seaboard.  David Sive chaired the Chapter, whose Conservation Committee debated issues from Maine to Florida.  He represented the Sierra Club, pro bono, in its intervention in the Storm King case, and other citizens brought their worries about misguided government projects or decisions to him. 

David Sive represented similar grassroots community interests in Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe (SDNY 1969), affirmed (2d Cir. 1970).  Transportation Secretary Volpe had approved siting a super-highway in the Hudson River adjacent to the shore in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, to accommodate Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposal to connect his Hudson estate to the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge.  Without the benefit of NEPA or any other environmental statutes, which would be enacted beginning in the 1970s, and relying upon a slender but critical provision of a late 19th century navigation law, after a full trial in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, David Sive prevailed against the State and federal defendants.  He won major victories on procedure, granting standing to sue, and on substance, a ruling that the government acted ultra vires.  David Sive saved the beaches, parks and marinas of the Hudson shore.

Public interest litigation to safeguard the environment was born in these cases.  Public outrage about pollution and degradation of nature was widespread.  In September 1969, the Conservation Foundation convened a conference on “Law and the Environment,” at Airlie House near Warrenton, Virginia.  David Sive was prominent among participants.  His essential argument was that “environmental law” needed to exist. 

On December 1, 1970, Congress enacted the NEPA, creating the world’s first Environmental Impact Assessment procedures and establishing the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).  The CEQ named a Legal Advisory Committee to recommend how agencies should implement NEPA chaired by US Attorney Whitney North Seymour, Jr. (SDNY).  This Committee persuaded CEQ to issue its NEPA “guidelines” on the recommendation of this Committee.  That year launched the “golden age” of NEPA litigation.  Courts everywhere began to hear citizen suits to protect the environment.

David Sive went on to represent citizens in several NEPA cases, winning rulings of first impression.  In 1984, he reorganized his law firm, Sive Paget & Riesel, to specialize in the practice of environmental law.  From the 1970s forward, NEPA allowed proactive suits, no longer the primarily defensive ones of the 1960s. “Citizen suits” were authorized in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other statutes. 

David Sive knew that without widespread support among the bar and public, these pioneering legal measures might not suffice.  He became a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which became one of the nation’s pre-eminent champions of public environmental rights before the courts.  To continue the Airlie House conference precedent, he institutionalized the established professional study of environmental law, as a discipline, through creation of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI).  With ALI-ABA (now ALI-CLE) he launched nationwide continuing legal education courses to education thousands of lawyers in environmental law, a field that did not exist when they attended law school.  He devoted an active decade to teaching law students in environmental law, as a professor at Pace Law School in New York.

This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of its Fifth Assessment Report.  The IPCC summaries of peer-reviewed scientific investigation suggest that law will confront problems even more challenging than those that David Sive addressed.  New legal theories and remedial initiatives will be needed that do not exist today.  The wisdom of ecologist Aldo Leopold can inform the next generation.  Globally, others carry on David Sive’s role, such Attorney Tony Oposa in the Philippines or M. C. Mehta in India.  The law can cope with rising sea levels, adaptation to new rainfall patterns, and other indices of climate change, but it will take individual commitment to think deeply about environmental justice in order to muster the courage to think and act tomorrow as David Sive did yesterday.



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