Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Laurance Rockefeller And Capitalist Conservation


by Michael Barker





"Laurance Spelman Rockefeller... was, in fact, Mr. Conservation, the man who had done more than any other living American to place outdoor issues -- recreation, beauty, national and state parks, environmental education, a responsible combination of development and conservation -- clearly on the public agenda."
—Robin Winks, 1997 (1)


(Swans - October 19, 2009)  The late Laurance Rockefeller (1910-2004) is often regarded to be one of America's most influential elite conservationists, and in 1991 he was rewarded by President George H. W. Bush with the Congressional Gold Medal for contributions to conservation and historical preservation. The fourth son of the heir to the Standard Oil Company empire, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Laurance, in the words of his official biographer, Robin Winks, was Mr. Conservation. Having served as the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund from 1958 until 1968, in some way or form Laurance tended to be involved in "[m]ost of the great conservation battles of the mid-1960s." Yet despite the high level of influence welded by the Rockefeller family more generally, Laurance is "barely present in most" books recording the Rockefellers work. (2) Therefore, this article will critically examine his environmental activities throughout the 1960s and question the authenticity of his popularly celebrated environmental image.

Following closely in his father's footsteps, Laurance inherited John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s two main environmental advisors, Fairfield Osborn and Horace Albright, as his own mentors. (3) Two conservation organizations that Laurance was heavily involved with were the Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. (the foundation set up by his father, which he became head of from 1947), and the American Conservation Association, which he helped create in 1957. Laurance also played a key role in supporting the Conservation Foundation in its formative years -- an organization that was set up in 1948 by Fairfield Osborn and his assistant Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. -- and he served as the organization's trustee and "personal underwriter." (Laurance's annual gifts alone averaged $50,000 a year throughout the 1950s and 1960s.) These "conservation" interests, along with his position at the head of a key philanthropic body (the Rockefeller Brothers Fund), placed Laurance in a prime position to influence the subsequent development of the new wave of environmentalism that would soon sweep across the United States and the world.

Here it is important to note that the Conservation Foundation was founded as an offshoot of the Wildlife Conservation Society -- a group which was formed in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society, and whose founders included amongst other notables, Theodore Roosevelt, and Fairfield Osborn's father, Henry Fairfield Osborn (who served as their president from 1909-24). Notably, two years after retiring from the Society's presidency, Henry helped cofound the American Eugenics Society along with America's leading theorist of racism, Madison Grant -- the infamous author of The Passing of the Great Race (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916), a book that Adolf Hitler referred to as his "bible." From 1925 until his death in 1937, Grant then served as the president of the New York Zoological Society. (For a detailed examination of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations' influence on the environmental movement, see "The Philanthropic Roots Of Corporate Environmentalism.")

In 1958, Laurance was appointed to chair President Eisenhower's newly formed Outdoor Recreation Resources and Review Committee (ORRRC), onto which he added extra staff from his favoured conservation groups to aid the committees work. (4) Due to Laurance's financial independence and high-placed political contacts he fast tracked the launch of the committee (which otherwise would have had to wait for a year for the Congressional funding to clear) and successfully brokered with various "foundations to put a staff into place." Immediately after accepting...

... the chairmanship of the commission, he [also] made it clear that he did not want to be bound by an act, passed in 1949, that limited the choice of personnel [for the commissions advisory council]. His first move, therefore, was to get an amendment to the act passed, so that the commission was exempted from it, and thus he could get the most qualified people. (5)

It appears that Laurance had the most influence in filling the seven citizen-member positions on the committee, on which sat: Fred Smith (head of the Council of Conservationists and senior vice president of the Prudential Insurance Company), Samuel T. Dana (a professor of natural resources from the University of Michigan), Joseph W. Penfold (a representative of the Izaak Walton League), Katherine Jackson Lee (director of the industry-dominated American Forestry Association), Chester Wilson (a past director of the Minnesota Department of Conservation), and Bernard Orell (vice president of Weyerhaeuser Timber Company). (6) Later, when another committee vacancy opened, Laurance ensured that Marian Dryfoos Heiskell (from The New York Times) was placed on the board, to guarantee that "the commission's findings would not be ignored by the press." (7)

Laurance therefore had a strong hand in managing the ORRRC, and its first major report (released in 1962) was heavily promoted by his American Conservation Association, which spent nearly $800,000 on this task over the following two years. It has been argued that the publicity surrounding this report served to provide "the vehicle by which Laurance transformed himself from a gentleman conservationist into a statesman in the emerging environmental movement." However, even at the start of the 1960s, people within the conservation movement were challenging Laurance's tendency to compromise with business interests. For example, David Pesonen (from the Sierra Club), who had worked as a research assistant for the ORRRC, "aggressively denounced the [1962] report... as a... compromise," adding that the report was confusing and contradictory and "lean[ed] wearily on the obvious, the indisputable, the conventionally wise, the irrelevant." (8) That said, Laurance's approach to environmental management should have been expected from a person with his familial background. Laurance could be described as a proud pioneer of weak ecological modernization, as he...

... accepted without reservation the idea that growth and conservation could be familiar bedfellows. ... In a 1963 address to the seventieth annual meeting of the Congress of American Industry in New York, he tried to assure businessmen that nothing in the new concern for pure water and air threatened them. "Business can take this development in stride," he counseled, "in the same way it has, over the years, taken in its stride other steps which seemed like broad social rather than economic obligations. Like so many of the others it will turn out in the end to be just plain good business." (9)

Shortly after this talk, Laurance was appointed to the President's Advisory Council on Recreation. The following year President Johnson then made him a member of his Task Force on Natural Beauty, and subsequently he was appointed chairman of a Citizens' Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty. By this stage, the grassroots of the environmental movement he had helped launch were beginning to question his usefulness to the environmental cause with more persistence. Charles Stoddard, who had worked closely on the Citizens' Advisory Committee with Laurance, recalled that:

If anyone but a Rockefeller did what Laurance has -- donate land for national parks and then develop them and build large hotels nearby and hold a lot of land for development -- it would not only be in obvious bad taste, but a conflict of interest too. But as a Rockefeller he seems to be able to get away with it. (10)

In 1962, along with his brother Nelson (Republican governor of the state of New York), the two Rockefellers supported Consolidated Edison's (Con Ed's) plans for a hydroelectric power station at Storm King (which were first publicly announced in September 1962). This case is particularly significant as it has been described as "the most dramatic clash over industry versus conservation of the decade." (11) However, contrary to most accounts of the Storm King case, which emphasize the Rockerfellers' pro-environmental record and opposition to the development, the reverse appears to be the case.

As commissioner of the nearby Palisades Park and head of the State Council on Parks, Laurance had a fair degree of influence over environmental decision making in the region, thus he quickly persuaded the local Hudson River Conservation Society -- a group with which he had been vice president from 1947 to 1948 and a trustee since 1948 -- to support the Storm King development plans. (12) However, perhaps unexpectedly, Con Ed's project still met considerable resistance from a local community group, which called itself the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference. (13) Rising public interest in the Storm King project enabled Scenic Hudson to recruit a handful of celebrities to their cause, yet despite this help, in March 1965 Con Ed was given the official green light for the power station. (That was not the end of the dispute though and the Storm King battle continued to be fought in the appeals courts for the next decade). (14)

The high level of publicity garnered from the Storm King case worked against the Rockefellers and in the spring of 1965 Congressman Richard Ottinger (Democrat -- Westchester) introduced a bill pushing for the Hudson River Valley to be made into a federal preserve. (15) In a last ditch attempt to prevent federal intervention in the region, in January 1966, Nelson and Laurance created the Hudson River Valley Commission -- filling it with leading elites including the likes of Henry Heald, head of the Ford Foundation. (16) This effort to preempt federal involvement ultimately proved unsuccessful and Ottinger's bill was eventually passed. Likewise, after a long fight the proposed Storm King development was defeated in the courts with the aid of David Sive and two Republican Wall Street lawyers, Stephen Duggan and Whitney North Seymour, Jr. (17) In 1970, the latter two lawyers along with John Adams (a lawyer formerly with the US Attorney's office in New York) went on to form the Natural Resources Defense Council with start-up funding provided by the Ford Foundation. In a strange twist of fate, Laurance Rockefeller was then invited to sit on the Defense Council's board alongside his former Storm King foes, Duggan and Seymour. (18)

Stepping back to the 1960s again, while the controversy over the Storm King development was still raging in the courts, the Rockefellers' Hudson River Valley Commission lent its support to the proposed development of a highly controversial Expressway along the banks of the Hudson (which incidentally would bring great personal financial benefits to the Rockefellers). In the face of strong opposition from conservationists and (initially at least from) Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the Rockefellers began to exert political pressure on Udall, who eventually recanted in late 1968 when he gave the go-ahead for the road's construction. Udall's decision probably only served to renew the vigor with which the Sierra Club and a local conservation group (the Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley) continued to pursue their legal battle (launched in 1965) that ended in 1970 with their victory over the Rockefeller's interests. (19) Here it should be highlighted that although the conservationists were able to prevent the construction of the Expressway, Laurance did actually cross over to their side when the evidence mounted against his views was insurmountable. This, however, didn't prevent Laurance's biographer from celebrating that the significance of the case to Laurance "as a conservationist lies in the fact that he changed his mind, and in doing so, moved from being a conservationist to being an environmentalist." (20) Scant attention is paid to Laurance's less than environmentally conscious investments in "jets, rockets, and nuclear research" and his links to the CIA. (21)

Another environmental group that is linked to Rockefellers is the Save the Redwoods League. Contrary to its green-sounding name, during the 1960s the League played a vital role in opposing the creation of a new national park in California's Redwood Creek, the site agreed upon by both the National Park Service and the Sierra Club. (22) Another controversy surrounding the League owed to its connections to eugenic conservation, as it was founded in 1918 by the "three men [who were] at the core of the American eugenics movement, John C. Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Madison Grant." Similarly, during the 1940s and 1950s Henry's son, Fairfield Osborn, served on its board, and the League was a long-term favourite of the Rockefellers who had provided it with several million dollars since the mid-1920s. (23)

With the aid of Laurance Rockefeller, the Save the Redwoods League supported lobbying efforts to have the park established in the Mill Creek area, the site preferred by the local timber companies, most notably, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. (24) Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall recalled that: "Laurance had close ties with the people at Weyerhaeuser and prided himself on the fact that he could talk to them as one businessman to another." In fact, Martin Litton, a journalist and close friend of David Brower, had already suggested that "everything Save the Redwoods League had [ever] done had been pretty much under the control of the logging companies." (25) Despite these barriers, in 1968 the Redwood National Park was eventually created. However, Udall believed that it was Laurance's backdoor dealings that had led to the park being much smaller than it might have been. (26)

Donald Gibson writes how:

Around this time an article appeared which would help to create that future association of "left" or "liberal" politics with environmentalism. The supposedly left-wing publication, The Nation, adopted views virtually identical to people such as the Osborns, ideas long associated with right-wing and Aristocratic groups. This crossover, which is reminiscent of the penetration of almost all parts of the English political spectrum by Malthusian and preservationist ideas, appeared in a 1968 article by Robert and Leona Rienow, entitled "Conservation for Survival." The Rienows, sounding more than just a little bit like English Aristocrats, sounded the alarm on population growth and the alleged destruction of nature brought on by mass consumption. (27)

Despite, and perhaps because of, Laurance's apparent conflicts of interest with his professed environmental beliefs, he made a smooth transition from the Johnson administration to the Nixon administration, which kept him on as head of the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty, which was renamed the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. Laurance's continued influence on the environmental scene was evident when in the early 1970s an unsigned memorandum circulated through the Department of the Interior "citing in tones reminiscent of an FBI dossier two conservation organizations that he 'controls,' eleven that he has 'infiltrated,' and eight that are 'suspect'." (28) Laurance, however, of course did not control the environmental movement, but there can be no doubt that he and his family's foundations exerted an extremely powerful influence over the movement's development, which to this day can still be felt. Contrary to his biographer's assertion, Laurance should be not be remembered as Mr. Conservation, but rather as Mr. Capitalism, the man who had done more than most to place an irresponsible contradictory combination of capitalism and conservation clearly on the public agenda.


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1.  Robin Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservation (Island Press, 1997), p.2.  (back)

2.  Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p.388; Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.5. For a brief summary of the criticisms of liberal philanthropy see Joan Roelofs 2007 talk ""The Invisible Hand of Corporate Capitalism."  (back)

3.  Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.41.  (back)

4.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.384. Writing in 2002, Laurance observes: "To be sure, there was a long tradition of conservation in our country, but ORRRC helped to focus this concern and give it a place on the national agenda it had not had before. Major political leaders such as President Lyndon Johnson and my brother, Nelson Rockefeller, took up the cause and urged new legislation and new funding. This awakened awareness to the value of nature and helped lay the groundwork for the surge in environmental action that found expression in Earth Day 1970 and important legislative achievements that followed."  (back)

5.  Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.127, p.126.  (back)

6.  The President of Weyerhaeuser Timber Company (from 1966), George Weyerhaeuser, became a member of David Rockefeller's Trilateral Commission in 1977. See Holly Sklar, Trilateralism: the Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management (South End Press, 1980).  (back)

7.  Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, pp.125-6.  (back)

8.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.385; Quoted in Michael Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970 (Sierra Club Books, 1988), p.280.  (back)

9.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, pp.385-6.  (back)

10.  Quoted in Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.400.  (back)

11.  Frances Dunwell, The Hudson River Highlands (Columbia University Press, 1991), p.202; Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.167.  (back)

12.  Laurance's appointment as head of the State Council on Parks was made by his brother Nelson Rockefeller. In addition, Laurance and Frederick Osborn (of Population Council fame, see "Liberal Philanthropy and the 'Birth' of Population Control Environmentalism") were commissioners for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, and Frederick's brother, William Osborn, was the president of the Hudson River Conservation Society. Dunwell, The Hudson River Highlands, p.205.  (back)

13.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.389. This later became known as Scenic Hudson, Inc., and they went on to merge with HDCS with funding obtained by Laurance from The Reader's Digest fund, most disputes on the Hudson ended in 1980 when Laurance's friend Russell Train acted as a mediator to smooth things other. Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.172.  (back)

14.  Throughout the first few years of the dispute Scenic Hudson had attempted unsuccessfully to obtain the support of President Johnson, who even neglected to mention Storm King in his historic speech conservation speech in February 1965. Dunwell, The Hudson River Highlands, p.225.  (back)

15.  Talbot suggests that Ottinger's controversial actions may be "explained by a little-noticed controversy that was developing in his district early in 1965 concerning a rumored expressway that the state was planning to build along the east bank of the river from Croton-on-Hudson to New York City." Allan Talbot, Power Along the Hudson: The Storm King Case and the Birth of Environmentalism (Dutton, 1972), p.141.  (back)

16.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p. 390. The temporary commission which recommended the formation of this permanent commission was chaired by Laurance, and half-funded by his American Conservation Association. Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.168.  (back)

17.  Both worked for the Wall Street law firm Simpson, Thatcher, and Bartlett and were members of the upper class Century Club. In addition, from 1955 to 1970 Seymour was also a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment. Donald Gibson, Environmentalism: Ideology and Power (Nova Science, 2002), p.85.  (back)

18.  Under the Ford Foundation's guidance, another budding environmental legal group, the Legal Environmental Assistance Fund -- set up in the 1960s by a group of Yale law students led by James Gustave Speth -- was merged into the Natural Resources Defense Council.  (back)

19.  Talbot, Power Along the Hudson, pp.172-174; Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, pp.393-394.  (back)

20.  Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.173. Interestingly around this time (in 1969), David Brower, who had headed the Sierra Club throughout the Rockefeller conflicts, was forced to resign. Brower then quickly launched Friends of the Earth, a new more radical environmental group. However, despite Brower's opposition to the Rockefeller interests in the past, Laurance is purported to have publicly admired Friends of the Earth and their campaigns against nuclear power. This appears somewhat contradictory, as at the same time Laurance was investing heavily in nuclear technology -- a long term nuclear habit that probably stemmed from his "instrumental role in putting together United Nuclear Corporation" in the 1950s. Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.402.

Laurance's reported admiration for Brower may have been linked to his own personal associations with "Robert O. Anderson of Atlantic-Richfield and RFF [Resources for the Future]" who gave Brower $200,000 to set up Friends of the Earth. Katherine Barkley and Steve Weissman, "The Eco-Establishment," in Ramparts, (eds.), Eco-Catastrophe (Harper & Row, 1970), p.21.  (back)

21.  Jonathan Lewis, Spy Capitalism: ITEK and the CIA (Yale University Press, 2002), p.2. In addition, for a critical account of the role that Laurance's Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Nelson Rockefeller (who has served as the Fund's president from 1956-68) played in the "development" of New York, see Robert Fitch, The Assassination of New York (Verso, 1993). He concludes: "Since World War II, and up to quite recently, the private planning establishment has been dominated by a FIRE [finance, insurance and real estate] elite, of whom the Rockefellers exercised the most influence. As urban activists themselves, urban renewalists, as directors of private philanthropy, as public officials, as the city's largest taxpayers, as head of the city's second largest bank, family members have shaped the contours of New York City's development agenda -- in particular its focus on the west side." (p.226)  (back)

22.  President Johnson had told his Secretary of the Interior that creation of the Redwood National Park should be his first priority in September 1964 (see Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p. 86). Interestingly, the Sierra Club found itself in the difficult position of not being able to criticize Save the Redwoods League, because many Club notables, like Will Colby, Duncan McDuffie, Newton Drury, Francis Farquhar, and Richard Leonard, were closely associated with the League. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, p.301.  (back)

23.  Between 1965 and 1968 the League was awarded $1.5 million from the Ford Foundation. Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005), p.121; Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.395; Winks, Laurance S. Rockefeller, p.85.  (back)

24.  Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, pp. 394-6. For more on Laurance's involvement see Susan Schrepfer, "Conflict in Preservation: The Sierra Club, Save-the-Redwoods League, and Redwood National Park," Journal of Forest History, 24 (1) 1980, p.71.  (back)

25.  Quoted in Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, p.300. "At public hearings on the Redwood National Park [in 1967], 94 percent of the testimony was for Redwood Creek. Labor leader Walter Reuther endorsed the Club's proposal, as did most of the nation's preservation organizations. The majority of the nation's press favored a park, and such nationally influential papers as The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor urged a large reserve on Redwood Creek. The New York Times denounced the timbermen as well as the administration's "self-defeating efforts to appease the lumber companies."" However, as Schrepfer goes on to note: "Despite this onslaught, President Johnson held his position." (p.73)  (back)

26.  Quoted in Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p.396.  (back)

27.  Gibson, Environmentalism, p.68.  (back)

28.  Talbot, Power Along the Hudson, p.143.  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published October 19, 2009