Natural Resources Defense Council

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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was founded in 1970 as an environmental action organization by a group of American attorneys and law students. Several New York City lawyers, who sought to block construction of a Consolidated Edison power plant at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River, established the Natural Resources Defense League and hired John H. Adams as its first executive director. The organization soon changed its name to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and, at the recommendation of the Ford Foundation, merged with a group of law students, most from Yale University, who wanted to establish a public interest law firm that represented victims of pollution.

With initial funding from the Ford Foundation, NRDC opened its first office in New York City and established a Board of Trustees. Originally structured like a traditional law firm, NRDC’s senior attorneys operated as partners. The organization focused its early efforts on litigation to ensure the enforcement of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972. In 1971, the organization’s first lawsuit challenged strip-mining by the Tennessee Valley Authority. NRDC opened a second office in Washington, DC, and by 1972 had a third office in Palo Alto, California, which later moved to San Francisco. NRDC combined scientific expertise with the option to litigate and developed ongoing public education efforts to influence public policy and legislation. In 1973, the group hired its first staff scientists to provide thorough scientific analysis of environmental harm and offer feasible remedies to significant environmental problems. NRDC also added a membership component to the organization and had 18,000 members by 1974. In 1979, NRDC began publishing its environmental magazine The Amicus Journal .

During its first two decades, NRDC’s senior attorneys and scientists worked on a wide range of environmental issues. This work was initially organized as projects with each project operating primarily out of one of the three offices in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. In New York, the five largest projects concerned clean water, coasts, toxic substances, the urban environment, and citizen enforcement. The Clean Water Project sought to keep rivers and drinking water free of pollution and toxics. The Coastal Project focused on preserving coastal waters and wetlands from harm, especially from offshore oil drilling. The Toxics Project worked to ensure the safety of chemicals used in industry and restrict the use of dangerous materials such as asbestos. The Urban Program pursued environmentally sustainable policies for cities, especially through its work on mass transit and the removal of lead from gasoline. The Citizen Enforcement Project, begun in 1982, litigated on behalf of private citizens against corporations suspected of violating environmental regulations and illegally polluting. The Washington office primarily focused on clean air, nuclear issues, and international development. The Clean Air Project fought against air pollution and acid rain and for the protection of the ozone layer. The Nuclear Program addressed the environmental hazards of nuclear energy and worked to support international efforts at nuclear arms control. The International Program advocated for greater consideration of environmental concerns in the policies of U.S. foreign aid agencies and multilateral development banks. In San Francisco, the major program areas were energy, public lands, national forests, and pesticides. The Energy Project pursued energy conservation through collaborative planning with state utilities and establishing efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. The Public Lands Project worked to protect federally owned lands, especially those used for grazing and mining, from environmental threats. The Forestry Project focused on the protection of national forests. The Pesticides Project sought to ensure the safety of chemicals used in agriculture. Supporting these projects were three organization-wide offices for communications, development (which included the membership operation), and administration headquartered in New York City.

With a growing budget and staff, NRDC reorganized in 1990 into six consolidated programs: Air and Energy, International and Nuclear, Land, Public Health, Urban, and Water and Coastal. The programs connected projects that often already shared staff and expertise, and, within the overarching programs, many of the pre-1990 projects continued to function as they had before. Several notable program changes occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. The Oceans Program emerged, drawing on the experience and staff of the Water and Coastal Program, and worked to protect international waters, especially high-seas fisheries. The Citizen Enforcement Project ended in 1994, and much of that project’s staff became part of a new Litigation Team that supported ongoing litigation efforts organization-wide.

Although from the beginning NRDC staff had accomplished much of their work through collaboration across project and program lines, a number of initiatives operated formally as cross program efforts. Begun in 1988, the Atmospheric Protection Initiative brought together work on acid rain, chlorofluorocarbons, global warming, and the mismanagement of forestry, coastal, and energy resources and developed into a new Climate Program along with a Climate Center that opened in 2001. With these developments, climate issues became a major new focus of the entire organization’s efforts. Stemming from campaigns to protect Clayoquot Sound in Canada and Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico, NRDC launched in 2001 the BioGems initiative which sought to protect threatened wild places in the Americas.

NRDC also grew through the establishment of a series of centers and the opening of additional regional offices. The new centers included an Advocacy Center, opened in Washington, DC, in 1995 to coordinate lobbying efforts; a Science Center in 2005, which offered postdoctoral fellowships to scientists working on environmental issues; and a Center for Market Innovation in 2007 to work with the private sector on solutions to environmental challenges. Having added a fourth regional office in Los Angeles in 1989 as well as a short-lived office in Honolulu, NRDC opened additional offices in Chicago in 2007 and Beijing in 2008. By 2010, NRDC was an organization of more than 300 staff and 1.3 million members.

This organizational history draws upon John H. Adams and Patricia Adams, A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save our Planet (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010).

From the guide to the Natural Resources Defense Council records, 1950-2010, (Manuscripts and Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Pew Charitable Trusts. Grant products reports, 1988-2002. Hagley Museum & Library
creatorOf Klinger, Florence. Florence Klinger papers, 1945-1981. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf George Gund Foundation. George Gund Foundation records, series II, 1966-1998. Western Reserve Historical Society, Research Library
referencedIn Sive, David. The David Sive Archive: Pioneering Environmental Litigation, 1962-1992. New York State Historical Documents (Albany, N.Y.)
referencedIn Evans, Daniel J., 1925-. Papers of Daniel J. Evans, Chairman, Pacific Northwest Power Planning Council, 1978-1983, (bulk 1981-1983). Washington State Archives, Southwest Regional Branch
referencedIn Seattle City Light. Seattle City Light regional power management records, 1943-1982. Seattle Municipal Archives
referencedIn Lyons, William W. William W. Lyons papers, 1950-1978 (bulk 1972-1977) Univerisity of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
referencedIn William W. Lyons papers, 1950-1978, 1972-1977 Univerisity of Wyoming. American Heritage Center.
referencedIn Additional papers of Ellen K. Silbergeld, 1982-2001 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Mono Lake Committee Collection, 1919-1997, (bulk 1977-1995) Water Resources Collections and Archives
creatorOf Natural Resources Defense Council. Letter, 1975, to Lewis Mumford. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
creatorOf Natural Resources Defense Council records, 1950-2010 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust records, 1897-2010 (inclusive), 1968-2009 (bulk). RIT Library, Wallace Library
referencedIn Seattle City Light Regional Power Management Records, 1943-1982 City of Seattle SeattleMunicipal Archives
creatorOf Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation. Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation records, 1932-1997. Western Reserve Historical Society, Research Library
creatorOf William Bingham Foundation. William Bingham Foundation records, Series II, 1955-1999. Western Reserve Historical Society, Research Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Adams, John H. 1936- person
associatedWith Ellen K. Silbergeld person
associatedWith Evans, Daniel J., 1925- person
associatedWith George Gund Foundation. corporateBody
associatedWith Klinger, Florence. person
associatedWith Lyons, William W. person
associatedWith Lyons, William W. person
associatedWith Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. corporateBody
associatedWith Mono Lake Committee corporateBody
associatedWith Pew Charitable Trusts. corporateBody
associatedWith Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation. corporateBody
associatedWith Seattle City Light. corporateBody
associatedWith Sive, David. person
associatedWith William Bingham Foundation. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country

Corporate Body

Active 1966

Active 1998




Ark ID: w6nw3p77

SNAC ID: 67735269