Teatown Lake

Remembering Richard Pough

Image Credit: Bill Amos

CHILMARK, MA - June 25, 2003 - This morning, staff and trustees of the Open Space Institute expressed their sadness upon learning that the Institute's founder, Richard H. Pough, had passed away at his home in Chilmark, Mass. He was 99 years old. 

“Today we are grieving the loss of a great thinker who, among many accomplishments, founded the Open Space Institute in the 1960s,” said Joseph Martens, president of the Open Space Institute. “Mr. Pough's poignant observations about imperiled wildlife species led him to a series of thoughtful and creative measures for defending great landscapes from careless human actions,” said Martens. In addition to founding the Open Space Institute, Mr. Pough worked for the Audubon Society and was founding president of The Nature Conservancy. 

When Mr. Pough graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1926, he took a job in Texas at a sulfur processing plant and requested the night shift so he could spend his days watching the migration of coastal birds. His interest in birds brought him to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where he documented the slaughter of hawks, fought for their protection, sought funding to acquire Hawk Mountain, and ultimately created the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. 

In her book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carlson described Hawk Mountain and banding studies undertaken by the Audubon Society: “Hawk Mountain is a picturesque mountaintop in southeastern Pennsylvania, where the easternmost ridges of the Appalachians form a last barrier to the westerly winds before dropping away toward the coastal plain. Winds striking the mountains are deflected upward so that on many autumn days there is a continuous updraft on which the broad-winged hawks and eagles ride without effort, covering many miles of their southward migration in a day.” 

While at the National Audubon Society from 1938 to 1948, Pough wrote guidebooks that were highly successful and influential, reaching millions of readers with thoughtful characterizations of birds and their migratory patterns. Pough sounded the alarm about the pesticide DDT in an article he wrote for “The New Yorker” in 1945. “If DDT should ever be used widely and without care, we would have a country without freshwater fish, serpents, frogs and most of the birds we have now,” he wrote. Mr. Pough's concerns were later echoed by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. “Pough identified this issue almost two decades before Rachel Carlson explained the impact of pesticides in her seminal book,” said John Adams, chairman of the Open Space Institute. 

“Mr. Pough took a hard look at how human activities were impacting the environment,” said John Adams. “And he used his journalistic skills to tell all of us that many indicator species, specifically birds, were profoundly imperiled by our recklessness.” 

“Pough was a dear friend who we will miss tremendously,” Adams continued. “Many of us are asking who will be the next generation of Poughs who will sound the alarm without being alarmist and continue the effort of identifying problems and solutions. Pough's brilliance extended beyond his great scientific mind. He drew profound inspiration from the natural world, and like a well-trained journalist, was able to absorb his experiences and share them with others. He explained to all of us that our activities were squandering ecosystems that plants, animals, and humans depended on. What is perhaps most admirable was that he did this in a spirit of moving forward and finding solutions.”

In the 1960s, Richard Pough gathered a handful of open space proponents and founded the Open Space Action Committee, later named the Open Space Institute. OSAC started in 1963 as a program of Pough's Natural Areas Council, which specialized in putting the philanthropic landowner in touch with the agency or organization best fitted to receive and manage the land, in addition to guiding the landowner on land tax issues. 

Incorporated in 1964 (as the Open Space Action Committee), the Institute reached out to landowners in New York and provided informative materials about land stewardship. In 1965, the Institute published Stewardship, a publication for concerned landowners in suburban and rural areas subject to the land-consuming pressures of urbanization. The book, which described successful case histories of land preservation in New York, was written with a simple premise: there is and will continue to be a severe shortage of permanently preserved open space----the land needed for recreation, the preservation of natural processes, and sheer visual amenity. 

Stewardship was a collaborative effort involving Pough and Charles E. Little, an advertising executive who had chosen to retire at the age of 32 from a successful career on Madison Avenue. Having read William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, Little decided to adjust his career track so as not to become the corporate drone described by Whyte. Little soon met Whyte, known to those who knew him as Holly, and developed a close partnership with him. They collaborated on what Little describes as “moving the message,” a critical element of the early years at the Open Space Institute. 

“Our open space protection plan had a clear course of action: salesmanship, persuasion, and planning,” said Little. “Our goal was to reach the non-specialists," continued Little. Efforts to prevent the loss of open space would be fruitless without a successful campaign to enlighten landowners living within 22 counties (those closest to metropolitan New York). According to Little, the delicate task of persuasion involved reaching out to landowners and providing information about how they could continue to enjoy their properties while protecting the land for future generations. 

One of Dick Pough's greatest accomplishments was the stewardship of Teatown Lake in Ossining, New York. Pough worked with the Swope family ---three brothers, their sister and sister-in-law---who had inherited 193 acres of the family estate and all agreed that the grounds where they grew up should be made accessible to the public. Teatown Lake, created by their father in 1926, had become a familiar stopping place for migratory birds, whose presence enhanced the natural beauty of the property. Pough guided the five Swopes through a multitude of options that would lead to the transference of the family property to a philanthropic entity. Finally, they chose the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a New York City non-profit, which had been operating a research field station at Kitchawan, just a few miles from the Swopes' property. Today, the Teatown Lake Reservaton is a nature preserve and education center.

Stewardship cites Pough's work with the Swope family as an example of effective problem solving. “Dick was very proud of Teatown,” says Chuck Little. Many other case studies in Stewardship illustrate how a little creativity and imagination can impact both the land and its inhabitants. Stewardship describes the accomplishments of Dr. William Sharpe, a brain surgeon who donated a 1,000-acre tract of land in Fishkill, New York, to the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund. Believing that the behavior of children is closely linked to their surroundings, Dr. Sharpe sought refuge on his Fishkill property for underserved children from New York City's ghettos, just an hour away by car and a world apart . 

“Dick Pough sought out the most exemplary and imaginative individuals who came together and agreed that open space protection was a paramount concern on a variety of levels, and that took a great deal of guts and perseverance,” said John Adams. One of those individuals was Holly Whyte, whose journalism career was taking off as a result of a series of essays for Fortune magazine. Whyte wrote about corporate culture and how an increasingly suburbanized populace was transforming vital landscapes and creating a regrettably automobile-dependent culture. 

Famous for having coined the term “urban sprawl,” Whyte wrote The Last Landscape, published in 1968 and quickly adopted as a planning tool for land conservation. Prior to the publication of The Last Landscape, Whyte and Pough were busy pooling together the insights of great minds that would work with planning agencies and private landowners. These efforts would later lead to the formation of many land trusts and environmental organizations. The Open Space Institute quickly emerged as a highly successful model for land conservation throughout the country. 

“We are hugely indebted to Dick Pough and the great intellectual muscle he coalesced and harnessed for the creation of the Open Space Institute,” said John Adams. “It's hard to give true dimension to his impact because it was so widespread and so poignant.” Prior to 1974, when Pough handed over the leadership of OSI to Adams, another great environmental success story was playing out in a small room where lawyers from Harvard and Yale crafted legislation to protect clean air and clean water. “I went to work on January 1, 1970, in a small office I rented in New York City at the Bar Association. I was the first employee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental laws—like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act—had not yet been written. We honestly weren't sure which direction the country would take, and more simply, whether the issue of protecting the environment would catch hold,” said Adams. 

“In 1974 Dick rather unceremoniously handed me a mass of papers and with that gesture, he extended his faith in me as the next leader of OSI. It was a very touching moment, but it was also fleeting because our collective energy was intense and there were many exciting challenges ahead,” said Adams, who has continued to serve as chairman of the board of OSI while serving as the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which today has more than 600,000 members and an ambitious agenda for using environmental law to protect clean air and water. With a professional staff of 250, NRDC is composed of scientists and lawyers. “We started out as lawyers and realized, in large part as a result of input from our members, that our work to protect public health would benefit from the presence of a scientific staff. ” 

According to Adams, the Open Space Institute has evolved considerably in large part because of the role played by Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace, the founders of Readers Digest, who created an endowment for the Hudson Highlands. “Their generosity and foresight enabled OSI to acquire land throughout New York's highlands through fee and easement purchases. Since the incorporation of OSI in 1974, we have protected over 80,000 acres. I think it would be fair to say that the Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace Fund for the Hudson Highlands not only changed OSI but had a huge impact on New York and its landscape.” The generosity of Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace is the key to OSI's success, but had it not been for Dick Pough, there would not be a program to support and a cause to champion. 

“On behalf of the staff and trustees of the Open Space Institute, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Dick Pough's son Tristram and Dick's extended family and many friends and colleagues who loved him and admired him,” said Adams.

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