Blogs > Keeping Current > Fran Dunwell: ‘The river can be a unifying force’

Fran Dunwell: ‘The river can be a unifying force’


View more images on our Flickr site

Riverkeeper looks forward to honoring DEC’s recently retired Hudson River Estuary Coordinator at our Summer Splash on June 8. Read about what has driven her life’s work and what she sees ahead for the river.

Riverkeeper is excited to honor Fran Dunwell with our 2023 Big Fish Award at our Summer Splash event at Boscobel House and Gardens on Thursday, June 8. At this annual celebration of activists and heroes fighting for the Hudson, we will spotlight her accomplishments as Hudson River Estuary Coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, a position she held from 1984-2022.

Fran DunwellPrior to working for NYSDEC, she was Executive Director of the Center for the Hudson River Valley, and then Associate Director of Scenic Hudson. Dunwell has a Master’s degree in environmental studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Kirkland College. Dunwell is also the author of two award winning books – The Hudson River Highlands (1991) and The Hudson: America’s River (2008).

Visit this page to learn more about the Summer Splash, how to attend and how to support the event. As we get ready to celebrate, we’d like to share some of Dunwell’s insights and experiences.

This Q&A is adapted from the newsletter of the Hudson River Environmental Society.

What inspires you? How were you inspired to work for the Hudson?

I love that the Hudson is full of surprises – there’s always something new. You’re never experiencing the same river from moment to moment. The clouds change, the mist rises, the sun reflects on the changing tides, a sturgeon leaps.

I grew up in Poughkeepsie and was inspired by the beauty of it, but our family didn’t swim in the river because it was so polluted in those days. That was in the 1950s and ‘60s before the Clean Water Act was passed. Our family fished, but not in the Hudson. In fact, I recall getting a shot just to be able to go out on the river in a neighbor’s boat, in case I fell in.

In the early 1970s, I got inspired to action. I recall going to a Clearwater festival on the waterfront in my home town and learning more about the pollution of the Hudson and what the organization was doing to get the new Clean Water Act enforced. I decided to try for an environmental career and volunteered for the county environmental management council. They hired me a few months later, and that was the beginning of many decades of work.

When I started working for DEC in 1984, I paid more attention to the living river. I mean appreciating the fish and crabs, the bald eagles, and the aquatic plants as well as their amazing life cycles through the seasons. As researchers and managers of the River ecosystem, there is always something new that makes our work unpredictable and challenging. This year it’s the arrival of the round goby, a fish from Eurasia that will likely disrupt the life cycle of other fishes in the Hudson.

The opportunity to make a difference motivates me a lot. I’m also very inspired by the people I work with who share this love of our river. We energize each other. Saving the Hudson is very personal for me. It’s a big part of my life.

What accomplishments give you the most pride?

Everything I have done since 1975 has a common thread, which is helping people understand, enjoy and appreciate the river so they know how to protect it. That includes writing two books, working with legislators and governors to pass legislation and adopt new policies, developing DEC action plans and progress reports, conducting research and promoting community science. Communication and outreach lead to conservation accomplishments.

Within that context, I’m proud of what I’ve done to conserve forests, fields and natural areas through helping key legislation get passed. When I worked at Scenic Hudson, I organized coalitions in support of two laws that passed. One made it easier to use conservation easements on private lands and has led to the protection of hundreds of thousands of acres in New York State. The other was the Coastal Management Act, which has funded local waterfront revitalization plans across the state. I also made the case for NOAA to establish an Estuarine Sanctuary (now Research Reserve) on the Hudson.

Later, at DEC, I helped formulate the ideas that the legislature put into the 1987 Estuary Management Act, which created the Estuary Program. Leading that program from its infancy is my proudest accomplishment.

Over the last 35 years, the Estuary Program grants, coupled with state land acquisitions, have created new or improved access in every shoreline community and preserved a number of peninsulas on the river side of the railroad tracks. Ideas from our Estuary Actions Agendas made their way into State of the State initiatives such as the swimmable river goal, which led to major investments in the clean-up of the Hudson in the Capitol region.

The Estuary Program is actively restoring river habitats and our signature fisheries. The program has inspired dozens of land trusts and local governments in the region to conserve key natural resources through sound land use practices, and has helped watershed groups and local agencies to focus attention on all of our major tributary streams. There are more Climate Smart Communities in the Hudson Valley than any other part of the state, which reflects the leadership role we have played in helping people understand how to adapt to climate change so they can effectively participate in this statewide program.

The program also created a robust river education curriculum which is used in about 80 percent of school districts in the region, and the program invested in environmental education centers from New York City to Troy. Underlying all of this is a strong foundation of science to inform decision-making.

Finally, I put the word “estuary” into our vocabulary and empowered thousands of local residents to become knowledgeable and active stewards of the river and the valley.

What challenges do you see ahead?

Unfortunately, we are still wrestling with the contamination of the Hudson from GE’s discharge of PCBs into the Hudson. Getting the company to take full responsibility remains a priority. By contrast there are major investments now in water quality infrastructure improvement, made possible by recent state and federal legislation. Communities in the Hudson Valley need to take advantage of it and apply for grants.

Another concern is the arrival of invasive species from other ecosystems, especially through the Erie Canal. The progress we have made in sustaining our native species can be reversed when some of these new creatures arrive. We saw a major impact from zebra mussels, and we now wonder how round goby will affect the Hudson. Other disruptive species are on their way. Putting a portage into the canal would be a big help. Think of it as a highway rest stop for boats moving through the canal. It’s a quick fix that would have a big impact.

We also need to do more to protect the natural areas of the region. Forests, in particular, protect our water resources. Many people are migrating to the Hudson Valley now and they can telecommute from anywhere. There will be enormous pressure on our open spaces and natural areas. Similarly, our water resources are not adequately managed. It’s a free for all. There needs to be a regional conversation about assuring that we have enough water for the people who come here to live and enough to sustain our farms and ecosystem.

We need to invest in the science to help us manage the Hudson and our ecosystem as the climate changes. We also need to bring more people into the conversation. In our increasingly fractured society, the river can be a unifying force around which we can create community. Love of the river transcends political, social and economic boundaries. Working together for the Hudson has provided me with wonderful camaraderie. I highly recommend it!

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
Become a Member