Recipient Biography

Laurance S. Rockefeller


Laurance S. Rockefeller (1910-2004) was the middle brother of the five prominent and philanthropic grandsons of John D. Rockefeller. For 11 years he attended Lincoln School, which was an experimental school in New York City, founded by John Dewey, associated with Columbia University. He entered Princeton University in 1929 and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy. After Princeton he studied for two years at Harvard Law School before realizing he did not want to be a lawyer and turned to the world of business. During World War II he served in the Navy as a procurement officer and attained the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1934, Rockefeller married Mary French in Woodstock, Vermont. He had known her since 1927. She was the granddaughter of Frederick Billings, a president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. They were kindred spirits. She shared his interest in nature and conservation, and his taste for an unostentatious lifestyle despite their wealth and privilege. He believed that his privileged upbringing and status brought with it great responsibility for good stewardship and socially responsible behavior.

Laurance Rockefeller was successful in the business world as a venture capitalist, compounding his inherited wealth many times over. Indeed, he is credited by some with pioneering the concept of modern venture capitalism. However, his passion was parks and conservation. Thus, in 1974 when appearing before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives inquiring into the nomination of his brother Nelson as President Ford's vice president, he identified his primary occupation as "a concerned environmentalist."

In addition to donating tens of millions of dollars to park and conservation projects and founding an array of conservation organizations, he served five consecutive presidents in environmental advisory capacities. His philosophy in conservation reflected the venture capital principles he pioneered in business. He focused on leveraging his influence; on being a catalyst; and on priming the pump with matching grants so others became committed to a project also. He seldom met the full cost of any undertaking, for he was convinced that a broad spectrum of support best-assured success and continuity for a project. He knew that if he alone stood behind a major undertaking, he could easily be accused of throwing his weight around. He understood that a reputation for handing out packets of money to meet the total costs of an enterprise, however deserving it might be, would create a network of dependencies rather than a network of innovation and energy.

Laurance Rockefeller's interest in conservation came early. Summers spent on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, visits to Yellowstone country and the influence of his father and leading conservationists added lasting elements to the boy's love of the out-of-doors and fascination with nature. In addition to his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., his principal tutors were Horace M. Albright, first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and the second National Park Service Director, and Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society. Osborn retired young from Wall Street to lead the society and sounded the alarm of ecological threat in a book called, Our Plundered Planet. Albright remained a mentor and advisor to Rockefeller until his death in 1987. After his retirement from the NPS, Albright served on many of the boards of the conservation organizations which Rockefeller founded or supported, and guided his many benefactions to the nation's national park system.

A 1924 trip to Yellowstone with his parents, guided by Albright, had an especially lasting effect on 14-year-old Laurance Rockefeller. When Albright stopped the car on the west side of the Snake River, looked across at the Tetons and articulated his aspiration for the Tetons to become a national park, Rockefeller never forgot that view. He returned to Jackson Hole often, spent his honeymoon there in 1934, and made his home in the West there. His father purchased 33,500 acres of land planning to donate it to be part of Grand Teton National Park, which was formed in 1929. His plans were delayed, so it was Laurance Rockefeller who made this gift to the nation in 1949. Throughout his life, Rockefeller made many other contributions to the Grand Teton, often through his non-profit corporation Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. Indeed, in 2000 he pledged his 1,100-acre JY Ranch to become part of Grant Teton National Park in 2006, after the land has been restored to its natural state and a visitor center built.

His contributions to conservation covered a wide spectrum: national parks, outdoor recreation, and historical preservation, protection of local and state parks, promotion of biological knowledge through zoos and wildlife reserves, and environmentally oriented resorts.

In addition to his contributions to the Grand Teton, he played a major role as a special emissary for President Johnson in the establishment of Redwoods National Park in California in 1968. Two of his hotel projects led him to influence the development of national parks in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. After creating the Mauna Kea resort on the Big Island of Hawaii, he purchased land to expand Haleakala National Park on the Island of Maui in 1975. Rockefeller and his wife frequently cruised the Caribbean and this resulted in his establishing the first of his ecotourist resorts at Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands in 1956. He admired the area's natural beauty, coral, primitive beaches and dense vegetation, and lobbied for it to be become the Virgin Islands National Park. He purchased 5000 of the park's initial 9500 acres to nurture the project to fruition. Lest he be accused of doing this to profit his adjacent resort property, he gave up ownership of the hotel before it opened, donating it to Jackson Hole Preserve Inc.

His major disappointment in the national parks area was his failure to create a national park in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. However, even in this case he may well have accomplished what he wanted despite the appearance of defeat. Starting in 1961, he commissioned a series of studies that suggested that turning the park, which is the size of Vermont, over to the NPS would be the most effective way to reverse commercial exploitation by timber companies and others, since federal regulations on land use were more restrictive than those of the state. The opposition of local residents and politicians ultimately swamped the idea, but Rockefeller's continued emphasis on the park was credited with reversing years of neglect, deterioration and exploitation as the state government asserted greater control.

Laurance Rockefeller's most visible high profile position was in the area of outdoor recreation when he accepted President Eisenhower's invitation to chair the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) in 1958. This was perhaps the most significant watershed event in the history of parks and conservation in the U.S. since the forming of the N.P.S. in 1916.  By accepting this role, he was able to influence both the selection of the other commissioners and the 25-member advisory council. Their membership was crucial since it would influence the popular perception of the integrity and credibility of the process, and legitimize the commission's findings and recommendations to key constituencies, including the Congress. When funds were delayed for a year by the Congress, Rockefeller used his own funds to launch the commission's work.

ORRRC conducted the most comprehensive fact-finding study ever made in this field and the results were published in 27 volumes. The major findings and more than 50 recommendations were contained in ORRRC's report, Outdoor Recreation for America, submitted to President John F. Kennedy and Congress in 1962. Rockefeller managed and directed the commission's work meticulously, insisting that it be thorough and presented coherently. His leadership catalyzed the commissioners toward a people-oriented approach to resource management, as he persistently argued that conservation meant relating parks and outdoor recreational resources more directly to the needs of the people. Outdoor recreation, he concluded, had "evolved from a luxury of the few to a necessity of the many."

The report presented a five-point program designed to improve and increase recreation use of both public and private land and water resources, to make more effective use of existing recreation areas, and to acquire new ones, particularly shoreline. This program spelled out proposals for a national recreation policy; a classification system for outdoor recreation resources; expansion, modification and intensification of existing programs; a federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and a program of grants-in-aid to the states. The widespread acceptance and actions emanating from the ORRRC recommendations were extraordinary. It had at least five major impacts: (i) creation of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation to coordinate the activities of 20 different agencies and establish a federal recreation policy; (ii) shifted the NPS's emphasis towards urban areas; (iii) embraced and advocated the concept of "multiple use;" (iv) advocated establishment of the Land and Water Conservation Fund; (v) formed the basis for much of President Johnson's environmental program in his Great Society thrust.

His success with guiding the ORRRC process was followed by a similar success as chair of President Johnson's White House Conference on Natural Beauty in 1965. The conference was a resounding success and President Johnson moved quickly to embrace the report and implement most of its recommendations. Within a year Congress sent the White House thirty conservation bills that emanated from the conference's recommendations, including the highly controversial Highway Beautification Act which included limitations on billboard advertising. When a subsequent Republican administration sought to repeal this act, Rockefeller intervened personally to dissuade them from doing so.

When President Nixon created a 15-member Citizens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality in 1969, Rockefeller became its chair and remained on it until 1977. This vehicle enabled his environmental concerns to continue to be aired at the highest policy levels.

The charm of Woodstock, Vermont, a New England village that was the ancestral home of his wife's family, and the area's peaceful, rolling countryside, appealed greatly to Rockefeller. In 1969, he built the new Woodstock Inn and its guest facilities. Beginning in the early 1960s, he operated the nearby Mt. Tom and Suicide Six ski areas. His interest in maintaining the uniquely New England character of Woodstock led him, over the years, to acquire other properties in the area. His most important contribution to historic preservation was his creation, in partnership with his wife, of the Marsh-Billings Historical Park in Woodstock. They gave the historic Victorian mansion and 555 acres of land to the NPS together with a $7.5 million endowment to maintain it and to create this new park.

His interest in promoting biological knowledge was primarily manifested in two projects. He became a trustee of the New York Zoological Park -- the Bronx Zoo -- in 1935. He worked closely with Fairfield Osborn who was head of the Society, in expanding the society from a local organization focused on exhibiting animals, to one conducting conservation and research activities on an international scale. He was elected the society's president in 1968, and served as chairman from 1970 until his resignation in 1975, when he was elected honorary chairman. He had a major role in one of the Zoological Society's largest undertakings in the 1950s -- construction of the modern New York Aquarium at Coney Island. New York City cooperated in building the $4.5 million aquarium.

Rockefeller took part from its beginning in the growing movement of setting up nature centers within communities for use as outdoor classrooms and this was the second major thrust of his goal to enhance biological knowledge. He was an early supporter of what developed into the Nature Center Division of the National Audubon Society, which provides technical assistance to communities in the acquisition and operation of natural areas for this use.

Rockefeller had a lifelong involvement with parks in New York State. He was especially interested in the protection of the great estuarine Hudson River Valley and its highlands, of which his home at Pocantico in Westchester County was a part. Indeed, his introduction to public service came in 1939 when Governor Herbert H. Lehman of New York appointed him to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC). Subsequently, he was president of the PIPC from 1970 to 1977 and continued as a commissioner until his resignation in December 1978.

The PIPC is a New York-New Jersey body responsible for operation of the string of parks on the west bank of the Hudson River across and upriver from New York City: As a Palisades commissioner, Rockefeller was particularly alert to possibilities for new acquisitions of land whose natural features or strategic location added significantly to the public's enjoyment. He contributed to the purchase of two sections of the Tallman Mountain region in the early 1940s after he had learned of their availability. Some ten years later his contributions brought the 590-acre Dunderberg Mountain plus the Hudson shoreline at Jones Point within the park system. Later, after viewing rundown conditions in the Rockland Lake area, he sparked the drive to acquire and improve valuable lakefront property and helped with the purchase. After the development of a beach and other facilities, Rockland Lake North was opened to the public in 1965. Another park, Rockland Lake South, came five years later. Iona Island, a Hudson River island that was once a vineyard and later a naval arsenal, was acquired in 1965 for development as a recreation area, a successful finish to an acquisition campaign that Rockefeller began in 1947.

Laurance Rockefeller was the creator of organization after organization and he was an activist-philanthropist in dozens more, nationally and locally. The American Conservation Association, Inc. was his creation in 1958. He was a prime mover and the first chairman of the National Recreation and Park Association in 1965, which emerged from the amalgamation of six smaller groups. The Conservation Foundation, of which he was co-founder, marched on from strength to strength until finally merging with the World Wildlife Fund. The National Park Foundation (which superseded the National Park Trust Fund) was, if not his creation, then much beholden to him for he gave it over a million dollars at the outset  to launch it and in later years provided additional large sums on a matching basis. He was instrumental in Resources for the Future, Inc., and in the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection; he founded the Woodstock Foundation; and he stood behind Historic Hudson Valley, which succeeded Sleepy Hollow Restorations.

Through the foundations he established, aided, through the boards he chaired or held closely (Jackson Hole Preserve Inc., Rockresorts, Rockefeller Center, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission)...he was able to supply the key gift to promote a needed study, report, or monograph on literally hundreds of projects.

In 1991, when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and exalted by President George H.W. Bush as a "hidden national treasure," Rockefeller said that nothing was more important to him than "the creation of a conservation ethic in America," and then sternly admonished the politicians in the room to do more to protect the country's land, water and air.

Laurance S. Rockefeller's influence on the parks and conservation field has been enormous. He was arguably the most influencial parks and conservation figure in the second half of the twentieth century. His gifts of land amounted to hundreds of thousands of acres. One cannot drive the Palisades Parkway in New York, stroll through Woodstock, Vermont, swim in the Virgin Islands, or hike the trails of the Tetons without seeing and benefiting from his work. However, perhaps his most important accomplishment was to lead the transition from traditional land conservation to a more inclusive environmentalism. When he first entered the conservation arena environmentalism was an obscure, cultish subject which was the domain of rather peripheral groups and solitary individuals who focused primarily on the preservation of wild areas. His leadership was central to moving it from there to being a prominent issue on the national agenda. He emphasized that human beings are part of the ecology and catering to their needs was key to widespread public acceptance. He linked protection and use, asking what the public interest was. He was not, he reminded a questioner, a "blind fish," and he seldom gave his time or his money on impulse or without adequate inquiry. He recognized that different people have quite different ideas about what nature is for. This was the basis for his persistent search for compromise and for the charge made by some that he never made up his mind where he stood along the spectrum of environmental positions. He believed that none of the spectrum of views was inherently wrong, but one or another may be more appropriate to human kind's needs at a given time. The only view Rockefeller considered to be quite wrong was to leave humanity out of the picture.

Winks Robin W. (1997). Laurance S. Rockefeller: Catalyst for Conservation. Washington, D.C. Island Press.
Kaufman, Michael T (2004) Laurance S. Rockefeller, passionate conservationist and investor is dead at 94. New York Times. July 12, p A18