After Decades in the Trenches, Beinecke Says Environmental Fight is Never Over

Frances Beinecke, who returns to F&ES this semester as the 2015 McCluskey Fellow, has been at the forefront of many environmental fights over the past 40 years. And if she has learned anything it’s that the battle is never easy — and it’s never really over.
When she was a student at F&ES back in the early 1970s, Frances Beinecke  ’71 B.A. ’74 M.F.S. spent a summer working in the Catskills. As an intern for a relatively new organization called the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), she helped identify new land use policies to protect critical resources, from forests to water supplies, in the Upstate New York region.
Although the group helped build a stronger framework for environmental stewardship in the region, Beinecke notes that the region today is still trying to forge a balance between environmental protection and economic development, now around the issues of casinos and fracking. And NRDC is still involved.
beinecke 2014
Photo by Joshua Paul
Beinecke, who has been at the forefront of many environmental fights over four decades, including as president of NRDC, says one thing you learn is that the battle is never easy. And it’s never really over.
“These issues continue,” Beinecke, who spent 40 years with NRDC, said recently. “Nothing is ever permanently settled in the environmental field. It’s always an ongoing challenge.”
This is one of the messages that Beinecke will bring back to F&ES this semester, where she will teach a seminar course as the 2015 Dorothy S. McCluskey Fellow in Conservation.

The McCluskey Fellowship allows conservation practitioners to spend a semester at the School to pursue independent research, to enhance collaborations between F&ES and environmental organizations, and to expand professional training opportunities for students. McCluskey ’73 M.F.S. endowed the fellowship in 1997. Beinecke is the 19th McCluskey Fellow.
During the seminar course (F&ES 810a, Diverse Voices: Environmental Leaders on Climate Change and the Environment), Beinecke will examine how the environmental movement of the 21st century can better reflect all segments of American society. Throughout the semester, she will introduce a diverse group of leaders tackling environmental challenges through advocacy, policymaking, academic research, and business.
“Although Frances has stepped back from her post as president of NRDC, she remains one of our nation’s most influential environmental leaders,” said F&ES Dean Peter Crane. “Her presence at F&ES this semester will be of immeasurable benefit to our students, staff, and faculty, and will be a highlight of the upcoming academic year.”
Beinecke says she expects to get a lot out of the experience herself.
“I really look forward to hearing what students are thinking about, and what faculty are working on,” she said. “Because sometimes you can miss the big picture when you’re working in the trenches.”
Back in the early 1970s, when she was an undergraduate at Yale College, Frances Beinecke didn’t necessarily imagine that she’d ever find herself in the trenches of environmental movement. In fact, it was a field that was only starting to take shape.
It was a stormy time in American history, particularly on its college campuses, and Beinecke knew that she wanted to tackle an issue related to social justice. But it wasn’t until after graduation, when she spent several months in Africa, that she found her focus.
Traveling across east Africa, she was struck by the beauty, size and scope of the natural world, and by the immense challenge of providing the resources needed by a growing population. It reminded Beinecke, a New Jersey native, of the grandeur she’d observed during trips to the American West when she was younger, and the vast scale she experienced in the Adirondacks.
“I really became more and more interested in the environment,” she says. “And it just seemed to be a very positive direction for action. There were plenty of environmental challenges, but it was an area where I thought you could really get involved at the ground floor. And there were so much that needed to happen.”
You just have to be vigilant all the way through. Forty years can go by, but a bad idea never goes away!
— Frances Beinecke
After a gap year she enrolled at F&ES, where she completed her master’s degree in 1974. And it was during the summer between her first and second years that she interned with NRDC, an organization established three years earlier by five young attorneys (four from Yale) who wanted to protect the nation’s resources and wildlife.

Diversity and Environmental Leadership

In a new F&ES course led by Frances Beinecke, F&ES students will be asked to reflect on the widening range of voices engaged in these challenges across the U.S., and how the environmental movement can better reflect all segments of American society.
A year later Beinecke joined NRDC full time. In the early years she specialized in coastal issues, including a campaign to prevent a proposal by the Carter Administration to open the Atlantic to offshore oil leasing. 
“We were really focused on how to prevent drilling from taking place and understanding what the ocean resources were and how to protect them,” she said. “We prevailed, but ironically this is something that the Obama administration is proposing right now in the south Atlantic. And we’re hoping to knock out that plan before it's adopted.
“But it’s another example that you just have to be vigilant all the way through. Forty years can go by, but a bad idea never goes away!"
Gus Speth, who helped found  NRDC before he became dean at F&ES, first met Frances Beinecke after she joined the organization in 1974. Although he left NRDC in 1977, he watched from afar as Beinecke climbed through the organization’s ranks. Her command of issues, the environmental landscape and the NRDC earned her respect throughout the organization, Speth says.
“But I think it was her personal qualities that actually account for her steady rise in the organization,” he said. “Her capacity for no-nonsense leadership and steady focus on the important things were complemented by an insightfulness regarding both issues and people that contributed to the widespread realization that Frances wanted to help others succeed and flourish.

“Frances was not only admired by her NRDC colleagues, she was loved by many and liked by all.”

One of NRDC’s important contributions during its early years was that it helped create muscle in the environmental movement, Beinecke says. This was a community that had to be reckoned with.
And once it had established its seat at the table in Washington circles, NRDC expanded its capacities. Where it once focused solely on legal affairs, it extended its reach through emphasis on science and communications, which helped establish the credentials of the organization and the movement.
She kept the faith in advocacy, in litigation, in taking the fight to those who needed to be confronted, whether they were spewing pollution or nonsense.
— Gus Speth
And as  NRDC matured, so did Beinecke. After a decade as a coastal resource specialist she became the director of programs in 1990, guiding NRDC through its first comprehensive strategic planning process. In 1998 she became its executive director. Eight years later, in 2006, she was named president.
Under her leadership  NRDC invested heavily in the fight to curb global warming, helped promote clean energy initiatives, and fought for endangered wild habitats. NRDC also increasingly became a global organization, forging relationships with large and small organizations worldwide, including in China and India.
“The environmental community has really exploded across the country and across the world over these past 40 years,” Beinecke says. “There are organizations built around every watershed, around every mountain range, around every stream. These are people who are very vigilant about their local communities all the way up to issues that are truly global. One of our priorities is figuring out where we can have the best impact and really offer our services.”
beinecke with theo
Photo courtesy of Carrie Elston Tunick
Speth says she will be remembered for her steady leadership through some challenging times, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the growing challenges, political and otherwise, posed by climate change.
“She strengthened NRDC to the point that it is the undisputed environmental leader in Washington and elsewhere today,” he said. “And, importantly, she kept the faith in advocacy, in litigation, in taking the fight to those who needed to be confronted, whether they were spewing pollution or nonsense.”

Beinecke agrees that no challenge is more important than climate change. It’s an incredibly complex problem that will require many strategies by a range of groups and people. In addition to addressing the problems of dirty power plants, for example, global leaders have to figure out how to unleash the potential of clean energy. And they have to find innovative ways to make these solutions affordable.
And like so many other environmental battles, she said, it will require persistence. And patience.
“This will be with us 10, 20, 30 years from now,” Beinecke says. “If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that all issues take decades to address. Yes, if you look back over a five- or ten-year period you can start to see progress. But you just have to be committed for the long term.”
PUBLISHED: September 3, 2015
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.