Allison Whipple Rockefeller

SCA 1975, 1976

Conservationist, Philanthropist | New York, NY

Canyonlands National Park, 1975 | North Cascades National Park, 1976

Allison is founder of National Audubon’s Women in Conservation as well as Cornerstone Parks, an innovative “Pumps-­to­-Parks Initiative” in New York.  She’s also served as a commission member for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation under four governors, is a longtime board member of the Central Park Conservancy’s Women Committee, and in the 1990s became the first alumna board chair of SCA.  Allison recently received the Audubon Society’s prestigious Thomas Keesee, Jr. Award.

In the past you’ve called your SCA Canyonlands crew at age 15 a “Lewis and Clark adventure.”  How so?

We traveled by open-air Jeep and river-raft to our base camp in Anderson Bottom, Utah. To be in such an obscure park with an extraordinary landscape, the likes of which I’d never seen before, was absolutely moving.  It was the single greatest experience of my life.  SCA gave me the smallest, most labor intensive, most tangible thing to do with a beginning and end.  You saw the bridge you built.  You could use it to go over Thunder Creek.   SCA made me love parks on every level and want to be part of the process that maintains them and creates the best user experience.   It defined me as a conservationist and the person I am today. 

Is that what you set out to achieve?

Service was not foreign to me but SCA was the vehicle through which I could express that value.  I felt I was serving my country, and that’s the last thing a teenager would utter in mid 1970s.  But no one on my crew was embarrassed by that.  That was part of the ethic, part of the SCA message, and people of this age group were so interested in it.  What is most coveted age for advertisers, 18-34?  They are great consumers but they are also in the business of collecting values.  SCA wasn’t embarrassed to speak about service, public lands and stewardship. 

How did your crew come together in that environment?

We all got along so well.  Teenagers have a peculiar balance of acceptance and observation.  They don’t immediately fall into the adult trap of categorizing people to such an extent that boundaries are drawn.  With adults, there’s often very little room for the absorption of anyone else, but kids aren’t like that.  We lived outside, cooked meals under the sky, looked up at the stars at night.  At that age, you think you’re going to do this for the rest of your life: live for a month outside.  But it never happens like that again.  That’s why you never forget it. 

What do you make of the ongoing climate change debate?

The politicization of the term “environment” is the least helpful and most destructive thing.  The idea that people can isolate and vilify this term is at the crux of the problem.  Somehow we’ve silo-ed the health of the earth into a political issue: them versus us.  It is just absurd.  I can’t stand opposition on that level.  It’s ignorant, upsetting, and un-American.  Treating climate change as our single greatest problem is the single greatest problem, because anything that big is impossible to break down.  I’m confident that people my children’s age will have a much more sensitive ethic and connection to the natural world.  Environmentalism is going to come to the city next, where 80% of Americans live.  Green cities are next.     

You’ve been converting former gas stations across New York City into neighborhood greenscapes.  Where does that effort stand?

The Cornerstone Parks program is now becoming a state park initiative.  There are 190,000 disused gas stations in this country, 2,200 in New York State alone.  The idea came out of a ‘70s ethic, came out of an SCA “fix it” attitude.  These places re abandoned and shutdown when they can be green open spaces, farmer’s market sites, staging areas for bike tours and more.

What prompted you to launch National Audubon’s “Women in Conservation” program and the associated Rachel Carson Awards?

It really bothered me there’s been so little emphasis on women’s contributions to conservation.  John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, get credit and they deserve it, but there have been extraordinary women right up there, too, not the least of which is Rachel Carson.  Liz Putnam is a living goddess of great American women in the environment!  Marjory Stoneman Douglas and “River of Grass” saved the Everglades.   Recognizing their leadership is a way for young women to project their own future leadership.