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Natural Resources Defense Council records

Call Number: MS 1965

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises the records of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an American environmental action organization founded in 1970. The records consist of correspondence; legal files; meeting minutes; press clippings; technical reports; photographs; and publications, including annual reports, magazines, and newsletters; documenting NRDC's administration and programs.

The administrative records consist of the records of NRDC’s founding director, John H. Adams; records of Board of Directors meetings; and organization-wide publications. The John H. Adams records document many aspects of NRDC’s founding and first decade of work in environmental law and activism. They include extensive correspondence, publications, reports, memoranda, and legal documents. Most notably among the organization-wide publications, the annual reports offer a detailed year-by-year summary of NRDC's activities.

The Nuclear Program records provide a detailed view of two major areas of endeavor, NRDC’s projects to support the verification of nuclear arms control agreements and its efforts to provide public information about nuclear weapons and atomic energy. The verification projects files document NRDC’s collaboration with the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the 1980s that resulted in the joint construction of seismic monitoring stations in the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) capable of detecting underground nuclear tests; a 1989 experiment in the Black Sea to demonstrate the feasibility of detecting nuclear warheads on naval vessels; and several related visits to restricted Soviet military sites. The public information and advocacy files offer, most notably, an extensive collection of publications from the Nuclear Program including published articles and chapters, conference papers, reports, and testimony. Among the program's most significant publications was the Nuclear Weapons Databook, a series that sought to provide the public accurate factual data about nuclear arms at a time when government secrecy prevented much of this information from freely circulating.

The Nuclear Program records also include an extensive set of subject files documenting the Soviet, and later Russian, nuclear weapons program and its effects on the environment at the end of the Cold War.

Later additions to the records include the administrative records of other founding members, including Frances Beinecke and Patricia Sullivan, which document the day-to-day activities and legal proceedings of NRDC. Later additions also include the office documents, correspondence, and administrative files of the offices of NRDC. These office documents detail both the national campaigns undertaken by NRDC as well as the strategies for forwarding the mission of NRDC. This is exemplified through annual reports, meeting minutes, and internal memorandums. These documents are supported through research that is also present in the additions, and focus on topics such as urban development, climate change, pesticide use, and superfund sites.


  • 1936-2015


Language of Materials

The material is in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Access to the records is partially restricted per donor request. Details provided at the accession level.

Original audiovisual materials, as well as preservation and duplicating masters, may not be played. Researchers must consult use copies, or if none exist must pay for a use copy, which is retained by the repository. Researchers wishing to obtain an additional copy for their personal use should consult Copying Services information on the Manuscripts and Archives web site.

Copies of commercially produced audiovisual materials contained in this collection cannot be made for researcher use outside of the repository.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is retained by the creator(s) of this collection for materials they have authored or otherwise produced. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Natural Resources Defense Council, 2010-2018.


The initial records are arranged into two subgroups: Administrative files and Programs and Projects files. Later additions are arranged by date they were received.


465.79 Linear Feet (1052 boxes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises the records of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an American environmental action organization founded in 1970. The records consist of correspondence, legal files, meeting minutes, press clippings, technical reports, photographs, and publications, including annual reports, magazines, and newsletters; documenting NRDC's administration and programs.

Biographical / Historical

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was founded in 1970 as an environmental action organization by a group of American attorneys and law students. Several New York City lawyers, who sought to block construction of a Consolidated Edison power plant at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River, established the Natural Resources Defense League and hired John H. Adams as its first executive director. The organization soon changed its name to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and, at the recommendation of the Ford Foundation, merged with a group of law students, most from Yale University, who wanted to establish a public interest law firm that represented victims of pollution.

With initial funding from the Ford Foundation, NRDC opened its first office in New York City and established a Board of Trustees. Originally structured like a traditional law firm, NRDC’s senior attorneys operated as partners. The organization focused its early efforts on litigation to ensure the enforcement of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972. In 1971, the organization’s first lawsuit challenged strip-mining by the Tennessee Valley Authority. NRDC opened a second office in Washington, DC, and by 1972 had a third office in Palo Alto, California, which later moved to San Francisco. NRDC combined scientific expertise with the option to litigate and developed ongoing public education efforts to influence public policy and legislation. In 1973, the group hired its first staff scientists to provide thorough scientific analysis of environmental harm and offer feasible remedies to significant environmental problems. NRDC also added a membership component to the organization and had 18,000 members by 1974. In 1979, NRDC began publishing its environmental magazine The Amicus Journal.

During its first two decades, NRDC’s senior attorneys and scientists worked on a wide range of environmental issues. This work was initially organized as projects with each project operating primarily out of one of the three offices in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. In New York, the five largest projects concerned clean water, coasts, toxic substances, the urban environment, and citizen enforcement. The Clean Water Project sought to keep rivers and drinking water free of pollution and toxics. The Coastal Project focused on preserving coastal waters and wetlands from harm, especially from offshore oil drilling. The Toxics Project worked to ensure the safety of chemicals used in industry and restrict the use of dangerous materials such as asbestos. The Urban Program pursued environmentally sustainable policies for cities, especially through its work on mass transit and the removal of lead from gasoline. The Citizen Enforcement Project, begun in 1982, litigated on behalf of private citizens against corporations suspected of violating environmental regulations and illegally polluting. The Washington office primarily focused on clean air, nuclear issues, and international development. The Clean Air Project fought against air pollution and acid rain and for the protection of the ozone layer. The Nuclear Program addressed the environmental hazards of nuclear energy and worked to support international efforts at nuclear arms control. The International Program advocated for greater consideration of environmental concerns in the policies of U.S. foreign aid agencies and multilateral development banks. In San Francisco, the major program areas were energy, public lands, national forests, and pesticides. The Energy Project pursued energy conservation through collaborative planning with state utilities and establishing efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. The Public Lands Project worked to protect federally owned lands, especially those used for grazing and mining, from environmental threats. The Forestry Project focused on the protection of national forests. The Pesticides Project sought to ensure the safety of chemicals used in agriculture. Supporting these projects were three organization-wide offices for communications, development (which included the membership operation), and administration headquartered in New York City.

With a growing budget and staff, NRDC reorganized in 1990 into six consolidated programs: Air and Energy, International and Nuclear, Land, Public Health, Urban, and Water and Coastal. The programs connected projects that often already shared staff and expertise, and, within the overarching programs, many of the pre-1990 projects continued to function as they had before. Several notable program changes occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. The Oceans Program emerged, drawing on the experience and staff of the Water and Coastal Program, and worked to protect international waters, especially high-seas fisheries. The Citizen Enforcement Project ended in 1994, and much of that project’s staff became part of a new Litigation Team that supported ongoing litigation efforts organization-wide.

Although from the beginning NRDC staff had accomplished much of their work through collaboration across project and program lines, a number of initiatives operated formally as cross program efforts. Begun in 1988, the Atmospheric Protection Initiative brought together work on acid rain, chlorofluorocarbons, global warming, and the mismanagement of forestry, coastal, and energy resources and developed into a new Climate Program along with a Climate Center that opened in 2001. With these developments, climate issues became a major new focus of the entire organization’s efforts. Stemming from campaigns to protect Clayoquot Sound in Canada and Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico, NRDC launched in 2001 the BioGems initiative which sought to protect threatened wild places in the Americas.

NRDC also grew through the establishment of a series of centers and the opening of additional regional offices. The new centers included an Advocacy Center, opened in Washington, DC, in 1995 to coordinate lobbying efforts; a Science Center in 2005, which offered postdoctoral fellowships to scientists working on environmental issues; and a Center for Market Innovation in 2007 to work with the private sector on solutions to environmental challenges. Having added a fourth regional office in Los Angeles in 1989 as well as a short-lived office in Honolulu, NRDC opened additional offices in Chicago in 2007 and Beijing in 2008. By 2010, NRDC was an organization of more than 300 staff and 1.3 million members.

This organizational history draws upon John H. Adams and Patricia Adams, A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save our Planet (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010).

Guide to the Natural Resources Defense Council Records
compiled by Sahr Conway-Lanz, Camila Zorrilla Tessler, and staff of Manuscripts and Archives
October 2011
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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