Art Cooley, a Founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, Dies at 87

Art Cooley, a high school biology teacher who was part of a small band of people whose concerns about issues like the toxicity of the pesticide DDT led them in the late 1960s to start the Environmental Defense Fund, which went on to become one of the nation’s largest environmental organizations, died on Jan. 30 in hospice care in Grand Junction, Colo. He was 87.

His son, Jonathan, confirmed the death.

In the fall of 1965, he and about two dozen scientists, conservationists and high school students began gathering monthly in their homes on Long Island, including Mr. Cooley’s in East Patchogue. They discussed environmental issues facing Long Island, including preserving wildlife habitats and dealing with groundwater pollution and voiced their hopes for policy changes in letters to government officials and newspapers.

Mr. Cooley, who was teaching at Bellport High School in Brookhaven, became the group’s unofficial leader.

“Art was very adept at dealing with people and making friends,” Charles Wurster, one of the other founders of the Environmental Defense Fund and a former professor of biological sciences at what is now Stony Brook University, recalled in an interview. “His mind was very logical, he was very strategic, and he knew a lot about environmental issues.”

The group, which called itself the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee, focused first on trying to halt the use of DDT, which Suffolk County had sprayed on marshes since the 1940s to control mosquitoes. It was a ripe target. The toxic effects of pesticides had been the subject of Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” And Mr. Cooley and another member of the group, Dennis Puleston, sensed that DDT had caused the local osprey population to decline.

Litigation became the committee’s instrument of change. It sued the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission in 1966, which led a state judge to to issue a temporary injunction against the use of DDT.

The injunction stayed in effect for more a year before the judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the issue should be decided by the State Legislature. But the injunction provided enough time for the mosquito commission to say it would not use DDT for at least a year, and for the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors to outlaw its use. New York State banned it in 1971.

Emboldened, some members of the group incorporated the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, “with the express purpose of going after DDT,” Mr. Cooley told Voice of San Diego, an online website, in 2009.

He added: “The first meeting was in my living room. I was chairing the meeting. I said, ‘Well, I think we should have a motion to proceed with due caution,’” because of the fund’s lack of financial resources. “An hour later, we passed a motion to sue the state of Michigan.”

Mr. Cooley, left, with two of the Environmental Defense Fund’s other founders, Charles Wurster, center, and Dennis Puleston, at the New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead, on Long Island, in 1987, two decades after their first lawsuit against the use of DDT was heard there.Credit…T. Charles Erickson

As a result of a lawsuit filed by the fund in Michigan, nearly every city stopped using DDT, and an application of another pesticide, dieldrin, in Western Michigan, to fight Japanese beetles, was delayed for a year. A lawsuit against the City of Milwaukee led it to end its use of DDT to fight Dutch elm disease. Another suit, filed jointly with the Citizens Natural Resource Association, led the State of Wisconsin to ban DDT.

One of the group’s landmark achievements came in 1972: the banning of DDT by the Environmental Protection Administration, with minor exceptions. That ban evolved from a lawsuit the E.D.F. and other groups, including the Sierra Club, had filed against the federal government.

Because Mr. Cooley was not an expert on DDT, as Mr. Wurster was, he did not testify in the lawsuits. He worked in the background with the Environmental Defense Fund while continuing to teach; he took students on river and wildlife field trips, and he advised Students for Environmental Quality, a club that started in 1970 at his high school and gave its members a group outlet to pursue solutions to problems like pollution in Swan Lake in East Patchogue.

“In time, it served as the vehicle for students to investigate other issues, learn about them and plot a course of action,” Mr. Cooley told the South County Retired Educators Association’s newsletter.

Arthur Paul Cooley was born on June 2, 1934, in Southampton, on Long Island, and raised in nearby Quogue. His father, Harvey, was a school principal and the mayor of Quogue. His mother, Helen (Coller) Cooley, was a homemaker who also made furniture.

Mr. Cooley earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Cornell University and joined the staff of Bellport High School in 1956. In addition to biology, he taught general science, ornithology, earth science, mathematics and a course on gardening and wild foods.

Mr. Cooley would go on to serve as the E.D.F.’s secretary, as its chairman from 1972 to 1975, and as an active board member until about a year ago. The fund, which had little money early on, reported $221 million in support and revenue in its 2020 fiscal year.

“He had enormous influence in our boardroom,” Fred Krupp, the organization’s president since 1984, said in an interview. “He advocated that we listen to all stakeholders, from companies to labor unions to grass-roots groups. That generosity of spirit, of not wanting to demonize anybody, became our path.”

After his retirement in 1989, Mr. Cooley moved to San Diego and became a guide on exotic cruises around the world with Lindblad Expeditions.

In addition to his son, he is survived by two grandchildren. His marriage to Nancy Nienstedt ended in divorce.

Mr. Cooley reflected on the impact of the battles against DDT in Mr. Wurster’s 2015 book, “DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund.” He was especially pleased, he said, by the flourishing of brown pelicans, ospreys, peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

“Yes, four iconic species returned to their original abundance bring joy and excitement to the skies of San Diego,” he said. “Who could ask for a better legacy?”

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