Dorothy McCluskey, longtime island resident and conservationist, dies at 84

Sat, 02/23/2013 - 4:35pm

Dorothy Soest McCluskey, former Connecticut legislator and longtime environmental conservation leader instrumental in preserving open space in Block Island and Connecticut, died on Feb. 15, 2013, surrounded by her loving family. She was 84.

McCluskey was an avid lover of the outdoors, not only in her native New England, but also in the mountain west, where she spent many family vacations. She was active as a hiker, gardener, and as both a downhill and cross-country skier until late in her life. After she and her husband Don made Block Island their primary residence, the couple spent winters in Vail, CO. She enjoyed hosting friends and family and giving hiking tours of the open land she helped preserve. Her kindness, energy, and generosity will be missed by her family and a large circle of friends and co-workers.

“She and Don were great friends to the island,” said Keith Lewis, a co-founder of the Block Island Land Trust. Lewis said that McCluskey was instrumental in understanding the relationship between land and the island economy. “Dorothy always looked at ways for development and conservation to work hand in hand,” he said. Lewis remembered her as a person of great energy and intellect.

Her interest in environmental planning emerged during the 1960s when she became an active member of the League of Women Voters. She served as a legislative intern to State Representative David Levine, working on wetlands issues. McCluskey joined the Conservation Commission of her hometown, North Branford and grew increasingly concerned about water quality issues in a town where fast-moving development had resulted in the proliferation of substandard septic systems in an area where most homeowners relied on wells. In 1970 she authored the town’s Conservation Plan.

To develop these interests further, McCluskey entered Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and graduated with a Masters of Forestry Sciences in 1973. She was second woman ever to receive this degree.

McCluskey’s life took a dramatic turn in 1974, when the privately-owned New Haven Water Company, facing new expenses under the terms of the landmark Clean Water Act, announced plans to sell 16,000 acres of watershed land it owned in surrounding suburbs to developers. These lands were essential to the quality of the water the company delivered and to the recreational infrastructure of the New Haven region. Her public statements on the issue gained attention, and the Democratic Party urged her to run for the Connecticut State House. A Democrat had not been elected from this district since 1884, but with a boost from the Watergate scandals in Washington, McCluskey defeated her opponent, North Branford Town Councilman Ronald McKoskey, and went on to represent her district for the next seven years.

Her major accomplishment as a legislator was to shepherd a law that declared a moratorium on future land sales by private water companies. This legislation laid the groundwork for statewide regulations on land use in watershed that feed public water supplies.

She, along with her energetic legislative aide Claire Bennit, encouraged an enormously complex and controversial process to replace the New Haven Water Company with a regional water authority owned and jointly operated by seventeen towns in the New Haven region. The South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority came into being in 1980. It was able to quickly upgrade its facilities to comply with federal law and to permanently preserve the watersheds from development.

After leaving the state legislature, she worked as director of government relations for Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. During the 1980s she gradually focused more of her energies on Block Island, where she and her husband Don built a summer home. McCluskey joined the Block Island Planning Board, working on such matters as an updating the zoning code, establishing the Block Island sewer district, and organizing the downtown historic district.

In 1986, she and Lewis led a successful effort to establish the Block Island Land Trust. This accomplishment involved organizing a coalition of local officials, landowners, and real estate agents on the Island, and culminated in passage of special legislation the Rhode Island General Assembly. The campaign drew heavily on Dorothy experience in Connecticut and was modeled on similar legislation on Nantucket. The Land Trust imposed a 3 percent fee on all real estate transactions to develop a fund for purchase of open land for conservation purposes. As a result of her and other board member’s work, approximately 45 percent of Block Island has been preserved as open space suitable for recreation and wildlife habitat.

In addition to her work on the Planning Board and the Board of the Land Trust, McCluskey also served on the boards of the Block Island Conservancy, Scenic Block Island, and the Committee for the Great Salt Pond.

During the 1990s and 2000s she took a lead role in creating the Block Island Greenways, an extensive system of hiking trails that crisscrosses the island. This work involved negotiating a complex web of agreements and easements with local landholders, as well as collaboration with all her colleagues on the island’s various planning boards.

The work of the local planning agencies was made much easier because of her development of a Geographic Imagining Systems (GIS) map of Block Island. Her husband Don was an active collaborator on this project, which involved collaboration with the University of Rhode Island beginning in the 1980s, when GIS was still in its infancy.

From the late 1960s on, McCluskey, along with her husband Don, was also a generous donor of land to conservation projects. Several of these gifts make up strategic segments of Block Island’s preserved land, including Bonnell Beach. In this same vein, she also collaborated with the hotelier and entertainer Johannes von Trapp—who was her fellow student at the Yale Forestry School - to increase the acreage devoted to the von Trapp family’s Nordic Ski resort in Stowe, Vermont.

In 2000, the McCluskeys endowed the Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellowship at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management. This fellowship fund has made it possible for leading conservationists across the world to spend a year reflecting on their work. Recipients of McCluskey Fellowships include two future Nobel Prize laureates, Rajendra K. Pachauri and Wangari Maathai.

In 2000, the Block Island Times awarded the Bayberry Wreath Award to Dorothy in recognition of her tireless work on behalf of Block Island’s open spaces. She also shared the Nature Conservancy Award with her husband Don.

Dorothy McCluskey was born Dorothy Soest in 1928, the only daughter of Hugo and Dorothy Soest. She grew up in Middletown, where she attended public schools. Later she attended the Dobbs Ferry School in New York State and went on to Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she received her BA in Philosophy in 1949. In 1953-54, she went to Norway on a Fulbright award, which allowed her to pursue a research interest in Fridtjof Nansen’s concept of a passport for stateless refugees.

Kay Lewis, who was an Associate Dean of the Undergraduate College and also the Registrar at Brown University, said that she was “floored” when she learned of McCluskey’s Fulbright Scholarship. “At the time it was almost unheard of for a woman to receive that,” Kay Lewis said. “That is a very impressive accomplishment.”

In addition to her husband Donald S. McCluskey, of Block Island, RI, she is survived by three children, Peter C. McCluskey of San Bruno, CA, Martha T. McCluskey and her husband, Carl Nightingale, of Buffalo, New York and Christine Jensen and her husband, Peter, of Nederland, Colorado; her brother, Hugh G. Soest and his wife, Donna, of Arizona; and three grandchildren, Mbali McCluskey-Nightingale and Liesl and Trine Jensen. She was predeceased by her brother, Orin H. Soest.

A memorial service will be held this summer on Block Island after a private burial in the Haddam Central Cemetery. Her family invites you to visit to share an online message of condolence.