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Peter Berle, 69; led Audubon Society into wider environmental advocacy

November 11, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Peter A.A. Berle, a former president of the National Audubon Society who sought to broaden the environmental agenda of the venerable group and show that it was "no longer just for the birds," died Nov. 1 in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 69.

Berle died of injuries from an accident in August, when the roof of a barn on his Stockbridge, Mass., farm collapsed as he was dismantling it, his family said.

A pioneering environmental lawyer and former New York state conservation commissioner, Berle (pronounced Burley) led the National Audubon Society from 1985 to 1995, when financial problems underscored a need for the group to reexamine its goals and public identity.

Convinced that Audubon should expand its base beyond bird watchers, he launched a reorganization that was at times painful, particularly when he attempted to remove the great egret as Audubon's symbol and replace it with a flag.

The hue and cry from the rank and file subsided only when Berle acknowledged he had made a mistake, but he did not retreat from his larger objective: to help Audubon grow in its role as an advocate for the environment, as concerned with the habitat of humans as of birds.

"He had an early vision . . . for the sustainability and livability of cities," said Glenn Olson, executive director of Audubon California, who knew Berle for 20 years. "Most of the areas Audubon was trying to protect were outside of cities. Peter brought it back into cities."

An early champion of "green" architecture, Berle spearheaded the renovation of a century-old Manhattan brownstone into an eco-friendly showcase to house Audubon's staff. Called Audubon House, it was ahead of its time when it opened in 1992, featuring nontoxic building materials, sensors that automatically turned off lights, desk-side recycling chutes and compost heaps on a rooftop garden.

To Berle and the 10,000 Audubon members who helped underwrite its $24-million cost, the building made a statement that Audubon had widened its scope.

"Today we can't protect birds by building bird feeders and acquiring sanctuaries alone," Berle said in 1992. "They are threatened by larger-scale dilemmas related to the way we use land and resources on a global basis."

Described as a charismatic and vigorous man with a crushing handshake, Berle channeled resources into fighting global warming and lobbied for efforts to toughen the Endangered Species Act. He fought for the preservation of wetlands in California, promoted educational jaunts in the Florida Everglades for inner-city children and opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A fearless outdoorsman despite late-onset diabetes, he awed much younger colleagues with his physical prowess. In the late 1980s he undertook an arduous, 80-mile trek across mountains and tundra in the Arctic plain to gain a firsthand appreciation of the natural beauty at stake in the oil drilling. Much earlier, he had paddled 300 miles from Buffalo to Albany, N.Y., on the Erie Canal and collected water samples along the way.

"Nobody could keep up with him," said John Flicker, who succeeded Berle as Audubon president. "Whether out hiking or bird-walking, he would start earlier, do it faster and do it longer than anybody, always with great enthusiasm."

Berle learned to relish the outdoors on camping trips with his father, Adolf Berle Jr., a lawyer and economist who was a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's original "brain trust." He followed in his father's footsteps to Harvard, where he majored in economics and earned his law degree. But he was also influenced by his mother, Beatrice Bishop Berle, a physician with a strong social conscience who ran a Harlem clinic for drug addicts. He spent his childhood in New York City, where he was born, and Great Barrington, Mass.

In 1960 Berle married Lila Sloane Wilde, whom he had known since childhood. She survives him along with two sons, Dolf of Pasadena and Robert of Charleston, S.C.; two daughters, Mary of Stockbridge, Mass., and Beatrice of Hoosick, N.Y.; a sister, Beatrice Meyerson of Washington, D.C.; and 13 grandchildren.

During the Vietnam War, Berle served in the Air Force as an intelligence officer and parachutist. Afterward he joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind and Garrison, where he and another junior lawyer drew the unenviable assignment of litigating against Consolidated Edison, which wanted to erect a pumping storage facility on a scenic mountain overlooking the Hudson River Gorge. Their precedent-setting victory forced the utility to ameliorate any environmental damage.

In 1971, not long after winning that case, he founded Berle, Butzel & Kass, one of the country's first environmental law firms, where he waged a successful suit against Union Carbide Corp. for fouling underground water on Long Island with pesticides. As a member of the New York state Legislature, he played an integral role in the expansion of Adirondack Park.

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