The State We’re In: Richard Sullivan, Conservation Trailblazer

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” wrote Sir Isaac Newton, in a tip of his hat to earlier mathematicians upon whose work he built.

New Jersey’s environmental movement has had its “giants,” and one of them was Richard J. Sullivan, who passed away in December at the age of 86.

Richard was the first commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) after its official creation on Earth Day 1970, and his skill in building this brand new agency – his intelligence, integrity, diplomacy and sense of humor – set the standard for all who were to follow. Later, he continued his environmental leadership in many roles, including chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission.

“To many of us he was indeed the father, if not the patron saint, of the environmental movement here in the Garden State,” wrote Michael Catania, the executive director of Duke Farms and a former NJDEP deputy commissioner.

It is a fitting tribute that Catania’s sentiments are echoed by everyone who knew and worked with Dick Sullivan.

“He was a gentle man, but he could be fierce when he believed in the cause,” recalled former Governor Thomas Kean. “But he never alienated anyone.” Differences of opinion never became personal, and an opponent on one issue was often turned into a supporter on another.

Kean, who in 1970 served as the state Assembly’s majority leader, wrote and sponsored the legislation creating the NJDEP, a superagency charged with both pollution control and natural resource management. Previously, a single state department handled the sometimes incompatible functions of economic development and safeguarding the environment.
Kean recalled that the bill was signed by Governor William Cahill, with some trepidation, on that first Earth Day: “It wasn’t a popular department when we created it. People thought it would hurt the economy.”

The key to the NJDEP’s success and acceptance, said Kean, was finding the right person to lead it. And the best choice was Richard Sullivan, the administrator of water pollution and air pollution programs in the Department of Health at the time of his appointment.

Kean explained that although the NJDEP had been created by legislation, “there were always holes, a need for interpretation.” Under his leadership, the start-up agency thrived.

“Richard Sullivan was a great person to serve as the first commissioner,” said Christopher Daggett, who followed Sullivan as NJDEP commissioner years later and is now the executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “He set the tone, he set the style. He was all about substance, letting science drive the decision making.”

Bradley Campbell, another former NJDEP commissioner, noted that there were few models for an environmental protection agency at the time, and Richard’s became the gold standard: “This state, more than the federal government, was teaching the rest of the country how to protect the environment.”

The DEP’s regulatory scope expanded quickly, as many landmark environmental laws – including the Solid Waste Management Act, the Coastal Wetlands Act, and the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act – were enacted in rapid succession.

David Moore, who served as New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s executive director while Richard Sullivan was leading the NJDEP, credits him with ensuring those laws’ permanence. “I don’t think that a lot of environmental law that was enacted when he was in office would have survived if he had not been there to frame the implementation strategy,” said Moore.

After leaving the NJDEP, Richard went on to serve in many other environmental policy positions, in both the public and private sector.

Moore described Richard as a “calm, cool and collected character” who got along with everyone by being a persuasive speaker and respectful listener. “Richard was probably one of the most articulate spokesmen for the environment that New Jersey has ever seen. He was able to shape a lot of policy and influence a lot of people.”

Another lasting gift to the environment has been the many environmental leaders he taught and mentored throughout the years. One of those is his daughter, Martha Sullivan Sapp, who currently serves as acting administrator of the state Green Acres Program.

May Richard Sullivan’s legacy long continue … in all who embrace sound science, respect for differing opinions and reverence for the right of current and future generations to enjoy a clean and healthy environment!

And for more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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