by Peter Paden
Published January 4, 2013 in the Register-Star
Here at the Columbia Land Conservancy we are closing the books on 2012 and laying out our work plans for the year ahead. I like to use this occasion to provide the community with a report on what we have to show for our efforts in the last twelve months. I’m proud to tell you about it.
New Conservation Easements
We added three new conservation easements totaling 900 acres of land. Three more, which will add another 300 acres, are set to close in the next few weeks. These properties include very good farmland, healthy forest tracts, wetlands and water courses, and highly scenic landscapes. Five of the six are working farm lands. Thanks to the owners of these properties, these properties will remain forever available for farming and forestry and will continue to provide great habitat and ecological services, conserving some of the most important conservation resources and economic infrastructure of our community. We now hold 159 conservation easements on almost 23,000 acres throughout the county.
Four of our new easements are the product of a continuing and expanding collaboration with our colleagues at Scenic Hudson. These four easements are being purchased with funds provided by the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program and by Scenic Hudson, allowing these families to cash out the development value of their property and put the money to use in support of their farm businesses.
Public Conservation Areas
Our ten Public Conservation Areas are available without charge, dawn to dusk, 365 days a year for hiking, fishing, birding, snowshoeing, and the like. This past year we completed significant improvements at several of these properties and quadrupled the size of another. In the fall we opened a beautiful 1.8 mile-long connector trail between our Greenport Conservation Area and Harrier Hill Park to the north, which we manage for Scenic Hudson. (We still need to build a few bridges.) At the Ooms Conservation Area, we constructed a long-planned final link in the trail system, alleviating the need to walk along Rock City Road for several hundred feet to complete the loop. Most dramatically, thanks to the very generous donations of two abutting property owners we now own some 300 additional acres of land extending north from our Round Ball Conservation Area in Ancram, which will add five miles to the existing trail system.
In all, we’re providing 2,300 acres of beautiful and varied natural lands where people can connect with the natural world. These areas are heavily used. They serve, in effect, as the county’s park system – at no cost to the county. This, in a time when parks and nature centers are on the chopping block in many New York communities due to fiscal constraints.
Conservation and sound stewardship of our natural resources will not have much of a future if people in generations to come lose their appreciation for the natural world – a real risk in the age of computers and video games. Our outdoor education program was once again heavily subscribed, bringing knowledge and enjoyment of the outdoors to more than 3,000 people from the ages of 3 to 93, including children from almost every school system in the county, groups from many of our senior living facilities, and many families and adults who attended one of our general public programs. As an example, our educator spent two days in the field at the Greenport Conservation Area, which abuts the Hudson High School, with students from the school doing an Invasive Plant Inventory and Removal Program. The kids worked incredibly hard, learned to identify and safely remove several species of invasive plants and had the satisfaction of bringing about a tangible and significant change in the landscape in an area of the property that needed these attentions.
Our Nature Quest program, a nature-based treasure hunt we began a year ago in connection with our 25th anniversary celebrations, continued to be very popular. People obtain a passport book containing clues based on natural features leading to a hidden stamp at each of our conservation areas. Passbooks reflecting that all the sites were visited and stamps collected are redeemed for a prize. This program provides a lot of enjoyment to people of all ages, introduces people to parts of the county they would not otherwise have visited and helps build an appreciation for the wonderful natural diversity Columbia County has to offer. In 2012 we initiated a new program for adults and families, hosting a late evening, full moon walk at one of our conservation areas every month, another initiative that has been very well received within the community.
Land Use & Community Planning
Nothing is more important to sustaining the qualities that make Columbia County such a special place than a commitment by those of us who live here to adopt good land use practices and responsibly steward our rich natural heritage. CLC provides support and assistance to communities throughout the county working to integrate conservation strategies into their land use decision-making, provide increased public open space and recreational opportunities and improve planning practices. In 2012, we continued to provide training and encouragement to members of volunteer boards and committees who focus on these issues in their communities. We carried on with a project started a year earlier to provide every municipality in the county with a state-of-the-art software tool and training how to use it. The program significantly enhances the work of planning boards and others involved in local land use decisions. We convened meetings for members of local Conservation Advisory Councils and trail committees to meet with people working on similar projects in other communities in the county, to share knowledge and experience and to learn from each other. We also completed the design work for the next five-mile extension of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail into the hamlet of Hillsdale. And we continued to work and advise on a routine basis with developers, officials and community groups throughout the county on comprehensive plans, farmland protection plans, and proposed conservation sub-division projects.
Support for Farming
One of CLC’s conservation strategies is to work however we can to support farming, which has left an indelible imprint on the landscape cherished by all. The high price of land is a primary challenge. CLC helps to address this by holding conservation easements on farm properties, including five of our six newly acquired easements. In addition, we operate an innovative program to match people who own farmland with farmers looking to expand their operation. To date we have made two dozen matches, putting 1,000 acres of land back into productive agricultural use. We have also been working, with others, to support the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board in preparing the county’s first Farmland Protection Plan. This critically important project could have a tremendous positive impact on the county’s farm sector. A draft will be available for public review and comment within the coming months.
With these and other achievements behind us, we’re looking forward with enthusiasm to another productive year in 2013.
Columbia County is a fabulous place to be doing this work. Conservation values abound everywhere you look. There is still time to get it right here, and create a vibrant rural community that cherishes and responsibly stewards the rich and beautiful land that we inhabit.
Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy. His column appears on the first Friday of every month.