Land Matters: Happy New Year

January 3, 2017Rebecca

Thirty Years, And Counting

New Year’s Day is a milestone that inspires reflection and anticipation.  Arguably, there isn’t any reason why the dawning of every new day shouldn’t excite the same emotions, but somehow, when the new day brings with it the inexorable advance of another digit in the calendar year, it carries a weight that is hard to ignore. As organizations and as individuals, we are moved to ask: what do we have to show for our efforts of late?  Where are we going?  What is our plan for the coming year?  These questions have added weight for the Columbia Land Conservancy as we are wrapping up a year-long celebration of our 30th Anniversary and thinking, not just about the next twelve months, but about the 30 years that lie ahead.

2016 In Review

We closed on three new conservation easements – two farms and a heavily forested property, bringing to 187 the number of privately owned properties in the county that we have permanently protected – 26,147 acres in all.  In addition, working with our partners at the Scenic Hudson Land Trust we obtained commitments for almost $10 million to purchase the development rights on a dozen of the county’s most active and productive family farms. With the funding commitments in place, we will be very busy for many months working to complete these twelve transactions. They will add another 2,300 acres of the county’s best farmland to our inventory of protected lands.

We continue to pursue our commitment to facilitate affordable access to farmland. We have incorporated an innovative provision in several recent farmland protection projects that ensures the farm, once protected, will be used for agricultural purposes and when sold, will be sold at agricultural value. We also made several new matches in our farmer and landowner match program. Since starting that program we have made more than 60 such connections. Through this work we have kept more than 2,000 acres of land in productive agricultural use or, as in many cases, restored the land to its former use; we have also contributed to the creation or expansion of a large number of business enterprises.

Our nine Public Conservation Areas provide many miles of trails through 2,400 acres of fields, forests, hills and dales that represent the magnificent variety of landscapes and ecosystems to be found in Columbia County. Thousands of people visited these properties to hike, jog, snow shoe, bird watch, fish, walk their dogs and generally find peace and renewal in the natural world. For the fourth year in a row, we provided outdoor summer employment to local high school students working as “Greenagers.”  A team of students from Taconic Hills built an impressive stone stairway and otherwise improved the trail system at High Falls, in Philmont. And a team from Taconic Hills built a new ridgeline trail at our recently expanded Round Ball Mountain Conservation Area in Ancram. We instituted a new management regime at the Ooms Conservation Area to prioritize its value as much-needed habitat for grassland bird species. And working with a terrific group of volunteers, we initiated a multi-year study of the dazzling array of grassland and other bird and native pollinator species found at that site.

Our Community Engagement Program works to encourage communities to incorporate conservation strategies into their land use decision-making, provide increased public open space and recreational opportunities and improve planning practices.  Over 100 Planning Board, Town Board and Conservation Advisory Council members attended two workshops over the course of the year focusing on map reading and planning and zoning issues surrounding photovoltaic energy production facilities. Our Trails Task Force met throughout the year to brainstorm and advocate for the creation of a network of trails that will connect with trails in the Capitol District and the greater Hudson Valley. And we continued to convene members of the county’s Conservation Advisory Councils to share their experiences and examine issues and challenges of common concern.

Throughout the year we maintained a regular schedule of public programming to provide meaningful experiences for families and people of all ages in the outdoors. We conducted or co-sponsored two dozen programs on topics such as woodland pools, bird watching, bat and insect habitats, native landscaping, medicinal herbs, trail building and invasive species. We offered numerous opportunities for guided hikes, bird walks, kayak paddles, snow shoe hikes and volunteer work days in the outdoors. And we collaborated with local schools and organizations to provide special outdoor experiences for county teens and pre-teens.

What Lies Ahead?

Throughout the past year we undertook an intensive review and assessment of the conservation assets and vulnerabilities in Columbia County and of the strategies we have been pursuing and might chose to pursue to address them. We are well on the way to formulating a focused and strategic plan to increase the pace and the effectiveness of our work. In the coming years we are determined to identify, prioritize and actively seek to protect land with the highest conservation importance. This would include, to take just one example, land within a fragile and irreplaceable wildlife corridor bisecting the county that connects the Catskills and Appalachians with the forests of New England. We will continue to explore and experiment with new techniques to promote affordable access to farmland, a primary challenge to the long-term viability of agriculture as a central facet of our economy and community life. We will ensure that our conservation tools and strategies take into account the urgent need to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We will continue to support municipal and community leaders in every way we can to strengthen local conservation initiatives and land use planning.  And we will greatly expand our work to instill a knowledge and love of the natural world by engaging school groups, community organizations, and people of all ages with the county’s extraordinary outdoors.

We are looking forward with enthusiasm to the year ahead. We have a tremendous number of worthwhile projects in the pipeline. We anticipate a major expansion of our Public Conservation Area holdings. We will be working in coordination with the County’s Environmental Management Council to conduct a county-wide natural resource inventory. And we are very excited that, in partnership with the County and the City of Hudson we will be moving forward to finalize a plan for a North Bay Conservation and Recreation Area at the site of the closed landfill on Hudson’s waterfront.

Columbia County is a fabulous place. 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 we inhabit. That, in short, is what we are trying to do.  If you’d like to help, check out the volunteer opportunities listed on our website and be in touch. We need all the assistance we can get. And 2017 will be a real good year for all of us to focus on working together at the local level, as a diverse community, getting to know and understand each other better and doing what we can to address the enormous challenges that face our nation and the world.

Happy New Year.

  • Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy, a community-based land trust dedicated to land conservation in Columbia County.  He may be reached at peterpaden@clctrust.org.  His column appears on the first Wednesday of every month.

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