Land Matters: It’s Important to Know What You’ve Got

October 4, 2016Rebecca


“You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”

Like so many pieces of folk wisdom this one powerfully captures a simple truth about human life: In times of plenty it is easy to neglect the sources of our prosperity or our happiness, and only after they have been damaged or lost do we appreciate that they required care and nurturing to be sustained – care and nurturing that in the pressures of daily life we failed to provide.

This basic truth applies losses of all kinds – the loss of a job, of a friend, of a valued community. It applies as well to the loss of a quality of life or a beloved landscape.

I believe that most people who live in Columbia County love it here and that whether consciously or unconsciously the exceptional features of the land are an important part of what they love. The vast expanse of healthy forests, the vibrant and diverse farming sector, the wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes, the abundant wildlife, the clear night sky and clean water and clean air, the quiet country roads – all these things and more are essential ingredients of that elusive but universally valued “rural character” that every single municipality in the County has identified as a priority in planning for the future.

So if most of us agree that the preservation of these qualities is a priority, does it not make sense to take an inventory, to make sure we actually know what we’ve got here. Such information would seem to be essential if we are going to make intelligent decisions about how to ensure the rural character of our communities will endure, even as we work to strengthen the local economy and otherwise improve the quality of life.

Creating A County-Wide Natural Resource Inventory

As reported in the September 30, 2016 edition of the Register-Star, the Columbia Land Conservancy has just been awarded a grant from New York State’s Hudson River Estuary Program to create a county-wide natural resource inventory. CLC applied for the grant in collaboration with the County’s Environmental Management Council (EMC), Cornell Cooperative Extension, Hudsonia, Inc. and the Farmscape Ecology Program of the Hawthorne Valley Association.  Working together, these organizations will gather and summarize existing data about the physical, biological and cultural aspects of Columbia County’s landscape.  The analysis will consider enduring topographic and geological features (hills, valleys, bedrock), water resources, habitats and wildlife, as well as scenic, agricultural, historic and recreational resources. It will identify natural areas important to ensuring biological health in the face of a warming climate. In addition to the text, the product will include a series of maps and photographs of Columbia County landscapes, habitats, plants and animals.

We are particularly fortunate in Columbia County to have a wealth of accessible information that can be drawn together in this endeavor. In addition to government and other official maps and records relating to geographic features, soil quality, water resources and the like, organizations such as the Co-op Extension and the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board have collected much relevant data over the years.  In addition, both Hudsonia and the Farmscape Ecology Program have done an extensive amount of original field research and data gathering. We are also fortunate to have active bird clubs, resident naturalists and others who are close to the land and nature.

What Good Will It Do?

Having all of this information pulled together in a single document will be tremendously helpful to us all in understanding and conserving the special natural features and resources of the county. The overall goal is that local land use decisions will be made with better knowledge and understanding of our natural communities, so that decisions in furtherance of economic growth can be integrated with the need for resource protection in mind.

We have high hopes for this initiative. This work should help county and municipal leaders, officials and volunteers to better understand the extraordinary array of rich natural resources in the county, their importance to ecological and human health, the steps necessary to ensure their continued vitality, and to establish conservation priorities. It will significantly assist in evaluating the potential impacts of proposed development projects and in creating or amending land use regulations. Imagine how useful such an inventory would be if it were available now, as municipalities and landowners grapple with the complex issues presented by the wave of interest from the solar industry in the county’s open land. And who knows, maybe the county-wide overview of natural resources will provide local municipal leaders with a better sense of the inter-relatedness of their own natural assets with those of their neighbors and encourage improved cooperation across municipal boundaries.

We are looking forward to working on this important initiative with our partners at the EMC, Co-op Extension, Hudsonia and the Farmscape Ecology Program, and to sharing the product with the Board of Supervisors, the County Economic Development Corporation, and the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board. There is a growing consensus that the best path forward to a stronger economy and better employment opportunities is a strategy that recognizes and builds upon the extraordinary natural features and assets of Columbia County and takes care that they are nurtured and conserved.


We cannot do this alone, so please stay tuned. You will be able to follow the progress of the project on the websites of both the EMC and CLC. We will be inviting you to share photographs to illustrate and enhance the inventory. Members of the EMC will keep Town Boards apprised and will invite local boards to review and help shape the initial draft. When it is completed, the legislative bodies and planning boards of every municipality will receive a printed copy of the NRI and an electronic version will be available online with links to a wealth of additional information.  We hope as well to put the maps online in an interactive format.


The last thing any of us want is to find ourselves in the position of many formerly rural communities in America today, with a dry well, missing our water.




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  His column appears on the first Thursday of every month.


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