Land Matters: Taking Stock of Our County’s Natural Resources

February 28, 2017Rebecca

Taking Stock of What We Have

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: Columbia County is exceptionally rich in natural resources.  And those natural resources are a very large reason why it’s such an exceptionally wonderful place to live and work. As discussed in last month’s column, a broad commitment to conservation of the expansive forests, healthy water bodies, productive farmland and highly scenic working landscape that surrounds us would be an important part of any smart economic development strategy.  But to ensure that growth and change don’t take place in a manner that destroys the qualities that make the county such a special place, it would be important for the community to have a broad common understanding just what those qualities are.

 

A project is getting underway that will help Columbia County communities exercise forethought and care in conserving the natural resources we so value.  A partnership of organizations is creating a county-wide Natural Resource Inventory.

What Is a Natural Resource Inventory?

An inventory?  Sounds pretty prosaic. “Inventory” conjures up visions of working after closing time to tally up the store merchandise.  The natural resource inventory will be a matter of taking stock, but in this case, the inventory will be of our streams, forests, wetlands, and wildlife.  It’s not so much a matter of counting as it is compiling the rich and varied sources of data about our natural resources into one place. This inventory will present, describe and interpret data about the county’s resources for practical use.

The inventory will be unique to Columbia County. It will describe wildlife – plants and animals and their habitats. Wildlife watchers may wonder whether cougars will appear in the inventory, or are they not established enough to receive mention?  Water resources will be described – both above and below-ground, as will the earth under our feet – bedrock and the material on top, known as “surficial geology,” and the rich variety of soils. Forests and features like hills and cliffs will also be described.  And if terms like “surficial geology” do not exactly roll off your tongue, you will be able to flip to the glossary.

The inventory will also describe what we know about and can expect from the changing climate.  This document will bring together the evidence of changes in our seasons, temperatures, and rainfall. It also will present the best projections of changes that are reasonably anticipated in the future.  Such information will be of vital importance to our communities as we plan to adapt to the reality of a warming climate so that we can continue to enjoy our great quality of life – and head off potentially serious adverse consequences.

This project will also attempt to inventory something more subtle.  As is always the case, the history of human settlement in Columbia County has been shaped by natural features.  The report will note sites where nature has given rise to institutions, events and buildings of cultural importance.  In our northeast corner, New Lebanon’s warm spring and rich swamp, each distinct natural features, have played a role in its history. The Agawamuck Creek and the highest waterfall in the county, High Falls, gave rise to Factory Hill in Philmont.  What other  natural features have been vitally important to humans here in Columbia County?

Who Is Doing It?

The project is a collaboration between the County Environmental Management Council (EMC), the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC), and Hudsonia, Ltd., with the assistance of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia & Greene Counties (CCE) and the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program.  Hudsonia, a non-profit environmental research group based in Annandale, New York, is developing the inventory, gathering the data, interpreting it and creating the maps and narrative to create a reader-friendly document. CLC is coordinating an advisory group guiding the project, comprised of representatives of the EMC, CCE staff, and volunteers. The Hudson River Estuary Program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is providing technical assistance.  Its guide, Creating a Natural Resources Inventory, provided inspiration for the effort. The project is funded in part by a grant from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund through the Estuary Program.

What Form Will It Take?

The natural resource inventory will be in the form of a report – a lot of information gathered together in one place. It will include colorful maps for reference and context, tables, charts and illustrations.  The goal is to create an informative, user-friendly resource for landowners, local planning boards, and decision-makers.  An online version of the report will provide a gateway to more information through links to source material and further resources.

How will it be used?

The inventory should be of great use to local municipal leaders and community members. We are a home rule state, and that means there are many opportunities for local leadership. Our town boards create local laws and policies governing land use and environmental protection.  Municipalities operate public water systems serving housing and commercial development.  They maintain roads and culverts, and decide what kind of developments can go in what areas of the town.  Appointed local volunteers who serve on planning boards, zoning boards, and other committees, advised by engineers and attorneys hired by the municipalities, carry out those laws and policies by reviewing development proposals, applying the local laws and standards and, often, exercising a good deal of discretion.

In doing this work, a comprehensive compendium of significant natural resources and assets should be invaluable to local officials and community leaders.  Many natural resources are protected only at the local level, if at all. Wetlands smaller than 12.4 acres, the threshold set in NYS law, may provide critical “green infrastructure” providing flood control and water regulation locally.  The same is true for intermittent woodland pools – those wetlands we barely notice, but without which the frogs and salamanders that inhabit our woods would disappear.  Forested tracts, particularly those large enough to harbor forest interior birds and other wildlife, are under pressure. The inventory will help us to recognize which of our forests are sufficiently intact for species that need deep woods. On the flip side, understanding local wildlife helps us live in safety in a landscape that is also home to coyotes and bears, and ticks that spread Lyme disease.

This inventory will also help make the global, local.  It will discuss climate change in local terms, and point to issues and areas where our communities can adapt and minimize the disruptions that can be expected.  It will be a great resource as our local leaders decide on the present steps that will be strategic in the face of change and uncertainty.

Everyone in the county will have an opportunity to help enliven the document – making it inspiring as well as informative by sending in photographs of conservation landscapes, habitats, plants and animals. We will need top-notch nature shots: Columbia County streams, waterfalls, hills, fields, meadows, forests, wild plants, and animals of all kinds, especially those that are unusual to catch on camera.

We’re excited to be working on this terrific project and look forward to sharing the progress and the results when it is completed.  Information about the inventory will be available through the EMC’s webpage on the County’s website.

 

 

 

 

  • 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 peter.paden@clctrust.org.  His column appears on the first Wednesday of every month.  Thanks to Christine Vanderlan, CLC’s Community Projects Manager, for assistance in preparing this column.

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