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A Holistic Approach to Open Space

By Guest Observer January 2, 2014

By Paul Bray

Lake at Sunset  Credit: Rensselear Plateau Alliance

Lake at Sunset
Credit: Rensselear Plateau Alliance

When David Sampson was director of the Hudson River Greenway, he would say that Troy in Rensselaer County is Albany’s Georgetown (referring to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.). As much as I like Troy, I thought it was a bit of stretch. Yet each time I go to Troy from my home in Albany, I increasingly see what Sampson was talking about, as Troy has character, some top quality urban housing and neighborhoods, and walkability.

Now I see something else very special in Rensselaer County: the Rensselaer Plateau. This eastern portion of Rensselaer County is our region’s Adirondack Park.

The plateau has 105,000 acres and is approximately 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. It is 25 percent of the county’s land area and is the fifth largest forest in our state. It is a scenic and recreational area for the whole Capital Region, with opportunities for hiking, bird-watching, boating, swimming, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, fishing and hunting on public land on the plateau and where private landowners allow it. The plateau is significant in at least two ways — its natural and heritage resources, and its locally initiated comprehensive regional approach to conservation.

Its rich natural resources include contiguous northern forest unbroken by roads and homes, the headwaters of seven watersheds, interesting geologic formations and extensive wildlife. The Audubon Society has designated the plateau as an important bird area because it supports forest breeders including at-risk species like the wood thrush, northern goshawk and Canada warbler.

Its heritage features include the remnants of abandoned farms and mills. Many stone walls that separated fields remain, along with some high bush blueberries that were once a cash crop.

The plateau includes all or part of 10 rural towns and has many small land owners. It is not easy to have partnerships in this mix that can set mutual priorities, share resources and collaborate effectively. Zoning to manage land uses is rare and generally viewed as a threat by small landowners.

In the 1980s, I received a call from an official of one of the towns in the plateau, asking for help. Someone from Westchester County wanted to develop a trailer park in the caller’s town. I asked if the town had zoning or subdivision regulations. The answer was “no.” I was asked if I could I still help. I pointed to some state laws and regulation relating to land use, and it turned out to be enough to hold off the trailer park.

I was able to help another plateau town without zoning in the next year, but I told the official I would not do this again if his town and neighboring towns were not willing to do comprehensive planning and adopt zoning and planning laws.

In light of my experience with the plateau towns, I was impressed when I learned that a grassroots organization, the nonprofit Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, had organized and successfully engaged public and private stakeholders in a comprehensive approach to foster conservation across property lines and political jurisdictions. So far, the alliance, with support from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has gotten the plateau designated as a Forest Legacy Area by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Legacy Program helps protect participating forest lands from conversion to non-forest uses.

The plateau is one of 165 conservation initiatives in the Northeast, from West Virginia to Maine, applying “a whole systems, large landscape approach” as part of a project by the Regional Plan Association. We are seeing a change in focus from state parks that are gated and publicly owned to protected and managed landscapes that are “vital for managing watersheds and habitats and addressing long-term issues like climate change” as well as meeting recreational needs. What’s happening on the plateau is a good example of the new holistic, participatory approach to open space.

First published in the Times Union (Albany New York) December 8, 2013

 

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The Italian-New York Connections on Parks and Protected Areas

By Guest Observer October 30, 2013

By Paul Bray

For 6 months in 1996-97 I had the opportunity of living at the American Academy in Rome as a recipient of a Rome Prize.

As an advocate of parks, protected areas and historic preservation in New York State and beyond, my interest has been less with the traditional public estate parks (local, state and national) and more with area wide parks, greenways, landscapes and heritage areas like the six million acre Adirondack Park, the 3 million acre Hudson River Greenway and state and national heritage areas.

I expected to find historic landscapes in Italy that were being managed as parks, but thanks to the emerging effect of the European Union (“EU”) I found more park interest and activity than I expected. The EU set a standard for each EU nation to have at least 10% of its land mass be managed as park or protected area. At the time this standard was established Italy had only 4 National Parks and 1% of its land mass protected. By 2000 Italy could claim it met the 10% standard and it had more than 20 national parks complemented by regional parks like Alpi Apuana, a mountain top region of northern Tuscany with the marble mines that provided the marble used by Michelangelo.

My interaction with Italian park and conservationists was interesting and enriching. As an American, I was welcomed as a national of a nation with the global Mecca of parks, Yellowstone National Park.

Yet, as I got to know the Italians and told them about the Adirondack Park and our heritage areas, we had a new and unexpected common ground. I was not the “know it all American” but someone who admired and wanted to learn about Italian parks like the Italian Abruzzo National Park, the Po Delta Park and the Pisa Regional Parks.

Abruzzo landscape. Photo: Wikimedia commons user Wento

Abruzzo landscape. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia commons user Wento

The Abruzzo Park about 2 hours from Rome and Naples in the Apennines was a small 100,000 acre model of the Adirondack Park, but it was also awesome in its beautiful surround of 6,000 foot mountains, its medieval villages strung along its basin and its remarkable wild life including a sustainable population of 50 wolves. The wild life was nurtured at the same time eco-development was fostered in the Park’s villages through, for example, visitor centers in each village and stores selling products of the park. This was happening as mountain villages in other parts of Italy were dying.

To make a long story short, ties were established between parks and protected areas in New York State and Italy. A conference with Italians from all parts of Italy was held in Rome at the American Academy and a couple of the Italians suggested “twinning” Italian and American parks like sister cities. A description of some of the twinning activity can be found at the following: http://www.braypapers.com/IAPT.html

As a result of the Great Recession in 2008 and some changes in leadership in some of the parks, the formal exchanges have declined. Now the only formal, ongoing twinning is between the Central Pine Barrens on Long Island and the Pisa Regional Parks. Thanks to the assistance from the Brookhaven Lab and the links for ongoing, real time through camcorders biodiversity projects that were established between schools on Long Island and Pisa, the Pisa-LI twinning continues. Informally, contacts continue between people that where involved in the other formal twinnings. Contacts between planners and academics in Italy and the USA led to the recent publication of Parks and Territories: New Perspectives and Strategies edited by Francesco Morandi, Federico Niccolini and Massimo Sargolini. Retired Professor Roberto Gambino is coordinating another book of articles on park and landscape planning.

The Italian-NYS park twinning fits very well with the observation of Canadian’s J.Gordon Nelson and Lucy M. Sportza in their article ‘The Evolving Shift in Protected Area Thought and Practice”:

We are living in a shifting and evolving framework for protected areas, nature conservation and sustainable development. This situation is marked by the involvement of many government agencies and private groups not only in the lands and waters in and around protected areas, but those that are far away. In these circumstances concerned agencies and private groups cannot easily regulate or direct on another’s activities. Civic arrangements need to be encouraged so that the array of stakeholders concerned about protected areas, nature conservation and sustainable development can learn mutually for one another and find ways to communicate, negotiate, plan and act in the individual and the common interest. In this respect pluralism needs to be explicitly recognized and to be dealt with in a collaborative rather than a predominantly or exclusively corporate manner. The human dimension of protected area planning, management and decision making requires as much attention as science at the local, provincial or state, national and international scales of thought and practice.

The human dimension of the park twinning which included park officials, managers, advocates and various stakeholders allowed many to “learn mutually from one another and find ways to communicate, negotiate, plan and act in the individual and common interest”. Mutual learning complemented by ongoing communication continues.

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N.Y. the Vanguard of Conservation

By Paul Bray October 21, 2012

Hudson River Greenway

Conservation of nature and heritage is important to having both good places to live and to leaving a better legacy for future generations. New York has done well in conservation, better than most people realize.

Bob Bendick, a former deputy commissioner with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and now director of U. S. Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy, recently wrote an article titled “Creative Conservation: Reflections on the Way to the Future.” It can be found on the Lincoln Institute website . It reinforced my belief that we have been in the vanguard of conservation for a long time.

Bendick advocates moving beyond the “100-year-old debate between conservationist John Muir and forest manager Gifford Pinchot.” This debate was about choosing between protecting nature for its intrinsic value, as we do in national and state parks, or being utilitarian and practicing sustained harvesting of forests, as we do other places.

It was simpler when conservation solutions could focus on specific places like creating a particular park. Today the health of land, air and water is at stake and impacts of threats like global warming mean every place needs some form of management.

Conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy are working at the landscape scale. A little more than a decade ago, The Nature Conservancy would concentrate on small areas of habitat to protect endangered species like the Karner blue butterfly in Albany’s Pine Bush. It has changed its focus to whole landscapes or what it now calls “whole systems.” Disconnected pieces of natural systems often do not survive. Nor does nature thrive just by being in traditional gated parks separated from their ecosystem.

This more holistic approach is spreading according by people like Bendick into “a nationwide movement of landowners, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups working together to protect the places they value, such as the Blackfoot Valley in Montana, the Flint Hills of Kansas, and the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys in the East.”

Bendick’s strategies for creative conservation are not new in New York. We have examples of working at landscape scale for more than a century starting with the creation of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve in 1885, the vast Adirondack Park in 1892 and the Catskill Park in 1904. Our natural landscapes were celebrated in the 19th century by the Hudson River School of Artists.

Now we have the Hudson River Greenway, the Hudson River National Heritage Area and the Hudson River Estuary program all working at landscape scale to protect the environment and serve human needs in the Hudson Valley.

The state’s innovative state heritage area program was established to achieve management goals for the amalgam of natural and cultural resources both cities as well as regions like the Concord grape region in western New York.

Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said in a speech at a National Park Service conference in 1991 that the Adirondack Park is “home to thousands of residents and welcomes millions of visitors a year, but at the same time retains much of the majesty the Iroquois knew a century ago.” He declared “the greenway, I hope, will become New York’s emerald necklace — a place where the resources of one community become the resources of a broader community, where the value of the whole transcends the sum of the parts.”

Inspired by this legacy of working at an ecosystem scale, Rep. Paul Tonko has introduced legislation in Congress to establish a five-state Hudson-Mohawk Basin Commission encompassing the Mohawk River and Hudson River valleys and the New York Harbor.

Creative conservation is not new to us. We should be proud of our conservation achievements and take more advantage of our having had the foresight to protect and celebrate the large landscapes and heritage areas that are increasingly being valued.

Paul M. Bray was the founder of the Albany Roundtable – Read more and see this article in the Albany Times Union

 

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Signs of the Landscape Times

By Eleanor Mahoney August 27, 2012

Hudson River view from Poughkeepsie

A few weeks ago, I drove from New York City to Montreal, Canada. Over the course of four days, I explored the Hudson River Valley, eastern Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region, all among the Northeast’s most iconic large landscapes. During the trip, I encountered a fair amount of signage, identifying or marking the landscape in different ways. What follows are some general thoughts on what I found – I am also interested in learning what others think, have done or have learned about using signage to create awareness of place.

Highway signs:What does it mean to pass a sign, while going 70 miles per hour that reads, “Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc? For most visitors, I would hazard to say little to nothing if (important if) that is all there is! I only have anecdotal data to support this claim, but multiple friends and relatives have told me they passed heritage area road signs for years (in the case of my own father for over 10 years) and never knew what to make of them until I began working for the program and explained its significance. One recommendation I would offer is that these signs link-up to an actual place a visitor can exit and get information, even if it is an unmanned kiosk at a rest stop. So, instead of just “Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc,” the sign should read Entering [insert name here] landscape/heritage area/trail/ etc – Stop at Exit 1 for information.” Obviously, it is impossible to go back and change all the existing signs, but, in the future, it might be worthwhile to consider this approach.

Hyde Park, Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site

The Importance of Hubs:One of the stops on my drive was Hyde Park, the Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site. This is one of the most highly touristed sites in the Hudson River Valley and draws regional, national and international visitors. As such, it can (and hopefully does) serve as a springboard for visitation to other interesting, but lesser known, locations. A great use of a sign I saw at Hyde Park was a map that showed the boundaries of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and identified multiple points of interest. Many visitors stopped and looked at the map (always draw people in) and discussed possible visits. In considering how best to create informational signage like this for large landscapes, prioritizing quality signage at a highly visited hub like Hyde Park seems important because many of those stopping may only be familiar with 1 or 2 such sites. Another idea might be to identify sites by driving distance. While it seems less interesting than thematic grouping, it might make more sense for trip planning purposes.

Tourist vs. Resident – One of my favorite stops was a state park near the highway in New York where we stopped to stretch our legs. The park had free parking nearby and most of the visitors appeared to be local residents out for an evening stroll. There was a large amount of conspicuous signage, but no one seemed to be reading it. The signage discussed both natural and cultural history. I wondered, when a park serves residents of a large landscape, rather than tourists – what kind of information is best? Do residents read signs? Are they (it seems obvious) in a different mindset than a tourist who has set out to visit a specific place to learn its story. What are the best ways to generate a dialogue/ interpret a landscape for those who live there, such that they can offer their expertise on the place and possibly learn something new as well in a setting as informal as a riverside walking trail?

Do organizations keep track of their signs effective or conduct cost/benefit analysis?

Have you seen great landscape-scale signage?

Please, share your ideas/thoughts!

 

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