Vital, unique, and fragile land: Mark King of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy



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Good morning. 

Good morning. 

This is Melissa Hale-Spencer the editor of The Altamont Enterprise talking this morning to Mark King who is the director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and we're here on a morning where there's actually snow this winter. And I know from an earlier conversation that Mark is a skier. Have you been out in the snow?

 I have I was outside today. 

What were you doing in cross-country skiing. Tell me all about that. Why did you like to cross-country ski?

It's a great way to get out in the woods. It's great exercise. It's fun. I just love doing it. It's very meditative activity. 

And he does this despite the fact that one winter while doing this cross-country skiing in Thacher park. He broke his leg and didn't even know for a week. He was walking around on a broken leg. So he's a rugged man. 

I don't know. You're stretching it there but really. 

Sort of a core to your mission it seems to me is the relationship between human beings and nature. If you could just tell us a little about your thoughts on that. 

Well I think there is definitely a core piece of what we do. You know we were formed to protect land protect open space and that's primarily what we do. But the question behind it is why do you do that. And it is a multiple pronged thing. One reason is to allow people to connect with nature and but also obviously the environment and nature has an intrinsic value to all of us and all the species and systems out there. So but we do want to offer people opportunities to connect with nature. And for that reason we have 18 different public preserves including 

one right around the corner from here and the bows and kill to give people that opportunity. But along with giving people opportunities we're also preserving natural areas for the animals and birds and everything else that needs those places if they are to survive. 

Well I've looked on your web site and I saw that you have outlined four particular areas that are of importance and I wonder if you could talk a little about each of them. The one that probably our readers are most familiar with is the pine brush as you hear that you think kind of blue butterfly but I know there are many other species and many other reasons. 

So if you could just kind of walk through maybe starting with the most familiar the pine blush. Tell us a little about what's being preserved there and why and then we'll just walk onto the next one. 

OK well the paint brush is really interesting to me personally I think should be other people as well because it's a totally different environment. You know if you're in on the out in the woods it's one thing if you're in the Pine Bush it's a completely different environment different soils different vegetation somewhat different plant species including of course the Kerner blue. So it's really unique it's been recognized as a national natural landmark. Very few of those in the whole country that Nature Conservancy recognized it as one of the last great places and has always highlighted the rare things and rare ecology of 

that area. So we are looking to preserve land there and are helping out the Nature Conservancy is doing a little less land protection in that area. So we are trying to step in where we can. We don't have the resources that they have to do some of the bigger deals but we've protected about four or five different parcels just in the last year in the Pine Ridge to build on this area. One of the things I think that's really interesting about the Pine Bush that I think a lot of people don't realize there's this great juxtaposition of the whole nanotechnology the college of nano technology being right there in the Pine Bush and so there's all this very advanced 

stuff right next door in the Pine Bush. There's really advanced science and ecological work going on and there's a egalite and ecological restoration project that is just a tremendous scale and really unusual level of detail and depth that you don't see in many places we don't see too many areas where that level of focused restoration goes on. So I think it's interesting that we were so consumed by the nanotechnology and the sort of high tech thing and the Pine Bush is doing this very basic science in ecology right next door 

and the two are literally face to face. I think that's a very interesting aspect to the Pine Bush. 

Yeah a couple of threads of our pathways have come up in my mind as you've been talking is this restoration where they're taking what is the landfill and trying to remake it. 

Well you know that is one piece of it. And that's an interesting one in itself. And ultimately when they are done with that and when the landfill closes assuming it will cause one of these days I have had the opportunity to stand on top of the Mount trash more as they sometimes call it. And the view from there it's just spectacular. But there is a whole segment of restoration going on around the landfill. But I am really referring to the entire ecosystem with the burning with vegetative management. If you drive down the thruway you know you drive right to the middle of the Pine Bush you can see on either side there's a 

tremendous amount of restoration that has gone on there to maintain this area as the unique system that it is. So it goes beyond the landfill the landfill is a piece of it. 

OK well one of the other threads that occurred to me is you were talking when I was a kid growing up in guild we used to play there and in general I do yeah. 

At the time in the grown ups mind to me it seemed to be this was wasteland. This was nothing nothing you are worth preserving. So maybe you could just kind of talk about the evolution of the community or human beings recognition of what you now describe is a unique ecosystem that's worth preserving. 

I mean it's Yeah I think that's a that's a really interesting aspect to this is how we can change our approach in our thinking about systems and you're exactly right. For years it was a wasteland. 

You know it wasn't good farmland necessarily so it was kind of overlooked from that perspective didn't have great timber and so for years and years the thing that was good about it it was easy to develop and there was water. And those were the two features of it. But gradually people are able to see a little deeper and learn more about it and have recognized that this is really different. It's really unique. This is an inland Pine Barrens. It's very similar to the environment on Cape Cod or the New Jersey Pine Barrens but it is isolated. And as a result slightly different from those places. But I think there's something 

really hopeful in the fact that people can do a complete 180 and thinking and and really come to the aid of a place that they recognize wow this isn't a wasteland. It's actually really interesting things here. There's really interesting science and we can do a lot to restore it and we can enjoy it. It gets more and more use the Discovery Center has really brought a lot of exposure to the Pine Bush and there's great work being done. So it's I see it as a really hopeful place where there's some possibility that we can turn around our thinking and protect things that are really really important. 

Yeah I mean the wilderness is no longer a threat to humans that will see something it has to be preserved if we're going to have natural balance. Another thread that you mentioned when you were first describing this was the nature conservancy had originally you said been primary in helping to preserve this. And I know you have a background with the Nature Conservancy and if you could just tell us a little bit about that organization and its mission and the source or work that it does. 

Well they are the largest conservation organization in the world work in every state and multiple countries. I worked there for 17 years in the eastern New York chapter working basically from the Adirondack blue line south to the edge of New York City. And they do tremendous work. They are really the leaders in ecological science and have been obviously a huge part of land protection and have done tremendous work throughout the organization was founded in this area. And I think that's that's an interesting piece of history that a lot of people are not very aware of so little about that that little piece of history. 

Well I'm not an expert on the history of it but you know it coalesced here with folks a lot of folks related to G-III and engineers who after World War Two were really dedicated to wilderness and the outside and saw a lot of change going on the post World War II boom lot of spreading development a lot of places being sort of overwhelmed. And so they folks got together and of course wasn't just G-III people a lot of concerned people a lot of science folks and they got together and said let's form a science based organization and organization whose decisions on what we should do 

on the land are driven by scientific understanding of the land. And so that has guided the organization to where it is today. But they are doing in this area they're doing less on the land protection front and more on some of the bigger scale issues like climate change and things that are sort of beyond the work of land trusts ability to do that require real solid science and significant resources to accomplish. But that work can guide the work of organizations like ours. 

So you mention the important topic of climate change and it's something I think particularly now with the new administration in Washington that people are very concerned about. And what does an organization like yours or you were talking about the Nature Conservancy with its more scientific approach than rather than just land acquisition. 

How does that affect or prevent climate change. 

Well I think the science side helps predict what changes will occur and what is going on on the land. And so that can guide decision makers on what we should do about it and where we should respond. So there's you know there's a tremendous need for more understanding of that but the urgency is it's growing by the moment and clearly with the current administration we're going to lose it's orderable ground because there's so much denial of what it seems increasingly obvious that that this is a gigantic problem. And I think we'll become more so. The irony of Scott Pruitt being 

made EPA director today was just amazing because Oklahoma has huge environmental problems resulting from oil and gas exploration and they're in a heatwave they almost hit 100 yesterday. These are changes that are just becoming more and more striking by the day. So you know coming back to what organizations do. One thing that we can definitely do that we know improves things and they're sort of to me there's no downside to is protect land. We know that forests and natural areas are carbon sinks and so we know that that's successful in 

somewhat reducing some of the impacts. It's not of a scale necessarily that's going to change the whole picture we need to do a lot of things and a lot of fronts. But it is one front that we know will work and that there's multiple side benefits to you know climate change isn't the only environmental issue out there. There are still are continuing to be endangered species numerous species threatened endangered all the time and ecological systems continue to be compromised. And so by preserving land we can get directly at that and hopefully having an impact on climate change as well. 

So we are going to get back to these other areas. I'm just following these threads because they're so interesting. 

So in preserving land I know you use several different tools in your organization and if you could just tell us it's not just always buying the land to protect it. Right. What sorts of things do you do in order to protect life. 

Well there's two primary methods one you mentioned is acquiring it either through donation or purchase. And we do that frequently because that has the benefit of Oftentimes allowing people to get out on land and enjoy it as well as protecting it. The other common approach is through conservation easements which is essentially the retiring the development rights from property permanently eliminating development rights for the most part. And that that's a great mechanism as well for people who want to retain the ownership of their land wanted to retain remain private. And on the tax rolls it 

does not necessarily entail public use and the land can be passed on through generations or sold or whatever else. So it's a different approach but it has the same effect of permanently preserving landscape. So those are the primary methods. There are lots of little variations and things that come up of where for example we're going to open a new preserve this spring which actually has a conservation easement on it but the owner is so excited about the possibilities of the public seeing and exploring his land that he's going to open it as a preserve so we'll actually operate sort of under a management agreement where we will 

operate a preserve on private property. So there's there's that that's in Montgomery County right near Amsterdam. 

So it sounds like you're very flexible as an organization in working with people if they're right. 

We're really solution oriented really trying to find out what works because different things work in different situations. People have the assumption particularly people who are down on what we do that we're grabbing all the land that we're just taking everything away. But there's a lot of variation to how these things can be approached and and the goal is to come up with win win solutions for landowners and for the environment. 

So do you have a lot of people that are as you say down in what you do do you. 

I think there's always people that are concerned about any sort of change. We seem to hate change or resist change at every possibility. So no I don't I don't see that we see a lot of resistance to what we do. I think there have been periods where there have been some paranoia about what we'll do. But I think historically there's been some fears about what what we what we're doing and are we you know fitting in well with community. I think most of those. Fears have sort of been put behind us because we've seen a level of development in most places that I think most people are more interested in seeing some things preserved and protected than than the worry 

that we're going to sort of take over the world and the scale of what we do. Even even big groups like the Nature Conservancy does in comparison to the level of development particularly at a time like now it's just it's so out of balance. 

So when sort of sucks up it makes it even more essential to have an organization like yours because the development follows. There are certain things that municipalities do that are helpful when it comes to zoning or regulations. What comes to mind is there is a movement to have cluster development with space around it. Right. 

Are there things that you think that's that's an area that is one of the most important. In fact I think communities and zoning and planning can actually be more effective than the work we can do. You know we can preserve some spots and work in some places but zoning and planning can affect whole communities. 

And if those are done carefully with an eye toward maintaining corridors toward maintaining setbacks things like that that's hugely beneficial and has a huge impact. I would love to see much more stringent review of projects pushing projects further from water bodies. 

And I think the obvious place that really needs to be given more attention to that relates to climate change is setbacks from streams and wetlands. You know we are going to see changes we have seen changes in flows in streams and if we depend on outdated floodplain controls that's not going to work and we're going to have a problem. So we really need to look at planning and zoning with an eye toward the future of this. We're in a period where things are changing. Water levels are higher streams are flowing heavier and storms are more intense so that has to be incorporated. But I think it's hard for communities to sort of keep up and it's such 

a heavy lift for communities to deal with this because land use is immensely controversial and it obviously affects what people want to do. 

And so there's a lot of resistance so it isn't just coastal communities that have to worry about the rising ocean levels you're saying inland communities with streams and things because of the increased storm. Right. Levels. The 100 year storms that are now every 10 years they have to plan to have that right land around those areas not developed. 

Right. And we see that you know the Hudson and Mohawk are our coastal areas so to speak. And so those areas need to be planned for all the tributaries. And this follows with all of these things all these things tend to be tied together. An example that is related is invasive species and do what communities need to plan for that. And I think that people sort of think of invasive species as something that's over there in the corner doesn't really affect me. But we've seen it in communities like Altamont. Altamont was one slime lined by elm trees or the elms died off at that Chelm. Not that that's a climate change thing but it's it it's a species change. 

And so a lot of communities for example Woodstock when they started to die they replaced them with ashes. And now we've got the emerald ash boar and the emerald Asheboro is taking out the ashes. And you say well that's that's sad that's tragic but for the village of Woodstock there's a huge cost there because all of a sudden we've got to budget for replacing these trees that are all going to suddenly die. And so these things are all tied together and I think that's one thing that we want to help people recognize and realize that climate change species change land use. These are all related. 

Yes and I'm learning about these relationships right now just to move on to the next area that you designated. And that's the Hudson and Mohawk River Carter and you touched on a bit in this conversation already but just tell us about that and also the concept of Coridon and why that's so important. 

Sure. Well the Hudson a marker Obviously the two major water features in the region that we work in and we cover Albany Schenectady Montgomery County so they are both heavily influenced by the two rivers. And we would like to do more we have not done an awful lot of them on the Hudson. We would like to do more there but we're starting to work with scenic Hudson more and scenic Hudson has done outstanding work along the Hudson. And so you know this brings in the issue of partnership and the need for organizations to work together so an organization like scenic Hudson is very regional and very large can work with an organization like 

us on immediate problems and immediate issues that so we can we can essentially add to their resources by working with them. The Mohawk same thing with Mark doesn't have seen the cuts and working on it but we just created our For first preserve along the Mohawk and I think Mark is unfortunately a bit of a forgotten river and sort of overlooked but it's a beautiful place and a tremendous resource. So we'd like to do more primarily along the major tributaries of the Mohawk. We've got to preserve this Kocherry Creek there's there's a tremendous amount that we can do on them or to preserve and introduce 

people to that area. It's got great cultural history great ecology so there's a lot to be done there but we haven't we've barely scratched the surface on the work that we need to do there. 

I wonder what makes one river more prominent than another because you're right that Hudson seems to have a much higher profile in the public's mind. My daughter years ago was on the sloop Clearwater you know traversing up and down the Hudson and singing songs and it just seems to have more a higher public profile. 

I don't know this year or at well some of it is clearly that people who live along it. And so there's tremendous wealth on the lower Hudson obviously in New York City is on the Hudson. So yes it influences a lot more people a lot more see people see it on a daily basis. People are riding the train along. It's a whole level of magnitude of difference in terms of its kind of exposure to the public eye. And you do have groups like scenic Hudson and you mention the Clearwater. So there's been a whole history of environmental activism along the Hudson the Big Storm King 

proposal that power plant proposal that really kind of spurred the growth of scenic Hudson and other organizations like that. There's just been a lot more attention paid to it. The Mohawk is smaller less populated. Unfortunately we ran the Thruway on it and you know so it's really very boxed in by transportation systems. And I think once we do that to a river we tend to then write it off a little bit and say well it's you know it's over there. But it's it's almost more of a ditch and it's all drive by it once in a while where the Hudson is really in a sense better lay it out and you can there's more 

access to it and it's easier to utilize. And so people it's higher in people's mind. 

But is it a casino in Schenectady going to be good or bad for them. I mean it's opening up the waterfront to people. 

Yes I guess so that could be a good effect. That's that's outside of my area. I have no idea. 

Just moving on to the next area you doesn't need it this is one that I know nothing about Hofmann's fault. 

Hoffman's fault is an area that geologists know very well. It's a place in Schenectady where basically there is a fault the land has subsided on one side of the fault and risen on another and that is exposed in interesting geological geology that you normally wouldn't be able to see. And the place that is most where this is most obvious is a place called Wolf Hollow Road in Schenectady which is a public road that has been closed. And it's a very interesting place to us because the fault runs basically very close to the road and so on one side of the 

road you have one sort of geological system and the other side you have different geology. And as a result there's different plants and different aspects to the two sides so it's a really unique spot. 

It's also extremely scenic. And so that is a that's a place that we are very interested in protecting We have numerous conservation easements around it. 

But we'd also love to be able to work with Schenectady county to come up with a way to to allow public use on the road. The road has been closed off. There's a parallel road right next to it that is open and utilized. So this road has been closed and it's sort of a little bit forgotten. We would love to do something with the county to possibly open that to public use maybe through a lease or a management agreement which would mirror the way that we have operated parts of the Helberg Hudson rail trail where we've leased them from the county and operate them through a system of volunteers and oversight. So we'd love to try that 

same approach on Wolf Hollow Road. But there's a lot of decisions that need to be made before that's able to happen. 

So it sounds like you have constantly many many different plans in the works many different balls in the air. Oh yeah. What are the terms you've mentioned a couple of times in this last discussion is volunteers if you could just tell us a little about. Who volunteers are what they do for your organization and how somebody could become a here. 

Sure. Volunteers are really critical to us because we are a small organization. We have five people working professionally for us but volunteers are really the heart and soul of it we are begun by volunteers and we continue to have a very active volunteer board takes a lot of dedication and time to be on the board. But that is one place people can volunteer. But we also have lots of other volunteer activities as I mentioned before we have 18 preserves. Each has a volunteer preserve steward and some have volunteer preserve committees like the Bozon and kill. 

And we've talked before about Darwin rose and Kathie Lee Kathimerini Darwin and Kathie Lee the volunteer committee and the Bozon kill. That's very effective. 

And so there are work days on the various preserves where volunteers come out and do trail work or cleanup. We also have a large cadre of volunteers on the rail trail. We run what's called the rail ambassador program and people volunteer to walk sections of the trail and produce a weekly report on conditions along the rail trail which has been tremendously helpful to the municipalities and the county to figure out where problems are where issues are what people are thinking about the trail. So that's a that's a big spot for volunteers. We also need volunteers to stuff envelopes and do office work as well. We have a volunteer that 

keeps track of preserving visitation data because that's something we really want to know more about is how many people use the preserves and what do they what do they think preserve preserved so we have a volunteer that helps compile that information so there are lots of different places for volunteers. They run the gamut from folks that are retired to high school students and everything in between. 

That's great. And just because you mentioned the sign ups I will point out there's a kiosk at most these places where people can sign in and urge people to do that because I know you said earlier that it's so important to track this and you have thought that probably half the people visiting our site. 

Well I'm sure it's less than half and I think one reason is that people are concerned that you know we're going to send them something where they capture their name. We don't ask for any other information other than what is your name where you're from basically you know Altamont for Hayesville not not your address. And one of the other questions how many people and how many dogs did you see a number of dogs. Dog we like to keep track of the dogs. It's an interesting phenomena. You know dogs are what drive a lot of us to go outside and it's really easy to say I won't go out today it's kind of cold but the dog doesn't say that. 

So they make you get actually did a study that said that they had people in an old folks home and one group was supposed to walk everyday with a friend and one's group is supposed to walk every day with a dog from a shelter nearby and dog people every day. Yes. You have a dog. 

Oh yes. One of his most brought along with two dogs who are with an Australian Shepherd mix. And we have a new puppy called the Ranger which is kind of unusual breed. Never heard of it and it's chow. It's a cross between a chow and a Ki's hound. 

Oh wow. So. You're out with your dogs a lot. 

Yeah they're always dragonets harass. So are. 

The other four that were listed on your Web site is one that most of our readers are familiar with at least as a profile in the distance and that is the Halberg discouragement. But tell us tell us about that. 

Well the how the various government is really one of the areas that I think have driven our work as much as anywhere because it is such a prominent part of the local landscape and is so well known and well regarded. We have done a lot of work around that park. We are trying to build some corridors and the need for corridors goes back to climate change and habitat reduction from development. So the how the Burges are a really important spot have it been identified scientifically for hundreds of years for their importance from all kinds of 

perspectives geological historic cultural ecological. So it's an area that's naturally sort of a magnet for protecting land and it's an area that is really sort of vulnerable and easy to easy to Aroon frankly. But one of the things that really has driven us to focus on the how the burghs. In addition to all the factors I mentioned is the idea of creating corridors one of the areas that we have focused on. We initially focused on was after we did the conservation easement on Indian ladder farms which essentially retired the development rights on any of 

of farms. We fairly quickly recognized that we had created an island there. So you've got almost literally an island it's surrounded by wetlands if you look at that sort of big picture of it. 

And as we learned more and more about the area we realized this is really one of the outstanding ecological areas in this region and that is in part because you have the black Creek Marsh wildlife management area on one side of Indian ladder and fly Creek Marsh on the other side and then all of that is linked directly and Heider logically by it to the Helberg escarpment and so one of our first thoughts was well let's see if we can preserve land between Indian ladder and Thach a park because that Strach Picard road area is 

really outstanding ecologically. It's got a tremendous diversity of reptiles and Fabians. 

It's considered an important bird area. It's obviously extremely scenic. There's very interesting movement of water there. So that drew us to tip to work to protect areas there. And so we've protected about 200 or so acres between India and Datchet park and are working on some more in there to create that linkage. But as we looked at that and we looked at the available data and guidance from scientific folks we realized the whole escarpment really has huge value in terms of ecology and so we said can we can we look at a even bigger scale and 

that scale is of creating a protected corridor or sort of across the Helberg plateau toward the Catskills. And there are a lot of protected areas existing there. The Heike preserve Coal Hill there so there's a number of and of course that's a park. There's a number of sort of protected islands there. And so we're looking at what what can we bring together there and how can we create a large court or protected land that will have a big influence hopefully on climate change in terms of preserving land and leaving it natural but also creating a corridor or that species can move into and through as 

conditions change. And so we and part of that work is also the Bozon kill and the Bozon kill is a really interesting area that again has been highlighted by lots of different scientific work to show that these are the kind of areas that buffer from climate change to some degree because they have what are known as microclimates very small areas where it's slightly cooler or more protected and so. So we're looking to put together the core on the Bozon kill but also looking at the bigger picture and how much can we piece together the really big thinkers look toward. Could we ever connect the Catskills and the Adirondacks. It's hard to even imagine that scale 

of land protection at this point. But I think there's a good case to be made that that would be a worthwhile endeavor. And but for now we're piecing together what we can of a court or in the works. 

Well early in this description you said that it's easy to ruin the Helberg is that the Karst topography or what is it about it that makes it easy. 

Well yeah and it's a coarse way to put it. But I know I said that right. I think it is the car's topography. 

You know it's very susceptible to issues like Septic you know improperly working septic because you have many places with very thin soils and limestone fissures. So things can move very quickly through that environment. And it's also a highly visible area. 

And so and we've seen it in my lifetime I've seen it you know increasingly as you look from below us flatlanders look at the escarpments you have the towers and you know new lights go up all the time and so I think we will see a change there we've seen a change and we'll see that change continue as people are willing to build more and more challenging spots. And there's an interesting technology side to that too as we develop alternative ways to get power is going to open new opportunities for people to build on spots that previously were probably unbuildable. And so 

we want to we need that technology and we need those changes. But on the other hand we don't want to destroy places that really are inappropriate for development. So it gets back to local zoning issues again. Yeah. Yeah. And local zoning I just cannot stress how important that is to to really guide the community and to form the community's vision of what is important because I think that's sometimes overlooked is that you know communities develop a sense of what they are and what they want to be. Through these efforts. But it's as I said it's a it's a big job. 

Well thank you Mark King. We're coming up on our half hour you think concluding thoughts that you like to leave listeners with out. 

Well I hope people are interested in what we do and we'll explore it. 

I hope people will get out and visit the preserves and see how nice they are we find that once people visit a preserve they often want to come back or at least their dog does and they're all on the Web site and I can say from having been to myself one of the things that's so nice as opposed to say the Adirondacks now with the high peaks are sort of overrun. 

You can be in one of these pretty and hardly see another person right then suddenly they're very quiet and they're they're easy to get to you know you don't have to drive three hours to go there and you can go there you know and spend 20 30 minutes. And I think it's really beneficial to people to get out and take a walk. And if you're listening to this maybe you're thinking well when's the last time I went out in the woods and walked around and hopefully say why it's been too long and I'll get out there you can even do it in the winter. 

I absolutely encourage it. Well thank you so much. Thank you 

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