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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 24, 2009

Put tourism back on track in the Hilltowns

Illustration by Forest Byrd

If you read The Enterprise of a century ago or more, you will see that tourism flourished in the Hilltowns. City dwellers rode the stage, and later the train and automobile to get out to the country. Farmers took in boarders, villagers put up guests; boarding houses and inns thrived.

Human beings have an innate need to connect with nature. As the Industrial Revolution flourished and the middle class grew along with it, more and more people who lived apart from nature, in the cities, and later the suburbs, had the need and the means to visit rural areas.

In the late 1800s, Thorstein Veblen published his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which his theories on “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption” described recreational travel as a marker of class status.

Eventually, travel patterns changed as vacationing Americans gave up the train and the automobile, favoring the plane for more far-flung destinations. The jet set was born. Family resorts offering simple pleasures and farmhouse rooms gave way to packaged deals at elaborate theme parks, or condos on foreign shores.

But now, with rising environmental concerns and shrinking funds for recreation, the time may be ripe for a return to the old ways.

People can afford a day trip or a weekend get-away from the Capital Region’s cities and suburbs to the Helderberg Hilltowns; it takes less time to get there and leaves a smaller carbon footprint than journeying to a distant resort.

A Hilltown native who lives now in Mexico, Harold Miller has sparked interest with a recent letter to us, printed on these pages on Nov. 19, urging that towns and businesses work together to make the Hilltowns a tourist destination.

His letter was answered the following week by Daniel Driscoll, a long-time member of the Knox Planning Board who co-edited the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, published in 2002. The guide outlines the historic and cultural resources in the Helderbergs as well as the recreational resources. “The natural surroundings of the Helderbergs provide a setting for diverse recreational activities, from hiking to hawk watching, from hang gliding to spelunking, and especially for viewing the spectacular scenery,” the guide states. “Planning for the Helderberg Escarpment region should carefully consider the recreational assets of the region and their potential to improve our quality of life and the local economy.”

“Most recreational land uses are relatively low impact activities, and so are gentle on the environment,” Driscoll wrote to us. “By their very nature, they generally help preserve open space; and they provide opportunities for economic development.”

 Open space not only preserves rural character, but it keeps taxes down, as services aren’t required.

Miller, who launched an Internet site on Helderberg Hilltown history several years ago, believes that low-impact tourism, focused on farming, would preserve the historical nature of the Hilltowns and provide a welcome alternative to “becoming a series of look-alike bedroom communities with five-acre lots.”

His initiative — moved forward through tireless rounds of e-mails to an ever-growing network of interested people — has inspired a spring meeting at the Hyuck Preserve in Rensselaerville. We back the idea and hope it takes root. Our Hilltown reporter, Zach Simeone, this week takes an in-depth look at what kinds of tourism already exist in the Hilltowns and what might shape its future.

To succeed, the four Hilltowns — Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville — must work together, both to attract visitors and to define and limit tourism to what would be healthy for the Helderbergs.

“The communities in the region are interdependent — one on another — for the wise stewardship of this magnificent resource,” the Helderberg Planning Guide concludes. “What one community does can help or hinder adjacent communities in their efforts to assure that future generations will be able to enjoy the Helderbergs as much as we do.”

This will take much effort but could yield many rewards. If the towns don’t work in concert, the plan cannot succeed. Towns should work together to connect hiking trails, to list historic sites and natural resources that should be preserved, and to coordinate programs that would attract visitors to the area on a regular basis.

“Tourism is always a double-edged sword,” says Nan Stolzenburg, a local planner currently working with Berne as it updates its comprehensive land-use plan. She cites some successful examples of agri-tourism where visitors pick produce at local farms, adding to the economy without harming the environment. But she also cites problems like increased traffic that can affect residents’ quality of life.

Hal Rothman wrote in his monograph, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West, of the Faustian proposition tourism posed to residents early in the last century: In exchange for expanding their economy, they would have to give up community, environment, affordable housing, and authenticity.

We’re all well aware of popular tourist destinations, like Cape Cod, where natives have been priced out of their own homes and where tourism has changed the community’s original way of life.

The tourism envisioned by Miller and Driscoll would be on a small enough scale that it would enhance the economy without overtaking the Hilltowns’ way of life. The way to ensure this would be careful planning, eventually codified into law. For example, guest rooms to accommodate visitors in homes would be allowed; so would restoring old inns to their former use. But building large new motels that don’t blend in with natural or historic surroundings would be prohibited.

Just as the Industrial Revolution changed social patterns, including the rise of the middle class with its leisure and penchant for travel, so, too, will the modern revolution in electronic communication lead to changes. Anyone can, for example, learn of local history by reading our newspapers online at the Guilderland Public Library’s website. Glimpsing culture, including travel from a century ago, may be accomplished with the mere click of a mouse.

So, too, can Hal Miller, working in Mexico, reach people from across the country who have an abiding interest in their Helderberg Hilltown roots. And, similarly, he can reach out to excite and include people through e-mails. Publicity for tourism could be generated in this way, too.

The brave new world that has such features in it will still require enormous effort if it is to succeed. Towns that rarely work together will need dedicated leaders who can cooperate and coordinate. And their vision for the future must include a willingness to limit, through law, the scope of tourism if the Hilltowns are to maintain their rural charm.

We commend Miller for providing the spark; we urge Hilltown leaders and residents alike to keep the fire burning but to make sure it is controlled and steady. That will light the way to a bright future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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