Photos by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.
Scenic Hudson’s string of parks, located up and down the Hudson River, have become interwoven with the lives of many of us who live in the Hudson Valley: places we regularly go to hike, walk our dogs, launch a kayak or simply enjoy the splendid views of the river. Free to the public, easily accessible by car and, in a few cases, by train, they contribute immeasurably to our sense of place and quality of life.
Since its founding in 1963, the Poughkeepsie-based organization has preserved more than 30,000 acres of land. Since Ned Sullivan became president of the organization in 1999, Scenic Hudson has stepped up its land acquisition program and worked closely with communities to incorporate open space in new developments and plan for rising sea level caused by climate change.
Scenic Hudson has lobbied for a clean environment, played a pivotal role in the creation of the Walkway over the Hudson and Dia:Beacon. It has also been instrumental in saving local farmland – an initiative that has expanded its jurisdiction east into Dutchess and Columbia Counties and includes the preservation of 12,400 acres spanning 86 family farms. It has accomplished much of this work by forming coalitions with other organizations and by reaching out to the business community.
Sullivan, who was born in Yonkers, got involved in environmental work as a student at Williams College. He earned two graduate degrees at Yale, one in Environmental Science and the other in Business, and his first job was at a bank helping finance renewable energy projects (he simultaneously developed a financial strategy for cleaning up Boston Harbor). He was the deputy commissioner in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, overseeing the cleanup of hazardous waste, before becoming the environmental commissioner for Maine.
Under his leadership, Scenic Hudson has earned several awards, including the Land Trust Alliance’s National Land Trust Excellence Award. Sullivan himself was the recipient of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Distinguished Service Award. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Sullivan.
Almanac Weekly: In your Saving the Land that Matters Most campaign, launched in 2007, you pledged to save 65,000 acres of land. How do you decide which parcels to protect?
Ned Sullivan: Through Saving the Land that Matters, we’re protecting roughly 1,000 acres of farmland a year. We view our mission broadly and have now identified all 11 counties of the Hudson Valley as places where we want to work with fellow land trusts to help them preserve farms in their communities. Forming partnerships is the most important aspect of our work across the board.
It’s highly strategic. The Department of State administers the Coastal Management Program and has mapped the areas that meet their highest standards. We’ve taken those maps and created an overview. We also have taken public viewpoints – whether it’s the parade ground at West Point or the Shaupeneak Ridge – and asked, “Do people look out and see a beautiful vista?” We also look at ecological occurrence: whether there’s a particular habitat for rare and endangered species.
Criteria overlap results in the ranking of a property. The ones we are targeting meet the criteria and are larger than 50 acres, in private hands and unprotected.
We’re very successful, and build on our past successes. We often look to expand state parkland. For example, we purchased and sold to the state a parcel immediately north of Bear Mountain that was slated for inappropriate development. We want to create buffers.
What is one of your most recent purchases?
A very large parcel on the Esopus Lakes. It’s open to the public, but we haven’t yet turned it into a bona fide park. We just bought a small parcel adjacent to Esopus Lakes, and this property is essential for us to create a gateway area with stunning views that will provide parking for the park we’ll create at Esopus Lakes.
You already have several parks in Esopus, along the river south of Kingston: Esopus Meadows, Black Creek Forest Preserve and Shaupeneak Ridge.
Our vision is for that whole area of Ulster County to become an eco-tourism destination, so people would be able to hike and mountain bike in the area, plus kayak on the river and portions of Black Creek. We’re creating this continuous landscape-scale conservancy, which builds on the John Burroughs Association’s Slabsides and starts at Esopus Lakes. It would tie into the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail along Route 299 and to the Walkway over the Hudson. South of Black Creek, there’s a mountain that rises above the Town of Lloyd, and we’ve worked with Fats in the Cats Bike Club, which has made bike trails up the mountain.
Recently, I was giving a tour to the Land Trust Alliance – a national organization representing land trusts – and talking about how we’re linking together our cities, train stations and preserved lands. I was talking about this on the Walkway over the Hudson, and along comes a guy with a bike pulling a little trailer with a kayak on the back. He had parked in Poughkeepsie and was planning to hike, bike and kayak his way up the other side of the river, just the way I had envisioned.
Another one of our goals is to create trails. In Hyde Park we’ve worked with the National Park Service and other groups to create a trail from FDR’s home to Vanderbilt Mansion and Mills Mansion at Norrie Park.
What’s your favorite Scenic Hudson park?
I love Poets’ Walk. It’s always an inspiration, and I was there last weekend with out-of-town family members.
Can you name one of Scenic Hudson’s hidden jewels?
Falling Waters Preserve in Saugerties is our best-kept secret. Scenic Hudson currently has a conservation easement agreement with the Dominican Sisters, who own the property.
How has Scenic Hudson’s role evolved since you joined the organization 15 years ago?
We constantly evolve to be proactive in creating parks and preserving key resources and assets of the Hudson Valley. We were founded 50 years ago to protect Storm King Mountain from a proposed power plant: a seminal campaign that’s credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement. As each threat arises, we help bring expertise and resources to bear.