Founded in 1987, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) was created in order to preserve the rural character of Ulster County’s southern region. Thus far, the nonprofit organization has conserved approximately 2,500 acres of public and private land, including the Rosendale Trestle, three CSA farms and a variety of agricultural properties, habitats, wetlands and forests. It all started with their first major project, purchasing the old Wallkill Valley Railroad right-of-way in New Paltz and Gardiner so that it could be converted into the Rail Trail, an endeavour that happened in large part with the support of then-Village of New Paltz mayor, Tom Nyquist.
The purchase of the land was not without controversy. Nyquist remembers today that he had to push for the project to go through, and the final vote by his board was close, just 3-2. It’s hard to imagine these days, when Rail Trails “are like ‘motherhood’ and ‘apple pie’,” says Nyquist, “but they weren’t then. It was not that easy at the beginning.” Some people were concerned about the initial investment in the land and it being a waste of village money, he says, while others were worried about their privacy and safety with strangers walking alongside their property. And the matter had to be coordinated with the town, because the trail runs through the village and the town outside it.
But it all worked out and the village purchased the portion of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail from the WVLT, which now holds conservation easements on the trail in New Paltz and Gardiner. Nyquist remains an advocate of the Rail Trail and an enthusiastic supporter, serving on the board of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association since its inception.
He is currently chair on the board of the nonprofit 501 (c) (3) Thomas & Corinne Nyquist Foundation, a family foundation established in 2004 that purchased the Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary at 133 Huguenot Street in 2011. Protected by a conservation easement held by the WVLT and renamed the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary, the 56-acre property that runs from Huguenot Street down to the Wallkill River is open to the public free of charge every day from dawn to dusk.
In honor of his dedication to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and his conservation work in the New Paltz community, Tom Nyquist will be presented with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust’s eleventh annual Conservation Award on Sunday, October 4 during a festive cocktail event held at Brykill Farm in Wallkill from 3-6 p.m. The public is invited to attend, with all proceeds benefitting the WVLT and their conservation efforts. Tickets cost $100 ($90 for WVLT members) and can be purchased at www.WallkillValleyLT.org or by calling the land trust office at 255-2761. Limited space is available, so early purchase is suggested. The award ceremony will be preceded by casual tastings of local fare catered by a local restaurateur. Wine and beer will be served.
“Tom has a level of enthusiasm that I admire for the preservation of recreational open space in New Paltz,” says Christie DeBoer, WVLT’s executive director. “Whether we’re in a meeting talking about the Rail Trail, or jointly leading a walk for SUNY New Paltz students at the Sanctuary, Tom has a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He likes to share with others the gifts present in the environment around us.”
For his part, Nyquist says he is “astonished” by the award. “It’s not something I ever expected. I’m very pleased, of course, and it’s nice to be honored in one’s lifetime.”
Born and raised in Montana, his father a farmer and cattle rancher, Tom Nyquist earned a BA degree at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He went on to get a master’s degree at the University of Montana at Missoula, then earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in the Chicago area. His areas of specialization were political science and African Studies. He lived in the Sudan for a time doing research for his Ph.D. and later got a post-doctoral grant to do research in South Africa from 1966-67. In those places and other regions he travelled to throughout Africa, Nyquist always took his family along with him. Tom’s wife, Corinne, a librarian at the Sojourner Truth Library on campus at SUNY New Paltz, is acting treasurer/secretary on the board of the family foundation. The couple’s two children, Lynn Nyquist Bergstraesser and Jonathan Nyquist, round out the board as vice chair and member-at-large, respectively.
The Nyquists moved to New Paltz in 1968 when Tom was offered a position as associate professor in the African Studies program at SUNY New Paltz. The program was unusual at the time, initiated because the William Haggerty administration then required that every student attending the school receive some credits in third-world studies, explains Nyquist. When that requirement was eliminated eight years into his career at SUNY New Paltz, he went to work for SUNY Central Administration for 16 years as director of grants and research development for two-year colleges. Of the 64 campuses in the SUNY system, 36 at the time were two-year institutions, so visiting each of those schools every two years, as Nyquist did, meant a lot of travel throughout the state.
His civic work includes 16 years serving as village of New Paltz mayor — from 1986 to 2002 — preceded by four years as deputy mayor. Prior to that he was an Ulster County legislator for District 8. Nyquist has served on the planning boards of Ulster County and the Village of New Paltz and on the original board of the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston. Currently, in addition to his work with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association and his family foundation, he is on the board of the Huguenot Historic Society (HHS), where he serves as secretary. “You could say I’ve established deep roots here in the community,” Nyquist says with a smile.
The Thomas & Corinne Nyquist Foundation awards approximately $10,000 each year in grants to small nonprofit initiatives. “We try to split it up equally between the part of Montana where I came from and the New Paltz area,” says Tom. Most funding awards are given in the $100 to $1,000 range, with exceptions like the $2,000 awarded to the Hudson Valley Writing Project of the School of Education at SUNY New Paltz to provide a community-based writing program for Hudson Valley students in grades six through nine. Other grants have allowed the New Paltz Rotary Club to establish “healing gardens” for elderly residents at nursing homes and a grant was given to Unison Arts Center to purchase computer security equipment.
The purchase of the wildlife sanctuary in New Paltz came about when the lease on land the Nyquists own in Montana brought a financial windfall. While the oil company that was interested in the land ultimately never did drill for oil there, the lease brought in enough money that the Nyquists determined to make good use of it. When the Huguenot Historic Society that owned the sanctuary put it up for sale several years ago, the Thomas & Corinne Nyquist Foundation obtained a matching grant and purchased the land.
“So we’ve been maintaining it ever since,” says Tom. He does most of the work himself — “It’s a good way to stay in condition,” he adds — and has gradually added benches for visitors and interpretive signage. The paths within the property are mowed free of charge, he says, thanks to Sandor Gross of MNC Landscape & Lawncare of New Paltz, who came to Nyquist early on of his own volition and volunteered to do the work helping to maintain the sanctuary. “He really loves the area,” says Nyquist, “and has done a great job for three years now.”
Because the land at the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary floods with some regularity, it couldn’t really be developed anyway, says Nyquist, but that notwithstanding, it is set up to be “forever wild.” The WVLT, in their capacity holding a conservation easement on the property, regularly oversees the maintenance and improvements done to the site.
Referencing the fact that the foundation board consists of family members, Nyquist says, “All four of us are very much interested in getting out into nature and wanting to see that things are protected. We really believe it’s important to consider future generations. Our feeling about the sanctuary is that there are more beautiful places, obviously, but this is so close to the village. Within a few minutes, somebody can be out in the country. We get a lot of people who just come down in the evening or on the weekend and take advantage of it.”
Tickets for the WVLT Conservation Award event on Sunday, October 4 cost $100 ($90 for WVLT members) at www.WallkillValleyLT.org