Amidst the minutiae of planning board meetings about the Foothills project proposal for Mohonk Preserve — focused as they are on questions of traffic volume and storm water runoff, air pollution and community character — the nature of the project itself tends to get drowned in its own details. Acquiring the 857 acres east of the Shawangunk Ridge was not anticipated by the Preserve’s board members even ten years ago, and closing the deal created challenges unlike any before faced in its 52-year history. Opposition to some of the improvements — which include trail heads with parking, a walkway through a marsh, informational kiosks and a 1,200-square-foot educational cabin — is joined by servicing the Preserve’s first long-term debt, as well as managing many more types of land that exist on the ridge itself.
“There are different types of land in the foothills,” explained Gretchen Reed, director of marketing and communications for the Preserve, among them grasslands, marshes and human-created landscapes, including active farms. “It’s a very challenging and complex landscape. You’ve got it all in the Foothills.” Fitting them into the organization’s goals — which include land preservation and protection, access for recreation and research and enhancing both property values and quality of life in the nearby community — requires a considerable amount of balancing. “We protect land for people, not from people,” she explained.
What was to become the Mohonk Preserve in 1978 was originally the Mohonk Trust, formed in 1963 by members of the Smiley family which owns Mohonk Mountain House. Dan Smiley helped shape the Preserve’s creation and mission, according to executive director Glenn Hoagland, out of concern that the original trust wasn’t carrying the family legacy of preservation forward. Hoagland also said that it’s the largest not-for-profit nature preserve in the state. Mohonk Preserve is the heir to climate and weather data collected by the Smileys and the data collected now span 119 years. Its sheer rock faces have been a major draw to climbers for decades, attracting 50,000 climbers annually. In turn, the Preserve’s rangers are among the most experienced in cliff rescues nationwide.
Ron Knapp has been on the Preserve’s board since 1987, and is perhaps the face of institutional memory. “We never had any thought that we would have the opportunity to acquire the Foothills,” he said. The first inkling came in 2011, word that the Open Space Institute (OSI) was in negotiations to purchase the land, which residents of New Paltz have identified as a top priority for preservation.
OSI is not generally involved directly in stewardship or preservation efforts; once land is obtained, a new owner is sought as soon as possible, giving the institute the liquidity necessary to make more purchases of land at risk of development. That’s exactly what happened in this case. “OSI asked us if we could buy the land within three years,” Hoagland said, but at a considerable discount: the asking price of $4.4 million was half what OSI had paid. The Preserve relies upon individuals to provide the bulk of its annual revenue. According to the 2014 annual report, of $5,336,187 in revenue, 15% came from membership fees, 25% from private contributions and 8% from day-use fees. The numbers seem large, but in the same year $3,969,931 was spent on environment education programs, land stewardship and protection, conservation projects and overhead. The foothills represented the largest land acquisition to-date by the Preserve, and determining if it was even possible required some 30 meetings among stakeholders over the course of around two years. Different models and strategies were proposed — some publicly — and the one that stuck involved the Preserve borrowing most of the money, and subdividing a parcel of 19.1 acres to return to OSI to be sold as a lot for a single home.
The draft plan included considerable conversations with neighbors, according to Knapp. “We listened to criticisms,” he said, and made adjustments. For example, the number of parking spots near the Testimonial Gateway were cut by a third. He’s more concerned with aspects that can’t be changed, such as the fact that the Mohonk Preserve is now within a mile of the Village of New Paltz. “Seven to eight miles is an impediment to easy access,” he said, and he imagines more local residents will wish to avail themselves of the Preserve’s landscapes. Last year, according to Hoagland, three-quarters of the Preserve’s 165,000 visits came from local members.
While much of the Preserve’s access is restricted to members and those paying day fees, it’s not entirely so. The drive to make the lands accessible is interpreted as removing economic, as well as physical, barriers. Trails near the main visitor’s center are free, as will be a loop which is slated to be created as part of the River to Ridge trail. In addition, passes that are good for the entire months of May and September are given away to any Ulster County resident who asks for one. One can even check out a pass at the Gardiner and Elting Memorial libraries.
In addition to improved access, the Foothills will improve opportunities for science. “We’re going to take a deep dive into biological inventory,” said Hoagland. Already the Preserve’s staff organizes community-oriented “bio-blitzes,” in which researchers and citizen naturalists document plants and animals over the course of just one day. With teams focused on different categories (birds, insects, trees), the blitzes can collect a considerable amount of data and represent a “great opportunity to gather together on the land.” Together with the John Burroughs Society, a bio-decathlon of ten days of documentation took place in 2013. The Preserve also has citizen naturalists collecting phenological data, recording the timing of events in nature, which is particularly important to the understanding of the effects of climate change. It was hoped to find a dozen volunteers for that project, but 40 signed up the first year and now the number hovers around 100. The annual Christmas bird census also figures prominently into the collection efforts taking place on the Preserve, as birding continues to grow as a hobby.
Encouraging interest in science among the young lays the groundwork for that interest later on. To that end, Mohonk Preserve is part of the “No Child Left Inside” initiative, which ties learning on field trips to curriculum standards. “Kids in New Paltz know the ridge,” said Knapp, because elementary students from that district especially have been visiting regularly for 30 years. In fact, during one particularly contentious school budget battle in the 1990s, the state’s education commissioner ruled that those trips were integral to the curriculum and couldn’t be cut like an elective under an austerity budget. That’s part of the reason for the proposed educational cabin, 900 square feet plus another 300 of porch — to allow those kids to continue those studies by providing a space for teachers to gather them and direct their efforts, as well as shelter from the rain.
More than ever before the Preserve now has historic landscapes under its purview, most visibly the Testimonial Gateway, which has fallen into disrepair, having been left vacant for at least five years. The building is already on the national register, but Preserve staff have also worked to get it listed as a local landmark, “To show that we want to protect it,” Hoagland said. In addition to stabilizing the building against further deterioration, the parking proposed nearby won’t be adjacent to the building, so as to preserve the atmosphere one might have experienced arriving at this entrance to Mohonk Mountain House in a horse-drawn carriage. The efforts to simply stabilize the structure and proof it against the elements will include gutting an interior that Hoagland called “squalid,” and will cost around $250,000 to replace the roof and repoint the masonry. “It’s an architectural artifact,” he said, and “part of the visual experience” of the Preserve. The windows will also be replaced with historically accurate windows, based on the one original one left.
“We can’t just write a check” to fund such efforts, Knapp said. “We need to raise the money.” That’s in stark contrast to neighboring Minnewaska State Park, which is operated and funded by the State of New York. That’s part of why the scope of the foothills acquisition changed a few times. According to Hoagland, the 2013 capital campaign aimed to raise $2 million to buy three-fifths of the land, avoiding the active farms. OSI arranged a lease with Glynwood to create a farm incubator, which helped board members of the Preserve recognize that OSI is a transitional owner, and that having control over future use of those farms would be beneficial to the Preserve’s interests. That’s why the decision was ultimately made to seek financing to acquire nearly the entire tract, boosting the Preserve’s area by 20% and making it larger than Central Park.
“Who would be better suited?” asked Reed.
Knapp added, “The alternatives are frightening,” referencing the specter of the entire flats being turned into a subdivision, something which has been mentioned by project supporters multiple times during planning board meetings.
Owning farmland allows for studying of the “farm as ecosystem,” according to Hoagland, and the ecopermeability of those lands. “Birds depend on those fields,” he said, and Glynwood’s operations allow for access through those lands and partnering to study such questions. The incubator is based on “regenerative biological farming” techniques, he said, and is “not like most farms.” He sees the farm incubator as a sincere successor to the Smiley legacy of land stewardship.
Stewardship and preservation are not the same thing. Much of Mohonk lands were intentionally shaped to create a particular experience for guests of the mountain house, and there’s been much more radical shaping, as well. The ponds were manmade and once had fountains within. The ridge itself was denuded of trees in the early part of the 20th century, and the face of Bonticou Crag was blasted off in the interest of building the Catskill Aqueduct which runs beneath. “We’re not ruining a pristine landscape,” Hoagland said. “We’re shaping it for the 21st century.”
Where the Foothills project stands now
The public hearing before the New Paltz Town Planning Board was slated to continue November 23, too late for this issue. Spearheaded by the group Citizens of the Shawangunks, testimony at the hearing has focused on requesting that a full environmental impact study (EIS) of the project be prepared. Among the questions which they believe deserve more study are how traffic throughout the town might be impacted by additional parking in the Foothills, including what that might do to the response time of emergency services and how the proposed parking, buildings and kiosks would affect flooding in adjacent residential areas.
Supporters of the project believe an EIS would increase the cost and delay its completion unnecessarily, and frequently accuse members of the Citizens of the Shawangunks of using inflammatory language, such as references to the “Disneyfication” of the Preserve, or calling the walkway proposed through Humpo Marsh a “boardwalk.” They point to numerous studies already prepared to study impacts of the project, delineating wetlands, analyzing agricultural data, evaluating transportation impacts and looking at issues from threatened species to possible archaeological sites. There is enough information to show that any impacts have been adequately mitigated, supporters believe, and nothing more should be needed to approve this project.
There is no question that many details around how the Foothills will be changed remain to be hammered out. Throughout, the staff and board members are focused on improving access to all residents, while preserving a landscape that has been part of the backdrop of New Paltz for as long as anyone can remember.
For a more detailed description of the Mohonk Preserve’s Foothills project, visit https://mohonkpreserve.org/mohonk-preserve-foothills.