McKee takes Land Trust helm at Scenic Hudson; Aguirre tapped for advocacy chief

Seth McKee (photo by Lauren Thomas)

All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

With more than 45 public parks under its care and management and a history of environmental activism that stems from its inception in 1963, Scenic Hudson is the largest and arguably one of the most formidable partners helping to protect the natural resources of the Hudson Valley, while at the same time encouraging people to experience the breadth and power of nature in their daily life.

Never have the parks been so busy and so utilized as they have been this past seven months, as people fled to the outdoors to recreate, exercise, meet one another and seek refuge as the response to the Covid-19 virus shook people’s habitual economic, cultural and social norms. Everyone was encouraged to go outside for health, stress relief and as a way of slowing the spread of the virus. Outside they went, and Scenic Hudson’s parks that stretch all along the Hudson River were suddenly some of the most sought-out places to be.

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To this end, the regional land conservation agency, dedicated to “making the Hudson Valley a great place to live, work and play by preserving and strengthening the region’s assets – beautiful open spaces, working farms and historic cities and town centers,” has recently filled two top-brass leadership positions. After a nationwide search, the not-for-profit decided to go no further than its own backyard and promote veteran land conservation director Seth McKee to the post of executive director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust and land programs. At the same time, Scenic Hudson hired Raul “Rocci” Aguirre as its new executive director of Policy, Advocacy and Science.

Raul “Rocci” Aguirre

It is the impending retirement of Steve Rosenberg, senior vice president of Scenic Hudson and executive director of the Land Trust, that triggered the creation of these two positions. “Basically, Steve oversaw the science, advocacy and Land Trust programs, and Scenic Hudson decided that as things have grown and morphed and expanded, they would split his job into two,” said McKee. Aguirre will focus on advocacy and policy work that will have him and other members of the Scenic Hudson team collaborating with local town boards and planning boards, as well as county governments and the halls of Albany and Washington DC, to lobby for land conversation, renewable energy, natural-resource protection and climate-change mitigation. Aguirre will also head the staff’s science and climate-change research programs.

“I’m so excited to be a part of this organization and its visionary leadership,” said Aguirre, who is currently the director of Conservation for the Adirondack Council, where he has been responsible for the design and implementation of a 12-county-region conservation strategy throughout upstate New York. “It’s a big arc that is leading me back home, to the Hudson Valley, where I grew up in Ellenville. My family had an AC and refrigeration business, and growing up, I’d go with them in the van to repair different systems at all of the local resorts and restaurants. That Mohonk tower and the viewpoints of the Shawangunk ridgeline are a deep part of my personal and cultural identity. There’s no feeling in the world like driving over the hairpin turn. It’s like coming home.”

Aguirre said that he hopes to help Scenic Hudson continue to forge and solidify the Hudson Valley’s identity as a “region that is known for its commitment to open space, local farms, parks, historic landscapes and urban centers.” He said that the convergence of the acceleration of climate change and pandemic peril has “sparked a connection to our natural world that I believe will continue to be strengthened. I think people are taking pride in the fact that we’re a region that has been valuing open-space preservation and access to parks and protection of our estuaries and the importance of our farmlands.”

McKee concurred. “The pandemic has showed us how many people turned to open space and parklands to destress, to get fresh air, to exercise, to spend time with friends and family in a healthy, safe way,” said the longtime Scenic Hudson leader, who joined the organization back in 1991. “We kept our parks open the entire time, and we’ve never had the visitation that we’ve experienced the past nine months. They’ve been a lifeline to people.”

McKee’s work will dovetail with Aguirre’s, as he and other members of the Scenic Hudson staff work to conserve more land and develop more parks and programs that continue to serve the rural population, but also reach into urban neighborhoods that have many green diamonds lying in the rough. Asked what he would like to address right off the bat in his new position, McKee said that it was really an extension of what he has been working on: “to address climate change here in the Hudson Valley by knitting together climate-resilient landscapes with various parcels that we’ve acquired, and hope to acquire to make these all interconnected.”

He used the example of Scenic Hudson’s work, along with neighboring communities and preserves, to protect the Black Creek watershed and Swartekill Swamp, which are all interlinked with the John Burroughs Preserve. He also said that his team would like to work directly with landowners and farmers to encourage them to “adopt regenerative practices that will be good for their bottom line and good for the environment. The more extreme weather we have, the more these practices will protect their crops and slow down climate change.” McKee gave an example of a “no-till planting practice,” as tilling releases a lot of carbon into the air. “You can also plant a crop over another crop, so that you help fix the soil, prevent erosion and keep the carbon in. These are simple techniques, but they pay huge dividends.”

Both McKee and Aguirre, as well as Scenic Hudson president Ned Sullivan, concur that they want to continue to expand and invest in parks and programs in the more urban areas of the Hudson Valley like Newburgh, Kingston and Poughkeepsie. “There are many areas where waterways have become dumping grounds over the years that can be cleaned up, as well as parks that can be restored and greenways created that allow people to get from school to work and work to home in a safe and sustainable way,” said Sullivan.

“I’m very excited and inspired to work with members of our staff who are doing such great things in our smaller cities, and I think that these are populations that are traditionally underserved by land trusts. There are ways of eliminating food deserts and food insecurity and allowing those who live in urban areas to still have the experience of greenways, gardens, parks and natural recreation in their daily lives.”

Sullivan said he believes that “building on the great capabilities of our team, we will reach new heights in our work to improve the health and well-being of all Valley residents and to make our region a model for responding to climate change.”

He added that, “During Seth McKee’s tenure as Land Conservation director, Scenic Hudson has made some of our most important acquisitions, preserving iconic landscapes in the Hudson Highlands, Olana viewshed and across nine counties of the Hudson Valley, as well as thousands of acres of food-producing fields and orchards on family farms. His knowledge of the Hudson Valley and passion for protecting it put Scenic Hudson in excellent stead as we work to safeguard more of the region’s must-save lands.”

For more information on the organization’s work, visit www.scenichudson.org.

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