Scenic Hudson improves the health, quality of life and prosperity of Hudson Valley residents by protecting and connecting them to the Hudson River and the region beyond. Ever responsive to the changing pulse of the region, the ways we achieve our mission are always evolving.
Building on Our Past
Our work today builds upon more than five decades of advocacy and citizen engagement. When Scenic Hudson was founded in 1963, grass-roots environmental activism did not exist as it does today. Con Edison’s plan to construct a hydroelectric plant on the face of majestic Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Highlands changed that.
Conservationists recognized that carrying out an effective campaign against the project—which would destroy the iconic northern gateway to the Hudson Highlands and severely impact fish populations—was beyond their capacity. So concerned citizens attended a meeting at the home of writer Carl Carmer in Irvington. In addition to forming the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference—today known as Scenic Hudson—the six people gathered around the table wound up igniting the modern environmental movement that would soon blaze across the country.
Early on, the founders of Scenic Hudson recognized two important things that have remained central to our work—fostering collaboration and relying on solid scientific data to back up its case. In addition to partnering with groups such as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, they wound up mobilizing tens of thousands of concerned citizens to speak out against the plant. Meanwhile, scientists engaged by the group provided research indicating that fish kills from the facility would be much higher than Con Ed estimated and have a devastating impact on sports fishing not only in the Hudson but along the East Coast.
One last thing the founders of Scenic Hudson recognized: the need to persevere. It required 17 years before achieving success. In December 1980, leaders of Scenic Hudson and its partners signed a settlement with Con Ed that resulted in Storm King’s protection. Today, hikers from around the world come to enjoy the magnificent views from its 1,340-foot summit.
Frances “Franny” Reese, who led Scenic Hudson through many of its formative years, later summarized the defining aspects of the organization’s success: “Care enough to take action, do your research so you don’t have to backtrack from a position, and don’t give up!” Our staff continues to be inspired by these words.
Perhaps the most important victory during the Storm King campaign, aside from saving the mountain, occurred in 1965, when the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Scenic Hudson had the legal right to make their case for protecting Storm King. This “Scenic Hudson Decision” has become a cornerstone of environmental law, granting ordinary citizens the right to support or oppose projects impacting their environment. It led to the adoption of federal and state statutes (including New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR) that requires an opportunity for public input on projects that could affect their communities’ environment. The ruling helped spur the adoption of the federal National Environmental Policy Act and the formation of grass-roots environmental groups nationwide.
Even before achieving victory at Storm King, citizens in other communities fighting to protect important landscapes started reaching out Scenic Hudson. Overall, the organization has played critical roles in protecting iconic views, productive farmland and prime wildlife habitats by halting countless poorly planned projects—from riverfront towers and huge subdivisions to industrial plants. We also have worked with many developers to reduce the impacts new development will have on these resources. At the same time, thanks to a generous bequest from Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace (founders of Reader’s Digest), Scenic Hudson has protected more than 44,000 acres of scenic, agricultural and environmental importance throughout the Hudson Valley. And it remains the leading advocate in efforts to clean up PCB toxins in the river and halt other threats to the Hudson that imperil humans and wildlife.
Going one step further, Scenic Hudson began providing new places for people to enjoy the river. It has created or enhanced more than 65 parks, preserves and historic sites where Hudson Valley residents and visitors connect with the region’s natural beauty and culture. This “emerald necklace” of parks encompasses more than 6,500 acres—from rugged mountain trails for hiking and biking to riverfront parks perfect for a picnic, launching a kayak or simply admiring the Hudson’s power and majesty. When Scenic Hudson acquired many of these riverfront destinations—including Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon and Scenic Hudson Park in Irvington—they were industrial sites long off-limits to the public. Effective partnerships with local governments, other not-for-profits and New York State made their transformations possible.
Also typical of Scenic Hudson’s innovative approach is the leadership role it played in advancing three visionary projects that turned formerly neglected eyesores into regional destinations. In Beacon, we facilitated the Dia Art Foundation’s efforts to create a new museum of contemporary art in an old Nabisco box factory. Today, Dia:Beacon attracts visitors to the city from around the world. Scenic Hudson’s study of the potential for “daylighting” (uncovering) the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers led to creation of Van Der Donck Park—replacing a parking lot with a magnificent greenspace along the tributary’s shores. It provides a great place for the community to gather and for school field trips, and has helped to drive the city’s ongoing economic revitalization. Finally, Scenic Hudson’s early financial support for creating the world’s tallest linear park atop the long-abandoned Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge spurred additional investment in Walkway Over the Hudson, which attracts half a million visitors a year.
In 1998, Scenic Hudson launched its initiative to protect the valley’s working family farms—critical for sustaining their supplies of fresh, local food, as well as the agricultural economies and charm of many rural communities. Twenty years later, the organization ramped up this collaborative work by creating the Hudson Valley-New York City Foodshed Conservation Plan. It provides a blueprint for protecting enough agricultural lands to meet the growing demand for fresh, local food in the region and city. Preserving these lands allows existing farms to increase their agricultural productivity and makes them more affordable for the next generation of farmers—of critical importance since more than two million acres of productive New York farmland will change hands in the next decade as farmers reach retirement age.
To date, Scenic Hudson has protected nearly 16,000 acres on more than 120 family farms. Vital partners in addition to the farm families themselves include the Agricultural Stewardship Association (in Rensselaer County), Columbia Land Conservancy, Dutchess Land Conservancy, Equity Trust, Hudson Highlands Land Trust, Orange County Land Trust and Westchester Land Trust. State, federal and local funding also has played an important role in this work.
Today: Broadening Our Impacts
Our work is driven by three themes—Promoting Regional Identity, Building Community and Strengthening Resiliency. These allow us to ensure that all people benefit from our work while confronting the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.
Strengthening our partnerships in the region’s cities, we are working to support citizens’ efforts to create the communities they want, turning long-neglected natural treasures into neighborhood assets, new places for residents to gather, exercise or be inspired by nature. We’re side-by-side with dozens of local groups, colleges, citizen “spark plugs” and business leaders focused on arts, affordable housing and home ownership, violence prevention, youth employment, public health, building local economies, environmental education and more. The “Successful River Cities” coalition we’ve launched with them is all about sharing principles, practices, resources, concerns and solutions for healthier, happier, more prosperous, equitable and sustainable Hudson River cities.
In Newburgh, we teamed with city agencies, youth-empowerment organizations, schools and business groups to transform the land around Crystal Lake, once a popular swimming destination but abandoned for decades, into a community park where people come to view the lake and hike a new trail that leads to stunning views from the top of Snake Hill into the heart of the Hudson Highlands.
Similar collaborations in downtown Poughkeepsie are taking great early strides in transforming Fall Kill Creek, a Hudson River tributary that winds through the city’s economically-challenged north side, into a community asset. Together with our partners in the “Northside Collaborative,” we’re creating a string of public spaces and neighborhood centers. We’re also working to secure an abandoned CSX rail line that will connect north side neighborhoods with jobs, schools, the Dutchess Rail Trail and the riverfront. Youth working with us in both cities are learning job skills and gaining a new-found sense of ownership for the natural treasures in their communities.
In Kingston, many hundreds of city middle-schoolers connect with nature for the first time at Scenic Hudson’s Juniper Flats Preserve, the site of the former IBM Recreation facility. Our friends at Wild Earth lead field trips at this expansive “outdoor classroom.” And we’ve enjoyed a wonderful partnership with the Hudson River Maritime Museum on the Rondout, first supporting the purchase of the land and building for the wooden boat building school and then helping with the museum’s ground-breaking new solar boat that will give Kingston schoolkids a whole new perspective on their city.
On the front burner right now, we’re investigating the feasibility of acquiring the 500+ acre former Tilcon cement plant and quarry on the city’s riverfront north of Kingston Point. We’re excited by the tremendous potential of this land, which includes 260 acres of forest and more than a mile of riverfront that will extend the Green Line and host the Empire State Trail. We’ll be reaching out to get community partners, local leaders and citizens for input as we begin to shape a vision for its future, so the property itself can be a building block for Kingston residents in developing their own sense of community.
On the climate front, we’re leading efforts to reduce our region’s reliance on fossil fuels and to attract new clean energy jobs by promoting renewable energy development. Our “Clean Energy, Green Communities” guide has become the go-to resource for communities and developers to achieve win-win solutions by locating solar facilities where they will minimize impacts to iconic views, farms and wildlife habitats. Meanwhile, we continue providing guidance to communities, including Kingston, about strategies to make their waterfronts more resilient to rising seas, and we’re exploring opportunities to incentivize farmers to transition to agricultural practices that keep climate-warming carbon in the soil.
Finally, to connect communities, provide new recreational and commuting opportunities and boost the valley’s tourism economy, we are spearheading longer, regional trail projects. The John Burroughs Black Creek Trail will stretch nine miles, from our Black Creek Preserve in Esopus, past the Hudson Valley Rail Trail to Illinois Mountain in Lloyd, linking visitors to lands that inspired Burroughs to write his nature essays. Across the river, we’re spearheading the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail from Beacon to Cold Spring. Running seven miles along the river’s most dramatic stretch, it’s intended to transform Route 9D from a speedway into a world-class parkway, providing access to Hudson Highlands State Park, including Breakneck Ridge. We’re also making progress on completing the 51-mile Westchester RiverWalk by filling in a “missing link” beneath the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.
Preparing for Tomorrow
The Hudson Valley faces an uncertain future—from climate change, air and water pollution, insecure food supplies and development pressures. Scenic Hudson has always been proactive, confronting challenges before they become crises and working with stakeholders to achieve solutions that build rather than deplete our cities’ and rural economies and protect the natural treasures that make our region so unique.
Moving ahead, we’re committed to making the Hudson Valley an even better place to live, work and play. We also remain committed to Franny Reese’s credo: We will never give up.
Steve Rosenberg is senior vice president of Scenic Hudson and executive director of The Scenic Hudson Land Trust. Scenic Hudson helps citizens and communities preserve land and farms and create parks where people experience the outdoors and enjoy the Hudson River.
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
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