By Jodi La Marco
“Scenic Hudson’s origin story is really about giving ordinary citizens a voice in shaping their environment,” says senior vice president, Steve Rosenberg. In 1963, Scenic Hudson was formed with the goal of stopping a proposed hydroelectric project on Storm King Mountain. The budding organization’s efforts led to a court case which granted Scenic Hudson legal standing. Prior to the ruling, the public did not have a legal say in projects which could impact the environment. Legal standing for citizens was a game changer. “That decision led to the codification of these rules and things like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), and other environmental legislation that has been in place now for decades.”
Although activism is still deeply imbedded in the organization’s DNA, its scope has significantly widened over the years. Through its land trust, Scenic Hudson is preserving farmland, creating parks, and protecting valuable geographical assets in the region. “It’s been an evolving picture of what we prioritize for land conservation, which now includes scenic views from historic properties. We also preserve biologically-rich areas that are important for habitat value or recreation,” explains Amy Kacala, senior community planner for Scenic Hudson.
In recent years, the non-profit has also begun making conservation decisions based on the anticipated effects of climate change. “We already understand what lands are important now, but what lands are going to be important in the future as climate change occurs and species need to migrate? How do we preserve land so that biodiversity can be sustained? That was a big analysis, and we’ve been sharing the data of that analysis with other regional land trusts,” says Kacala. In addition to helping inform land preservation choices, the organization’s conservation science team also created an interactive map displaying the projected rise in water levels along the Hudson. Scenic Hudson’s sea level rise mapper is available to the public and can be found on their website, scenichudson.org.
Historically, most of the organization’s land conservation efforts have been along the Hudson River and in rural areas. “We decided in a recent strategic planning process that it was really important for us to go broader and deeper than just that thin line at the water’s edge,” says Rosenberg. As a result, Scenic Hudson has begun taking on collaborative projects in the cities of Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Kingston.
According to Kacala, urban work and the approach it demands is a much different animal. “We’re creating projects with communities or coalitions that isn’t on our land,” she says. “We have a principle that we don’t come in with an idea, we come in with an intent to do work with the community. We are a convener. We are a resource in terms of information or best practices, but we are certainly not a standalone doer.”
Just as the fight over Storm King Mountain led to citizen empowerment, the organization is still striving to help everyday people exercise control over their environment. In Poughkeepsie, for instance, local community groups are focusing on areas that sit along the Fallkill Creek. “Community partners are really trying to make changes to downtown and in the neighborhoods, and they are all along the Fallkill,” says Kacala. “These are places that people have avoided, especially after dark, so there’s some reclaiming that’s happening. That’s all really been driven by community members.”
One area of interest in Poughkeepsie is Malcolm X Park. The current concept plan for the park focuses not only on beautifying the space, but on including components that benefit youth. “We have a concept design which includes an outdoor classroom. There’s an elementary school next door. This would give them some outdoor classroom space for outdoor education or science-based learning,” says Kacala. “Youth education is one piece, and food is another theme. We have community garden space proposals percolating in Poughkeepsie, but also a lot of food and urban gardening interest in Newburgh as well.”
“The things we’re doing in Newburgh are very different. We’re focused on a whole citywide plan with a number of partners involved,” Kacala says. Newburgh is home to Crystal Lake, which was a popular boating and swimming area back in the 1940s and 1950s. “It just kind of fell out of community consciousness. It was overgrown. There were cement barricades. It was a place where if you walked through, you would find needles and tires.” The space has since been vastly improved. “We have high school kids doing science studies up there. There’s a community garden that’s operated by youth, which includes beekeeping, and we’ve had a lot of trail work and other improvement projects happening.”
The organization has also been active in the City of Kingston. Scenic Hudson has been working with the Hudson River Maritime Museum to create a commercial solar-powered boat. “We also worked with them to help acquire a building and land where the boat building operation is at the Maritime Museum, and to permanently set aside public access along the Rondout in that location,” Rosenberg says.
By working with communities in an urban setting, Scenic Hudson continues to serve the needs and wants of Hudson Valley citizens. “It is essential to be driven by what we hear from people who live in these places,” says Rosenberg. “We want to find the maximum intersection between community desires and needs, and our organization’s mission and the skills and capabilities that we can bring to bear to help address those.”