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Backyard Matters

River's Rebirth Gives New Life to Struggling City

When is a river not a river? When it’s buried beneath pavement.

For 80 years that was the sad fate of the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers, a city on the Hudson River half an hour by train from downtown Manhattan.

When the industrial stench from this tributary—known to Native Americans as the Nepperhan, or “sparkling little stream”—began to overwhelm the downtown, city fathers in the 1920s decided to channel it underground through tunnels. For decades, it flowed below a huge parking lot.

No longer. Today, the Saw Mill again sparkles in the sunlight. And soon it will be surrounded by a magnificent, two-acre park. It’s truly a river reborn.

daylighting the saw mill river in yonkers, ny

At $18 million, the Saw Mill initiative may be smaller than riverfront revitalization successes in San Antonio, Providence or Cincinnati (recently profiled in this New York Times article. But this victory proves that whatever the size of the project, communities can derive enormous economic and environmental benefits from restoring their natural and cultural treasures.


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Even in Tough Economic Times, Environmental Investments Pay Off

Environmental protection programs often are the first casualty of states' efforts to combat fiscal challenges. Year after year they receive deep, disproportionate cuts in funding. Yet far from a budgetary burden, conserving America's natural resources offers a key for achieving lasting prosperity. Let's look at one state that's doing the right thing—my home state New York.

Despite the need to close a $2-billion deficit in his 2011 budget, first-year Gov. Andrew Cuomo provided fair funding for state agencies that oversee New York's irreplaceable natural resources. He also maintained funding for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF)—the state's chief means of creating parks, providing clean water and protecting farmland. And he established Regional Economic Development Councils to bring together environmental and economic interests to develop new strategies for creating jobs.

Gov. Cuomo intends to build on this strategy this year. In his recently released 2012 budget, he again proposes to keep environmental funding stable. Clearly, the governor realizes the Environmental Protection Fund creates jobs and complements capital investment in repairing and upgrading New York's deficient bridges, roads and parks.

The governor also is aware of the considerable economic benefits New York derives from funding environmental protection. The Trust for Public Land has estimated that every $1 from the EPF leverages $7 in additional dividends to local communities.

The damage caused by Hurricane Irene last fall underscores the urgency of preparing for future flooding. Conserving wetlands and waterfronts provides effective, inexpensive flood control. It's estimated that each acre of wetlands in New York furnishes $689,000 in annual storm-protection benefits, primarily by soaking up water. Wetlands also remove pollutants before they reach drinking-water supplies. The same goes for forests. Every 10-percent of a watershed's forest cover eliminates 20 percent of water-treatment costs.

In addition to supporting America's $730-billion nature tourism industry, our magnificent natural resources enhance our quality of life—which in turn attracts new business. CEOs consider quality of life, including ample parks and open space, among the top priorities when considering where to relocate or start businesses.

I urge you to contact your governor and legislators. Recommend that they follow Gov. Cuomo's lead and make the environment the foundation of your state's economic future. You can send a similar message to your members in Congress. They are currently negotiating reauthorization of the U.S. Farm Bill, including the appropriation for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program—the federal government's chief means of preserving our nation's farmland. Let them know that at the very minimum, they should ensure that FRPP funding remains stable.

This is not a big ask—just 1 percent of total Farm Bill funding supports the FRPP—but it is a big deal. America continues to lose about 1 million acres of farmland a year, and the most productive and fertile land is disappearing the fastest. If we hope to feed ourselves, let alone growing populations in coming generations, Washington must make this minuscule investment.

Overcoming our perilous fiscal situation must remain the top priority for the foreseeable future. But the leaders in our capitols must realize that a healthy environment has an important role to play in ensuring a robust economic future for America.


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Congress, Don't Short Change Our Family Farms

 

Earlier this fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.8-million grant to Scenic Hudson, a private regional land conservation organization in New York's Hudson River Valley, to permanently protect 10 farms, among them major suppliers to greenmarkets in one of America's fastest growing metropolitan areas. Under the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), farmers receive cash they can reinvest in their operations. In return, they relinquish the land's development rights, so it will always be available for agricultural purposes.

 


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Congress, Don't Short Change Our Family Farms

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.8-million grant to Scenic Hudson, a private regional land conservation organization in New York's Hudson River Valley, to permanently protect 10 farms, among them major suppliers to greenmarkets in one of America's fastest growing metropolitan areas. Under the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), farmers receive cash they can reinvest in their operations. In return, they relinquish the land's development rights, so it will always be available for agricultural purposes.

The fruits, vegetables, meats and other foods produced by America's small- and mid-sized farms have a major role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic and alleviating mounting concerns about food contamination and security. The food they supply is diverse, tasty, nutritious—and above all, local. With 97 percent of our agriculture based on these smaller farms, they are essential for sustaining the nation's $369-billion agricultural economy, bigger than the GDP of nearly 200 countries. Yet every year, the country loses 3 million acres of its best farmland—primarily on family-run farms—a victim both of sprawling development and high land costs that put it out of financial reach of young farmers.


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Congress, Don't Short Change Our Family Farms

Earlier this fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.8-million grant to Scenic Hudson, a private regional land conservation organization in New York's Hudson River Valley, to permanently protect 10 farms, among them major suppliers to greenmarkets in one of America's fastest growing metropolitan areas. Under the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), farmers receive cash they can reinvest in their operations. In return, they relinquish the land's development rights, so it will always be available for agricultural purposes.

 


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How to Preserve Family Farms, and Critical 'Foodsheds'

Just as watersheds provide drinking water for thirsty cities, "foodsheds" provide safe, secure food.
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A High Point for the Hudson

On two fronts, Monday, June 6, was a momentous day in the history of New York's Hudson River—and a hopeful one in terms of its future. For starters, it marked the beginning of Phase 2 of General Electric Corp.'s PCB cleanup. This massive undertaking will remove millions of tons of these toxins located in "hotspots" around and downriver from two upstate manufacturing plants where GE had dumped the chemicals for three decades, ending in the mid-70s.

Two years ago I wrote about how GE had commenced Phase 1 of this project, which is being overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The initial phase was basically a test to see if removing the chemicals from the riverbed via dredging was feasible and, more important, would result in a healthier Hudson. An independent panel of scientists that reviewed the results declared that GE's methods for extracting the PCB-laden silt were successful on both counts, and that Phase 2—a full-scale cleanup—should commence as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the data also revealed that the level of PCBs in the river is far greater than expected.

For a quarter century, environmental groups, including Scenic Hudson, have been crusading to compel GE to remove these toxins that made the Hudson America's most PCB-polluted waterway and our nation's largest Superfund site. PCBs not only have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and immune-system disorders in humans, but adversely affect fish, forcing New York State to close or impose severe restrictions on lucrative recreational and commercial fisheries all the way to New York Harbor, 200 miles downriver.


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The Key to the Success of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative

"The President was on the mark in everything he said: We need greater federal funding and partnerships with land conservation groups to protect the beautiful and ecologically vital land around the country. We need to protect working farmland. We need to create more parks in our cities and create jobs for young people working outdoors."

This is the exuberant message I texted my colleagues at Scenic Hudson, the organization I head, on February 16, shortly after President Obama finished briefing the country's conservation leaders on details of his America's Great Outdoors initiative. I was fortunate to be on hand as he unveiled his conservation blueprint for harnessing federal resources, in collaboration with state and local initiatives, to connect more people with our nation's natural treasures.

You could play an important role in determining the America's Great Outdoors initiative's future. More about that below.

president barack obama

The President's East Wing talk culminated months of public outreach and planning among senior administration officials, including the secretaries of the Agriculture and Interior departments, and chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corp of Engineers and other natural resource agencies. It reflects vision and leadership at a crucial moment when our country's spectacular outdoor resources can be the catalyst for creating jobs and safeguarding the health of all Americans. (The final America's Great Outdoors report is available at americasgreatoutdoors.gov.


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The Hudson River's Future Is Imperiled

hudson river pcbs dredging

A 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River, one of America's most beautiful and historic waterways, also is saddled with the dubious distinction of being the country's largest Superfund site.

Behind this designation are the toxic PCBs dumped into the river for over 30 years from two General Electric plants. Though the pollution ended in the 1970s, the chemicals continue poisoning this national treasure, destroying a once-bustling commercial fishery, damaging the health of millions of people and stifling tourism and other economic activity.

Following years of legal and public relations maneuvering, high-powered lobbying and strong-arm negotiating, GE finally agreed to design and implement a plan for removing the PCBs. In May 2009 I stood on the banks of the Hudson with hundreds of government officials and fellow leaders of grassroots organizations that fought decades for the river's cleanup as the first load of contaminated soil was removed. We all celebrated the start of the Hudson's healthy future.

Today that future hangs very much in the balance. In mid-December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the project, will announce how the cleanup will continue — most important, whether it will allow GE to knowingly leave behind unacceptably large amounts of these poisons. Earlier this year, an independent panel of scientists determined that the first, exploratory year of dredging, known as Phase 1, was a success. They noted that any glitches could easily be remedied during Phase 2, which should continue without delay.


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America's Great Outdoors Initiative Needs Federal Support

In August, Scenic Hudson, the organization I run, helped organize a "listening session" with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and top federal officials from the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, at the FDR Home and Library in Hyde Park, and at a farm we helped protect in Clermont in Columbia County. Over 400 people turned out for the events.

What brought us together was President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative (AGO). Kicked off by the President last April at a White House conference, the AGO promises to mobilize and focus federal resources in support of grass-roots and regional conservation initiatives. In about 25 listening sessions around the U.S, local citizens and conservation leaders sounded off about how a federal initiative could help them save land, promote sustainable agriculture and boost local enjoyment of the outdoors.

I give the federal officials credit for 1) listening before formulating their policy recommendations to the President (expected in mid-November); 2) working together across agencies; and 3) recognizing the important role that land conservation organizations play in protecting our precious natural resources.

At the Hudson Valley listening sessions the chorus of voices harmonized around several themes: 1) we stand ready to work with federal officials; 2) we have a tradition of collaborating among NGOs, and with business and government officials; and 3) we have well-conceived plans that identify the top priority lands for conservation and strategies for making our cities vibrant places to live and work. 4) The only missing ingredient is federal funds to support these efforts.


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Building a Partnership with America's Great Outdoors

 

In August, Scenic Hudson, the organization I run, helped organize a "listening session" with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and top federal officials from the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, at the FDR Home and Library in Hyde Park, and at a farm we helped protect in Clermont in Columbia County. Over 400 people turned out for the events. 

What brought us together was President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative (AGO). Kicked off by the President last April at a White House conference, the AGO promises to mobilize and focus federal resources in support of grass-roots and regional conservation initiatives. In about 25 listening sessions around the U.S, local citizens and conservation leaders sounded off about how a federal initiative could help them save land, promote sustainable agriculture and boost local enjoyment of the outdoors.  

 


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Doug Tompkins, Kris Tompkins and Their Fight to Preserve Patagonia

Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization I head, celebrated the accomplishments of Kris and Doug Tompkins at its annual gala on June 24. Both left extraordinary business careers (Kris was CEO of Patagonia, while Doug founded The North Face and Esprit) to take on visionary conservation initiatives. The work they have achieved over the last decade in South America, personally preserving 2.2 million acres, not only inspires but raises the bar for all of us striving to protect the earth's great, remaining wilderness areas.

kris and doug tompkins

On a personal note, Patagonia's equipment and its founder, legendary mountaineer Yvon Chouinard, inspired me to become a rock climber as a young man. The "clean climbing" gear he invented transformed the sport, saved my life on numerous occasions and instilled in me an ethic that we can enjoy the outdoors but must protect nature from damage.

Scenic Hudson is dedicated to safeguarding the magnificent natural resources in New York's Hudson River Valley. Amazingly, despite its proximity to New York City, the region has much in common with the remote landscapes of Patagonia that Kris and Doug are conserving. Both feature world-class scenery, provide habitat for an unusual variety of life and are places where farming is an important part of the culture. Sadly, both also face myriad threats....


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Inspiring Graduates to Tackle the Problem of Global Warming

graduate inspired by a graduation ceremony speech

On May 15 I delivered the commencement address to graduates of the University at Albany's Geography and Planning program in upstate New York. I'd offer the same advice to all recent grads – in fact, to anyone committed to ensuring a healthy future for the planet. Therefore, this month I'd like to share my remarks:

I'm sure many people are reminding you of what an important moment this is for you, both looking back and looking ahead. The choices you've made–or are still trying to make—about your first job, your summer bumming around Europe, whether or not to extend or end that romance... and others will set the course for your future.

One can never know where a choice will lead you, which reminds me of one of Yogi Berra's mind-bending sayings – "When you get to the fork in the road, take it!" The famous Yankees catcher also astutely noted, "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."

After graduating from college, I worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game 200 miles from the nearest road or village, competing with grizzly bears for the attention of spawning salmon in mountain streams. I was planning to set down roots in Alaska when I received a job offer from a French liqueur manufacturer in the Alps, a choice I took, though it doesn't appear on my resume.

Just as the choices you make will set your compass, choices we make as a nation will chart a course for the future well-being of the citizens of the United States and, indeed, the entire planet. Today and every day for the past three weeks ...


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Closing State Parks Won't Solve Budget Crisis

walkway over the hudson

Several times I've written about Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, which sits atop the former Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge (pictured, pre-reconstruction) spanning New York's Hudson River. Since opening last October, nearly half a million people have enjoyed the spectacular views, shattering projected visitation figures and boosting local businesses. Yet to help close an $8.2-billion deficit, Gov. David Paterson has proposed closing the park three months a year and opening it only five days a week the rest of the time. It's one of nearly 80 state parks and historic sites slated for closure or cutbacks to save $6.3 million.

Another potential victim is Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, the magnificent 18th-century home of one of New York's earliest and most prominent landowning families, which now sits in the heart of the state's fourth largest city. Long a source of civic pride and a center for community meetings, the mansion connects hundreds of local schoolchildren each year with the Hudson Valley's past. And it figures in ambitious plans to revitalize the city's long-depressed downtown by uncovering portions of an historic Hudson River tributary that flows past the house – a project decades in the making led by the mayor and supported by state, civic, business and environmental leaders....


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Protecting Farms Saves More than Local Food

Grasslands at Scenic Hudson's Poets' Walk Park

At the age of 12, I was playing with matches in the only grassy field in my urban neighborhood in Yonkers, New York. Pretty soon, my summer fun turned into a dangerous game as a match flicked through the air ignited dry grass. When I frantically stomped on the smoky spot, it turned into a fireball which seemed to magically move to another part of the field. I ran to sound the alarm. But by the time the fire engines arrived, the entire field was charred and smoldering. Fortunately for me, the firemen dowsed the field before any neighboring houses went up in smoke. While I escaped reform school, you can bet my summer fun was replaced by a lengthy grounding and an endless succession of backyard and house chores.

Decades later, I would come to appreciate the important role grasslands play in the circle of life in the Hudson Valley and throughout the world. Scenic Hudson's terrific Conservation Science Director Dr. Sacha Spector has deepened my understanding with a fascinating article recently published in Wings, the Journal of the Xerces Society. Sacha also oversees our grassland restoration projects on park lands owned by Scenic Hudson....


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