HARD TO MISS Storm King Mountain if you take a daytime train to or from New York City. Its sheer rock face broods over a chokepoint in the Hudson River 50-some miles south of here, a grumpy Sphinx of a mountain. If it doesn’t like you, watch out.
Hard, also, to believe that a utility once decided to build a power plant on the face of Storm King. Not just any old plant either; Consolidated Edison wanted a pumped storage system, where a huge amount of water would be pumped up the mountain at night and released during the day to generate hydroelectric power. Think of it as a kind of perpetual motion machine… if you ignore the nighttime pumping part.
That was 1963, a half century ago, and the great minds who dreamed up that nightmare would have built it without regard for one of our most important landmarks and the habitats it sustains, including the fish in the river. They didn’t succeed because of what started as a handful of determined individuals who founded an organization now called Scenic Hudson.
Scenic Hudson is still around, and while its projects in Columbia County lately have been less dramatic than the battle over Storm King, the organization retains its original commitment to long-term projects. But some county residents are suspicious of Scenic Hudson’s efforts to preserve undeveloped land, viewing them as unnecessary, meddlesome or a threat to property rights. The organization’s announcement last week that it has purchased an additional 173 acres in Greenport may alarm them.
What gives a carpetbagger group with headquarters down south in Poughkeepsie the right to buy land in our backyard? And why all the fuss about “protecting” land when it’s really landowners’ rights that need protection?
The answer to the first question is the obvious notion that since Scenic Hudson has bought land here, as it has in Greenport, we’re now in their backyard as much as they’re in ours. Free country, right?
You don’t have to love your neighbor, but one nice thing about Scenic Hudson and its backyards is that they have to invited all of us over for a visit… whenever we want.
The group also plans to ask the public for ideas on how to use its backyard. Scenic Hudson wants the public involved because its staff is looking for ways to balance recreational uses with the steps needed to sustain local environments. The plants and animals we see on that land aren’t just pretty and probably quite tasty; they serve as an environmental dipstick monitoring the health of the landscape that sustains us too.
The lower reach of the new parcel connects to South Bay Creek wetlands, which feed the South Bay. You can see the South Bay wetlands, which are not part of the recent Scenic Hudson purchase, while driving along Route 9G just south of Hudson.
Experts say that wetlands are among the most effective protections against floods. Analysis of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, suggests flooding was more severe there because of the loss of nearby wetlands. Anyone who has been forced to take long detours after heavy rains submerge Route 9G might can imagine why protecting local wetlands could be helpful.
It also turns out that the wellheads for the Town of Greenport are adjacent to the 173 acres just purchased by Scenic Hudson, so the protection of this property increases the margin of safety for the town’s public water source. Is that such a big deal? If you drink tap water, cook food or bathe in Greenport you might consider it a plus.
There’s always an alternative to getting out ahead of problems like pollution threats and flood safety. We can ask government to fix what’s broken. The town or county or state can do the job, but that often requires imposing severe restrictions when emergencies arise. Governments also end up raising our taxes to pay for what’s needed. In extreme cases government agencies can seize property by exercising the power of eminent domain. Is that what we want?
The people of Scenic Hudson buy land from willing sellers. They use a free market approach to achieve positive goals. They give the people affected by their actions a voice in the process and you don’t have to like them to benefit from what they do. They’ve been working at this for 50 years and one thing for certain is clear: we’re better off because of what Scenic Hudson has done.