EDITORIAL: Where the resources are

CONSPIRACY THEORISTS, take note: the 2018 NRI for Columbia County has just been released. All 300 or so pages of it. It’s full of threats and other compelling topics. There’s one small problem, though. It’s full of things called facts.

The NRI is short for the “2018 Natural Resources Inventory of Columbia County, New York” prepared by Hudsonia Ltd., with contributions from the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program and coordinated by the Columbia Land Conservancy. The whole effort was under the direction of the Columbia County Environmental Management Council.

Deeply researched and full of photos and maps, the publication is meant, in its own words, as “a practical reference for residents, landowners, developers, municipal agencies, conservation NGOs, and others interested in understanding, using, and caring for the land and water of the county.” That’s a modest description of this up-to-the-minute portrait of the place we live.

In a sense it’s an intelligence document that gives the reader background and context of the natural world around us and assesses what’s at risk as the climate changes. But it’s no doomsday prediction. Instead, it reminds us of all the resources–the water, the landscape, the wildlife agriculture, demographics and more that we’d be wise to take into consideration as we to plot our future.

We might already be resolving some of the risk factors. One estimate cited by the report concluded the county’s population might drop as much as 20% by the year 2040. Even if that’s way off base, losing people in any significant number is not the best way to improve how we use this county’s natural resources.

Having this list of resources and the accompanying information on how climate change could affect those resources gives town boards, planning boards, zoning boards of appeals and developers a much better picture of what impact a particular project may have on a neighborhood and the surrounding community. This matters for real-world development projects.

Consider the proposal by Global Partners, the company that owns the Xtra Mart gas station/convenience store chain, to build a new store in the Town of Livingston. (Disclosure: The Columbia Paper is sold at Xtra Mart stores.) The new store would be bigger and have truck fuel pumps. Neighbors want a full environmental review of the project before town officials determine whether to approve the new project.

Although the neighbors have identified several concerns, the protection of the watershed beneath the site of the proposed gas station and the site of the existing store is a challenge that potentially affects the largest number of people. The neighbors’ group hired a hydrogeologist, who identified aquifers below or near the proposed site. But now there is a second opinion, not paid for by any interested group, that can support the presence of water supplies beneath the site.

In a limited but crucial way, this is exactly what the county Natural Resources Inventory is for. It offers a reality check. A natural resources inventory can’t determine the outcome of an application like Global Partners’ but it can help the Planning Board make the right decision: a determination that the neighbors have reason to be concerned about a threat to their watershed and the applicant must conduct a full state environmental quality review.

It’s expensive to prepare a full environmental review, because of the experts required to devise workable plans for mitigating the anticipated impacts. It takes time, too, and that means lost revenues to the applicant. And in the review process, new questions can pop up that nobody thought of before. All of these are risks shouldered by the developer.

The site at the Route 9 intersection with Routes 9H, 23 and 82 is a busy place. Global Partners wouldn’t build a new gas station/store there unless the company expected to profit from it. But what’s the cost of a polluted watershed? Measure that tragedy not just in dollars but in public health, lost property values and the understanding that these types of messes can outlive us all.

So now we have a reference book created by exceptionally qualified people. It helps us understand how local development of all kinds fit into the natural world that we share. Congratulations to the authors and contributors. Let’s hope there will be many updates in the years to come and that the inventory itself will grow.

A link to the NRI is on the Columbia County Environmental Management Council website. To reach the website search on the full name of the council.

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