Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

Legacy Landscapes: The Hudson Highlands

HIghlands ParksJune 20, 2014 —  As the Open Space Institute celebrates its 40th year conserving land, certain landscapes rise to the top of our record books. They are not just the places where we’ve worked the longest or protected the most land; these are the landscapes where OSI has preserved the fiber of community. These places embody that which makes New York great.

It is in these regions—the Hudson Highlands, Shawangunks, Catskills, Capital Region and the Adirondacks—that OSI has created and enhanced recreational access, and preserved farms and forests. The Open Space Institute has protected the qualities that make these places special over the last four decades.

In 2014, we will profile these “Legacy Landscapes,” and tell their stories—what drew OSI to these regions, what challenges we faced along the way, and, in the end, what made each one so special.

Stretching across the Hudson River and rising as much as 1,600 feet from Peekskill to the city of Newburgh, the Hudson Highlands was the first region to become an OSI Legacy Landscape.

Over the years, the region has been adored by many. In the mid-19th century its scenic and dramatic landscapes inspired the Hudson River School of painting. Today the Highlands boast thousands of acres of public land, including some of New York’s most-visited state parks.

It is also rich with American history. The Highlands awed Henry Hudson 400 years ago when he sailed the river that would take his surname. During the Revolutionary War, the Highlands were central to the colonies’ fight for independence.

In 1778, the Americans moved to fortify the river in the Hudson Highlands, leading to the creation of West Point. Two years later, Benedict Arnold made his infamous flee from Garrison in the dark of night. In 1991, OSI would preserve Glenclyffe, part of Arnold’s escape route.

By the early 1980s, however, OSI Chairman John Adams saw fragmentation as a threat to the region he called home. 

“Things were happening in the countryside in terms of super development,” Adams said. “The land was really getting grabbed up by expansion that wasn’t attractive or planned.”

The organization’s first Highlands acquisition was 86 acres of farm fields surrounding Castle Rock, the historic Osborn estate.

“Unless something very special was done with this farmland,” Adams said, “it was going to be subdivided, and it really might have been the end of the Hudson Highlands that was so historic.”

Protected and opened to the public, the lands now form a trail connection between Arden Point State Park and the Osborn Preserve. Subsequent OSI efforts preserved land at the Highlands Country Club and the former Livingston estate, creating even more riverside access for the public.

“These were some of the projects that put us on the map, and led to OSI playing a major role in conservation in New York State,” said Kim Elliman, OSI’s president and CEO.

Indeed, the early Hudson Highlands acquisitions led shortly thereafter to a series of partnerships with New York State and Gov. George Pataki, himself a native of the region, through which OSI added thousands of privately owned lands to Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park, more than doubling its size.

“There was a proposed 700-unit housing development on the Hubbard estate that would have devastated the Highlands, and we were able to acquire it. With the momentum of that acquisition, we ultimately doubled Fahnestock,” Elliman said. In all, OSI has added nearly 7,000 acres to Fahnestock, greatly increasing access to the natural world for its 300,000 annual visitors.

In 1997, OSI partnered with The Trust for Public Land on a landmark 17,000-acre acquisition in Orange County. It not only created Sterling Forest State Park, but also protected sensitive wildlife habitat and drinking water sources for 25 percent of New Jersey. Now managed by New York State, Sterling Forest harnessed the efforts of numerous public and private partners, and was a tremendous success for the conservation community.

In fact, it was the Sterling Forest acquisition and OSI’s creation—virtually from scratch—of the nearby Schunnemunk Mountain State Park that burnished our standing statewide, showing conclusively that OSI could navigate complex, high profile transactions.

In recent years, OSI’s Alliance for New York State Parks has continued to enhance the visitor experience at our state parks, leading an ongoing public-private partnership to overhaul Fahnestock’s Canopus Lake visitor and recreation area.

In Orange County, OSI has also protected a highly climate-resilient corridor between the Black Rock Forest and Schunnemunk State Park. Expanding critical roaming grounds for wildlife that may be on the move as its habitat changes, the corridor—including the 702-acre Legacy Ridge parcel—is highly ranked for dozens of wildlife species.

For residents and visitors, there is little doubt how special the Hudson Highlands are. Its history and diversity of land features, interwoven with America’s greatest river, provide the backdrop for a region that thrives today. It is clean water, recreation, wildlife and farming. It is indelibly New York, its lands protected and radiant, and it is unquestionably an OSI Legacy Landscape.

READ MORE IN HIKING IN THE HIGHLANDS

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