The Meaning of Green: The Challenges of Funding for Environmental Protection and Historical Preservation

My last post focused on the strong connection between outdoor recreation and education in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.  The theme to be examined here are the ongoing efforts to preserve and maintain open space throughout the region so as to ensure that the general public continues to enjoy its environmental, recreational and educational benefits.  Just as there are an impressive number of physical sites that demonstrate the region’s historical heritage and natural beauty, there are also a significant number of non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving these critical public resources.  As with most non-profits, raising money is a constant endeavor.     

One such organization is the NY/NJ Trail Conference (hereafter TC), a non-profit organization founded in 1923 that helped pioneer and develop the now famous Appalachian Trail (AT).  The first section opened on Bear Mountain and today covers practically the entire length along the Appalachian Mountains, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine and is used by both long-distance and local hikers.  The TC is responsible for maintaining more than 1,850 miles (and growing) of hiking trails throughout the region.  It also has a vibrant outreach program to solicit funds from its members as well as public and private businesses to safeguard open space from “development.”  Especially during an era of budget-cutting, the TC’s work in this regard is more important than ever. 

Many of the trails monitored by the TC meander along vital sites where historical events helped to shape the development of the region and the country as well.  By protecting and maintaining a vibrant trail network, therefore, the TC is also helping to protect the region’s invaluable historical legacy.  Most of its outdoor work is performed by volunteers, and as part of its outreach program and keeping the public engaged, the TC has started a program called Trail University, an education initiative designed to teach volunteers how to build and construct trails.  Directly as a result of this initiative, the TC has managed to complete some of the region’s most remarkable trail projects, namely the realignment and restoration of the AT on Bear Mountain, which is used by more than 100,000 hikers a year.  The more the public is involved, the greater the benefits.         

The focus of the TC’s work is in Harriman State Park, located in New York and just a few miles from the TC’s headquarters in Mahwah, New Jersey.  Harriman’s beauty and rugged landscape makes it hard to fathom that a metropolis like New York City is only one hour south from the main entrance.  It is equally hard to imagine that the terrain was once completely denuded of trees, and dominated by forges and furnaces which spewed soot and pollution as it was home to a vibrant iron-ore industry that dates back to colonial times.  Production ramped up in the nineteenth century, but the significance here is that the area contributed to the development of the region’s economy and just as importantly to the success of the American cause in the Revolution and to the Union effort during the Civil War. 

Evidence of iron-mining still abounds in the park, as scars such as mining pits and residual iron-ore rock litter the landscape.  There were also active communities of miners and farmers living within its confines, the more famous one called Doodletown.  While there is limited signage throughout the park, the TC has done a remarkable job in furnishing publications that detail this fascinating history. 

But as always, the major concern confronting entities like the NY/NJ Trail Conference is raising financial funds.  The TC relies mainly on volunteers not only for physical work on the trail but monetary contributions as well from its members.  It also actively seeks and pursues contributions from private businesses.  One such example is a recent donation of $30,000 from one of the leading outdoor retailers in the country, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, better known as REI, to the TC’s Trail University program. 

Such significant donations obviously help in the endless drive to raise money, especially at a time when federal and state governments are reducing their contributions.  However, generous donations are not always forthcoming and non-profits must always make do with the resources at hand.  Even the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition, which has led successful campaigns to pass statewide ballot measures in the last six years for open space funding, continues to seek a permanent source of capital from the state as the risk of exhausted funds is always present.  A permanent source, then, can confidently ensure that organizations can spend less time worrying about raising funds and more time devoting their efforts on saving and preserving open space and precious historic sites.     

The Hudson Highlands State Park preserves nearly 6,000 acres of land. The village of Cold Spring is just south of this view. [Photo courtesy of the author]
When adequate resources are garnered, the tangible benefits of preservation can act as an economic engine for local businesses and communities.  While the TC has certainly done its share, there are several organizations that have also contributed to the region’s environmental and cultural legacy.  Scenic Hudson, based in Poughkeepsie, New York, has concentrated its work on the revitalization of historic towns throughout the Hudson River Valley.  One such beneficiary is Cold Spring, once a thriving industrial and railroad hub dating back to the Civil War. 

That industrialization, however, came at an environmental price.  Not long ago, Cold Spring’s riverbank was a Superfund site which threatened animal, plant and human life.  After years of cleanup, the site was taken off the list in 1996 and Scenic Hudson subsequently purchased a portion of the property.  Since that time, Cold Spring has been a major draw and attraction for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts from throughout the region and beyond.  Cold Spring still boasts an active rail passenger line which whisks visitors up from New York City.   With Hudson Highlands State Park nearby, kayaking and canoeing opportunities along the waterfront, and Scenic Hudson’s new historic park set to emerge, Cold Spring’s resurgence and vitality (though no business has been immune to the economic downturn) has clearly benefitted from the economics of outdoor recreation and historical preservation.