Mountains Without Borders—Land&People

If an alien is something from another time and place, then the Taconics are alien mountains. A gigantic chunk of ancient Cambrian seabed, they were bulldozed to the earth’s surface when Europe collided with North America half a billion years ago. Older than their flanking valleys by a hundred million years, they are geologically an island of slates, shales, and schists stranded in a sea of granite and marble. And like any island, the Taconics have an ecosystem all their own.

“The Green Mountains are a desert compared to the Taconics.” We’re perched on Cedar Rock in Vermont, looking three miles across the valley at the state’s namesake mountains.Deep scratches in the rock beneath us are clues that a glacier once buried all we see. “The Taconics,” Jim Henderson continues,”have a wider plant diversity. They grow bigger trees. They have more animals.” He might add, without exaggeration, that even the rainwater from the Taconics is sweeter.

“You always sit there, Dad,” six-year-old Colin teases. Clearly, this is a favorite spot; Jim, a local planner working to preserve the Taconics, later admits to bringing Nancy, Colin’s mom, here to ask for her hand. Colin and my son, Matt, shepherd four-year-old Nate away from the edge, while one-year-old Owen gurgles in the sunlight.

“It’s all in the geology,” Jim explains. The granite-based Green Mountains across the valley have fathered poorly draining, acidic clay soils; they support a sparse maple forest. In contrast, the Taconics’ shale forms a sandier, well-draining, alkaline soil, and its diverse forest is thick with mighty red oaks. The oaks shower the mountainsides with acorns, high-protein fodder for black bears and wild turkeys–indeed, one trip through Petersburgh Pass was delayed while a disdainful gobbler strutted slowly across the road.

Even the fishing is better. The Battenkill, flowing below us, is a world-renowned trout stream–not because the Orvis Company ties flies on its banks but because its western branches flow out of the Taconics. Again, it’s the geology. Rain, acidic in the Northeast, percolates hundreds of feet through the fractured shale and is buffered by calcium in the rock before it bubbles out to create the perfect environment for brookies.

A natural barrier, rich with history

On the map, the Taconics are a sliver of mountains, at most 20 miles wide, marching some 160 miles up New York state’s eastern border from northern Connecticut, past Massachusetts and well north into Vermont. Rich with history, brimming with wildlife, boasting grand vistas at every break, and still filled with gentle forest sounds, they have been “discovered” by growing numbers of urbanites seeking second homes in the country. From Stephentown, New York, where a bulldozed path crawls up toward a planned mountaintop subdivision, north to Arlington, Vermont, where a local hunter notes ruefully that “the lights are getting higher and higher on the mountain,” development pressure is building.

Preservation efforts are under way in both Vermont and New York, but these efforts could hardly be more different. In a way, that should be no surprise. The high Taconic peaks have divided the two states since colonial times; in fact, they are probably the reason Vermont exists as a state. The territory east of the mountains was claimed by the Colony of New York, but the Taconics gave Vermont hero Ethan Allen the high ground in his defiant fight for Vermont home rule. Allen fought the so-called “Yorkers” for five years before turning his arms against King George III. And despite her Green Mountain Boys’ critical victories against the British at Ticonderoga and Bennington, Vermont was not among the 13 original states. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the village of Arlington, nestled below us, became capital of the independent Republic of Vermont. It was not until 1791, when the Yorkers gave up their claim, that Vermont became our fourteenth state.

In Vermont: the right to preserve

Local control remains a bedrock belief in Vermont, and it echoed in the debate over preserving the Taconic forests. John Merwin, in his 1993 book The Battenkill, describes a preservation opponent who “during local meetings rails on at great length about…the perceived evils of any state or regional encroachment on individual liberties.” Ironically, says Henderson, it was that same respect for individual rights that ultimately won the conservation fight.

Jim Henderson is a transplant, an urban planner who now lives in a log cabin at the base of Big Spruce near Arlington. Motivated by the loss of the open space he knew as a boy growing up on Cape Cod, he works for the Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC), an early and strong proponent of preservation. “Growing up, I hunted duck every day of the season,” Henderson says. “Now, access to the Cape’s salt marshes and barrier islands is closed. I don’t want to see that happen here when my boys grow up.”

The primary tool for protecting the Taconics in Vermont is a 1991 act, championed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), extending the boundaries of the Green Mountain National Forest west to include the Taconics. Expansion of the forest came only after lengthy local debate–all eight affected towns had to approve resolutions before Congress would act on Leahy’s bill. The Trust for Public Land worked closely with the Forest Service and the BCRC, explaining the benefits of National Forest protection–keeping the land open to all for walking, hunting, and forestry. It was an argument that resonated; residents accustomed to being able to hike and hunt were finding entire mountains posted with no-trespass signs as private clubs bought up hunting rights.

Using computer mapping, Henderson assessed the entire forest, acre by acre, for the BCRC, rating its potential for productive forestry, recreation, habitat, public water-supply protection, and development. TPL also helped counter tax-loss concerns, demonstrating the considerable cost of town services–plowing snow, for instance–at the high elevations and pointing out that the Forest Service makes payments in lieu of taxes.

The benefits of this outreach go beyond the issue at hand. “Participating in these campaigns to win town approval for expanding the forest is helping us bring the conservation message to a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily hear it anywhere else,” says TPL Project Manager David Houghton. “Overall, it’s really strengthening our grassroots support base here in New England.”

Expanding the national forest boundary was just the beginning. TPL worked in four towns to conserve 4,100 acres. Each land transfer needed local approval. In Arlington, TPL held options on some 3,500 acres while landowners sought the town’s permission to sell to the federal government. Debate was intense. Longtime local activist Dick Lacy believes that TPL’s low-key educational program played a significant role. “TPL played it right,” Lacy says. “They didn’t try to stuff anything down anyone’s throat.”

The arguments against outside control were not all knee-jerk. Wilcox Lumber, on a rise overlooking the Battenkill, has been sawing Taconic timber for the furniture and flooring industries since the 1920s. John Wilcox, its fourth-generation proprietor, can tell what’s being cut by sniffing–yellow birch smells like wintergreen, and oak–well, oak just doesn’t smell that good. Wilcox cuts his trees carefully: “We take pride because we live here.” He fears what will happen when the Forest Service auctions timber rights. “You can bid higher if you cut slam-bang,” he says. “A guy can make an awful mess in a week’s time.” Still, Wilcox adds, “People have a right to sell to whom they want.”

And there, preservationists found a hot button. Henderson wrote in a typical letter to the editor, “What role, if any, should the town play in the negotiations between a willing seller of private property and a willing buyer? I have always assumed that it is an inherent, fundamental right of a landowner to be able to sell or give land to whomever one wishes.” In Vermont, individual rights still trump; Arlington voters approved preservation 321 to 225, and now Colin and Nate and Owen, and anyone else who wants to, will always be able to hike the forest to Cedar Rock.

In New York: saving more than a trail

Locals like to joke that the Taconics are “hole-y” mountains. There’s the waterfall above Vermont’s Emerald Lake that cascades into a marble hole, never to reappear. There’s New York’s Snow Hole, a rock cleft so deep that snow at the bottom is said never to melt. Someplace nearby is a bottomless hole, its exact location unknown since a farmer, tired of losing sheep, chained two teams of horses to a nearby rock and dragged it across to cover the opening. And then there’s Jim Jensen’s woodchuck cave.

“I discovered it when I was a Boy Scout,” says Jensen, who is in charge of land acquisition for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC). “We were hiking to the Snow Hole, and I found what I thought was a large woodchuck hole. We crawled in and explored what seemed like a big cave.” Decades later, on a whim, he found the cave again and carefully lowered himself in. “And there I was,” Jensen laughs, “in my ‘big cave,’ with half my body sticking out of the ground.”

For years, New Yorkers overlooked the Taconics, flocking instead to the better known Catskill and Adirondack mountains. That changed in the 1980s; second-home development began threatening the Taconic Crest Trail, which crossed much private property along its 30-mile meander. Old landowners, sensitive to rural traditions of passage, were hospitable to hikers; the new owners of subdivided enclaves might not be so generous.

The critical moment for New York came in 1986. Tom Jorling, driving through Petersburgh Pass on his way to teach environmental studies at Williams College in over-the-hill Massachusetts, saw a sign; a key trailhead on the Crest Trail was for sale. Jorling rallied the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, which in turn enlisted the Open Space Institute of New York. Within 90 days, they had met the quarter-million-dollar price tag. The acquisition preserved 620 acres: not just a trailhead but a mountainside from which you can see the Berkshires, the Taconics, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks in one grand, eye-stretching panorama.

Then, in a lucky break for the trail, Jorling was named commissioner of the NYDEC. Jorling was Jim Jensen’s new boss, and Jensen quickly found himself in charge of preserving his childhood backyard.

He turned to TPL for help. “Time was running out,” says Rose Harvey, TPL regional vice president for the Mid-Atlantic. “With taxes increasing, the owners of large parcels–especially local timber companies–were forced to begin considering subdivision and development as a way to offset their tax burden.”

Caught squarely in the tax bind was the W. J. Cowee Company, for a hundred years the industrial backbone of rural Rensselaer County east of Albany. Cowee has practiced sustainable forestry on the Taconic Ridge for generations, annually harvesting some 4 million board feet of white birch and hard maple for use in its wood-turning plant. But escalating property taxes–Cowee forests cover 17,500 acres–were threatening the company’s viability and the livelihood of some 135 people who work there. Unlike Vermont, the New York timbermen welcomed preservation, and local governments supported the state’s conservation efforts.

“We needed to find a way to mix land protection with economic benefits,” Jensen recalls. “We needed to protect jobs.” The win-win solution was to purchase outright a mountaintop corridor for the trail and then buy conservation easements on the mountainside forest. Cowee got an infusion of cash, and the company’s timber source–along with the trail, hunting rights, and open space–was protected.

While the state was negotiating with Cowee, TPL worked with local landowners. Over a decade, the Trust negotiated the transfer of thousands of acres to what was becoming the Taconic Ridge State Forest. State forest designation erased a major source of local opposition, since it meant the state would pay town and school taxes on the land.

Financing was creative–the Snow Hole was purchased in part with penalty money collected from a municipality that didn’t close its landfill on time. Other funding came from the federal Forest Legacy Program, a chronically underfunded program designed to preserve private forestland. And the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, pushed by New York Governor George Pataki, included funding for open space preservation. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer native, earmarked $2 million to protect the trail. “That,” says Jensen, “is when I knew the trail would be safe.” But when the money wasn’t there–and it often wasn’t–TPL bought the land and held it until the state could work out financing.

“The Crest Trail transactions were some of the toughest TPL has ever encountered,” says TPL Project Manager Dene Lee. “The cobbling together of federal, state, and local funding coupled with complex timber easements–you name it–we plowed through a lot.” To date, nearly 11,000 acres have been preserved, and most of the trail–about 85 percent–is now secure. “And while there’s no imminent threat to the remainder,” Lee adds, “we are working to ensure the entire trail will always be open.”

In saving the trail, New York may be preserving something larger. It may be saving a fast-disappearing way of life–where a tree cut on a hill is milled in the valley to create a product that supports the local community; where you can put a haunch of venison in the freezer; where a kid can discover a cave.


Postcript: The preservation effort is moving into the southern Taconics now, along the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders, where there are more mountains, more trails. “We just protected Harvey Mountain in Austerlitz,” Lee says, “and we’re working all the way south to Webatuck, New York, where we’re negotiating to preserve the Boy Scouts’ old Camp Siwanoy.”

Camp Siwanoy? Suddenly I’m no longer just a reporter writing another person’s story. Every summer morning of my farm-boy childhood, I woke to the sounds of reveille rolling down the valley from the scratchy loudspeakers of next-door Camp Siwanoy. Jim Jensen’s memories–of tramping the woods, climbing mountains, even discovering a cave–became my memories. A chain of mountains apart, Jim and I are brothers, and I am reminded that we are all connected by the land.

Land & People, Spring, 1999

Richard M. Stapleton writes frequently on environmental and conservation issues. He is the author of a TPL report, Protecting the Source, on the benefits of watershed protection. For a copy of the report, call 800-714-LAND.