Updates from the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut Highlands

Highlands Trail on its way to Pennsylvania

September 10th, 2008 Posted in Pennsylvania | No Comments »

The 150-mile Highlands Trail will soon enter Pennsylvania in the tiny Bucks County borough of Riegelsville. The Highlands Trail begins in Cornwall, New York where it travels over Storm King Mountain, and the last few New Jersey miles, from the Musconetcong Gorge Preserve to the Delaware River border, will be designated this fall. The Trail will cross the historic Roebling bridge over the Delaware, and once in Bucks County, will be welcomed in a celebration planned for the spring and embraced by the Borough. Jennifer Heisey, Mid-Atlantic Recreation Planner for Appalachian Mountain Club, is leading the planning and implementation of what will be the ‘PA Highlands Trail Network’, with the help of a Steering Committee which the Coalition sits on. She recently presented the Trail and the idea of a celebration for it’s crossing into Pennsylvania. Riegelsville Borough listened attentively and is supportive. Here’s a Philadelphia Intelligencer article on Heisey’s presentation to the Borough Council: http://www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/113-08182008-1578142.html

NIETC Hearings Update

August 1st, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

On Thursday, leading figures in progressive energy policy provided testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about the harmful effects of a proposed National Interest Electricity Transmission Corridor (NIETC). The 2005 Energy Bill authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to designate such a corridor, and in 2008, after virtually no public input and against the will of the states, DOE identified nearly all of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York as potential routes for the corridor.Before subsidizing dirty coal generation from the midwest power plants with new lines in the East, we should be exploring alternatives, rather than subsidizing dirty coal power generation from the mid-west. Otherwise, we risk both immediately fragmenting our important natural places, and undercutting our efforts to curb climate change in the long run. Senator Casey and others have strongly opposed DOE’s process, including authoring a letter with 14 other Senators to the Committee requesting the hearing. In his testimony, Senator Casey (PA) said, “I don’t think that this is the way the federal government ought to flex its muscle over states and towns.  The fact that over 2,000 public comments expressing concerns over the draft corridor designation were sent to the Energy Department, and yet the final designation was virtually unchanged, should concern all of us.” Unfortunately, with the exception of Senator Menendez (NJ), most of the session included softball questions without too much inquisition. On a positive note, Menendez extracted a promise from the DOE to produce a document that outlines the alternatives they actually considered. When we see it, we’ll believe it.

Walkable neighborhoods

July 28th, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

Evan Brandt from the Pottstown Mercury has a great blog where he talks about a new website that calculates your neighborhood’s “walkability” score. Go to http://www.walkscore.com/ and enter your address, and it calculates distances to important amenities (food, drugstores, etc.). Unfortunately, it doesn’t take into account mass transit, but it’s still a good rough approximation. They’ve calcuated the score for all the major US cities and Philly (#5) and New York (#2) ranked highly. Vist the website, enter your address and let us know your community’s score!

Good information as we try to trim down the region’s carbon footprint!

New Jersey Regional Master Plan

July 18th, 2008 Posted in New Jersey | No Comments »

The NJ Highlands Council approved the draft RMP after a marathon session yesterday in Morristown. Unfortunately, it did not include several critical elements that members of the Coalition strongly supported, including preventing new development in water deficit areas. It now goes to the governor for approval or veto.

Lucky 13

July 10th, 2008 Posted in Pennsylvania | No Comments »

Last week, Cumberland County became the 13th Pennsylvania county in the Highlands to pass a resolution of support for conservation of the region’s important resources. The resolution states, “The inclusion of Cumberland County within the Pennsylvania Mega-Greenway and the protection of the Highlands region in Pennsylvania as an area rich in natural resources, which are important to the environmental quality and economic prosperity of the Commonwealth and our County.”

Cumberland joins Adams, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton,  and York counties, which all passed similar resolutions.  The Coalition has been working for the past two years engaging county leadership to gain support for conservation of the Highlands, as well as support for the Highlands Conservation Act.

Our next step in PA is to engage local municipalities. In the past decade they have been highly supportive of open space protection, often passing sizeable bonds and taxes. When combined with county and state funding, there is well over half a billion dollars for open space in eastern PA. Still, many municipal leaders need additional information about threatened areas, and the steps they can take to protect and care for them.

Light and Darkness

June 20th, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

It seems that the state land use policies in the Highlands are never quite on an even keel. Two steps forward in one area, one step back in another. One state surges ahead, another slips behind. But while we need to be ever aware of potential problems, we should champion any forward progress. In the past few weeks we’ve seen seriously flawed policy, inspiring proposals and solid success.

In New Jersey, the Permit Extension act has the gravest of potential threats to conservation efforts in that state. By simply extending the timeline for development permits, “thousands of projects would get a free pass” on environmental laws (Star Ledger editorial). Coalition members have been working the phones and the Internet in a concerted effort to stop it.

In Pennsylvania, a note of optimism. In a highly fragmented state where local land use decisions are sacrosanct, through the leadership of the Clean Water Campaign, a legislative proposal to require 100 foot riparian buffers on all new development might actually pass. This week, proponents held a rally in Harrisburg to champion the proposal, which received some good press as far away as CT.

Speaking of Connecticut, the statewide Face of Connecticut campaign succeeded in getting Public Act 08-174 passed and signed by Governor Rell. With 97 cosponsors, it had very broad support. The success lies in the establishment of a funding mechanism and policy improvements to land conservation and revitalization efforts. Unfortunately, it did not actually provide any funding. Much like the Highlands Conservation Act itself, funding will now have to be put into the Face of Connecticut account through another advocacy effort.

So there’s the light and the dark this week. A few steps forward and a few steps back. Someday we’ll get everyone stepping forward together. Maybe next week!

Finding the 21st Century

June 4th, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

The Highlands Coalition, like many nonprofits has a tremendous opportunity to leverage the power of emerging so-called social networks of Web 2.0. These networks connect people in new ways, allowing for recursive feedback and interaction that standard websites and emails simply cannot do. For example, this blog is one of our new tools for engaging both our current membership and community, as well as finding and drawing in new people. Visitors can post comments, and we’ll even be able to start blogs here for our partners and staff. You’ll be able to find it through blog search engines as well on Google, Technorati Profile, and others. In addition, we’ll soon be launching discussion forums for our members and migrating and streamlining our listserves to better serve members. Finally, stay tuned for the release of our new website in the next few weeks. It’ll take some time for us to move into the 21st Century, but it should be worthwhile for our Coalition with so many people strung out over such a great distance. We’ll be looking for lots of people to contribute their thoughts, stories and experiences, so check in regularly. For our part, we’ll do our best to provide useful information, links and reports.

Electricity Corridors

May 9th, 2008 Posted in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania | No Comments »

For those of you who haven’t yet heard (and there are many of you, I know), the Federal government has declared much of Pennsylvania and New York, as well as all of New Jersey as part of its National Interest Electricity Corridor. Which basically means that there are a whole new set of rules to follow that benefit the federal Department of Energy when it comes to siting new transmission lines.

A number of our members and partner groups have been organizing to inform people about the potential impacts of the proposed powerlines and the process associated with it. Some have filed a lawsuit against the DOE, others are launching a concerted media campaign. Most are working closely with the governors, Senators and Congressman who are supporting our efforts.

So what’s the issue? It boils down to four things:

  • An erosion of each state’s rights over land use
  • Direct impacts on wildlife, water and habitat
  • A targeting of preserved lands for rights-of-way
  • Counterproductive subsidies for dirty coal-fired plants

If any one of these were the only issue, it would be significant enough to raise a ruckus among the environmental community. With a combination of them, it should be galvanizing us greatly. Unfortunately, federal powerline transmission siting just isn’t the kind of thing to get folks moving, mostly because we’re a long way off before the constructions crews come along, and no one single land owner’s property has been threatened yet. The threat is more general, and in fact, more uniform. Nearly everyone’s land is threatened.

What are we to do? Talk about it. Get a speaker in to chat with your local organization, and let everyone know about the issue. Then, together we can increase the awareness among the public, and help guide this midguided policy back in the right direction - towards alternatives, renewable energy, and a forward-thinking energy policy.

Anticipation

May 2nd, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

Spring is often defined by its heavy scent of optimism and anticipation. Optimism that this year will be different (and hopefully better), and anticipation of positive changes in the world around us. In the Highlands, its no different. These days seems like despite the financial, housing, and energy woes, folks are generally more optimistic about land conservation. We’re all feeling the financial pinch, but for some reason, the more people I talk to in the conservation field, the more optimism I hear. They’re also eager to hear about issues on the federal front. For starters, we’re waiting to hear how the federal appropriations process will shape up in the next weeks. With two fantastic dear-colleague letters in the House and Senate, and strong support from a number of Members of the Highlands Delegation, I think its fair to say we’re hopeful about increasing funding under the Highlands Conservation Act in 2009. Still, as an election year, we can’t get ahead of ourselves as we may not have resolution on the Interior Appropriations bill until late in the calendar year. We’re also waiting on final passage of the long-awaited Farm Bill that has been working its way through conference committee. And the Senate is due to take up the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill in May or June. In addition, the NJ Regional Master Plan process is in its last stages with a flurry of meetings and activities by the Council and the NJ Highlands Coalition. So the optimism of springtime has clearly emerged from the winter fog. Let’s just hope that this year is different. And better.

Welcome!

April 28th, 2008 Posted in | No Comments »

Welcome to Notes from the Highlands, the first blog about conservation in the mid-Atlantic Highlands. We’ll be getting started in the next few weeks as the new website launches and we migrate folks over from the listserves to the discussion forums.

Coalition Celebrates First Property Preserved with Federal Highlands Funds

October 1st, 2007 Posted in | No Comments »

(West Milford, NJ) The Highlands Coalition honored the successful efforts of Senator Frank Lautenberg, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, and Congressman Scott Garrett to secure the first funds under the Highlands Conservation Act (HCA) towards the preservation of Camp Vacamas in the Wyanokie Highlands.  The Coalition also recognized the important role of the Garden State Preservation Trust (GSPT) in preserving the property and urged New Jersey voters to approve ballot question #3 in November to replenish the Trust for another year.  The State is purchasing 310 acres of Camp Vacamas using its share of the $2 million in HCA funds approved by Congress last year, as well as funds from the GSPT.

“The New Jersey Congressional Delegation provided incredible bi-partisan leadership in passing the Highlands Conservation Act,” said Jon Meade, Executive Director of the regional Highlands Coalition. “We greatly appreciate their efforts in securing the first funds under the Act for such vital projects as the preservation of Camp Vacamas, which is emblematic of the great partnership among Congress, federal and state agencies, nonprofit conservation groups, and local landowners in the region. We all recognize the tremendous need for land conservation in the Highlands, and we look forward to continued leadership from New Jersey’s delegation to fully fund the Act.”

The Highlands Conservation Act was passed in 2004 and authorizes $10 million annually in federal matching funds to assist the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in purchasing priority lands or development rights in areas identified by the U.S. Forest Service as having high conservation values.

“This is a historic day not only for Camp Vacamas, but for protection of the Highlands,” said John S. Watson, Deputy Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “Surrounded by hundreds of acres of woodlands and the rolling Ramapo Mountains, this land will continue to provide our children with diverse opportunities for outdoor experiences that show us precisely why we need to protect the Highlands for future generations.”

Camp Vacamas’s was founded in 1924 by a group of dedicated business people and educators. The organization is committed to enabling children from underserved families and communities to enjoy positive experiences. Over 5,000 children from the New Jersey and New York Urban Centers benefit from the camps services in areas ofrecreation and education.  The Camp is generously preserving 310 acres for its campers and the community to enjoy.

“We want to keep Camp Vacamas forever green and provide an opportunity for the 5,000 youngsters we serve a year to connect with nature and enjoy the outdoors,” said Michael Friedman, Executive Director for Vacamas Programs for Youth.

Also highlighted at the event was NJ ballot question #3, the Green Acres, Farmland, Blue Acres and Historic Preservation Bond Act of 2007.  If passed the Act would authorize the state of NJ to issue $200 million in general obligation bonds providing much-needed funds to keep New Jersey’s open space, farmland and historic preservation programs funded for another year.

“New Jersey residents deserve clean water, natural areas, preserved farmland and historic sites, and new, safe urban parks for our children.  Passage of  Public Question #3 will protect New Jersey’s quality of life for future generations, and ensure that our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy New Jersey’s land, water and natural beauty,” explained Thomas J. Gilmore, President, New Jersey Audubon Society.

The Highlands Coalition, made up of over 180 local, regional and national conservation groups, works to protect the sustainability of natural and human communities in the more than three million acre Highlands region of CT, NJ, NY and PA.  For more information, see www.highlandscoalition.org.

Deputy Director of the Interior visits NY Highlands

July 24th, 2007 Posted in | No Comments »

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 24th, 2007

(Cold Spring, NY) On Friday July 20th, the Highlands Coalition hosted Lynn Scarlett, Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), in a tour of the New York Highlands. The Deputy Secretary’s first stop was historic West Point Foundry Preserve in Cold Spring, NY, followed by a canoe trip at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary. The foundry and marsh are located in the NY Highlands, which constitute more than half a million acres within the greater 3.5-million-acre Highlands region of PA, NJ, NY and CT.

Speaking to a group of conservationists at the Constitution Marsh in the NY Highlands, Deputy Secretary Scarlett invoked Aldo Leopold’s writings, which underscore the importance of land conservation as an essential function of communities. According to Ms. Scarlett, cooperative conservation efforts in the Highlands, involving all levels of government, non-profit groups and the private sector, embody the concepts Leopold so masterfully articulated.

Congress passed the Highlands Conservation Act (HCA) in 2004, authorizing the DOI to distribute $10 million yearly for 10 years for Highlands land protection.

“Deputy Secretary Scarlett has been a champion for the Highlands and we are thrilled to host her here in the heart of the NY Highlands,” said Jon Meade, Executive Director of the Highlands Coalition. “Ms. Scarlett’s visit illustrates the importance of the four-state Highlands region to the Administration, which in 2007 directed $2 million in funding towards the Highlands Conservation Act.”

The Foundry Preserve tour was organized by Scenic Hudson and the Constitution Marsh canoe trip was organized by Audubon NY and Open Space Institute. The tour ended with an evening reception at a private residence in Cold Spring attended by local and state officials as well as members of the Highlands Coalition.

It’s an honor to have Lynn Scarlett spend a day in the Hudson Highlands,” noted Andy Chmar, Executive Director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. “As Deputy Secretary, she has been instrumental in helping promote the Highlands Conservation Act within the Department of the Interior. We hope that her visit illustrates the remarkable landscapes and natural resources in the region, and further reinforces the compelling need for full funding to the authorized level of $10 million yearly,” Chmar concluded.

The state will use its $500,000 share of federal funding to help preserve Arrow Park this year, which is part of greater Sterling Forest. The Highlands Coalition is hopeful that Congress will approve at least $2 million in funding for 2008, which would help preserve land in the Great Swamp.

The Highlands Coalition is 180 conservation organizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut dedicated to protecting the 3.5-million-acre Highlands as an enduring source of clean drinking water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for millions of Americans.

More information on the 2007 HCA projects can be found at: http://highlandscoalition.org/thehighlands.htm

All can reap benefits of Farm Bill

July 11th, 2007 Posted in | No Comments »

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed

It was a thought in the middle of the night. The far-flung communities that hover under the banner of “Pennsylvania agriculture” reflect nonprofits and farm groups of all persuasions, the charitable organizations that address hunger issues, forestry management as well as experts in land stewardship, alternative energy, and watershed protection. Each has been attempting to influence members of Congress who are wrestling with the complexities of the 2007 Farm Bill. Why not bring these seemingly disparate entities together for a conversation that might just uncover enough common ground to plant the seeds of cooperation?

Many e-mails and phone calls later, 30 farm, food and preservation-oriented representatives of most of the organizations in the region met around a huge table at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Some found plenty of familiar faces across the table; many did not. Hesitancy was in the air, the product of uncertainty about setting aside weeks, if not months, of individual lobbying efforts in favor of a combined effort.

By the end of the meeting, progress had been made but no one just “jumped on board.” There was easy agreement, however, that as ideas and opinions began to emerge, each group e-mail be answered as “reply to all.” No one would feel left out, and the cooperative ethic would have a chance to flourish. The e-mails began to fly. One week later, after “you haven’t included my most important concern,” or “we can’t ignore that,” one by one the organizations began to sign on. Cooperation proved possible, enjoyable and productive, and the message to Congress became so much stronger. This combined message should resonate with anyone who cares about the environment that produces a plentiful, safe and healthy food supply:

Congress must dedicate more funding to boost land, water and wildlife stewardship; reward smart land management and rural development; support public nutrition and food security; clean up the Chesapeake Bay; and promote energy development and other economic opportunities on farm and forest lands.

Forests are essential to the health of our environment. The next Farm Bill should help conserve family and other privately owned forests that are increasingly threatened by sprawl by providing federal assistance for acquisition and sustainable management of forests and open spaces.

Increased investments in nutrition programs under the Farm Bill should better support the nation’s private charitable network of food banks and strengthen the food-stamp program with incentives to encourage the purchase and delivery of fruits and vegetables to improve health and fight obesity.

Bolstering the Commodity Supplemental Food Program is essential in Pennsylvania, which ranks third nationally by percentage of population age 65 or older. The CSFP provides nutritionally balanced food packages each month to those at nutritional risk.

Food and farm policies should support farm-based development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and particularly the diversification of biofuel feedstocks that would move beyond non-corn-based ethanol production.

Farmers want to help clean up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, but they need funding and technical assistance. Supporting on-farm conservation practices is one of the best ways to clean our waters and preserve our natural heritage while ensuring the farmer’s ability to earn a living.

Thousands of acres of farmland and open space are lost annually to sprawl. Farmers and forest landowners who want to keep their land and take steps to address this challenge should be rewarded. Right now, three of four applicants are rejected annually under current Farm Bill programs that offer to share the cost of cleaner water, open-space preservation, and wildlife-habitat protection.

The U.S. Farm Bill affects every facet of American life. The reauthorization process is far from over. This year Congress has a rare opportunity to modernize programs, to effectively address our most pressing hunger, energy and environmental needs.

Jonathan Meade is executive director of the Highlands Coalition in Bethlehem. Sam Cantrell is executive director of Maysie’s Farm Conservation Center in Glenmoore. Stevanna Wynn is executive director of the SHARE Food Program Inc. in Philadelphia.

New hope for Skiff Mountain: House passes funding for land conservation

June 29th, 2007 Posted in | No Comments »

Friday, June 29, 2007

Republican-American

By Tiffany Sharples

It was four decades ago when Donald Connery and his wife, Leslie, moved to Skiff Mountain, but among his neighbors he’s still considered a newcomer.

Some residents, namely Katherine Kane and her parents, Margaret and Walter, can trace their family roots on the land as far back as the mid-1700s.

Yet in recent years as development has touched more and more of Litchfield County (928 acres in Kent and Sharon have been developed in 17 years alone) residents of largely untouched Skiff Mountain began to worry that the pristine landscapes would disappear.

A vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, however, has given them renewed hope by allocating funds for conservation of the land. While the measure still faces obstacles in Congress and the White House, it was a small victory in a long battle.

“A developer came up to the mountain in 2002 with a plan to build 16 McMansions,” said Dennis DePaul, Katherine Kane’s husband. “That would have really just wrecked the place.”

In response, residents teamed with area land trust organizations and state and federal legislators to ensure that their land, which provides a crucial habitat for area wildlife and is part of the Housatonic River Watershed, won’t be developed for generations to come.

“None of us want to be in a position where we want to, or are obliged to sell portions of our property for development,” said Connery, an author and former reporter who has lived on the mountain since 1968.

To make preserving their property economically viable, landowners looked to the federal government. In 2006, the Skiff Mountain project was granted $1.1 million through the national Forest Legacy Program, enabling property owners to sell their development rights and place conservation easements preventing development on 473 acres of Skiff Mountain.

Thanks to the House vote Wednesday, and in part due to the efforts of Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, chairman of the Congressional Land Preservation Caucus, owners stand a decent chance of receiving the additional $770,000 needed to preserve another 292 acres.

The Interior and Environment Appropriations bill approved by the House of Representatives sets aside $62.8 million for the Forest Legacy Program, $33 million more than what was initially requested by President Bush. The bill, which calls for an increase of nearly $1.2 billion overall from last year’s budget, has been threatened with a presidential veto due to the dramatic funding increase. Some members of Congress consider the spike in funding irresponsible.

But Murphy says it’s a step in the right direction. “For the first time in a decade we have real federal funding available to help landowners and communities. In terms of open space preservation, we’re in a brand new world today compared to where we were a year ago,” he said.

Murphy visited Skiff Mountain earlier this month to view the land that Connecticut preservationists had deemed the state’s first priority. “He turned up because he thought it would be helpful for him to say he’d seen it with his own eyes,” said Connery, who gave the first-term congressman a tour.

Murphy said land preservation is one of his top priorities. “I just think that as a member of Congress from northwest Connecticut, in order to represent my district, I had to be one of the nation’s leaders on land conservation issues.”

Under the appropriation, six landowners on Skiff Mountain would be compensated for their development rights at 75 percent of the value of their land. A seventh resident, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, will donate his development rights.

Once the process is complete, conservation easements will ensure that the land may never be developed, regardless of whether the current owners later choose to sell.

“I hope that our success with Skiff Mountain will be a beacon for other landowners to enter into conversation about similar conservation efforts,” Murphy said.

Engel announces $2M for saving Highlands

June 27th, 2007 Posted in | No Comments »

Wednesday, 6/27/07

The Journal News

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, said yesterday that he was able to put $2 million for protecting the Hudson Highlands into an appropriations bill that is expected to pass the House of Representatives this week and then go to the Senate. The federal money would be used to preserve open space in the Highlands, a region that stretches from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and New York and into Connecticut and includes parts of Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties. The Highlands provides clean drinking water for more than 15 million people, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat. The money could be doubled, Engel said, by obtaining matching funds from the four states. President Bush signed the Highlands Conservation Act in 2004.