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Decade-old Preservation Dream May Get Congressional Backing
Bill Would Create "Highlands Stewardship Area"

$25 Million Fund Would Tie Up Land in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut

A bill called the Highlands Stewardship Act to buy up land in the Highlands area of New York and New Jersey, along with parts of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, has cropped up in the Congress this summer, seemingly a fresh, new preservation project with enough buzz, justification, and backing from political interests to potentially excite the Republican-dominated House Resources Committee to move it out of committee. However, the idea of buying up land in the area of the bill's focus is old hat, and is part of a well-entrenched plan by wealthy New York interests, non-profits, recreationists, and preservationists to add to government holdings that now dominate large parts of the area.

One indication of the length of time during which this area has been a focus of environmental preservationists is a map published in 1993 by the Regional Plan Association, an organization located in Manhattan. This glossy, colored map of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, detailed a grandiose design for multiple greenways in lower New York, New Jersey, and western Connecticut. The most outstanding feature of the map was a giant swath of land stretching from Philipsburg, in the area where the New Jersey Highlands meets the Delaware River, northeastward across that state to the area of Sterling Forest in New York, where the stretch of mountains begins its reach across Orange and Rockland Counties, the Hudson River and Putnam County to the Connecticut border.

At Connecticut, the incipient greenway on the map turns almost due north, covering a land mass labeled as the Housatonic Highlands, and finally joining Litchfield Hills. The tri-state map implies by the precise terminus along the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts borders that the greenway would continue into both of these states.

The map depicts the Appalachian Trail and numerous other trails in various stages of completion within the Highlands area. The publication of the map was funded by the Rockefellers' American Conservation Association and the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.

Over the ensuing years, numerous land acquisition projects, both as Congressional legislation and as quiet schemes involving government agencies and non-profit land trusts, tackled the grand Highlands greenway project. For instance, in 1995, the Republican governors of New Jersey and New York pushed successfully for U.S. Forest Service funds to acquire of much of a 17,500-acre woodland in New York known as Sterling Forest, about 40 miles northwest of New York City. The acquisition project, which ultimately was approved with the support of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was for the duel purpose of preventing development and protecting New Jersey's watershed to the south. The New York Times was an important advocate for the acquisition, both in its news reporting and on the editorial page.

On the opposite side of the Hudson River, in Putnam County, newly elected Governor George Pataki's home base, a publicly less visible system was implementing the environmentalist vision. The State Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC's) local office kept drafting room-size land acquisition maps without title blocks. These appeared to be overlaps of local tax maps. Blueprints of the maps came into the possession of the Property Rights Foundation of America. These maps detailed the status of acquisition of properties in Putnam County with various styles of crosshatching, denoting whether Scenic Hudson had acquired or was in the process of acquiring the property, and where various noted federal and state agencies had acquired lands. The maps made obvious those lands caught in a squeeze between acquired properties. These sandwiched lands were vulnerable to prohibition from development. The Regional Plan Association vision map jibed with the pattern of acquisition, as did difficulties that landholders began to have in using their properties. One landowner, Montfort Brothers of Fishkill, who intended to extract aggregate to supply its family-owned concrete block plant, spent a fortune in the DEC permit process, but faced an apparently hopeless battle because Scenic Hudson bought property adjacent to the Montfort land. Environmental impact analysis was retraced at great expense to the company to consider the possibility of rattlesnakes from Scenic Hudson's land slithering unto Montfort's to bask, believe it or not.

Some of the machinations of the moneyed non-profit interests in the Highlands and the travesty of administrative process dealt to Montfort Brothers were told in PRFA's Positions on Property of April 1995 and New York Property Rights Clearinghouse of Spring-Summer 1997.

From this brief perspective of ten years, it came as no surprise that a broad source of federal funding to acquire more of the extended area with its center on the New York-New Jersey Highlands was proposed in Congress this summer. The bill (H.R. 1964/S. 999), "To establish the Highlands Stewardship Area in the States of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania," was part of the agenda of a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands on June 17. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, (R - N.J.) and Rep. Scott Garrett (R - N.J.) testified in support, and Stephen H. Shaw, the immediate past president of the New Jersey Builders Association, testified in opposition.

The proposal was accompanied in The New York Times three days earlier by a well-illustrated, prominent feature article about the joys of hiking the Highlands, entitled "Hiking the Wilds of New Jersey."

The Times article glowingly described a "volunteer trail designer," Bob Moss, the New Jersey supervisor of the Highlands Trail Committee, who said that he hopes to keep the beaten path only a foot and a half wide. According to the article, Mr. Moss stated, "My goal is, if you can see where it goes, I'm happy,"

The article, which was written by Dana White, described the trail as "a work in progress that, when completed in three years or so, will extend 160 miles from the Hudson River in New York to the Delaware River in New Jersey." An accompanying map shows the completed and proposed sections of the long, winding trail, which courses in a southwesterly direction from Storm King Mountain below Newburgh on the Hudson River in New York to Riegeleville on the Delaware River in New Jersey.

The article mentioned that funding for this trail as well as many others throughout the country will be from the federal Transportation Equity Act to apply gas taxes to build pedestrian trails, but made no mention of the Highlands Stewardship Act having been just introduced into Congress. The bill was introduced on May 6 by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R – N.J.), Rep. Ben Gilman (R – N.Y.), and Senator Jon Corzine (D – N.J.). Local activists were led to believe that the bill was sent to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but it actually was sent to the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee, chaired by Thad Cockran (R. – Miss.). Other Representatives from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut joined in co-sponsoring the bill, and the entire Senate delegation from all four states involved in the bill became co-sponsors, with the exception of Sen. Rick Santorum (R–Penna.).

Greenwire reporter Molly Villamana reported shortly after the hearing that the bill faced concerns by Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich (R – Calif.) and ranking member Donna Christian-Christensen (D – Virgin Islands), who said that they were unclear what the designation established. Ms. Villamana's article in Environment & Energy Daily, which appeared on the web, reported that David Tenny, Deputy Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment at the Department of Agriculture, said that the designation is new and that the legislation would define a stewardship area and prioritize areas to be protected.

Ms. Villamana reported that he said that the Highlands bill would draw $25 million in matching grants per year from the $160 million annually in the Bush budget for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The money would fund state acquisition of land and development rights in areas designated by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior from Forest Service studies of the region during 1990 and 2002, she reported. She noted that the legislation would create a working group to identify preservation priorities and an Office of Highlands Stewardship to provide assistance in carrying out the projects.

She reported that the Agricultural Department spokesman said that the agency is not opposed to the bill, but that it already has the authority for the activities in the bill. She reported that he said that the agency already performs the duties that would be assigned to the Office of Highlands Stewardship.

She reported that the National Association of Home Builders and the New Jersey Builders Association opposed the legislation.

"Stephen Shaw, a local councilman in New Jersey and president of Shaw Built, Inc., a construction firm, said the bill would exacerbate New Jersey's housing crisis," Ms. Villamana reported. "'Land preservation and development restrictions in the Highlands can only serve to increase the cost of land and therefore the cost of a home' in communities already struggling to find affordable housing, Shaw said."

The bill would be a "fitting legacy for Mr. Gilman," who is retiring at the end of the year, announced Jim Tripp, general counsel for Environmental Defense and chair of the Highlands Coalition, according to the web site of the Highlands Coalition. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), based about 200 miles to the north in the Adirondacks, called for protection of "valuable open space lands like Schunemunk Mountain from further irresponsible development." On its web site, ADK argues, "Passage of this legislation would demonstrate the federal government's willingness to become a partner in the protection of the Highlands."

The ADK web site points out that in 1992, "the U.S. Forest Service conducted a regional study of the Highlands and found that 5,200 acres of land are developed annually in the NY-NJ highlands alone."

However, this is impossible, unless large-acre subdivisions are "credited" with the development of the entire tracts where perhaps a small number of houses are located on large parcels.

ADK also points out that the Highlands provide clean drinking water for approximately 11 million residents of New York City and New Jersey. However, most of the watershed for drinking water for New York City is located north of the Highlands in the Catskills, with only the East-of-Hudson watershed, located within the Highlands, that portion in Putnam County. The City of New York already has stringent controls over all of its watershed lands, which comprise a large part of Putnam County, and can act as a second agency for approval during the permit application process.

The push to preserve the Highlands will exert tremendous pressure on accessibility of land in Putnam County, which was almost entirely included in the green swath on the map by the Regional Planning Association. The greenway that is envisioned in these plans would create a barrier to development north of Westchester County, putting upward pressure on real estate prices in that county and making land even more inaccessible to people of ordinary means.

With the possibility of an additional $25 million budgeted by the federal government for the next ten years to acquire land and interests in land in the Highlands, this vast, envisioned greenway will progress more effectively toward becoming exclusively the domain of city-dwelling recreationists and the wealthy, instead of the traditional country people who are the source of the area's heritage of independence. However, as is becoming the pattern for the network of greenways that the federal government is dictating, there will still be the need for the low-wage-earning poor to serve in the local tourism facilities. Many of them will have to be imported from elsewhere and somehow find places where they can afford to live during the tourism season.

- By Carol W. LaGrasse

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