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  • Department of Global Development
  • Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Environment
  • Natural Resources
  • Global Development
Cornell University researchers released a new publication this month that illustrates the important contributions and dedication that local municipalities bring to conservation and land-use planning in New York State.

The new report, Natural Resource Protection in the Hudson Valley: Municipal Conservation Stories, presents case studies from seven Hudson Valley towns and highlights the experiences, challenges, and successes of elected officials and municipal volunteers in pursuing conservation actions. 

In New York State, municipal governments can play a vital role in conservation of biodiversity priorities, such as forest habitat and wildlife corridors; protection of water resources; and climate change adaptation through local plans and policies. For more than two decades, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Hudson River Estuary Program and Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE) have partnered to study the biodiversity of the estuary watershed and help municipalities and land trusts pursue conservation planning initiatives that consider local, regional, and state priorities.

The outreach publication evolved from Cornell research into municipal planning strategies that result in ecosystem protection outcomes. The research is led by Daria Ponstingel, a postdoctoral research associate at DNRE, with Shorna Allred, Adjunct Professor in DNRE and the Department of Global Development at Cornell University and Susan R. Wolf Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Laura Heady, the Conservation and Land Use Program Coordinator with Cornell DNRE at the NYSDEC Hudson River Estuary Program. 

A key component of the research project was the development of a Municipal Conservation Efforts Index, which scored 256 watershed municipalities based on a set of 19 possible actions that support conservation. The index included a range of local practices, plans, and policies, such as adopting wetland protection, creating an open space plan, or having a conservation advisory council. 

“These conservation actions build community resilience to flooding and drought, protect water quality, and preserve natural areas of unique significance, and include commitments to take action on climate change,” said Ponstingel.  

“For the publication, we interviewed community leaders from towns that had high or medium index scores, and through their stories, share examples, insights, and lessons learned for other municipalities, conservation practitioners, and anyone else interested in locally-driven approaches to biodiversity conservation,” Ponstingel added.

“The estuary watershed is one of the most biologically rich parts of New York State,” said Heady, “which makes it a wonderful place to live. But with many, many local governments and landowners, the watershed is a ‘complex decision-making landscape’ where the impact of uncoordinated, individual decisions can have tremendous impacts on the larger ecosystem." 

We’re fortunate to have many local leaders whose commitment to their communities and nature are making a very positive impact, and we hope their stories inspire others to follow their lead and contribute to a shared conservation vision for the Hudson Valley,” Heady added.

“It’s remarkable to look at the long history of engagement by these municipalities with our Conservation and Land Use Team at the Estuary Program,” said Allred. “This speaks to the importance of building long-term relationships and trust when entering the challenging arena of land-use planning—a sentiment also shared by our interviewees when discussing their own role in public outreach and community engagement. We’ve seen changes in how people receive news and information, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional, in-person ‘town hall’ meeting isn’t as effective. We’re glad to share how municipalities are addressing these challenges in inclusive community engagement.”

The communities profiled in the publication include the following, with brief highlights from their stories:

  • Town of Bedford (Westchester County). Bedford is building on its long history implementing conservation policies with a new initiative to preserve wildlife habitat connectivity. 
  • Town of Beekman (Dutchess County). The chair of Beekman's Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) has served for 26 years; he recommended having diverse perspectives to be a successful CAC. 
  • Town of Milan (Dutchess County). Milan’s recent natural resources inventory (NRI) helped the community understand its relationship to water that spans municipal boundaries. 
  • Town of Nassau (Rensselaer County). Nassau’s supervisor pointed to the NRI and science as the underpinnings of the town's land-use ordinance. 
  • Town of New Paltz (Ulster County). When federal regulations changed, New Paltz was able to pursue its wetland protection goals thanks to having a local law. 
  • Town of Philipstown (Putnam County). By having a Natural Resources Officer/Wetlands Inspector, Philipstown is able to take a wholistic approach to conservation planning and enforcement. 
  • Town of Woodstock (Ulster County). Woodstock leaders emphasized transparency and comprehensive outreach as keys to their successful adoption of a critical environmental area.

A limited number of hard copies of the 56-page Natural Resource Protection in the Hudson Valley: Municipal Conservation Stories have been distributed to county planning agencies and land trusts throughout New York State, municipalities in the estuary watershed, and program partners, and is available for viewing and download on the DEC website

Funding for the research and publication was received from the New York State Water Resources Institute and the Hudson River Estuary Program. Learn more about the Conservation and Land Use Team’s work in the estuary watershed.

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