Both Sides Now
Two not-so-different visions for the Hudson River Valley
(page 2 of 6)
Photograph by Michael Polito
Q&A with Ned Sullivan
President, Scenic Hudson
In 2007, Scenic Hudson announced the Saving the Land That Matters Most initiative, a commitment to preserve 65,000 acres over the next decade.
Describe how that project came to be.
Ned Sullivan: In the 400th anniversary year of Henry Hudson’s historic sail up the river that bears his name, there are going to be celebrations — from Manhattan all the way up to Albany and beyond — of New York’s history. We felt it was equally if not more important to leave a lasting legacy of our most important asset in the Hudson Valley, which is the beauty and ecological and agricultural resources. Linking people with the Hudson and providing public access is a key part of our mission. It’s also a collaborative effort: we can’t do 65,000 acres by ourselves. So we’ve reached out to the other land trusts so that our work complements theirs.
In essence, then, this effort is a master plan for preservation of open space along the Hudson?
NS: That’s right. It takes extraordinary effort and energy to reach out, come up with a common plan, and get everybody working together. We’ve had external acknowledgement by the Pew Charitable Trust, who believe the plan is the first of its kind [in the nation]. The Trust for Public Land is emulating Scenic Hudson’s model for preservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay. They have issued a challenge grant, saying that they will provide matching funds for any private resources that we are able to raise that will help us with this.
What’s the overall cost?
NS: It’s in the half-billion dollar range. This is going to require a private-public partnership. There are federal programs that have provided significant levels of resources for protection of historic regions. Also, this is in New York City’s backyard, the farmland we’re protecting in Dutchess and Columbia counties is the breadbasket of the city. We’re already making tremendous progress and have so far saved 2,000 acres — 3,000 if you count the acres [obtained by] the other collaborators.
The conventional argument is that the region needs jobs and environmental preservation gets in the way of that. Has that conversation changed?
NS: I was a founding member of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC), whose mission is to promote the Hudson Valley for green economic development across the country and internationally. HVEDC conducted a nationwide survey of more than 2,000 corporate-executive site selection consultants and realty brokers. The survey is very telling: the assets most identified with the Hudson Valley were scenic beauty, nature, and quality of life. Just this spring, three solar companies announced they are planning to establish headquarters here. Those kinds of decisions tell me we’re having an impact by protecting the beauty of the area.
How did Scenic Hudson get started?
NS: We protected Storm King Mountain from a proposed power pumping station 36 years ago. It took 17 years to stop. In the second year of the battle, there was a pivotal court decision called the Scenic Hudson decision. It gave citizens who didn’t have a direct economic interest in a major government decision or corporate project the right to have a standing in court: to bring in expert witnesses, and introduce scientific information about the impact of a project on a natural resource.
Is that why Scenic Hudson is credited with launching the modern environmental movement?
NS: Yes. The Scenic Hudson decision is the cornerstone of the National Environmental Policy Act — this country’s seminal environmental statute. It requires environmental impact statements for projects that are federally sponsored or have federal permits. Dozens of states have passed environmental quality review acts, which require environmental impact statements and the government to ask the public what it thinks.
We’ve gone beyond that battle, and created 40 public parks and preserves. We’ve protected about 27,000 acres along the river. We’ve worked to clean up the river, whether it’s getting rid of PCBs or stopping the discharge of pollutants. We’ve participated in the campaigns to get the river designated as an American Heritage River by the president and for Congress to designate the entire Valley a National Heritage Area. We’re also a force in Albany, working to ensure our reps are looking out for the environment despite the difficult fiscal climate. Finally, we’re a major force in protecting farmland.
Photograph by Michael Polito
What role has Scenic Hudson played in the review of proposed developments?
NS: We’re a voice to ensure that environmental factors are considered, and that public access to the river is a part of the picture. We think that the cities are the right place for development to occur — thoughtfully planned, and with public input. The right kind of development strengthens our city centers and makes them great places to live and work.
What are the deciding factors in determining your involvement in a proposed development?
NS: The importance of the resources that are at risk, and the degree of threat. We can’t be everywhere.
What are the top three challenges in accomplishing this mission?
NS: First, the lack of a shared vision of what constitutes good development. We need a common understanding, a shared recognition to preserve what makes the Valley so unique and beautiful. Second is the lack of comprehensive plans and zoning. Communities need to implement the local waterfront redevelopment plans that identify the areas that should be protected from a natural resources, cultural, and historic perspective, as well as the areas where development should occur, and put zoning in place. This provides the guidance, but communities have to implement it. So the final thing is coming up with the political will to ensure that development occurs where it’s supposed to.
What spurred your interest in environmental issues?
NS: I was born in Yonkers and grew up playing in the streets. When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to northern Westchester, and I had woods and streams in my backyard. I went away to school in the Berkshires, to Williams College, and flourished, hiking in the mountains and cross-country skiing. That’s where I first got involved in environmental work. There was a development project proposed for the flanks of Mount Greylock, which would have put a scar on the side of Massachusetts’ highest mountain. The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group had an office right on campus, so I got involved in fighting the project.
While earning your degree in environmental science from the Yale School of Forestry, you were also pursuing a business degree from the School of Management. That’s a little unusual. What opportunities arose that utilized both types of training?
NS: I got a job in the banking business immediately after graduate school, where I was helping to finance renewable energy projects in New England. I also developed a financial strategy for cleaning up Boston Harbor. It was a multibillion-dollar undertaking. We had to write the legislation to create an agency whose mission was to clean up the harbor by building wastewater infrastructure.
How did you find your way back to the Hudson Valley?
NS: I became the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation and oversaw New York State’s hazardous waste clean-up program. Then I was recruited to become the environmental commissioner for the state of Maine. In the process I met my wife. I moved to Maine, a year later she followed, and then we had a child and a stepdaughter. After four years, my wife said, “Let’s go back to the Hudson Valley.” We wanted to raise our child close to family. We came back and I went to work for Scenic Hudson. My wife, Tara, is the executive director of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial.
Where do you live?
NS: In Red Hook.
What’s your favorite spot on the river?
NS: I’d say Poets’ Walk [in Red Hook]. When I came down from Maine and was trying to decide whether I was going to work for Scenic Hudson, I went to Poets’ Walk. That really inspired me.
How do you spend your free time?
NS: I love to bicycle, cross-country ski, and spend time with my family. My daughter comes to a lot of Scenic Hudson’s events.
Do you think that badly conceived development will ever cease to be a threat?
NS: No. But we can dream that there will actually be a master plan for the Valley, where there would be agreement on what should be protected and where development should occur; and what kind of development would maintain the historic character [of the region] and make people want to come here, making this an incredible tourist destination.