In August, Scenic Hudson, the organization I run, helped organize a "listening session" with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and top federal officials from the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, at the FDR Home and Library in Hyde Park, and at a farm we helped protect in Clermont in Columbia County. (Produce from the farm, at right.) Over 400 people turned out for the events.
What brought us together was President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative (AGO). Kicked off by the President last April at a White House conference, the AGO promises to mobilize and focus federal resources in support of grass-roots and regional conservation initiatives. In about 25 listening sessions around the U.S, local citizens and conservation leaders sounded off about how a federal initiative could help them save land, promote sustainable agriculture and boost local enjoyment of the outdoors.
I give the federal officials credit for 1) listening before formulating their policy recommendations to the President (expected in mid-November); 2) working together across agencies; and 3) recognizing the important role that land conservation organizations play in protecting our precious natural resources.
At the Hudson Valley listening sessions the chorus of voices harmonized around several themes: 1) we stand ready to work with federal officials; 2) we have a tradition of collaborating among NGOs, and with business and government officials; and 3) we have well-conceived plans that identify the top priority lands for conservation and strategies for making our cities vibrant places to live and work. 4) The only missing ingredient is federal funds to support these efforts.
The Hudson Valley's history of collaboration has resulted in the conservation of many of the region's world-class landscapes. We have also created and restored many spectacular cultural resources and parks like the FDR Home and Library, 19th century artist Frederic Church's home and studio Olana, and Walkway Over the Hudson. The latter represents a remarkable transformation of a dilapidated railroad bridge (at right, prior to renovation) into a soaring park over the river-the world's longest pedestrian span.
After listening to descriptions of these initiatives, an impressed Secretary Vilsack noted, "There are so many parts of the country where we don't see this success."
But despite the recession, many of these lands are threatened by poorly planned development projects that continue to churn through local permitting processes-ready to unleash the bulldozers as soon as the real estate market bounces back. Seventeen land trusts are working together to preserve the highest priority lands under a strategic conservation plan that would greatly benefit from a federal partnership.
Federal investment is equally essential for protecting and enhancing the region's farms, the foundation of a $530-million agricultural economy. Prior to the recession, sprawling development was consuming 50 acres of productive valley fields and orchards every day. It's critical for Washington to remove barriers that put the Northeast's rural communities, where small farms are the norm, at a disadvantage in securing federal funds-more than 70 percent of which goes to the top 10 percent of agribusinesses. Remarkably, of the $27 billion that the federal government handed out in farm subsidies in 2009, it allocated only $117 million to its farm and ranch protection program. This is peanuts to secure the single critical ingredient for the future of agriculture-the land! (Pictured at right: Davenport Farms, in Ulster County, N.Y., which Scenic Hudson helped to preserve.)
Further, federal support should be based in part on an agricultural region's proximity to and importance in providing a sustainable food supply for a major metropolitan area. Hudson Valley farms are a leading source of fresh produce for New York City greenmarkets and restaurants.
We look forward to the results of this federal initiative and hope our next governor will restore New York's environmental funding so the state can join a true and effective partnership for America's Great Outdoors.
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