When a developer announced plans to build nearly 1,000 homes across 2,200 acres of open space in a rural Hudson Valley town, I asked the conservation biologist at Scenic Hudson, the group I head, to conduct an ecological study. He concluded the project would so fragment the sites fragile ecosystems that many of its amphibian and reptile species would be wiped out. Our work supplemented and supported a massive and effective effort by a local grass-roots organization opposing the oversized project on roughly a dozen other grounds -- traffic, cost of school expansion, visual impacts, among others. Shortly after these findings were made public, the developer announced it was going back to the drawing board. It has promised to make protection of the sites natural resources the beginning point and focus of revised plans. Time will tell whether these plans achieve this laudable goal.
Scan the Web site of any land preservation organization and youre likely to see the word contiguous before you read too far. Its not enough that we safeguard Americas fields and forests, mountains and marshlands; its crucial these open spaces be connected. In other words, its far better to conserve one 100-acre plot than to protect 50 unlinked two-acre parcels.
Why? For one thing, saving large open spaces protects the local aquifer, the underground layer of rock that stores rainwater and melting snow, and our prime source of drinking water. When we carve land into subdivisions and shopping centers, necessitating the construction of more driveways, parking lots and other impermeable surfaces, less water soaks into the aquifer, yet demand for it keeps rising. (Its been estimated that each new household consumes 318 million gallons of water per year.) Even worse, the water that does make it underground often is polluted with oil, fertilizer or other toxins.
Safeguarding wetlands, instead of filling them in and building atop them, also protects our water quality -- swamps and marshes absorb pollutants. Additionally, they play a major role in preventing flooding and erosion by acting as sponges when water levels rise. And lets not forget several other benefits we derive from preserving large, unspoiled tracts of land: theyre prime destinations for hiking and biking, provide places to grow healthy local produce and, in the case of forests, cleanse our air by sequestering carbon.
Beyond our own needs, protecting contiguous open space is crucial for Earths other inhabitants. Many wildlife species depend on numerous habitats throughout their lives, meaning they must be able to make the move from one place to another or risk extinction. Take the timber rattlesnake, a threatened (and much-maligned) species native to the Hudson Valley. In the course of a year, male rattlesnakes travel up to four miles from their dens in search of food or mates, females about half that distance. Biologists report this migration requires 41,000 acres of habitat. Each new road reduces the chances of a snake reaching its destination. The same goes for frogs, salamanders, turtles and lots more species.
Development will and must occur. If it cant be located in existing downtowns, then it should be concentrated on the landscape to protect as much open space as possible. Its said that when Marylands first settlers arrived in the 17th century, North Americas forests were so dense a squirrel could travel from Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi River without touching the ground. Squirrels may never again have that opportunity, but we owe it to them -- and to all other creatures, including ourselves -- to make sure contiguous remains a staple of our environmental vocabulary when planning for the planets future.
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