The Hudson Hills and Highlands – A Living Landscape
Teatown has coined the phrase Hudson Hills and Highlands to describe the portion of the Hudson Valley that results by combining the spectacularly scenic Hudson Highlands with the watershed of the lower Hudson River. The resulting 936 square mile area encompasses most of New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties, and parts of Dutchess, Rockland, and Orange counties. It is home to 785,000 people living in 37 municipalities, that on average are located 38 miles from New York City. The Hudson Hills and Highlands is twice the size of New York’s more widely known Catskill Park, and nearly five times larger than the nearby 100,000-acre Palisades Interstate Park. Teatown Lake Reservation, located just south of the geographic center of the Hudson Hills and Highlands, focuses its conservation efforts on saving nature and inspiring sustainable living throughout this ecologically significant bioregion.
Unknown to many local residents, the Hudson Hills and Highlands contains significant natural areas and provides habitat for both nationally and globally rare plants and animals. A unique mixture of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West flora and fauna live here. The region contains the widest and deepest part of the Hudson River, and is home to a rich variety of aquatic life found only in estuaries, brackish waters where rivers meet the sea.
The number of species living in the Hudson Hills and Highlands, includes: 1,300 plants; 250 birds; 150 fish; 45 mammals; 20 reptiles; 20 amphibians; 100 dragonflies and damselflies; many hundreds of other insects and invertebrates; and thousands of kinds of algae, bacteria, and fungi. Many people are surprised to learn that the region is home to black bears, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, fishers, timber rattlesnakes, turkeys, bald eagles, barred owls, and other species usually associated with American wilderness. This species diversity is especially surprising considering our proximity to New York City and its 12 million inhabitants. Also, poorly appreciated are the ecological services that our rich biodiversity provides; the air, water, food, and the natural materials that both fuels our economies and provides for our health and well-being, ultimately come from nature.
Thinking of our Region as a Living System
The protected natural areas of the Hudson Hills and Highlands, about 20% of the region, are located within a much larger matrix of human-developed environments (residential, business, transportation, and government areas). Our hope at Teatown is for the region to thrive as one healthy system. We envision a mosaic of natural and human-use areas proactively managed as one functioning ecosystem that allows people to benefit from nature’s ecological benefits. Such holistic ecosystems are called “social-ecological systems” by academics, and they especially emphasize in their explanations that humans and other species are all part of the same system. In other words, humans are part of nature, not separate from her.
A growing number of ecological health proponents are promoting this social-ecological conceptual framework as an educational prerequisite for inspiring the public to create sustainable communities. By “sustainable,” we mean using our environmental resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. At Teatown, we use the terms “living landscape” or “bioscape” to convey the same idea — that is, that our region, when taken as a whole, is a complex social-ecological system best thought of as one living entity.
Protecting the Living Landscape for Sustainability and Resilience
While nature in the Hudson Hills and Highlands is relatively healthy, it is facing increasing threat from: (1) habitat loss from land development; (2) non-native, invasive species and emerging diseases; (3) overabundant species (e.g. deer and geese); (4) pollution; (5) climate change; and (6) human population pressures. Poorly designed development within the context of climate change is especially important. Between 2006 and 2015, the Hudson Hills and Highlands is expected to have 65,000 new residents living in 20,000 additional households. That equates to an additional 70 persons per square mile in addition to the current 839 already living here. Imagine 25,000 more cars traveling our roadways each morning and needing 1,000 additional classrooms in our schools.
Two new Hudson Hills and Highlands programs at Teatown with a living landscape focus are the Environmental Leaders Learning Alliance (ELLA) and Community Trails Program. ELLA (www.ellahhh.net) is a group of >120 town-appointed environmental commission members from 34 regional towns and villages, who meet quarterly at workshops, and more frequently through the Internet, to discuss environmental issues, share lessons learned, and formulate regional solutions for sustainability. The Community Trails Program is a joint effort with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (www.nynjtc.org) to facilitate volunteer-led stewardship of recreational trails in Westchester and Putnam counties. This effort includes building new trails, especially longer distance trails that connect protected lands, effectively creating biotic corridors across the landscape. This fall, for example, we are building a 4-mile connector trail between Teatown and Kitchawan Park with the help of trail volunteers.
A living landscapes approach to sustainable living requires all of us to be more mindful of our actions, including how we care for nature “between the parks,” on our own properties. To protect our region’s quality of life, we need much greater adult and youth involvement in protecting nature. To meet this need, Teatown is guiding residents toward a fuller understanding of the role that nature plays in sustainable living by facilitating dialogue, delivering education, promoting habitat protection, and providing biodiversity conservation services to local municipalities. Our immediate intent is to empower individuals and communities to participate in nature conservation for sustainable living. Our longer-term goal is to help residents of the Hudson Hills and Highlands design and manage a sustainable bioregion — as a social-ecological system with the resilience to adapt to the changing environmental and social conditions that the future will inevitably bring.
Together we can make a difference!
Note: This article first appeared in Teatown Lake Reservation’s Fall 2009 Trails Newsletter.