If you've driven through Rosendale recently, you probably noticed the work crew and yellow crane on the railroad trestle that soars 150 feet above the Rondout Creek. If you're a Rail Trail walker or cyclist who's approached the trestle from either end, your pulse may have quickened as you realized that the newly installed guardrails stretch all the way to Joppenbergh Mountain, so that when the work is completed, you'll be able to cruise from Gardiner to Kingston, a continuous 24 miles.
Thank Bob Anderberg and his colleagues at Open Space Institute, which partnered with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust to purchase the trestle in 2009 and is overseeing renovations.
Don't drive through Rosendale? If you've ever enjoyed the majesty of Sam's Point Preserve, hiked the Shawangunk Ridge Trail or Long Path, gazed at Mohonk Mountain across pristine fields, bought produce from Davenport Farms, or blundered through the Catskill Corn Maze at Paul Farm, thank them again.
If these Ulster County landmarks aren't on your radar, zoom out a bit further, to the two million acres OSI has helped to protect in the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and throughout the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Georgia. Founded in 1974, the Open Space Institute has grown into one of the region's premiere conservation resources.
OSI Vice President and General Counsel Bob Anderberg met me at the impeccably renovated Accord farmhouse he shares with his wife Elaine. Outside the windows, Mohonk's Skytop Tower stood sentinel over hayfields that will remain forever open.
What's your short answer when someone asks what the Open Space Institute does?
OSI is a conservation organization that protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes, preserves wildlife habitat and agricultural land. We've protected over 120,000 acres in New York State alone.
How do you preserve agricultural land that's still in use?
We've preserved 24 family farms in the Rondout and Wallkill Valleys, totaling 3,500 acres, usually by buying conservation easements. Essentially, we pay farmers to continue farming their land rather than developing it.
Does this mean the land can't be changed in any way?
There's some flexibility. If you want to build a 300-unit subdivision, the answer is no, but we allow for changes in agricultural use and new agricultural structures. We're interested in keeping large farms intact. We just bought three large farms owned by the Smiley family on Butterville Road [in New Paltz], including the iconic Testimonial Gateway, the scenic backdrop to Mohonk Preserve.
How big does a property need to be to qualify for a conservation easement?
There's no minimum size. We assess every piece of land on its own merits. OSI works with local people who want to preserve their property and put a conservation easement on it, sometimes working with local partners—Mohonk Preserve, Wallkill Valley Land Trust, Rondout-Esopus Land Conservancy. It's a case by case determination: conservation value, scenic viewshed, historic and agricultural value, adjacency to preserved land, public recreational use.
Tell me about OSI's work with rail trails.
Ulster County is blessed with a number of beautiful rail trails: Wallkill Valley, O&W, Hudson Valley in Lloyd. We're working to connect them. Right in the middle of this is the Rosendale trestle. It was originally constructed in 1872, when it was the tallest bridge in the US, and it's still structurally sound. Ulster County Iron Works will finish installing new railings this month, and the Woodcrest Bruderhof is donating labor to install new wooden decking this spring. It's a wonderful community project, and will be a great boon to local tourism. There'll be a grand opening in the spring.
How was this project funded?
The total budget is $1.4 million; OSI and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust have raised almost $1.1 million. That last $300,000 is the hardest. We're gladly accepting donations.
Were you raised in the Hudson Valley?
I grew up on Long Island. When I was 15, a friend and I hitchhiked to New Paltz to rock climb. I found Ulster County intoxicatingly beautiful. Aside from some time at college and law school, I've been here ever since.
How did you become involved with OSI?
I went to law school at Cornell and then went to work for a large New York law firm. In 1990 I became general counsel of OSI, because of my interest in conservation. The organization was a lot smaller then, and a lot of our work was expanding and creating new state parks. We created Sterling Forest State Park, among others, and saved a lot of the Hudson Highlands. In the 1990s we purchased the entire waterfront area of Croton-on-Hudson and transferred the land to the village for recreational use. We do everything from small vest-pocket parks to nature preserves of thousands of acres.
What are OSI's plans for the next decade?
Finishing the job we started. We'd like to protect more land in all our landscapes. We've preserved lots of acreage in the Catskills and Shawangunks, and want to create a conservation corridor between these two massive ecological areas.
In the future, we all have to think more carefully about the impacts of severe weather and climate change. We don't view ourselves as an advocacy organization–our role is to quietly and effectively preserve land through conservation efforts, working with landowners. But we're beginning to focus our efforts on protecting "resilient lands" that enable flora and fauna to adapt and thrive in an era of climate change.
How do you raise money?
Funding comes from government grants, our endowment—we were the beneficiaries of a large stock gift by Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace of Reader's Digest, which we hold as an endowment—but individual support in any amount is important. We rely upon local donations.
Describe your typical workweek.
As general counsel, I supervise a four-person law department and assist my very talented colleagues with the task of operating a regional charity. Second, I'm involved with conservation transactions and dealing with landowners, many in Ulster County.
Working in land preservation has enabled me to meet many wonderful people in the Hudson Valley. It's been a joy getting to know the Schoonmaker family, whose farm has been in their family for twelve generations. Our son Ryan is married to Jen Schoonmaker, and they have two lovely daughters. It's fun seeing your grandchildren grow up in a beautiful landscape that's being preserved. Land preservation is very much about future generations. It all comes down to keeping the world a beautiful place.