From Mountains to Fertile Swamp--
Projects aim to preserve diverse swath of land at eastern edge of N.Y.
Contributing writer, Hill Country Observer
NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- A pair of conservation
projects now under way in New Lebanon aim to preserve a diverse swath of land along New York’s eastern
border while also highlighting the town’s Shaker heritage and its pioneering role in the development of
The two separate
projects would protect a large area of upland forests as well as lowland
wetlands and meadows to the south of New Lebanon’s commercial center on Route 20.
In addition to protecting
the environmental and scenic qualities of the largely undeveloped and biologically
diverse area, the two projects are intended to open the land to public access for
hiking and other forms of passive recreation.
Although the two projects
are technically separate, they involve contiguous land areas and are connected in
other ways. The combined site includes an area known as the Shaker Swamp, just south
of the intersection of Routes 20 and 22. It extends east to Mount Lebanon.
Another section extends up
the hillside to the upland forests around the former Shaker community on Mount Lebanon.
That area is now the site of Darrow School, the Shaker Museum/Mount Lebanon and the
Abode of the Message, a Sufi community and retreat center.
To the south, the planned
conservation area extends into the town of Canaan to the campus of the Berkshire Farm
Center and Services for Youth.
The projects also tie
in with a larger overall effort by New York state, environmental organizations
and others to protect land along the Taconic mountain range, which extends along
the New England border from southern Vermont to northern Connecticut. This region
contains one of the largest remaining areas of contiguous forest and natural
habitat in the eastern United States.
“An overall goal is to
preserve this landscape with large protected areas that are also linked by
corridors to allow wildlife to travel between them,” said Tom Crowell, director
of development and outreach with the Columbia Land Conservancy, a regional
land preservation organization. “The section in New Lebanon is an important
part of that.”
The two projects in
New Lebanon are being pursued by a collaboration that includes the state
Department of Environmental Conservation, the Columbia Land Conservancy, and
the Shaker Swamp Conservancy, a community-based nonprofit group. Other organizations
and supporters of the effort include private landowners and the Shaker Museum/Mount
One of the projects, known
as the Mount Lebanon Forest Legacy Program, is using $1.9 million to buy conservation
easements on about 1,300 acres of mainly forested upland. The funds are coming from
the federal Forest Legacy Program, a national program run by the U.S. Forest Service
that aims to protect environmentally significant forests that are vulnerable to development
while keeping them open to careful timber management and harvesting.
The other project is being spearheaded
by the local Shaker Swamp Conservancy. Its goal is to preserve the area known as the Shaker
Swamp and open up key sections of this complex of wetlands and meadows to public access
through a system of trails and boardwalks. This project also would include an educational
component, with kiosks and other features to explain the environmental and historical features
of the area.
A related goal is to create access
points on the edges of the Shaker Swamp to connect with trails on the Forest Legacy lands.
Mineral springs, medicinal legacy
The combination of the two conservation
areas ties together several aspects of the local environment and the history of New Lebanon.
The Shaker Swamp is considered a unique
environmental resource, with a diverse ecosystem that includes a wide variety of vegetation,
including rare plant species and herbs with natural medicinal qualities. It also is home to
varied wildlife, including rare butterflies and dragonflies, among other species.
One reason for the swamp’s unusual
characteristics is a natural thermal mineral springs located in the northern section of
New Lebanon. These springs feed water into the swamp.
“The water has unique mineral
qualities [and] is a consistent temperature throughout the year,” said David Stock,
a board member of the Shaker Swamp Conservancy and president of the Shaker Museum/Mount
Lebanon. “It contributes to unique growing conditions within the swamp.”
In the area’s earliest history,
Native Americans, especially from the Mahican tribe, are said to have become proficient
in using medicinal herbs from the swamp as natural remedies. White colonial settlement
of the area began in the mid-18th Century.
From the 19th to the early 20th
centuries, the Lebanon Springs were a major attraction for visitors. Several hotels and
a spa were established in that part of town.
Another major influence on
the town was the arrival of the Shaker religious sect in 1787. The Shakers established
their largest and most prominent community in the United States in New Lebanon. At
their peak, the Shakers owned 6,000 acres. They declined in the early 20th century
and sold the last of their lands in 1947.
In the late 18th and early 19th
centuries, the Mahicans taught the Shakers about medicinal herbs that grew in the swamp
at the base of Mount Lebanon, and the Shakers developed a business cultivating and selling
them. New Lebanon’s role in the medicinal herb industry was amplified in 1824, when a
member of the Tilden family, which had a farm adjacent to Shaker land, founded the Tilden
Company, which is believed to be the first pharmaceutical company in the United States.
Using techniques learned from the
Shakers, the Tilden Company cultivated and sold herbal medicines on a large scale. It produced
these medicines using indigenous plants as well as some it imported to the area. The Tilden
Company, which also branched out into producing other forms of medicine, remained a mainstay
of the local economy until 1961, when it closed.
Vestiges of this history of producing
herbal medicines, including old stone walls and the remains of other Shaker structures, can be
found in the Shaker Swamp.
Conserving a mountainside
The local Forest Legacy project
was started around 2005 by the Columbia Land Conservancy. It is being administered by the
state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is handling the purchase the
conservation easements within the project area.
In 2011, organizers of the project
submitted a funding application to the Forest Legacy Program, and the funding was virtually
secured when the project was ranked ninth out of 69 Forest Legacy applications the U.S. Forest
Service received from 42 states.
After some concern that the money
would be lost when Congress slashed funding for the overall Forest Legacy Program, the funds
for the New Lebanon project actually were allocated in 2013.
Now the state is in the midst of
negotiations with individual property owners to purchase conservation easements for the
project. The landowners include Darrow School (a private preparatory school), the Abode
of the Message (a Sufi community and headquarters of the Sufi Order International North
America), and Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth (a therapeutic treatment center
and school for adolescents). In addition, private landowners John and Brenda Adams are
selling easements to the Forest Legacy project.
The landowners will retain
ownership of their properties. The easements impose conservation restrictions on the
land, limiting future development, and allow for the creation of public-access
corridors with trails. The easements do allow for continued use of the land, including
some new construction and timber harvesting, by its owners.
The parties involved have
reached basic agreements in principle. However, the negotiations are still under way,
and final agreements have not been reached.
Darrow School, for example,
is currently waiting for the details of the price and other conditions regarding
access, restrictions and other conditions, said Craig Westcott, who is Darrow’s
assistant head of school for advancement and external relations as well as the school’s
“We would love to do this in
principle, but we can’t commit to anything until we know more specifics of the assessment
and conditions,” Westcott said. “When we have that, the board will determine whether it
is in the best interests of the school.”
Westcott emphasized that Darrow
has a fundamental commitment to environmental sustainability and historic preservation
and already manages its lands based on these goals.
Regardless of whether the Forest
Legacy project is completed, he said, “we have very intent to continue to manage our
land as we have, and we’re always willing to listen and work with other groups to achieve
Protecting a swamp
Meanwhile, the effort to
preserve the Shaker Swamp is moving into a new phase.
The Shaker Swamp Conservancy
has established a set of overall goals, including trails and boardwalks through important
areas of the swamp, as well as kiosks and other educational elements.
“We have developed the conceptual
plan for what we want to do,” Stock said. “Now we are focused on the details of what
specifically we can achieve and the time frame.”
In April, the organization received
its first donation of land, a 39-acre parcel along Route 22 that was given to it by Amy
Schirmer of Pittsfield, Mass., whose parents had acquired it in the 1980s.
The Shaker Swamp project was initiated
in 2006 by a group of local residents who believed that the swamp was an important but
underappreciated resource. They raised seed money and launched a series of environmental and
historical research projects to document the importance of the area.
Ted Timreck, a filmmaker and
researcher who owns a home in New Lebanon and works for the Smithsonian Institute, produced
a full-length digital video to help raise awareness of the swamp and its historic legacy.
The group also met with landowners
and others in the community to build support. They formed the Shaker Swamp Conservancy as a
nonprofit organization in 2012. They have also been coordinating their efforts with the Forest
Although the exact boundaries of the Shaker
Swamp are open to interpretation, the organization’s Web site (shakerswamp.org) defines the
overall area as 495 acres. Darrow School owns a large section of that, and other private individuals
and businesses own the rest.
The sections that are designated as wetlands
are inherently protected from development, but there are areas along the edges and within the swamp
area that the group fears could be vulnerable.
The goal of the conservancy is to preserve
as much of the area as possible, and provide public access to it, through a combination of donations
and acquisitions, conservation easements and other arrangements.
Organizers emphasize that the overall plan
is based on voluntary actions, and the conservancy has been in discussions with property owners
on an ongoing basis to consider possible arrangements.
“We’re looking at protecting key parcels
to connect the dots -- and whatever else we can do to preserve the overall area,” explained John
Dax, the Shaker Swamp Conservancy’s board president.
The swamp and Forest Legacy projects
also reflect other ongoing initiatives to highlight New Lebanon’s legacy and to make the town
more of a destination for visitors.
In April, the Department of Environmental
Conservation officially opened a new 518-acre Hand Hollow state forest in southwestern New Lebanon,
with entrances on Gale Hill Road and County Route 9. The Hand Hollow forest is managed for multiple
uses, including recreation, timber production, watershed protection and wildlife habitat.
Another initiative, called Behold new Lebanon,
is entering its second year. That program, described as a “living museum,” involves offering organized
visits to local businesses and residents who are engaged in various crafts and enterprises.
There is also a plan under way to extend the
Corkscrew Rail Trail, which is being developed on a long-abandoned railroad corridor in Stephentown
and Petersburg, southward into New Lebanon.