Protecting our natural resources has never been more important. While we must do everything we can to slow the flow of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere so that natural systems can recover, we must also recognize that the impacts of climate change are already here and will continue to be for decades to come. We can expect stronger storms and more intense flooding, but also more frequent droughts, disruptions to agricultural cycles, and stresses to every natural ecosystem. We may also see an influx of new residents from places that are more deeply impacted by the changing climate.
We must make sure that both our natural and our built environments are resilient to climate disruptions and the social impacts they may induce. And we must be more vigilant than ever in protecting our land, air, and water and ensuring the benefits of our natural resources are available to everyone in our communities for generations to come.
Ulster County’s Departments of Environment and Planning will continue their efforts to preserve farmlands, protect our drinking water, support a sustainable mix of new development and conservation, and plan for transportation infrastructure that is safe and storm-resilient, all with the ongoing impacts of climate change in mind. This year, we will conduct a study of county and local road networks, identifying priority projects to improve our transportation network’s ability to support us under stress. We will continue work to inventory road-stream crossings that need to be repaired and resized to accommodate storms and allow wildlife to pass through unimpeded. And we will continue to identify and help move critical county and municipal infrastructure out of flood zones.
It is also essential to ensure that where and how we use our environment for economic development, tourism and recreation, energy production, and housing are compatible with ongoing resource and ecosystem health. This year we will build upon County and municipal habitat and resource mapping work to create a countywide natural resource inventory (NRI).
The NRI will provide a critical underpinning to municipal efforts to complete DEC-supported drinking water source protection planning and to identify priority areas for conversation and development. It will identify those areas that can support development, enabling efforts within our Housing Smart Communities Initiative for each municipality to identify priority sites for needed housing development. We will also work with Scenic Hudson and other partners to help communities use sophisticated mapping resources to support smart decisions about the siting of solar projects. By 2025, our goal is that at least half of Ulster County municipalities have used these resources to support their housing, drinking water source protection, solar siting, and/or open space planning.
We will also prioritize the return of brownfield sites within the County to productive use. By 2025, we will assess contaminated and blighted properties on the foreclosure eligible list for use for renewable energy, economic development, or open space, remediate their environmental and legal issues, and move them into redevelopment.
Of course, the beauty of our natural resources is core to our quality of life here in Ulster County and a major economic driver. The Ulster County Trails Advisory Committee estimates that in 2019, users of our rail trail network spent more than $10 million in the local economy. Continuing to build out our spectacular trails network remains a key priority for us. But we must also recognize that many of our most scenic areas and trails are accessible only by car, limiting access for the more than 5,000 Ulster County households without a car and driving up greenhouse gas emissions. We must prioritize connecting our trails into our community centers, and especially our environmental justice communities, and developing carbon-free ways to reach our scenic areas.
In 2021 we will open the Midtown Linear Park in Kingston, running from Cornell Street to Kingston Plaza, and begin work to connect from there on to the O&W Rail Trail, which runs from Hurley into Marbletown and Rochester. We will continue to support work to connect Ellenville via trail into Minnewaska State Park and to the O&W Trail from the south, and to support improvements to the Wallkill Valley Trail in New Paltz. We will also complete a trail planning study for a 5-mile section of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad corridor in Shandaken, connecting Big Indian to Highmount, which will add access to the Pine Hill hamlet, Belleayre Ski Center, NYSDEC Day Use area, and over 2000 acres of state land. By 2025, we will develop transit or other car-free connections from Kingston to the Ashokan Rail Trail. We will also install EV chargers at our major trailheads, supporting carbon-free access for EV drivers. And by 2040, all of our population centers will be connected into our trails network.
We will also promote low-impact, low-carbon tourism. In 2021, we will work with our tourism businesses and attractions to support education for visitors on stewarding the resources they enjoy. By 2025, we will develop a low-carbon tourism initiative, working with our hospitality, arts, and recreation industries to promote sustainable ways of enjoying Ulster County. In some cases, our conservation work can not only help us adapt to climate change, but also help us reverse it. Emerging practices in agriculture – sometimes called regenerative or “climate smart” farming – can help capture and store carbon in soils and plants and remove it from the atmosphere, while increasing the climate resilience of farm operations. Our forests and agroforests are another important carbon sink.
In 2021, we will work with farmers and partner organizations to create a forum to support research and peer education on the most effective practices. We are following the Soil Health and Climate Resiliency bill introduced by Senator Hinchey to create a state program of technical and financial assistance to farmers to reduce on-farm greenhouse emissions, improve farm resilience to flooding and droughts, and increase carbon uptake in healthy soils and ecosystems. Our goals are that by 2025 one quarter of Ulster County farmers and producers are using climate smart farming practices, and that by 2040, all Ulster County farmers are benefiting from participation in state and federal programs to increase carbon sequestration in soils and plants.
New programs to be launched in 2021 include:
Natural Resources Inventory
In 2021, the Department of Environment will update and build upon the county core habitat mapping that was featured in National Geographic in 2016, producing a set of mapping resources to support comprehensive municipal resource planning. We will link town-level natural resource inventories and conservation plans with County maps to create a countywide natural resource inventory. The inventory will reveal connections between resources across municipal borders and allow the identification, protection, and enhancement of critical corridors linking the town, county, and regional scales and providing support for municipal planning and land use decisions.
Housing Smart Communities Initiative
Ulster County’s Housing Action Plan, released in February 2021, recommended the creation of a Housing Smart Communities Initiative to support municipalities in increasing the supply of housing across the affordability spectrum. A cornerstone action in the Initiative is a community-driven assessment of housing needs, and proactive identification of priority building sites, in the context of core areas to conserve. In 2021, the Planning Department will support the first municipal Housing Action Plans, using Natural Resource Inventory data to support the mapping of potential development sites.
Low Impact Tourism initiative
2020 saw a massive increase in the use of our hiking and biking trails and preserve lands as both residents and visitors sought safe and revitalizing outdoor activities. While we welcome the increased engagement with our natural areas, an influx of visitors also poses a significant risk to these resources. Some areas faced crowds, traffic jams, and far-overstretched parking, creating safety risks as well as environmental ones. In 2021, the Departments of Environments and Tourism will work with our lodging businesses and recreational destinations to educate visitors about how to decrease their impact and promote a stewardship ethic towards the places they enjoy. We will also update reboot and promote our Reconnect recreational information mapping resource to help visitors learn about leave-no-trace principles and to connect with other, less-traveled sites to visit as well as businesses nearby.
Climate Smart Farming Initiative
This year we will work with partners including Cornell Cooperative Extension, Ulster County Soil and Water, Hudson Valley Farm Hub, and Scenic Hudson, as well as farmers and regional grower organizations to create a climate smart farming network. The network will support carbon sequestration research on Ulster County soils and create opportunities for demonstration, peer exchange, and public education, as well as to help farmers adopt practices to mitigate crop loss from flooding on their lands. We will also explore opportunities for carbon sequestration and agroforestry demonstrations on County property and with municipalities, landowners, and solar developers to minimize the use of agricultural land for solar development, prioritizing sites that have already been industrialized or disturbed.
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