Scenic Hudson: Projecting and Buffering Against Sea Level Rise Impacts
The Hudson River Valley region is a dynamic ecological environment bordering the largest mega-city in the United States. Hudson Riverfront communities are looking to their waterfronts as the key to unlocking their economic futures. Yet, as Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storms Irene and Lee demonstrated, these very same riverfront communities face unprecedented challenges from accelerating sea level rise and the increased frequency of flooding, storm surges and severe weather events. At risk are billions of dollars of critical public infrastructure; thousands of private, commercial and cultural assets; and over 13,000 acres of critical habitats that provide important ecosystem services to people along the entire estuary. Ensuring that waterfront communities and the river itself can adapt to this massive, yet incrementally developing challenge promises to be one of the most complex social and environmental issues of this century. Land trusts can play a key role in framing conservation and community development dialogs in terms of sustainable stewardship and system-wide resiliency. By projecting sea level rise impacts and using GIS mapping to prioritize critical conservation areas, Scenic Hudson is spearheading efforts to ensure its landholdings will conserve ecologically significant processes and habitats.
In addition to using sea level rise projections to inform its own acquisition work, Scenic Hudson and partners are also sharing this data with communities throughout the Hudson River Valley. This case study highlights Scenic Hudson’s sea level rise visualization efforts and provides a snapshot of targeted acquisition and restoration work as epitomized by the Little Newton Hook Creek property. In 2010 Scenic Hudson purchased 296 acres of upland forest, tidal wetlands, and 800 feet of shoreline, also known as the “Little Nutten Hook” property in Columbia County, New York. Located between the Nutten Hook State Unique Area and the Hudson River Islands State Park, the land has become an integral part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve at Stockport Flats, an important field laboratory for estuarine research, stewardship and education jointly operated by New York State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Value of the land and habitat
The Hudson River runs approximately 315 river miles, stretching from its source Henderson Lake, in Newcomb, New York, and flowing southward past Albany, between New York and New Jersey, until it empties in the Upper New York Bay which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. The lower half of the river is a tidal estuary, which occupies the Hudson Fjord. Fjords are geologically distinct narrow inlets with steep cliffs in a valley created by glacial activity.
The Hudson Fjord and its estuaries are important transitional zones between riverine and maritime environments. Additionally, the Hudson River provides an example of a semi-diurnal tidal system, experiencing two high tides and two low tides each day. This dynamic system provides nutrient-rich habitat with high biodiversity, resulting in one of the most significant estuarine habitats in the United States.
This ecosystem provides essential habitat to numerous species of fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates. For example, on the Little Newton Creek property, conserved shoreline, tidal flats, and upland areas provide habitat gradients that are critical to maintaining biological diversity. These ecosystems provide valuable feeding, resting, and nesting habitat for migratory waterfowl and marsh birds, and serves as an important nursery and feeding grounds for striped bass, shad, alewives, and herring. Additionally, the protected wetlands help to safeguard water quality. The purchase of the Little Newton Creek property exemplifies the continuing success of Scenic Hudson’s Save the Land That Matters Most campaign, which aims to protect 65,000 acres of great scenic, ecological, and agricultural significance throughout the Hudson River Valley.
The biologically rich landscape of the Hudson Valley is facing tremendous pressures from rapidly sprawling development, the spread of invasive species, and the loss of marsh ecosystems, challenges which are compounded by climate change impacts such as sea level rise. In response to these forces Scenic Hudson has increased the application of conservation science across all of it programs in order to protect habitats, biodiversity, and advocate for sustainable growth patterns in the Hudson River Valley.
Current protection status and management plan
Since 1963, Scenic Hudson has been working to protect and restore the natural landscapes in the Hudson Valley. The Scenic Hudson Land Trust has protected over 31,000 acres in nine counties and created or enhanced many parks and preserves for communities – several of which previously had little or no access to the river. Many of these projects were implemented in partnership with state and local government, other nonprofit organizations, and committed volunteers. The Saving the Land that Matters Most campaign highlights Scenic Hudson’s approach to land conservation.
Additionally, the 2010 publication of Revitalizing Hudson Riverfronts, a 100-page illustrated guide, aims to help communities plan future growth in order to “promote the development of lively, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use riverfronts in and adjacent to municipal centers while conserving forests, farms, wetlands, and fields, and providing for a continuous public greenway along the river.” The guide recommends comprehensive strategies to protect, restore, and rehabilitate fish and wildlife habitat while planning riverfront development, including:
- conducting a natural resource inventory;
- protecting threatened, endangered, or regionally rare species, habitats, and ecological communities;
- rehabilitating or restoring riverfront habitat;
- maintaining continuous shoreline habitats and their connections to inland habitats; and
- protecting and restoring wetlands of all types and sizes, and
- maintaining their connections to the estuary and upland habitats to preserve their ability to make important contributions to the entire estuary ecosystem – an especially important conservation consideration due to projected sea level rise.
These efforts to support comprehensive community planning throughout the region are driven by the belief that strategic land use planning will allow riverfront communities to accommodate and benefit from new development in ways that increase economic viability, enhancing main streets and community life while protecting the Hudson River’s ecology and beauty.
Process of achieving protection and resilience to climate change
As climate change became a more prominent issue at Scenic Hudson, the land trust’s board became energized by the number of climate-related initiatives in the state of New York. In particular, the Nature Conservancy launched Rising Waters, a stakeholder participation process throughout the entire Hudson River Valley to assess the community’s vulnerability to sea level rise; there also were multiple state level sea level rise task forces with which the land trust engaged. In early stakeholder meetings, CanVis, a powerful visualization tool was used to help frame adaptation discussions. As planning discussions progressed, Scenic Hudson worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, US EPA and others to compile the estuary-wide Sea Level Rise Mapper (SLR Mapper) in order to further inform long-term planning discussions, as well as to its own acquisition planning efforts.
The SLR Mapper overlays Lidar-based topographical data for the estuary with sea level rise projections and current census data in order to place potential ecological impacts in more of a socio-economic context. Projections for future sea level rise along the Hudson River and elsewhere in New York State have been provided in recent reports from the New York State Task Force on Sea Level Rise and the NYS2100 Commission. The SLR Mapper is a powerful tool that helps communities frame development and adaptation planning dialogs in terms of potential impacts and desired outcomes for the built and natural environments.
Plans for the future
Moving forward, Scenic Hudson plans to continue to use the SLR Mapper to inform sustainable development dialogs in communities, as well as to guide their efforts to conserve critical habitats throughout the estuary. As both a mission-driven organization and a stakeholder owning over 1,000 acres of protected lands along the river’s edge, Scenic Hudson is working to catalyze long-range planning for sea level rise along the estuary. Their overarching goal is to work toward a future that balances and reduces risks to people, property and nature, and holds the promise of secure, thriving riverfront communities within a vibrant, healthy ecosystem.
Stakeholder participation is an essential element of community development and preservation planning at Scenic Hudson. Stakeholder outreach is conducted for numerous planning campaigns, such as Riverfront Communities Smart Growth visioning and the regional Foodshed Conservation Plan, as well as land preservation initiatives. Community support as well as ongoing partnerships with federal, state, and local government, and other nonprofit organizations, is vital to Scenic Hudson’s mission to safeguard landscapes, protect farmland, transform neglected waterfronts, and acquire strategic properties that can help revive communities in the Hudson River Valley.
Partners in SLR Mapper development include:
- NOAA Coastal Services Center
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
- Hudson River Estuary Program
- Office of Climate Change
- Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
- SUNY Stony Brook
- The Nature Conservancy, Office of Communities and Waterfronts
The following land conservation organizations have partnered with Scenic Hudson in their campaign to Save the Land That Matters Most:
- Audubon New York
- Columbia Land Conservancy
- Dutchess Land Conservancy
- Esopus Creek Conservancy
- Greene Land Trust
- The Highlands Coalition
- Hudson Highlands Land Trust
- Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
- The Nature Conservancy, Eastern New York Chapter
- New York-New Jersey Trail Conference
- Open Space Institute
- Orange County Land Trust
- Trust for Public Land, New York State
- Wallkill Valley Land Trust
- Westchester Land Trust
- Winnakee Land Trust
- Visualization is a critical communication tool. Scenic Hudson was fortunate to obtain grants to create high resolution maps of the estuary using Lidar and to build their SLR Mapper. A tool that produces this level of detail is invaluable in framing long-term planning discussions.
- Many Coastal Lidar data sets are available free of charge from the NOAA Coastal Services Center. NOAA’s CanVis and Sea Level Rise and Coastal Impacts Viewer, as well as USFWS’ SLAMM tools can also help users visualize sea level rise impacts.