The Stewards: Open Space Institute

Our little neck of the woods is ripe with diversity, and steeped in rich appreciation of the outdoors. For those of us who live here, we all share the sentiment; for those who visit, it is easy to see and appreciate. But the protective cape around the areas we love around the Shawangunks didn’t happen overnight. It was a joint effort over many years with the help of many people and organizations. In "The Stewards" blog series, we explore organizations and people that have worked to help make the Shawangunk Ridge recognized as one of the “last great places” on earth. 





When last week I caught up with Jennifer Garofalini, Director of Stewardship at the Open Space Institute (OSI), she was taking the call in the field. That morning it was snowing—thick, wet, heavy snow that would most likely be the last snow of the seasons. We were expecting a few inches. But Garofalini, along with Peter Karis, Mohonk Preserve Director of Land Protection and Stewardship, was sloshing along, walking the grounds of one of the OSI’s newly acquired properties.


This new property is part of a larger project that is over a decade in the making: to create a corridor of recreation and conservation. It’s just another piece of the puzzle for the OSI, an organization that has been working for years to conserve the iconic and unique landscape of the Shawangunk Ridge and the land running up to it. The ultimate goal for this particular area is an ongoing process: a 50-mile corridor of conservation.



“For us, the Shawangunk Ridge is really one of the priority landscapes that the OSI has identified in order to preserve and encourage recreational activity for its scenic beauty, its ecological and recreational opportunities,” says OSI’s Eileen Larrabee, Associate Director, Alliance for New York State Parks.


Most of us are familiar with the amazing outdoor recreation of the area, and the hyper unique biodiversity that led the Nature Conservancy to call it one of the Last Great Places on Earth. What we might not know is that without the OSI’s ability to buy key portions of land and help transfer them to managing entities this area would not be as protected as it is. But what does the OSI do and how does it get its funding?


Founded in 1974, Open Space Institute’s mission is to protect scenic, natural and historic landscapes to provide public enjoyment, conserve habitat and working lands and sustain communities. The organization works in a variety of states, but it got its start here in New York State over 40 years ago.


To move towards its mission, the OSI works with state and local governments, land trusts and individual landowners, to help create or increase parks, preserves and protected family farms, and helps to develop land-use policies as well as increased public funding for conservation. The OSI has protected over 116,000 acres in New York State. The OSI’s funding comes from foundations, corporate funding and organizations, as well as individual contributions. In 2013, for example, the OSI’s incoming contributions were around $10 million. 


This kind of support from the community allows the OSI the ability to make some large transactions that have significant impact. Like, in 2006, when the OSI added the 2,500+-acres Awosting Reserve property to Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Or when, a year later, OSI transferred the 3,800-acre Sam’s Point Preserve to the State of New York, which would grow Minnewaska State Park by 25 percent.



“The OSI has more than doubled the size of Minnewaska State Park,” says Larrabee. On top of that, the OSI accounts for 10 percent of the total acreage in the state park system.


One of the newest acquisitions, the Watchtower Property, is a giant milestone for the OSI, and the region. This land holds the iconic watchtower you encounter as you’re heading west from town toward the Shawangunk Ridge. OSI announced the acquisition in February 2015. It includes 135-acres of land at the foothills of the Shawangunk Ridge, and will preserve the agricultural landscape as well as provide additional recreational use. This transaction, costing $2.1 million, is part of a larger framework—the bridge to ridge concept—that aims to make a connection that links the ridge, the village and beyond, creating a “premier recreational corridor.”


This is where Garofalini and Karis were walking in the snow. They were trying to map where some of the newly proposed trails might be going, which will extend the extensive network of trails through the town of New Paltz.


“These trail run through actively mowed fields so part of what we need to do is find the best sort of use,” says Garofalini, which also means contemplating future mowing and plowing.


The efforts will preserve the iconic landscape that we’ve come to love (both on the ridge and the “flats” leading up to it), but it will in turn generate more tourism flocking to take advantage of the recreational opportunities. Imagine, people who live in New York City could, ostensibly, get off the bus, access a trail and ride or hike all the way up and into Minnewaska.


“What we are hoping is that it builds on the recreational excellence that is part of the goal for Ulster County and along the Shawangunk Ridge,” says Larrabee.


The most recent acquisition of OSI was announced early March 2015, this time in the southern region of the Shawangunk Ridge in Sullivan County. It marks the 20th acquisition in the Shawangunk Ridge, Roosa Gap and Wurtsboro Ridge State Forests. This adds to the OSI-preserved land in the area—over 5,400 acres in the area—and makes up yet another piece of the puzzle in the quest to continue the organization’s commitment to the Shawangunk Ridge, and is one step closer to achieving the ultimately goal: to protect a 50-mile corridor that runs from Rosendale south to Port Jervis.


“It’s been over 30 years and 40 transactions to move this project along,” says Larrabee, “a piece-by-piece effort and something that has been core to our mission in preservation and supporting recreational activity at the park and in the area around it.”