The Stewards: The Mohonk Preserve

 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 in and 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.



Outside, it is silent. A white canvas blankets the valley as freshly dropped snow shimmers; looking at the weather reports, this is one the last of winter’s offerings for the season. It’s been an unusually cold February here in New York, and you don’t need a weather report to tell you that; however, the information gathered at Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center will verify it. But 120 years ago, there was no Research Center, nor Preserve, to speak of. Spawned from the efforts of the Smiley Family and many other people and organizations, the Mohonk Preserve became a crown of the area housing and protecting the diverse ridge environment for over fifty years, allowing us to ski, hike and climb in beautiful places.


In 1869, twin brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley opened a small mountain resort on the Shawangunk Ridge. The resort, which eventually grew to 261 rooms, was an escape used to get back to the therapeutic cradle of nature. Known as the Mohonk Mountain House, it sits at the top of the ridge, nestled among pitch pines on a solid foundation of quartz conglomerate rock, and overlooks thousands of acres of land.


As naturalists influenced by their family’s sentiments and Quaker origins, Daniel and Keith Smiley, started collecting observations about nature on the resort’s property. They were tireless in their work to assimilate ecological information and weather data. Daniel’s personal interest and meticulous records turned into what would later develop as a research center tracking ecological shifts and climate change. Continuing in the tradition started at the resort in 1896 (and taken over for decades by Daniel himself), weather data has been logging tirelessly for the past 119 years. A very select group of people -- roughly five in all -- have collected this century-old weather data, making it some of the longest, most consistently recorded data available.  



In February of 1963, the Smiley family, along with others, formed The Mohonk Trust, which would later, in 1978, become the Mohonk Preserve. The Trust’s original “property” was a $100 donation from Mabel C. Smiley. In 1966, the Smiley family’s Lake Mohonk Corporation donated the 487-acre Trapps parcel, and the Trust became the steward of one of the world’s great climbing areas. Ecological research also continued with projects—like the study of the negative effects of acid rain with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Breeding Bird Census and the reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons to the area—spawning from the efforts Daniel started. Daniel also helped found the John Burroughs Natural History Society, and was a founding member of the first chapter, the eastern NY chapter, of the Nature Conservancy.


While research and conservation are two elements that run deep in the Preserve, the Preserve was unique in the way it set out to develop a management plan for recreation. The idea of opening certain designated areas of the Preserve to human recreation made sense largely because it wasn’t a “wilderness”, in traditional terms.


“People used to live here,” says Gretchen Reed, Director of Marketing and Communications, speaking of the active community that once occupied the area called the Trapps Hamlet.


To boot, there were already a system of access in place —the carriage roads, built and maintained by the Mountain House—allowing a unique portal to the landscape that was already part of its inherited infrastructure. Thus the Preserve’s unique recreation management plan started to form.


John Ross, Associate Director of Visitor Services, who has been climbing at the Preserve before it was the Preserve, watched the evolution since the beginning. Ross, often found at the Mohonk Preserve’s Visitor Center, is recognizable by his head full of white hair and well-trimmed beard, firm handshake, and broad, toothy smile.


“I came to what was then Mohonk Mountain House/Smiley Brothers property as a young would-be, wanna-be climber,” says Ross, who was around when the hotel family donated the Trapps parcel, and the Mountain House and what would become the Preserve took separate paths. ”The donation ensured that the cliffs could be permanently protected and available to climbers,” says Ross.


Over the years, Ross has seen the transformation of not only the Preserve but the history of the climbing now allowed on its cliffs. The Preserve’s unofficial goodwill ambassador to the climbing community, Ross is a source of institutional knowledge of climbing at the Preserve’s (and thus Gunks’) crown climbing jewel: The Trapps and the Nears.


Ross started guiding in the Gunks in the late 60s, and opened a guide company in 1974, which he ran for over 40 years.


Working and climbing alongside some of the most well-known Gunkies, like Hans Kraus, he saw the whole development of climbing in the Gunks from the clean climbing of the 60s and all nut ascents (he modestly admits he claimed a first all nut ascent of High Exposure) to the influence of European climbers in the 80s.



“The Gunks are a laboratory and a classroom,” says Ross, who remembers how in May in the 80s European climbers would visit the Gunks to learn how to place gear, then head west. “It’s just like skiing ice in Vermont, if you can place gear in the Gunks, you can place it anywhere.”


The Preserve has helped protect and, in turn, be a part of this history. But it wasn’t without the help of people like Ross whose work helped ensure climbing in the Preserve remained open and accessible. Ross’ guide experience, for example, went farther than just his burgeoning business.


In 1984, Ross along with Ian Wade, the Chief Safety Officer and President of Outward Bound at the time, helped design and present the first guide accreditation program in Seneca. Ross was also instrumental in developing the Preserve’s first accredited guide programs—the Preserve was one of the first in the country to adopt one.


Ross had the foresight to see that there needed to be a program in place to emphasize the fact that accredited guides were needed in the Preserve—there simply was no room for liability—and also serve as a means to train them.


“Climbing here is a privilege, not a right,” says Ross.


Climbing and its history have been an integral part of the Preserve since the very beginning and climbers make up about a third of the user group. That’s 50,000 of the 165,000 visitors a year. The Preserve and Ross partner with local guiding outfits, retailers like Rock and Snow and organizations like the Gunks Climbers Coalition to cultivate a good relationship with climbers and contribute to the community.  


The successful relationship of the climbing community and the Preserve is just a snapshot, though. Today, the Preserve is New York State’s largest visitor- and member-supported nature preserves and growing and works with a variety of other communities: hikers, bird watchers, and cross-country skiers.  Recently, the Preserve increased in size to just over 8,000 protected acres with the purchase of nearly 900 acres of land from a partnering organization, the Open Space Institute Land Trust. Known as the Mohonk Preserve Foothills, this piece of land, contiguous with the land already owned, is a parcel of historic agriculture and foothill lands, which has a mixed-use agreement. These efforts to protect and preserve historical, cultural and ecological aspect of this area are part of why, in 1993, the Nature Conservancy called the Shawangunk Ridge one of the “last great places” on earth.