Stewardship Of DEC Lands
Note: For a list of DEC-managed recreation lands see the Places to Go page.
It starts with the land.
Many people would be surprised to learn that New York has one of the largest percentages of both state land and state-managed conservation easements in the United States. And more than 90% of this state-managed land - some 4.6 million acres - is managed by one state agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
This land includes some of the most spectacular scenery in New York, and includes every major ecosystem type in the state, ranging from the salt marshes of Long Island to the alpine tundra of the Adirondack High Peaks. These lands are held in trust by DEC for the people of New York State and represent a legacy of more than 100 years of land acquisition and stewardship.
What DEC Lands Are Used For
The Department manages these lands for a variety of purposes:
- watershed protection
- ecosystem protection
- open space conservation
- protection of wildlife habitat
- oil and gas exploration and development
There are State Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, forever wild Forest Preserve lands, tidal and freshwater wetlands, campgrounds, environmental education centers and conservation easements. These lands provide a wide range of recreational opportunities for New Yorkers, such as fishing on legendary trout streams, camping in mountainous wilderness or in a campground, hunting for large and small game, canoeing on some of the hundreds of lakes and streams, learning about nature at one of the educational centers, or just taking a quiet hike.
Before the middle of the 19th century, forests had been primarily viewed as inexhaustible and an obstacle to civilization; they were something to be cleared out of the way for agriculture, or to be unsustainably cut and exploited for profit. By the 1880s, less than 25% of New York State was forested, and the remaining uncut forests in the Catskills and Adirondacks were being logged fast. In 1885, New York created the Forest Preserve Act to protect state owned lands in the Catskills and Adirondacks from further exploitation. This act was strengthened in 1894 by an amendment to the New York State Constitution:
"The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed."
The Forest Preserve began with 681,000 acres in the Adirondacks and 34,000 acres in the Catskills. Today there are more than 2.6 million acres in the Adirondacks and more than 300,000 acres in the Catskills, held as forever wild lands for New Yorkers today and the future. The New York Forest Preserve is the largest state-designated wilderness in the country and the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi.
Bringing Forests Back
Forests in all the northeastern states were disappearing fast, but New York was the first to reverse this seemingly inevitable process. In 1901, the Forest, Fish and Game Commission planted the first tree plantation on state land in the Catskills to replace trees that had been logged.
In 1911, The Conservation Department, the predecessor of today's modern Department of Environmental Conservation, was created by legislation in order to consolidate the functions of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission; the Forest Preserve Board; the Water Supply Commission and the Water Power Commission. By combining these commissions into a single department, the State greatly enhanced its ability to protect the environment, and to respond to new environmental challenges, such as the rapid abandonment of farmland that began in the 1920s.
Much of the farmland in New York was on marginal land, and as better land became available out west, agriculture began to decline in New York. When the Great Depression hit, many farmers could no longer make a living on their worn out, unproductive land. The 1929 State Reforestation Act, and the 1931 Hewitt Amendment, authorized the Conservation Department to buy land for reforestation purposes. These lands were known as state reforestation areas, and were the beginning of today's State Forest system. Many of the early reforestation areas were established on some of the worst land in the State. The Conservation Department began a massive tree planting program to restore these lands for watershed protection, soil stabilization, flood prevention and future timber production. Today, these areas are covered with healthy and well managed state forests.
Today, planting trees where there have not been any for decades is called afforestation. State forests are still referred to as reforestation areas as originally defined in legislation.
State funding for tree planting fell victim to the Depression, but the federal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1933, rescued the tree planting program in New York. Millions of tree seedlings were planted on the barren soil of the new state reforestation areas, work that provided employment for thousands of young men. FDR was especially interested in reforestation work, having begun planting his own estate with seedlings from the State Tree Nursery beginning in 1912. His trips to view CCC projects in New York typically included visits to reforestation areas.
After World War II, there was a resurgence of tree planting as more farmland fell vacant. Scientific game management led to the development of state-owned Wildlife Management Areas to provide optimal habitat for game species such as waterfowl and upland birds. The Park and Recreation Land Acquisition Act of 1960 and the Environmental Quality Bond Acts of 1972 and 1986, provided funds for the acquisition of additional state forest lands, including in holdings or parcels adjacent to existing state forests.
The Creation of the Current Day Department of Environmental Conservation
In 1970, on the first Earth Day, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was established. This new agency joined the mission of the old Conservation Department with the missions of State environmental quality bureaus in the Department of Health.
The Modern Department now manages a variety of programs to protect our air, land and water resources, and the Department's public lands and private forest landowner programs contribute mightily to this effort. The State continues to acquire lands through its Open Space Conservation Plan.
Today DEC helps deliver the ecosystem services our society depends on by protecting forests and wetlands. These natural ecosystems provide valuable environmental benefits such as clean air, clean water, flood control, erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural cooling, drought mitigation, aquifer recharge and a steady source of fresh oxygen from plant photosynthesis.
Forests, especially those in or near urban areas, can help improve air quality by capturing pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and small particulates. Studies on the impact of roadside trees on particulate levels from vehicle exhaust have shown that tree foliage is very effective at capturing particulates.
Forested land is critical for protecting water supplies. Forests act like huge sponges, soaking up enormous amounts of rain. By the time the rain water has seeped through the porous forest soils to groundwater or nearby surface water, the rainwater has been cleaned and purified. This filtering effect of forests is the reason why drinking water reservoirs are almost always surrounded by trees.
Protecting natural ecosystems and the services they provide is easier, more efficient and more cost effective than the typical engineered alternative. For instance, New York City has worked to restore and protect the watersheds that are the primary source of its drinking water, rather than build a multi-billion dollar water filtration plant. The results of this action benefit more than just residents and visitors to New York City.
Forests can help reduce the higher levels of CO2 from fossil fuel use, because they sequester carbon in the soil and in wood. New York forests have been estimated to be able to sequester carbon at rates of 1 to 3 tons per acre per year. State Forests, with their high ability to sequester carbon provide yet another benefit to the people of New York.
Forests also act as climate buffers, moderating temperature extremes and creating local microclimates. Trees cool the air both by direct shade and by evaporative cooling through their leaves. The Urban Heat Island effect is caused by the predominance of heat-absorbing pavement and dark surfaces which can increase a city's temperatures by several degrees. Trees can reduce this buildup of urban heat.
The climate change pattern that seems to be developing in New York as a result of global warming has fewer but heavier rains with increased runoff, and more periods of summer drought. The ability of forests and wetlands to soak up water is critical for reducing flooding and for absorbing adequate amounts of groundwater. Forests can also help buffer the impacts of drought by protecting soils from desiccation and erosion.
During storms, forests and wetlands can be important physical buffers, slowing the force of wind by friction and as windbreaks. Wetlands provide a broad surface area that slows flood water velocity and gives the flood water room to spread out. Abundant wetlands along a stream or river act like a safety valve, slowing and capturing excess water which would otherwise flood and cause erosion. They are often part of a vegetated riparian buffer that protects streams from pollution and also helps stabilize stream banks.
With rising sea levels and more severe storms, New York's low elevation coastlines are extremely vulnerable to severe damage from storms. Tidal wetlands are vital for coastal storm protection, but many of New York's former tidal wetlands on the coast and on the Hudson River Estuary have been developed and filled. Tidal and saltwater wetlands also play a key role in estuarine and marine ecosystems because they provide essential habits for hundreds of species. Tidal wetlands are even more vulnerable than freshwater wetlands to development pressures. DEC has been buying and protecting tidal wetlands for habitat preservation, and has also been working to slow the destruction of privately owned wetlands through protective regulations. That work is all the more urgent in an era of climate change and sea level rise.
Nature For New Yorkers
The 19th century conservationists recognized the importance of nature as a refuge from the noise and bustle of city life. Today, understanding the environment is critical to our future. But the sad irony is that as the natural environment becomes more important, fewer and fewer people, especially children, are in contact with it. The lack of nature in children's lives today has been documented in Richard Louv's compelling book, Last Child in the Woods.
Earlier generations of New Yorkers played outdoors much of the time. Today, most children spend far less time outdoors than their parents did. Kids are learning about nature indirectly, from television and the internet, rather than from direct interaction and observation. Their outdoor experience is often limited to the artificial environment of lawns and playing fields. Municipal parks are typically groomed areas that provide places for structured activities such as team sports.
In contrast to typical municipal parks, the many DEC lands close to urban areas offer true contact with nature. Artificial groomed areas such as lawns are minimal; for the most part nature is allowed to exist without interference. Trails, boardwalks and viewing platforms are designed to provide closer access to natural features, as well as to protect resources from excess impact. DEC's Environmental Education Centers focus on helping New Yorkers discover the natural world. Whether a bird identification walk or a wilderness paddle, these connections to nature can refresh, teach, and sustain us.
"The value of ecosystem services provided by DEC managed lands - Priceless!"
Over 100 years ago, our department had the wisdom and forethought to preserve land for the future benefit of the people of New York State. Today, the payoff for this investment in land is far greater than could ever have been imagined 100 years ago. These lands, these 4.6 million acres of land protected and managed by DEC, are one of New York State's greatest natural legacies. Many of these lands were originally bought to protect water supplies, prevent floods, preserve habitat for wildlife, provide timber and other forest products, and provide recreational opportunities. They have fulfilled their original purpose magnificently. They have also been providing other benefits that we have only recently begun to understand and value, benefits such as carbon sequestration, climate moderation, coastal protection, habitat for rare and endangered species, groundwater recharge and filtration of many air pollutants.
If the Department is to fulfill its missions of protecting ecosystems, preserving open space and providing for future environmental benefits, it needs to continue the urgent task of conserving open space for the people of New York. Yet it also needs to provide greater stewardship for the lands which it already owns. Some of these lands are among the most heavily used public lands in the State. Ongoing maintenance, such as boundary marking, road and trail work, campsite reclamation, replacement of culverts, replacement of vandalized gates and signs and repair of structures such as lean-tos, bridges and dams, is needed if the public is to continue to enjoy these lands
We need to continue building this legacy.