Energy & Environment

On the Wild Side

Local officials who govern the counties will determine whether their rich biological legacies will be squandered.
by | December 2004
 

Few places are more dissimilar than Westchester County, New York, and Madison County, Montana. Nearly a million residents live in Westchester's suburban communities, crammed into 450 square miles east of the Hudson River and north of New York City. Madison County remains rawboned ranching country, where just 7,000 people live in a 3,500- square-mile expanse that sits northwest of Yellowstone National Park.

But Westchester and Madison counties both occupy critical frontiers in the nation's wildlife policy. Madison County's rugged mountains and wide open valleys are replete with grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, badgers, trophy deer and elk, and a world-renowned trout fishery. Westchester's rolling hills, sugar maple forests, meadows, ravines and swamplands serve as crucial habitat for black bears, coyotes, red foxes, warblers, turtles and tortoises.

Both counties, one suburban and one rural, occupy some of the richest ecosystems that remain in North America. And it will be up to local officials who govern the counties to determine whether those biological legacies will be squandered.

That's because the federal and state governments can never set enough land aside to give wildlife populations sufficient room to thrive. Wild animals need space to migrate, escape harsh winter weather and replenish genetic diversity. All that movement can take them onto privately owned lands. Meanwhile, local officials write land-use plans, enforce zoning rules, review new subdivisions, approve industrial parks and set aside open space. They make calls every day that determine how much of the country's biological resources will be salvaged.

For the past seven years, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international organization based at New York City's Bronx Zoo, has been collaborating with local towns to protect critical private lands. Along the Hudson River watershed, "we have a resource that's globally significant, and the better land-use planning we have, the fewer species will get to the brink of crisis," says biologist Michael W. Klemens, who runs the group's Metropolitan Conservation Alliance.

Klemens served for several years as the chairman of the Rye, New York, planning board, so he knows what local officials are up against. He's working with seven Westchester towns and some Connecticut communities to map their biotic resources and protect them as development creeps their way. The plans incorporate acquiring open space and conservation easements, and lay the groundwork for protecting wildlife corridors, strengthening wetlands regulations, limiting road construction and clustering new houses to keep people away from crucial lands.

Just as critically, the contiguous towns of Yorktown, Cortlandt, New Castle and Putnam Valley have begun working together on inter- municipal agreements for managing habitat that overlaps their jurisdictions. "Watersheds cross boundaries, and woodlands cross boundaries," says Yorktown Town Supervisor Linda Cooper. "If you protect a wetland but not the upland area next to it, you've done just as much damage."

Landscapes are much more expansive out West, but threats to wildlife are just as serious. Around such resort boomtowns as Aspen and Sun Valley, developable lands have just about filled up, and developers are turning to even more remote Rocky Mountain counties. State game and fish biologists warn that planned subdivisions will disrupt elk and deer habitat and break up corridors that moose, grizzlies and wolves wander through continuously. But growth overwhelms counties with one-person planning staffs and no zoning codes to prevent disruptive projects.

There's more at stake than wildlife. Some Madison County ranchers have concluded that all-out development that drives out trophy elk and clouds blue-ribbon trout streams would also spell the end of a way of life their families pioneered a century ago. They've begun working with Wildlife Conservation Society biologists and other environmental groups to assess the Madison River valley's wildlife resources. They're not ready for zoning, but they're at least contemplating whether the county needs something tougher than unenforceable subdivision standards. "We can have voluntary guidelines until it's all gone, and then we'll say we wish we'd done it differently," worries Lane Adamson, the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group director, who also sits on the county planning board.

In Westchester County, public officials already are grappling with the congested traffic, polluted air, surging stormwater and lifeless landscapes that have resulted from land-use mistakes decades ago. In protecting wildlife, governments will be able to keep water clean, leave open space alone and hang on to the colorful fall foliage, chirping songbirds and other natural pleasures that keep communities livable for human occupants. Says Cooper, the Yorktown supervisor, "If we create a barren environment for wildlife, I don't think it's healthy for people, either."

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