New York State Conservationist, February, 2016
“Reflections Upon Closing”
Summer 2015 SAVINGland www.landtrustalliance.org
BY Karen Schneller-McDonald
My father, Alfred Schneller, bought several pieces of land on the Shawangunk Ridge in New York in the early ’70s. The son of Austrian immigrants who ran a boarding house and farm on Awosting Road, he grew up prowling the Shawangunks, sometimes staying out for days.
After serving in World War II he returned to Ulster County and a career as an environmental conservation officer with the Department of Environmental Conservation. Ready to buy more land, he was always looking for opportunities to protect a place he loved. I know he was concerned about development. When he died in his mid-50s he left the land to me and my sister.
While my father and grandparents would hardly recognize their “old farm” and its surroundings today, the wild features of the Ridge remain intact. We recently sold our largest parcel to become part of an extensive protected wild area for the public to enjoy.
Bordered by the Verkeederkill, this rugged land extends to the top of the mountain. We often bushwhacked through thickets of mountain laurel upslope to the tumble of boulders at the base of that last steep climb. Sidestepping the crevasses, challenged to find a way to the top, we were rewarded by an occasional showy pink azalea and on top, a profusion of blueberry bushes framing rock slabs and a stunning view of the valley.
Below, a rivulet cuts through a hay-scented fern meadow and spreads into a wetland on its way to the Verkeederkill. One July afternoon I tracked a small pickerel frog through the thick grass along that rivulet. Intent on catching it, I was oblivious to all else until something made me glance up—and I locked eyes with a big bear standing in the ferns at the edge of the brush not 30 feet away. Sunlight glossed its black coat. We both froze. “Well, hey, nice seeing you. I’m leaving; the place is all yours,” I babbled softly, as I backed off. This was clearly his turf. I was just passing through.
Some land should remain undeveloped. Humans are crafty, devising ways to build almost anywhere, changing the land. Few places are off limits. And when we have built on all the land that’s buildable, and a great deal of land that is not, we will have an even greater need for wild places. Where else could we go for unexpected encounters with wildlife in the ferns?
The woods are quiet, but for the cry of a blue jay and a woodpecker tapping in the distance. This land should remain as it is, to draw us in, invite our silence, remind us that we are only visitors here. It gives me great pleasure to just let it be. It has given me so much—peace, a sense of freedom, connection with the wild. I could justify its protection for any number of scientific reasons, from watershed protection to biodiversity preservation. But the land means even more than that. It gives us a personal connection to something bigger than ourselves, something that endures.
We hold land in trust. It’s left in our care until we pass it along to the next guardians. As my father recognized, one day we will no longer be around to protect the land we value—and have to trust that someone else will carry on.
My sister and I honor our family’s legacy. With gratitude we pass it on to the future.
ON SEPTEMBER 23, 2014, KAREN SCHNELLER-MCDONALD SOLD HER LAND TO THE ACCREDITED OPEN SPACE INSTITUTE. THE LAND IS EXPECTED TO BE ADDED TO MINNEWASKA STATE PARK.
INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS
Hudson Valley Almanac Weekly
Posted by Ann Hutton on April 12, 2016
Ever since Rachel Carson spoke to the masses through the 1962 publication of her treatise Silent Spring, insightful observers of our “environment” – that thin layer of biosphere surrounding the planet that we call home – have tried to steer the course of human action on behalf of its survival. In the intervening decades, visionaries like James Lovelock (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth) and eco-activist Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and other books) have alerted us to the dire facts of ecosystems failure – specifically, the we’re-all-in-this-together nature of the environment. If one species goes extinct or one geosystem breaks down, the entire life-supporting environment is affected in ways that we are only beginning to understand.
For many people, this is grim news. Turning the tide of human activity worldwide to stop the extinction of bees or to repair the causes and effects of global warming, for example, seems like an overwhelming proposition. Others choose to face the facts and take action. Karen Schneller-McDonald is one of those others. This Hudson Valley-based environmentalist with Hickory Creek Consulting in Red Hook works to help us understand the challenges that we now face to our own survival. Connecting the Drops: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Water Resources is Schneller-McDonald’s book outlining those challenges in user-friendly language; you don’t need to be a scientist to comprehend her message. She presents the basics of water resource protection, which includes ecology and watershed science; techniques for evaluating environmental impacts; obstacles to protection and how to overcome them; and other tips for successful protection strategies.
Current reports emerging around the country about the contamination of community water supplies bring the issue front and center, underlining the importance of Schneller-McDonald’s work. Connecting the Drops explains connections among natural cycles, watersheds and ecosystems, and she describes how specific development activities (think oil pipelines) affect water quality and supply. More important, perhaps, is her “how-to” guidance: what grassroots strategies work, how to take action as individuals and small community groups, how to interpret scientific information and Environmental Impact Statements.
In a November 2015 Huffington Post interview, Schneller-McDonald talks about the impasse often faced by people working to protect natural resources against industrial development that harms the environment. She notes that regular citizens feel powerless when dealing with large corporations or moneyed interests. She emphasizes that we need information rooted in science to be able to address economy-versus-environment issues.
“Without a sustainable environment, we cannot have a sustainable economy,” she maintains. “It all goes together. People don’t know who to believe. Experts differ on the facts of the situation depending on who hires them. I found I needed to provide a different sort of information for people that went into critical thinking and asking questions and how to interpret facts.”
Working as an environmental impact assessment consultant for 25 years, Schneller-McDonald has helped local governments, planning boards and other groups to understand and protect their own natural resources while supporting development that does not destroy them. Understanding how the networks of wetlands, streams and watersheds function can give us the knowledge to choose and regulate land-use activities, to avoid resulting ecological damage, flooding, water pollution and reduced water supply.
“We need a healthy environment that sustains our personal and community health; we also need vibrant and sustainable economic development that does not destroy the benefits we derive from nature. Our ability to accomplish both depends on how well we can ‘connect the drops.’”
Karen Schneller-McDonald presents Connecting the Drops: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Water Resources, Friday, April 8, 7 p.m., Inquiring Mind Bookstore, 65 Partition Street, Saugerties, (845) 246-5775; Sunday, April 17, 4 p.m., Inquiring Minds, 6 Church Street, New Paltz, (845) 255-8300; http://thewetnet.net.
The Huffington Post
by Joseph Erbentraut Posted: 11/06/2015 08:56 AM EST
But Karen Schneller-McDonald, a New York-based environmental impact assessment consultant, believes it doesn’t have to be that way. She has spent the last 25 years helping local governments, planning boards and other groups learn how to best protect the natural resources that make their neighborhoods special places to live and she’s observed how that message is resonating with more and more Americans today.
In a new book, Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources, Schneller-McDonald is sharing many of those strategies in an effort to inspire more people to care about preserving the natural resources they hold dear, ensuring they are still around for generations to come.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Schneller-McDonald about her work.
HuffPost: How do we simply get more people to care about the environment? It can feel so daunting.
Schneller-McDonald: It’s daunting because people feel disempowered in the face of larger corporations or monied interests. They need the information, the arguments rooted in science, the facts to be able to tackle those interests that say they just have to suck it up because it’s the economy vs. the environments. “Do you want jobs or clean water?” But that’s not a choice. We don’t have a sustainable economy without a sustainable environment and vice versa. It all goes together. People also don’t know who to believe. Experts differ on the facts of the situation depending on who hires them. I found I needed to provide a different sort of information for people that went into critical thinking and asking questions and how to interpret facts. Those are the kinds of things I wasn’t finding much help with in existing resources that are available.
In your book, you touched on media coverage of these issues — that the media doesn’t often give enough context to understand the environmental factors of a major story like the Keystone pipeline. What is the media’s role is in this?
The whole approach of our culture and media has turned to trying to change environmental concerns into political concerns when they are not. I think it’s the role of the media to try and break down that political approach to protecting the environment. Cut through the partisan stuff. Who would stand up and say they’re against clean water? Nobody. But when you get to the nitty gritty of getting clean water, that’s where it falls apart. I think we have a problem with science and that’s something the media could do a better job on as well.
The information we need to make good decisions is pretty much in place, but a lot of times people never see it, they never hear about it. They hear about the controversy and people would rather believe things are safe and alright. The oil company or gas company says not to worry, it’s safe and that they wouldn’t do it otherwise. But that’s full of holes and somebody needs to be able to stand up and ask the pertinent questions publicly like, “Safe for who?” and “What do you mean by safe?” I think there is a real opening for a positive role the media can play to get at the things that concern everyday people about their environment and their water and air and the land they live on.
Do you think more people are caring about these issues today? Are more people “connecting the drops” as you put it?
I didn’t think they were until I went through a recent experience in New York around hydraulic fracking and that was an issue that motivated me to get this book out sooner rather than later. That issue was happening in my backyard and I was amazed and very heartened by the public uprising and the public search for information that went into that effort and turned out to actually be a very successful effort which I think should be encouragement to people all over the country. They told us it couldn’t be done and we did it.
I was there at the beginnings of the environmental activist movement in the 1970s and it seemed there was more interest then and I think it kind of disappeared for a while and went underground. Now I think it’s coming back and I think people are getting more informed. They are seeing that what’s happening to the air and water and land is affecting their health and affecting property values. I think that is all getting people to do more to be more of an activist. I guess activist can have negative connotation, so I like to say it’s informed activism, activism rooted in the facts and in science so you have credibility. At the same time I think that it’s very, very important and I like to encourage people to become activists in what’s important to them and their health because no one else will do it for them. It won’t come from government, not from corporations. I think the local grassroots effort is the place where it really needs to get going.
What specifically about the New York effort around fracking should be particularly encouraging to activists elsewhere?
First of all, they had good leadership and they had leaders who were very well-informed about the science. They divided a large land-use issue like fracking into smaller component parts and looked at the effects of all those component parts, everything from site preparation to chemical spills after the fact. They were willing to consider cumulative impacts and regional impacts. And then you know the biggest thing is people were willing to get out there and stand up for that issue. People who are willing to get on a bus and go to Albany, willing to write letters to the editor and put themselves forward to stand for something. I don’t know where you get that or where that comes from. It comes from deep down inside each individual.
Water is a resource that is all of ours. It’s connected, it doesn’t stay within property lines. Those are things that connect people really easily within a region because they share what’s at stake.
What if you’re not the sort of activist that would head to a protest? Can you still help? What is the one thing at a minimum you hope someone picking up this book will take away from reading it?
At a most basic level, to believe that maybe they can make a difference. That it is possible to make a difference in the face of what may seem like insurmountable opposition. It’s possible to make a difference but you have to be able to join with other people to do it. You need to form those larger groups and pool your collective energy into something that is a force to be reckoned with.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, they explore the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.