January 23, 2021
Marty Irwin, a local volunteer, former New Paltz Town Board member, lifelong environmentalist, and Chair of the Board of Directors of Mohonk Consultations, recently joined the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) Board of Directors. Here, Marty, who has served on the WVLT Conservation Committee, shares insights into his volunteer work and how serving on the Town board has informed his perspective.
What is your first memory and impressions of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust?
Let me first say it’s an honor to be invited to join the Wallkill Valley Land Trust Board.
My first memories of the Land Trust include biking on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in the 1980s. Having fun with friends and enjoying the wonderful vistas, well-maintained trails, the cool spots between the rocks on hot days, and chatting with fellow travelers. The side trail to the chimneys was a favorite (see picture, circa 1995).
The best memory was the day the chain link fence disappeared. Okay, so back then, like so many, I conflated the WVRTA [Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association] and the WVLT. First Land Trust connection was circa 2007 when I called Chris Duncan (the former Executive Director) to ask about volunteering.
How did you get recruited to join the WVLT Conservation Committee? What attracted you to volunteering?
Not really sure – probably Christie DeBoer, [current Executive Director]. It was sort of a natural evolution. The Land Trust’s and my paths crossed several times.
When I reached out to Chris in 2007, he was exploring selling WVLT branded bottles and adding trail markers. I met Rob Hare, a Land Trust board member coordinating the effort.
In 2009, Jim Delaune (Orange County Land Trust’s Executive Director) enticed me to join him as a volunteer on the Town’s New Paltz Clean Water and Open Space Protection Commission [CWOSP]. I was retired and this was a great way to give back. Local governments depend on volunteers. I found there were opportunities to be a better-informed volunteer, such as Hudsonia’s Biodiversity training. It led to more opportunities to collaborate with the Land Trust.
The New Paltz Town Board had asked the CWOSP, in partnership with Open Space Institute (OSI), to seek to conserve property on Mountain Rest Road. OSI’s Paul Elconin was leading the effort and I got to tag along. Another learning opportunity. Lynn Bowdery, then the Land Trust’s Land Steward and fellow CWOSP member, let me trail along when she monitored the land. My first experiences with conservation easements were from great teachers.
Working with Christie and Allan Bowdery we presented an understanding to the Town board to engage the Land Trust to annually monitor all the Town’s easements and fee lands.
The Town board asked CWOSP to seek the acquisition of undeveloped land in the heart of our community to create a nature preserve – later to become the Mill Brook Preserve (MBP). There were two owners to negotiate with, and half of the property was in the Village. The land was acquired.
Joining the Town Board in 2015 required leaving CWOSP, but the MBP land still needed to be conserved, so, again Christie and I continued the effort. Christie’s guidance, patience and tenacity allowed closing on easements on both parcels, protecting the many conservation values in perpetuity. Today, the 135-acre Mill Brook Preserve is both a recreational playground where one can experience nature in the heart of the community and an educational venue for our local schools, SUNY and environmental groups. The Land Trust monitors the MBP for the Town and the Village.
How did serving as a New Paltz Town Board member inform your perspective on the role of local government?
I was fairly well informed regarding local and state governments. As the Vermont State Health Department Personnel Director and then the State’s wage and salary administrator, understanding state government was imperative. The Governor appointed me to serve on his Solid Waste Management Task Force which heightened my environmental and conservation awareness. At a hefty one-half-inch thick, it was the first such state study for Vermont.
This was invaluable as a private-sector project manager and then developer, owner and operator of affordable seniors housing and assisted living. It helped my understanding relevant governmental laws and regulations and figuring out how to navigate the various bureaucracies to obtain the necessary entitlements and financing subsidies.
In the private sector, the need was to petition. As a volunteer, the opportunity was to be an advocate. Decisions are made on the other side of the table.
Can you share a little bit about the work of Mohonk Consultations? And your role as chairman?
Mohonk Consultations was formed by Keith Smiley in 1980. Keith was a third-generation Smiley raised at Mohonk Mountain House in the Quaker tradition. Our Mission is to bring together people of diverse perspectives to discuss practical means to promote the interrelationship and sustainability of all life on earth.
We’re separate from Mohonk Mountain House; however, it is our home base, and they host our programs and meetings. Similar to the Land Trust and most of our economy, we’ve transitioned to a virtual world while COVID-19 overwhelms us, but optimistically look forward to putting this in our rear-view mirror by the end of 2021.
We achieve our mission by presentation of three annual programs – Forum, Achievement Award and Conference. Attendees are typically from the Lower Hudson Valley.
Conferences are our major event and have convened folks to discuss a variety of conservation, environmental and social justice topics. Typically, a one-day event, our 2019 Peace Conference: “Creating and Sustaining Peace,” was a bit different, covering three days with internationally acknowledged presenters. The live stream engaged a global audience. We did find the scale was a bit over daunting. Conferences have led to new initiatives such as Phillies Bridge Farm. Another place where our paths have converged with the Land Trust.
Like the Land Trust, Mohonk Consultations is a not-for-profit [501c3] managed by a small volunteer working board. We both produce our own events.
The label of “Chair” is new for us. Until last year when we revised our by-laws, the position followed the Quaker label of “Clerk.” The tradition continues – to facilitate the executive committee’s agenda at our board meetings and annual retreat. The [Board of Director’s] Chair is Ex-Officio on board and program committees which helps assure coordination among all, but this is really managed by our part-time administrative coordinator.
Why is it important to conserve open space? And how do you balance conservation with the need for economic growth?
No time needed on this one: Habitat protection, clean water, clean air, climate protection, farmland protection, access to recreational opportunities, enjoyment of scenic vistas are vital. Climate change is damaging our world and clean energy generation and storage, despite controversial, should be a checklist item for consideration when drafting easement agreements.