Why does AMC get involved in conservation policy? For insight, we asked the key players behind one major success story, the Highlands Conservation Act, which protects the water supply of 11 million Americans. This is their oral history.
Did you know that members of AMC’s conservation and leadership teams trek to Washington, D.C., every year, walking the halls of the Capitol and talking with senators, representatives, and staff about conservation priorities across New England and the Mid-Atlantic?
Before taking its docket to the legislature, AMC conducts extensive research, carefully weighing issues against the organization’s strengths. From time to time, an initiative comes into perfect alignment with a broader movement, carrying AMC onto the national stage. That happened in the early 1900s, when AMC members fought for the creation of an eastern national forest system with the Weeks Act. And in the 1990s, when AMC began looking to expand on decades of volunteer-driven conservation efforts in the Mid-Atlantic, the stars aligned again. But not without work.
What makes the Mid-Atlantic Highlands—a landscape-scale corridor stretching through northwestern Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—so important? And how did a Boston-based club known for its roots in New Hampshire land at the center of a campaign to protect wilderness in the nation’s most populated swath?
To understand why and how AMC plays a role at the federal level, we spoke to people involved in the 2004 passage and implementation of the Highlands Conservation Act (HCA), as well as its 2018 reauthorization. It’s a story even diehard AMC members may not know.
NEW ATTENTION TO THE MID-ATLANTIC
Several factors raised the profile of the Mid-Atlantic Highlands in the 1990s. Local efforts to protect watersheds in New Jersey and New York were gaining momentum, as was a campaign to protect 20,000-acre Sterling Forest, on the New York–New Jersey border. At the same time, AMC was looking to assume a larger role in the region. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study published in 1992 gave all of these efforts a boost: “The Highlands…offer the last opportunity to provide shape and form to the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan Region, delineating where the pavement ends and nature begins.”
“That report, everyone sees it as the consolidating moment….When the federal government says, ‘This is real, this is important,’ it has a lot of impact.”
Jad Daly, former AMC Mid-Atlantic conservation director, current vice president of conservation programs at American Forests
“The hands-off political climate…and the lack of regional coordination encourage creation of more of the same kind of suburb that has devoured so much of the land in the New York City metropolitan area….If the public wants to slow or reverse sprawl…it will have to recapture the formulation of public policy.”
Ann Botshon, Saving Sterling Forest (State University of New York Press, 2007)
“My son [and I] started [paddling] pretty much every weekend. After a while, I started thinking, Maybe I could do something to preserve some of this lovely outdoors that I was enjoying with AMC. So I went to a meeting of the Conservation Committee with the New York chapter. And it was sort of, ‘Well, what’re we saving this month?’ And the staffer there said, ‘Well, the big item is Sterling Forest.’ I think the Highlands effort benefited from having this highly energetic Sterling Forest preservation effort spring up.”
John Humbach, New York–North Jersey Chapter member and former chairman of the Sterling Forest Coalition
“Flush with the success of Sterling Forest, [New Jersey Highlands] coalition leaders reached out to organizations in Connecticut and Pennsylvania to create a new four-state Highlands coalition…building a regional identity for the Highlands and engaging local, state, and federal leaders.”
The Highlands: Critical Resources, Treasured Landscape (Rivergate Books, 2011)
“The basic issue was: Is AMC going to continue to be seen as the organization that’s primarily focused on the mountains of New Hampshire? Or is it going to be the organization that represents the total region where its members are coming from? Here was a situation where there was an opportunity that matched up perfectly with the mission of the organization.”
Andy Falender, AMC executive director, 1989–2012
“We did a broad-scale analysis [and] identified 12 generic areas that had open spaces and recreational opportunities, and then [we] overlaid AMC membership. And we also asked, ‘Where do we think we can make a difference, and where we might be additive and not going in and competing with other groups?’ One of the biggest vacuums was in eastern Pennsylvania.”
Ken Kimball, AMC research director, 1983–2018
“The main thing that came out of that [analysis] was to get more involved in the Highlands protection effort, which had been going in fits and starts for decades. We needed to form this into a four-state coalition [Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania] to really elevate the visibility and national significance of the Highlands. AMC was the fiscal agent for that coalition.”
Tom Gilbert, former AMC Mid-Atlantic conservation director and Highlands Coalition executive director; current campaign director at New Jersey Conservation Foundation
“AMC created a strategy in the early 1990s that said, ‘We need to be a catalyst in preserving the forests of the eastern United States, and the way we’ll do that is to create coalitions to have a larger influence.’ I really believe AMC was the single organization that deserves the most credit for catalyzing the strategy for protecting the eastern forests.”
Following the successful protection of Sterling Forest in the late 1990s, momentum continued to build around conserving the broader Highlands region. AMC established a Mid-Atlantic office and began working closely with the region’s elected officials. With the aid of a politically influential board president, Sam Pryor, AMC and its partners looked to secure congressional support on both sides of the aisle for federal legislation.
“Why did AMC become a leader? It was a very sophisticated strategy called, ‘We were willing to do it.’ I’m serious. Partnerships with other organizations are something other CEOs like to give speeches about, but they don’t like to do the work behind it. Often you have to share the credit, and that doesn’t come naturally to some.”
“I was basically hired as the first conservation staff person for AMC in the Mid-Atlantic, back in 1998. We grew staff; we had a GIS person and a trails person. It was an exciting time.”
“We weren’t The Nature Conservancy or the local land trusts, executing these land deals. We were going to be a voice, to try and come up with funding for these groups to pull off the actual acquisitions.”
“AMC created the idea and the campaign around the Penn- sylvania Highlands Trail. We took it to the state and pitched them on giving us funding to map it and create it. That was a key to getting the [political] support we needed. And now AMC is seen in Pennsylvania as a recreation leader.”
“Politically, [the Highlands] straddles the Democrats and the Republicans, and it really does connect the northern and southern part of the Appalachians. It provides a really important connection between the northeast and southeast.”
Kristen Sykes, AMC’s director of conservation strategies
“We talk to Democrats and Republicans and Independents in our region. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been effective, and one of the reasons we’re playing a leading role with the Highlands Conservation Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. AMC is in a region of the country that can have a lot of impact on what happens.”
Susan Arnold, AMC’s vice president of conservation
“Sam [Pryor] spent more hours walking the halls of Congress in support of the HCA than any other volunteer. He was so tireless. Never asked for a break. Never slowed us down. It was like he was hiking those halls for AMC’s mission.”
“Sam was the one who enabled us to get our stories across in a way that had impact.”
“There was one meeting we had with a member of Congress from Utah, who was chairing one of the key committees. We met with his staff and brought in a publication that had a photo of the New York City skyline from the Highlands on the cover. And he said, ‘Of course you Photoshopped this. There isn’t forest next to New York City!’ And we said, ‘No, that’s real!’ It had a real impact. That’s what turned the tide.”
“The aim is to leave a memorable mark on what we are talking about. [Members of Congress] all get a gazillion requests about a gazillion issues every day.”
Heather Clish, AMC’s director of conservation and recreation policy
“We ended up moving the office to Pennsylvania [because] we spent so much time with Pennsylvania groups and leaders. [HCA] never would have passed without the support of [Senators] Rick Santorum and Arlen Spector, both Republicans. They both worked hard for it.”
“I rise today to introduce the Highlands Stewardship Act of 2002, H.R. 5146, a new, cooperative approach to addressing urban sprawl in our Highlands region…[which] includes the drinking water supply for over 11 million people….It is estimated that one in 12 Americans live within two hours’ travel of the Highlands region and an astonishing 14 million people visit the more than 200,000 acres of public land in the Highlands region annually….Time is of the essence in protecting this critical national treasure.”
Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), July 17, 2002
A LEGISLATIVE VICTORY
After an initial attempt failed, a revised act passed the House of Representatives in November 2003 and the Senate in October 2004. President George W. Bush signed HCA, officially Public Law No. 108-421, on November 30, 2004. At only four pages, the act was intentionally short on specifics. That allowed organizations, such as AMC, to help plan its implementation, including identifying the preexisting Land and Water Conservation Fund as a financial source, rather than exploring more controversial measures, such as eminent domain.
“It’s hard to come up with another 3 million acres in this country that are of greater public value.”
Jad Daley, in AMC Outdoors (March 2005)
“This is the kind of legislation that, in the past, I have opposed and have had concerns about, but I have to give all due credit to my colleague (Mr. [Rodney] Frelinghuysen) and the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. [Jim] Saxton)….They were very good at coming in and sitting down and working through the property rights concerns that I had….On any legislation like this in the future…we will use this bill as a template, as a way to get things done in a bipartisan way.”
Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), November 21, 2003
“When I embarked on the federal Highlands Conservation Act, I had to do quite a lot of lobbying of people…who are worried about federal land grabs, the cost of maintaining federal property. So, I put into our bill, ‘sales from willing sellers,’ so there wouldn’t be the issue of confrontation, confiscation.”
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), to E&E News, 2015
“It was a four-page bill, and [Rep. Frelinghuysen] made it simple. But one of the challenges was that we had to figure out all the details. How is this going to work? Where’s the funding going to come from?”
“In many respects, [HCA] represented a different model for regional landscape protection. Rather than federalizing a region, the federal government recognized the national significance of a region and provided funding and technical assistance, in partnership with the states.”
“I tried to get AMC members and other supporters to come down [to D.C.] with us. One of the times, I was able to get Henry Schreiber [an AMC member involved in protecting New York’s Great Swamp] to come down with me. It was a super busy day on the Hill, and we were meeting with Senator Clinton’s staff, huddled in the hallway talking to them about the Highlands Conservation Act. People are buzzing all around us, and Henry is telling them about the Great Swamp: ‘You’re right outside New York City and you’re in this remote area, with herons swooping all around you.’ And [a staffer]—you could see it—was like, ‘Ahhhh!’ ”
“Did I really say something that caught somebody’s attention? I really don’t know. But if nobody is doing it, then probably nothing is going to happen.”
Henry Schreiber, AMC New York–North Jersey Chapter member
“Constituent voices clearly have an impact on all of our elected officials. And that does make a difference, because members of Congress are responsive to their constituents.”
FUNDING AND REAUTHORIZATION
The first $2 million in HCA funding was designated in the 2007 federal budget. To date, funding has totaled $47.25 million. Those appropriations have required an annual effort, as well as a campaign to extend HCA beyond its original expiration date in 2014. AMC staff has maintained relationships with supporters in both houses of Congress, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and original sponsor Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.).
“AMC has been the consistent glue over the years. Without that hard work year in and year out to advocate for and work with the delegation to secure those appropriations, it wouldn’t happen. AMC, beyond every organization, has maintained that focus and drumbeat.”
“We are constantly checking on our priorities and, at the same time, we’re not constantly changing our priorities. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If we changed our priorities every single year, we wouldn’t get anything done.”
“Me and Tom Gilbert and Rodney [Frelinghuysen] were standing around at this press event in New Jersey [in 2012], and we turned to [Frelinghuysen] and said: ‘It’s so great being here to celebrate the purchase of 600 acres of new open space. I just wanted to let you know that we’re approaching the expiration of the legislation. It would be great to drop a bill and get this reauthorized.’ And he looked at me and was like: “Oh, crap. I can’t believe it has been eight years already! I’ll work with my staff and introduce that bill right away.”
“We and our partners are experts, and we bring that expertise to assist legislators and their staffs in understanding an issue, the implications of an issue, or brainstorming a pathway, in this case, to protect the Highlands.”
“I promised to go back to the coalition and the state agencies to gather feedback on how the legislation was working. [Katie Hazlett, then Frelinghuysen’s legislative director, and I] would share versions of this document back and forth, so I had my hand directly in the drafting of that legislation.”
“You need to have a consistency of knowing and understanding how the appropriations process works, and maintaining those relationships with Congress and maintaining the visibility of a region over decades. It really does take a different kind of effort.”
“As we entered the 115th Congress [in 2017], moderate Republicans began to announce their intention to retire. I knew Rodney Frelinghuysen was ready to retire any day now. We knew, and Rodney knew, that without his leadership and position, we would likely struggle to get this bill passed. So, the clock started ticking. We built up the program as a legacy that Rodney would leave to his region and his district.”
A LEGACY AND A FUTURE
Reauthorization failed to gain traction when Frelinghuysen introduced it in 2013, and HCA expired in 2014. Then, in March 2018, a bill attached to the Omnibus Appropriations Act passed, extending HCA through 2021. Fourteen years after HCA was first signed into law, AMC and partners are looking for a new champion to ensure future funding and reauthorization.
“Creating an area that is protected, and will be, for generations to come—a real oasis to get away from everything that is happening and immerse yourself in the green space and the joy of the outdoors—to me, that’s a legacy we can all be proud of. And on the climate side, how important is this green space going to be for the resiliency of the Mid-Atlantic, when it comes to extreme events? All those things are so important to the legacy of this project.”
John Judge, AMC’s president and CEO
“To have a significant win on the environment—lot of times, the work you do is defense, trying to stop bad things from happening—so being part of a conservation success is not that frequent and pretty amazing.”
“One of the wonderful parts about AMC’s mission, especially in the land protection arena, is that work is done that can have an impact forever.”
“The Highlands Conservation Act has created regional identity for the backyards of so many people—a landscape-
level movement that’s bigger than just the HCA.”
“There’s more to do. The job isn’t done yet. [The Highlands are] an area of regional significance, where AMC can move the needle in a meaningful way.”
“As we grow, we’re trying to expand our impact in the southern part of the AMC region, with the Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center and growing our programs. If anything, [HCA] is increasingly relevant to a growing number of people we’re trying to reach.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided financial support for the Highlands, as well as for regions across the nation since 1963, is set to expire September 30. Tell Congress to save LWCF.