Saving A Mountain

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Fifteen miles north of New York City the Tappan Zee Bridge reaches across the Hudson River to the southern tier of Rockland County and to the last large chunk of unprotected and undeveloped land in the region, a ridge of the Palisades range called Clausland Mountain. At this time of year parts of the mountain are green with eastern hemlock. In spring the deciduous forest understory comes alive with pink and white dogwood, wild cherry, and shadbush—a sanctuary for wild flowers, warblers, owls, fox, deer, and people. For the past two years a small group of nearby residents, extraordinary only in their perseverance and determination, have struggled to save Clausland Mountain from urban development and preserve it as natural parkland. They are now in the last crucial stage of the battle.

Just before Christmas, 1967, Rockland County papers reported that Columbia University planned to build a one-totwo-thousand-unit faculty housing development on Clausland and held an option to buy the five-hundred-acre ridge. The first of many “Save the Mountain” strategy sessions was held that New Year’s Eve, with a total of six people present, John and Gretta Alison, Barbara and Vincent Porta, Susan and Don Preston. Their early efforts to block the Columbia scheme included visits to local, state, and federal officials, school boards, civic associations, and the gathering of some two thousand signatures for a petition. But when the university responded only with vague assurances and renewed its option, an enlarged Save the Mountain committee set to work on the formidable job of raising the $1,350,000 to buy the mountain. By June an application was in for a 50 per cent matching grant from the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. (This vital fund, currently severely crippled for lack of money, aids in state, city, and county acquisition and development of outdoor recreation areas.) By August, in response to mounting pressure, the county board of supervisors voted to put up 20 per cent of the money needed and to designate the land, if necessary, as a wildlife sanctuary.

In November the federal government’s matching grant came through the committee’s first real victory after eleven months of work. $675,000 was now available provided another $675,000 could be raised within sixty days. Rockland County increased its commitment to 25 per cent ($337,500). With all possible government funding sources tapped, with $337,500 still to be found, Irving Maidman, the realtor who owned the land to which Columbia held option, contributed $100,000. An urgent appeal to the Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization whose sole effort is directed to preserving valuable land, resulted in the largest loan in the history of that organization—the $237,500 necessary to match the federal grant. Apparently the mountain would be saved. All that remained to do now, it seemed, was to raise the money to repay the Nature Conservancy. But not so. Columbia University did not wish to release its option. The university intended to make a profit on the land, and not until April 8, 1969 over two months after all the money had been raised—did Columbia, in the face of public pressure, finally agree to give up the option.

Save the Mountain’s efforts to repay the Nature Conservancy loan have been hurt by Columbia’s delay and by a failure to get two or three big donors. But a sale of works by noted Rockland County artists last fall and support from local celebrities—Burgess Meredith gave a fund-raising party, Helen Hayes signed three hundred letters—have all helped. At this writing it appears Clausland will survive just as it is.