Saving Sterling Forest

The Epic Struggle to Preserve New York's Highlands

By Ann Botshon

Subjects: Environmental Politics
Paperback : 9780791469408, 216 pages, November 2006
Hardcover : 9780791469392, 216 pages, November 2006

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by Richard Botshon and Lisa Botshon
1. A Forest Is at Stake
2. Money from the Colonial Rocks

Sterling Forest—A gem of Highlands real estate
Iron mines flourish, then fade
Key tracts change hands
Early conservation efforts in the Highlands
The nineteenth and twentieth century preservation movement emerges

3. The Sprawl Wars Begin

Looking at land as a high-profit investment
Sprawl imposes major changes in the region
Big plans afoot for the forest
Major constraints to large-scale subdivision
The Sterling Forest Corporation’s first plan
The corporation’s next plan: Sterling One
The people of Tuxedo versus the corporation
Orange County welcomes money from sprawl

4. The Art of Launching a (Forest) Preservation Movement, 1985–1990

Protecting the Appalachian Trail in the 1980s, piece by piece
As the grassroots mobilizes . . .
. . . the corporation reinvents itself
The death and life of a Thruway Exit in Tuxedo
“Convergence of concern about Sterling Forest”
A new strategic element: The Sterling Forest Coalition
The corporation strikes back
Heimbach brought in as development point man
The pivotal Kostmayer hearing on preservation sets the federal stage
The recalcitrance of Benjamin Gilman

5. New Corporate Actions Make Enviros Scramble

The parent corporation loses money big time
Need cash? Float a plan for 14,500 houses
The very first federal money—$250,000 for a Highlands study
The corporation envisions murals, fountains, and some trees
But forest watchers see a Swiss-cheese forest
Asking the feds for big bucks
New York barely hangs on as a player
Divisions in the environmental ranks
A forest on two launch pads

6. Government Sees Green

The partial purchase proposal: Selling the forest for seed money
New players in Washington: Three supporters introduce key House legislation
The Park Service gets balky
Stateside: New Jersey firms up its commitment
Stateside: New York State creates a new open space funding source
The downward spiral of Home Holdings

7. Turning the Grassroots into a Fighting Force

Sterling Forest Coalition moves to the rear; the new Sterling Forest Resources is launched
The Public Private Partnership to Save Sterling Forest
Environmental review of the corporation’s project begins
The public gets its say

8. Bounced Around in the Washington Turf Wars

Contract with America holds up congressional action
New York wants it to happen
The diabolical land swap proposals of 1996
Dousing the Contract with America brushfire
Back to the negotiating table
Sales contract for 90 percent of the forest
Back to the Washington melee
Time is running out

9. The Open Space Movement Saves a Highlands Jewel

The federal and state governments come through, and so does the private sector
Contract compromises mar the deal
New York and New Jersey get their new park
The corporation still banks on a piece of the rock

10. A New Vision for Land Preservation

How preservation prevailed
The fight for open space continues
Sprawl is not inevitable
by Jürgen Wekerle


The story of the twenty-five-year quest to preserve twenty thousand acres of forest in southeastern New York.


This is the inspiring story of the twenty-five-year-long effort to preserve Sterling Forest, a tract of rugged, upland terrain encompassing twenty thousand acres within the New York–New Jersey Highlands. Barely forty miles northwest of New York City, Sterling Forest seemed destined to suffer the same fate that had befallen thousands of acres of land in this rapidly suburbanizing corridor. The fight to save Sterling Forest brought together one of the largest coalitions of environmental groups and government entities ever assembled. Despite the loose, sometimes fractious nature of the alliance, the coalition managed to extract support from Congress, New York State, New Jersey, and private donors, while at the same time negotiating a contract to purchase the land from the Sterling Forest Corporation, a company that vigorously protected its financial interests at every turn. Deemed by some to be one of the more remarkable environmental victories of the 1990s, the successful outcome of the Sterling Forest struggle—a large state park within easy access of millions of people and a protected supply of water to New Jersey residents—embodied virtually every facet of land-use conflict. It provides a model for saving other areas where critical wild lands are threatened by development.

Ann Botshon (1942–2004) was Coordinator of the Wallkill River Task Force and Editor of the Sierra Atlantic, the quarterly magazine published by the Atlantic (New York) Chapter of the Sierra Club.


"The long but ultimately victorious battle to protect Sterling Forest should be a model for other efforts around the country to prevent sprawl and preserve open spaces. Passionate private citizens, supported by several nonprofit organizations and backed by the hard work of public officials in two states and at many levels of government, together defended this spectacular natural resource from rapidly encroaching development. As a result, we established one of the largest tracts of protected land near a major metropolitan area to be found anywhere in the country, ensuring that this ecologically, scenically, and historically significant property will be enjoyed by future generations.Ann Botshon's work is an important documentation of one of the most significant open space victories in the nation. It is imperative that the lessons learned in the struggle to save Sterling Forest be imparted to a new generation of advocates who are likely to face even more difficult challenges in protecting our access to and relationship with the natural world." — U.S. Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, 22nd Congressional District of New York