As executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, Carol Ash has plenty to do, but protecting the 24 parks under her control is her top priority
Some East Coast residents believe you’ve got to “go west” to commune with Mother Nature on a grand scale. But over nine million visitors a year — more than the number who travel to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Arcadia National Parks combined — come to enjoy a huge area of open space right in our own backyard. It includes 110,000 acres of forest, lakes, and wildlife habitats that make up the Palisades Interstate Park system, which stretches like an emerald necklace from just below the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey to Saugerties, in Ulster County.
“We’re so fortunate to have this network of parks, especially right here in the middle of one of the world’s most densely populated regions,” says their chief steward, Carol Ash. As executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) and regional director for the New York State parks department, she heads the federally chartered bi-state partnership that oversees the 24 parks, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, 32 campsites, beaches, trail museums, swimming pools, ice-skating rinks, boat launches, and golf courses.
That’s a tall order, but one Ash handles with aplomb, whether the task at hand is battling large-scale development on the fringes of some of the PIPC’s most rugged parks — especially Sterling Forest and Minnewaska — or providing a suitable home for a single animal.
In the case of the former, Ash and the PIPC aren’t afraid of confrontation, or perseverance. Just ask the wealthy currency trader living adjacent to one of the PIPC parks. “He cut down 600 trees of parkland, just so he could build tennis courts for his children,” she recounts. “We went after him, and following two years of legal maneuvers, he had to pay a $2.75 million settlement this spring.
“The message I hope to get out,” adds Ash, “is that people notice when destruction of parkland happens. They care. And they will do something about it.”
That same concern carries over to the plight of Delbert. “He’s an orphaned river otter who’s been living at the Bear Mountain Zoo since 1995,” explains Ash. A favorite of visitors, Delbert currently splashes away each winter in a makeshift pond that’s actually a bathtub. Soon, he should have a state-of-the-art home. “A nonprofit volunteer group of park lovers, the Friends of the Palisades, is now on a mission to raise funds to build a new otter habitat,” says Ash. Delbert’s digs will even have space for two more otter
companions, so he won’t be lonely. (That’s just one of the habitat-renewal projects on
Ash’s full plate at the moment; another, designed for humans, is the restoration of the historic Bear Mountain Inn.)
Ash, who oversees her leafy domain from a rustic building in Bear Mountain State Park, didn’t start out with a desire to be a savior of open space, although she has always been an admitted nature freak. Her career began in Washington, D.C., with a secretarial job in the Justice Department. “It was during the time when Robert F. Kennedy was U.S. attorney general. The environmental movement was just being born,” she recalls.
Eventually, she moved on to an outreach position with the Environmental Protection Agency in New York City, and later became regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation for the five boroughs. “There’s not much of an unbuilt environment in New York City,” she says with a laugh. “So some of the best parts of the job were when I could get out and walk, either in the Jamaica Bay area or the wetlands of Staten Island.”
By then, the importance of land preservation had become paramount in her mind, and she was committed to a career in the field. “I began to see how, over time, local or federal environmental regulations can shift. Air, water, and transportation standards — all that may change, for better or worse. But once the land is preserved, at least nobody can take it away from the public,” she says.
Ash went on to become New York State director of the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, where she gained an overview of land conservation policy and began dealing extensively with groups that protect and preserve land in the public interest. Today, as head of the PIPC, she helps the state orchestrate dozens of conservation projects and land purchases, often with the help of nonprofits such as the Open Space Institute, Scenic Hudson, and the Trust for Public Land.
Although her high-pressured job keeps her behind a desk and in meetings for long stretches, Ash regularly tries to tour at least six of the PIPC’s parks, “so I get to know the trails pretty intimately,” she says. “Then, if a hiker reports a problem on a trail, chances are I’ll know what they’re talking about.” (Another of Ash’s challenges is maintaining a local portion of the Appalachian Trail, which gets so worn it has to be slightly rerouted every now and then.)
She and her family — her husband, Josh Friedman, is a Pulitzer Prizeâ€“winning journalist; they have a grown daughter, Susannah — live in Palisades, Rockland County. When they really yearn to get away, they head to their weekend home in upstate Rensselaerville, near Albany, where Ash says the hiking is also wonderful.
While the responsibilities of overseeing the Palisades Interstate Park system are seemingly endless, the PIPC’s triumphs in land preservation make it all worthwhile, says Ash. “When I took over as executive director six years ago, the state was just about to own Sterling Forest, had just begun negotiations with the owner of the 2,500-acre Schunnemunk Mountain, and was eyeing additions to Minnewaska. The effort to have the U.S. Congress declare the Highlands as an area of national significance hadn’t begun. All this has come to fruition since then — but by no means due to me alone,” she stresses.
In fact, teamwork is one of Ash’s greatest assets, says Klara Sauer, former longtime executive director of the land-preservation organization Scenic Hudson, who worked closely with Ash on a number of projects, including the acquisition of Sterling Forest. “Carol is a great collaborator, which is vital to this kind of work. She understands how to interact with groups and people from all walks of life. Much of her leadership skill is based on her ability to reach out and work so well with others. In fact, the entire PIPC works that way.”
Ash’s vision for the future of the park system is twofold: “First, I hope we can gradually connect all 24 parks, so we can someday create one extensive greenbelt. This can be done with land purchases and, in some cases, by working with landowners to obtain easements. It would be fabulous to have a continuous band of greenery that stretches for hundreds of miles,” she says.
Her second dream is for community involvement to grow. “It’s important that people feel these parks are their parks — that they want to protect them. Many people first come to a park for a day trip, a picnic, or a hike, and they fall in love with nature. That’s how you get started caring for the environment. And it’s especially important for children. It’s almost a clichÃ©, but it’s important to me that people will be able to enjoy this land for generations.”
Of course, Ash has her own favorite outdoor spots in the Palisades system. “I love Minnewaska State Park. It’s so beautiful and its geological history is so interesting,” she says. “It’s even been described by the Nature Conservancy as â€˜one of the last great places in the world.’ ”
Another favorite is the hike to Sterling Forest fire tower. “It’s not too rigorous, and once
you get to the top, it’s breathtaking in another way. You understand completely why the Highlands and Sterling Forest and all of the parks are so important to preserve. There’s a 360-degree view in which you don’t see anything for miles in terms of buildings or a man-made environment — it’s just trees and mountains. It’s extraordinary. It reinvigorates the soul.” ■