The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 8: June 17, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Eco-cultural Regions

ecocultural regions

Eco-cultural Regions: Background & Exploration
Columbia County elevation

The idea of ecocultural regions derives from our past work in the County, particularly work that indicated some harmony in biogeographical and agricultural variation across our region.

Much of the background information on that variation was summarized in the Environmental Atlas that we created for issue #21 of Our Town. Those maps help illustrate the diversity of our natural and cultural terrain. Below, we provide some more detailed examples of the patterning.

For the most part, we don't yet have natural history information that is detailed enough to map out species distributions within the County. The closest we come are some of Rogers McVaugh's range maps contained in his Flora. Those below show the east/west variation of plants, from the warmer, sandier Hudson Valley to the colder, rockier Taconics (see elevation map at head of this column). Our most boreal plant species (such as Hobble Bush) tend to be found in the northeast corner of the County; our most austral species, such Hackberry, tend to be found in the southwest quarter.

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The Environmental Atlas showed the generalized distributions of a couple of trees which illustrated that Columbia County sits on a so-called 'ecological tension zone'. (Don't worry, there's nothing actually tense about this tension zone, rather the term refers to a region where distinct floras and faunas overlap, often this results in increased biodiversity.)  A more complete way of illustrating the 'tension zone', at least for trees is to map out various Northeastern tree distributions and to ask whether or not there appear to be particular regions where many species have range borders. If any such clusters of range borders are apparent, then they could indicate tension zones. The map below is one such graphic, it shows how Columbia County (shown in green) and other counties along this line seem to straddle the borders of many tree ranges. (Tree distribution data from the US Forest Service,

tree ranges
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This same general map has also been created by Charlie Cogbill based upon his work and that of others looking into forest types in the Northeast. His map (slightly modified below) illustrates Columbia County's biogeographical position again.

tension zone

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What holds for plants also holds for animals. The set of maps in the image below show how several southerly reptiles and amphibians creep north into the County from the south, adding to our animal diversity. At the same (but not shown here), some northerly animals reach into our higher and cooler areas.

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These patterns of north/south and east/west plant biogeography are what lay down the ecological tapestry for the "eco" part of the eco-cultural regions.

The Altas also describes some of the cultural variation within the County. It includes economic, ethnic and agricultural variation. Two of our past reports detail aspects of this, Ecology in the Field of Time and Forest, Field and Freeway; a few examples are shown below.

Reflecting topography, as the map below shows, prime agricultural soils are concentrated mainly in the Hudson and Harlem Valleys. This underlying variation
Columbia County prime ag. soils

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then helped determine the distribution of past agriculture, and continues to be evident the current distribution of farming. For examples (as illustrated in the maps below), 19th century haying was largely concentrated in the southwest corner of the County, whereas sheep pastures were mostly in the hill towns, and grain  production was highest in the northwest part of the County. Today, harvested cropland continues to be most extensive in the northwest part of the County (note that the map of modern farm types illustrates the total number of farms in each sector in each region; the Dutch Flatlands have more farms with harvested cropland, even though the region is distinctly smaller than the adjacent Yankee Hill Country).

hay production
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sheep denisty
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grain production
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Do all these different patterns come together and conclusively point to the seven eco-cultural regions that we have identified? No. These patterns intertwine and overlap in various ways, our seven regions are but one way of trying to generalize. This is a work in progress, and we'd appreciate hearing your thoughts.

6/17 column: "From the Ground Up"

by Conrad Vispo

From the Ground Up:
A Draft Map of Columbia County Eco-Cultural Regions

When my son and I sit down to design a model train layout we start with a clean sheet – be that a new piece of paper, a blank computer screen, or an empty piece of plywood. From there, we build our railroad, our curves, our tunnels, our hills, our valleys, our villages. We create obstacles to be overcome and shape the terrain to our wants. Luckily for all of you who ever hope to actually get anywhere by train, my son and I were never in charge of laying out real track in Columbia County. But even for the most expert railroad engineer, no such ‘blank slate’ approach to laying out rail in Columbia County was ever possible; nor, for that matter, was any human activity ever draped uniformly over this land.

Instead, ranging hills and meandering creeks pushed up and dug down into the land, throwing up obstructions to human movement and resulting in water flows that powered early industry.  Likewise, the Hudson and its precursors left flatter lands and deeper soils across the western part of the County, an invitation to early farmers. Ridge tops beckon high-end homes; the former ports of the Hudson develop suburban rings; the thin-soiled rocky hill farms revert to forest. Human culture was not and is not spread evenly across the landscape.

In a simplified way, one can look at the patterning of human culture in the same way as one looks at the formation of soil, recognizing that what we see today has been shaped by what arrived from elsewhere, by what spontaneously developed in situ, by the influence of surrounding conditions on the present, and by the legacy of past history. The shape of the land helps determine how and where people and wild organisms live. Thus it is possible to talk about “eco-cultural regions”, that is divisions of the County that share topographical, ecological, and cultural features.  Such reasoning also explains, in part, the purpose of proposing these eco-cultural regions in the first place: history and landscape have mattered, do matter, and will matter. So, as we think about the future shape of the County, a better understanding of its mosaic of history and terrain will help us take into account an important moulding force.

Below, we present some of our first thoughts on Columbia County’s eco-cultural regions. These regions are not necessarily real in the sense that they could be identified on the basis of any strictly objective combination of characters. Take them as crude paintings of our county -- one way of looking at the County but certainly not the only way. Furthermore, even if they have some rough value, they are hardly precise. Cartography asks for boundaries, but any eco-cultural transitions are gradual, blurred and intertwining – characteristics not easily shown on maps. Our map is an attempt to lasso the clouds. We hope that these regions ring true to some degree, but are also sure that they will ring false to some degree. Because so much of such analysis depends on census data and those are often reported at the town level, we have, with one exception, used towns as our building blocks. Please let us know what you think; the regions described here are just first suggestions.

For each of the regions, we give a glimpse of human and natural history, and of current conditions. Incorporating Native American history into this picture would have been good, but so much of their land use patterns and local legacy have been lost in time that we, at least, forgo the attempt.

Dutch Flatlands.

The Dutch Flatlands are comprised of the towns of Stuyvesant, Kinderhook, Claverack and Ghent. The western half of Chatham probably also best fits here.

The Dutch first settled in the northwest portion of the County for good reason: the land is relatively flat; the soils relatively good; there was easy access to the main route of transportation, the Hudson River; and the drops along the main stem of Claverack and Kinderhook Creeks provided prime sites for mills. Much of the land remains unforested and some of the County’s most extensive fruit and vegetable farms are in this region. The proximity of the Capital District means that land use for farming competes with that for commuter housing. The majority of the workforce is employed in Albany and its environs. Salaries are relatively high and the second-home market relatively small.

The sandy beaches of glacial Lake Albany make up part of this region. These soils were probably covered mainly by Oak and Hickory, although, where sandiest, White and Pitch Pine reportedly formed large stands that extended into Rensselaer County. During the precolonial period, fire, caused by lightening or humans, may have been most extensive on these generally well-drained soils. Although punctuated by steep drops, the Kinderhook and Claverack Creeks become more level as they run through this region and extensive floodplains result.

The Yankee Hill Country

The Yankee Hill Country includes the towns of New Lebanon, Canaan, Austerlitz, and Hillsdale. The eastern half of Chatham lies within this region. The Hill Country is dominated by the ridge of the Taconics, which delineates the County’s boundary with Massachusetts.

For the most part, this region was settled by Yankees escaping the demographic pressures of New England. The Dutch held the flatlands, but were less interested in the steeper, thinner-soiled hill country. The new settlers found some fertile land in the valleys of New Lebanon and Hillsdale. In the early 1800s, Shaker settlement created a hub of agricultural and manufacturing activity. The thin soils and hilly country were most suited for pasture, and this area, together with Clermont, was the core of the County’s 19th century sheep raising. The streams, though relatively small, have good incline; small saw and grist mills were common, together with some limited manufacturing. Farmland abandonment came early. Between 1875 and 1930, loss of improved acreage approached 50% in some towns. Much of that farmland has reverted to forest and, as a consequence, this region, together with the Manor’s Hilly Hinterland (see below), are the most forested parts of the County. At present, this region is relatively thinly settled, although its ridges and scenic views have attracted the building of second homes.

These lands harbor our most boreal creatures. Red Spruce and Hobblebush creep into the more northerly portions. Breeding birds more typical of the Adirondacks, Catskills or Appalachians, such as Canada, Black-Throated Green, Black-throated Blue and Blackburnian Warblers, and the Dark-Eyed Junco, occur here. Cooler mountain creeks are home to Brook Trout and Slimy Sculpin. More northerly butterflies and dragonflies dip into this part of the County.


The Urban-Industrial Landing

We have included the City of Hudson itself and the surrounding areas of Stockport and Greenport in this region. This is Hudson River shoreline whose soils are dominated by finer deposits (clays and sands vs. coarse glacial till) derived from Glacial Lake Albany. These clay deposits provided resources for brick-making, and the limestone of Beecraft Mountain provided raw materials for cement production.

Initially, this stretch of Hudson River shoreline was settled by the Dutch, but density seemed to remain relatively low compared to the adjoining Dutch Flatlands. However, it may have been this lack of early settlement that allowed ‘Claverack Landing’ to develop into what is now the County’s capital and biggest city – Hudson, when Quaker entrepreneurs chose the site for development of a trading (and, to some extent, whaling) port around 1783. By 1820, human density was at least twice that of most other regions of the County. Initially, the areas of Greenport and Stockport were important agricultural lands, especially for fruit. In 1881, the largest apple orchard in the world, comprising 300 acres and 26,000 trees, was reputedly near Hudson. Only later did those farms become partially subsumed by the more industrial and urban aspects of Hudson. Currently, this is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the County with substantial African-American, Asian and Hispanic populations.

The freshwater but tidal shoreline of the Hudson is a globally rare habitat, and home to certain rare plants and animals. Enticing glimpses of inland ecology may be found near Olana and along the Claverack Creek, where Beaver, nesting Blue Heron, and one of our few known Leopard Frog populations occur within city limits. Box Turtles, which are a more southerly species, occur at least as far north as Hudson. The forests were probably Oak and Hickory dominated, but Northern White Cedar and Hackberry are surprisingly common along the riverbanks.


Manorial Meadows

The towns of Clermont and Livingston were the heart of the Livingston Manor, a semi-feudal domain granted to Robert Livingston in the late 1600s. As with other patents, farmers of this area did not own their land, but rather worked it in return for rent provided to the Manor lord. The Crown purchased part of the Manor in 1610 as land for the settlement of Palatine Germans; this later became Germantown (see below).

Colonial agriculture on these mostly flat, good soils somewhat paralleled that of the Dutch Flatlands, with the land being opened relatively early and grain being a common crop. However, unlike on the Flatlands, Robert H. Livingston’s fascination with sheep (he wrote a book on them) resulted in the region’s early participation in the sheep boom and, perhaps due to the cutting of tidal meadows and upland swales, these towns produced substantial hay. The growing of small grains extended into corn growing, and silage-based dairying. This was supplemented by fruit growing. By the end of the 20th century, production agriculture seemed to have faded in Clermont, where fruit growing and dairying were notably lower than in Livingston; modern horse farms have, however, become more common in this town.

This is probably the warmest region of the County, and more southerly plants such as Flowering Dogwood, Tulip Tree, and Hackberry become particularly common. The forest is still Oak and Hickory dominated. Certain more southerly species such as Box Turtles may also become more common in this area. The Hudson’s tidal shoreline and waters are home to a set of relatively rare plants and animals.


The Palatine Swales

Germantown was originally part of the Livingston Patent, but was settled by German Palatine emigrants in 1710 as part of an effort to establish a production center for “naval stores” (i.e., pine pitch used in making tar). Although this venture soon failed, settlers did receive common ownership of their lands unlike the rest of the Livingston Patent’s tenants who had to wait until the nineteenth century (or later, if they became renters). This distinct cultural origin and tenure arrangement, together with its low fertility soils, produced a distinct historical trajectory that seems to warrant separating this town from the rest of the Manor. Although the land is relatively flat, and the soil generally deemed poorer than that of the surrounding Manorial Meadows. Gentle north/south ridges formed by the underlying bedrock result in a series of wetter, richer swales.

That Germantown agriculture was somewhat distinct is hinted at by Spafford’s 1813 comment that “By a timely economy of forest trees, the lands in this town are remarkably well supplied with timber, and no Town on the tide waters of the Hudson has groves of equal value.” As with the Manorial Meadows, hay was a 19th century agricultural staple, but sheep were rarer, and grains and dairying more common than in that region. Dairying lost relative importance to fruit production in the 1900s. Germantown never had much industry nor is it particularly close to the Capital District. With the decline of orchards in the County, Germantown’s economy suffered. About half of the workers residing in the Town are employed outside of Columbia County, predominantly in nearby Dutchess County.

As befits our warmer grounds, the forests tend to include some of the more southerly trees and shoreline biodiversity mentioned in our discussion of the Manorial Meadows. Indigenous settlements may have been relatively common, and, on drier, warmer lands may have encouraged more frequent fires. Furthermore, a map of lightning activity indicates that it tends to be particularly common in this region, again hinting at the possibility of increased historical fire occurrence.


The Manor’s Hilly Hinterland

The modern-day towns of Taghkanic and Gallatin composed the center portion of the Livingston Manor. Located on hills that stretch southwest from the Taconics and having neither the good limey soils of the Harlem Valley (see below) to the east nor the flatter, lake-derived soils of the Manorial Meadows to the west, these towns experienced relatively poor agricultural conditions in terms of both tenure and land quality.

Although home to one of the earliest iron forges in the County, little additional industry developed in this region. Perhaps stimulated by the poor soils, three of the County’s five plaster mills were found in this region; ‘plaster mills’ ground gypsum (a sulfurous lime) into a powder that was used as a fertilizer. As with the Limey Eastern Frontier, agriculture was initially slow to develop. Unlike in the Eastern Frontier, subsequent development was also not particularly strong and the maximum extent of improved acreage was the lowest of any region (although it still did exceed 70% of the surface area). There was no obvious early agricultural specialization, although early statistics suggest relatively high pig production. Human population density has remained fairly low, although the hills and easy access from the Taconic State Parkway have now encouraged the spread of second homes.

Ecologically, this hill country presents something of a mix between the more boreal elements of the higher and more northerly portions of the Taconics and the more southern elements that creep in from Dutchess County. This is, for example, the only region in the County where we know that Marbled Salamanders, a southerly species, occur. Likewise, the Worm-Eating Warbler, generally a more southerly bird, occurs in this area. Neither the shoreline nor limestone-loving organisms of the Manor’s other sections are common here.


The Limey Eastern Frontier

The towns of Ancram and Copake in the southeast portion of the County are located on relatively good agricultural soils because of the flattish lands of the Harlem Valley and the underlying calcareous bedrock. Their early colonial settlement and development may have been hampered somewhat by the tenure system of the Livingston Manor and by the long uncertainty over the location of the boundary with Massachusetts. Hills to both the east and west somewhat isolated these lands. In 1820, this was the most sparsely-settled portion of the County.

Although agriculture was slow to develop, the good soils and a rail connection to NYC (established in 1852) helped this region become one of the core dairy lands of the County by the late 19th century. This role has continued until the present, although dairying has declined overall in the County. As with the Hill Country to the north, these lands did participate in the sheep boom of the first half of the 19th century, and beef cattle and pigs were also relatively common in the early agricultural economy. Iron and lead mines helped spur initial industry, but there was relatively little additional development. The only currently functioning paper mill in the County does, however, occur here. Most recently, the hills, scenic rural vistas, and relative proximity to NYC have encouraged second home development, and horse farms have become particularly common in Copake.

This is one of the most biodiverse areas of the County (outside of the Hudson River shoreline) because of both the high hills of the Taconics and the limestone valleys, the latter favoring a distinct set of rare plants and animals. Certain calcareous wet meadows (called ‘fens’ by ecologists) are home to several rare plants and even the nationally-endangered Bog Turtle.


Maps are a reflection of the land, but the land can also become a reflection of the maps. Those who laid out the real railroads in this country invested much time and resources in surveying routes. Their maps took into account the grades, the distances, the canyons, and the mountains. The route they chose thus reflected the land it travelled through. At the same time, the fortunes of towns were made and broken by the course the track drew across the continent. In the same way, mapping out our communities and looking for patterns in the land’s culture and ecology help us navigate our surroundings. Such maps are also precursors of what is to come: if we can map what has been and is important to us, then we can begin to see the topography of the future. And with that topography, we have one of the tools for building our visions.


There are many sources of information on the County’s human and natural history and its geology. Prime among them are Stott’s Looking for Work, Fisher’s The Rise and Fall of the Taconic Mountains, and McVaugh’s A Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York. Much of the work summarized here was done by my colleagues Claudia Knab-Vispo and Anna Duhon, much of the credit goes to them, but I’ll accept the blame.


-          Conrad Vispo.