Photo Essay: Home to rare wildlife and small towns, a rural region plans for the future
New York’s Butternut Valley is finding ways to lift its communities while continuing its environmental gains
By Will Parson |
If you began on the Chesapeake Bay and followed the Susquehanna River north about 400 miles, you would find yourself in central New York with a choice to make.
You could continue on that main tributary to its headwaters in the heart of Cooperstown—home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a slew of other museums. There, tourism reigns and many seasonal residents overlook Otsego Lake, on which author James Fenimore Cooper bestowed the enchanting nickname “Glimmerglass.”
Or you could travel against the flow of one of the Susquehanna’s first main tributaries, the Unadilla River, then divert course once again to follow Butternut Creek through a rural region whose future is less assured.
Along the creek, from south to north, you would find towns like Gilbertsville, Morris and New Lisbon. Altogether there are ten municipalities within Butternut Valley, and although each has its own distinctive character, the towns are similar in that they fall just outside the influence of Cooperstown’s tourism economy. Their small populations have declined. For example, at about 1,800 residents, Morris is smaller than it was in the year 1850. And the population of the entire valley, as estimated by the Otsego County Conservation Association, is only about 4,500 people.
“Certainly, we're losing young folks; farms are still going out of business,” said Graham Stroh, former executive director of the Butternut Valley Alliance. Despite the challenges, Graham said, "we’re seeing [positive] things happening.”
Today, Butternut Valley is composed of residents who have found many different reasons to call it home. They include families with history going back centuries as well as relative newcomers. A few small farms still sandwiched between the creek and Butternut Valley’s steep forested hillsides recall a time before many of the area’s many small dairies and other industries fell to market pressures. Meanwhile, others are drawn by a landscape that has slowly experienced what could be called a rewilding. Butternut Creek has some of the best water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; between 1985 and 2019, nitrogen pollution dropped by roughly a third and phosphorus was cut in half. And the creek hosts species that have winked out of existence almost everywhere else in that region.
Overall, Butternut Valley is facing the same challenges as other rural communities in the Chesapeake watershed. How do you keep your young people from leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere? How do you lift up communities while preserving environmental resources—the healthy land and water that the region depends on? And with the northeast experiencing a greater rise in extreme weather than any other region in the United States, how do you build resilience into your local infrastructure with limited technical capacity and a small-town budget?
In 2021, that last question was made more urgent as major floods yet again hit the towns of Morris and Gilbertsville, causing millions of dollars in damages but falling well below the level required for federal support. Fortunately, a slew of local organizations and planners have already been working for years to map out ways that investments at the county, state and federal levels can secure a promising future for Butternut Valley.
According to Danny Lapin, an environmental planner with OCCA, the Management Plan would help the SWCD create a countywide stream bank restoration program that would tackle “a huge backlog of stream banks that need to be restored.” And it will lay the groundwork to hire a point person “to help each of the 10 municipalities implement, plan and design water quality projects that would benefit the creek and the local communities within there.”
This photo essay comprises a portrait of the Butternut Valley through its residents. It’s also a look at some of the work being done by organizations like the Otsego Land Trust (OLT), which has permanently protected nearly 1,600 acres in the Butternut Creek watershed, and the BVA, as they encourage residents to see their connection to their environment and to formulate a vision of the future that the entire valley can work towards.
Les Hasbargen, a geology professor at SUNY Oneonta, examines invertebrates while standing for a portrait at one of Butternut Valley Alliance's monthly water quality monitoring sites on Butternut Creek. For the Butternut Creek Watershed Assessment, released in January 2021, Hasbargen was one of several volunteers from BVA, OCCA and SUNY Oneonta who walked the entire length of Butternut Creek's 43-mile main channel as well as all 24 of its tributaries. “Some of those are problem locations that threaten infrastructure,” said Hasbargen, who noted that in the 1990s a lack of funding forced the U.S. Geological Survey to stop its long-term stream gauge monitoring in the Butternut. “That’s really a shame, because in the midst of a changing climate, you want to measure things—you want to understand what’s going on and what the responses are.”
Route 51 follows Butternut Creek through the valley and connects communities like Garrattsville, a hamlet of New Lisbon, seen among trees in the distance. “Seventy years ago, there was 29 dairies between Garrattsville and Morris, [an] eight-mile stretch,” said David Galley of Silver Spoon Dairy Farm in Garrattsville. “Now we're the only one left, and the fact is probably we ship as much milk as those 29 dairies did 70 years ago.”
Sonja Galley works at Silver Spoon Dairy Farm with her parents David and Cathy and sister Sarah. The farm lies along roughly one mile of Butternut Creek, and has employed conservation practices since first installing manure storage 40 years ago. “Sixty cows would have been a huge dairy 70 years ago,” David Galley said. “We're producing more food on less acres, with less inputs and less carbon footprint than we ever have.”
Richard O’Keefe, left, and his husband John Chanik stand for a portrait above a restored pond on roughly 100 acres they purchased in 2005, situated outside of Morris in a hamlet called Maple Grove. They worked with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition’s (USC) wetlands team to restore the pond and vernal pools on the property, and USC’s forest team to plant a forest buffer along their stretch of Cahoon Creek, a tributary of the Butternut. Their land is permanently protected from development with a conservation easement through the Otsego Land Trust. O’Keefe serves as treasurer for the Butternut Valley Alliance, and said the organization’s biggest challenge is convincing people to be creative and to have vision of what they want for their community. “Instead of being reactive,” O’Keefe said. “What do you want the valley to look like?”
On a forested part of O’Keefe and Chanik’s property, low stone walls are some of the only signs that the land was once cleared for farming. The couple is working with forest managers to encourage the return of hardwood tree species.
Peter Martin leads the Butternut Valley Alliance's trail committee and founder of Central New York Cycling, a local bicycle club. An avid mountain biker, he explores the unpaved roads of Butternut Valley, where he can work remotely due to the gradual increase in broadband internet access—despite lagging cell phone reception. Martin’s family operated a dairy on his land until that industry took a downturn in the 1980s. “I’ve traveled around a bit and I know there are some other beautiful places in the world,” Martin said. “But this is a gorgeous part of the state.” Martin listed off activities like hiking, cycling, skiing and paddling, as well as access to numerous venues serving a thriving art community in the region. “It’s an outdoor playground and a genuinely nice place to live.”
Jordan Clements of the Otsego County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) points out features of a stream bank stabilization project downstream from a culvert on Calhoun Creek, a classified trout stream that flows through Beecher Farm on its way to Butternut Creek in Morris, N.Y. Previously, a series of storms had ripped through the creek in 2012 and 2013, destroying parts of a forest buffer that had been planted by the SWCD in the mid-2000s. Along with the stabilization project, the SWCD partnered with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition to expand the forest buffer with additional planted trees that now grow along several hundred feet between the creek and the dairy's farm fields.
A forest buffer composed of maturing aspen trees rises between a corn field and Butternut Creek west of New Lisbon.
A belted kingfisher visits trees along a restored stretch of Butternut Creek, where a forest buffer was first planted over ten years ago as part of a stream bank stabilization to reduce erosion along a sharp bend in the creek. "They used to hay [the field] right up to the stream bank, which was another problem," Clements said.
Javier Flores, along his wife Ilyssa Berg, owns Painted Goat Farm in Garrattsville. The couple moved to the area in 2006 to start a goat cheese business, after finding the area to be one of the few places in eastern New York that still had a rural character with farms—even though many were no longer fully in operation. Their 100 acres, according to Berg, had “nothing done” with its farmland since the 1960s. One hundred years ago, “everything was open land, working,” Flores said.
Before Daniel Weaver, a member of the Amish community in Butternut Valley, opened a 4000-square-foot grocery store, the area was seen as a food desert despite its local food production. Now, customers come from beyond the valley to browse products from roughly 60 local producers—including Painted Goat Farm. “We need to bring in more family-operated farm stands and dairies—we’re not in competition. If we want a valley like this to flourish, we simply have to have more of everything,” Weaver said. “And with COVID and everything, people are wanting more and more local. So, it’s extremely important to think more local, to have more local things going on as far as markets.”
Carla Hall, left, poses with her aunt, Gemma Hall, in front of a forest buffer planted by the Upper Susquehanna Coalition on Gemma’s land along Butternut Creek in Morris, which is protected with a conservation easement through the Otsego Land Trust. Together, forest buffers on Carla and Gemma's properties account for an estimated 3,500–4,000 trees planted on the creek and its tributaries. Carla, a founding member of the Butternut Valley Alliance, is a descendant of General Jacob Morris, who settled in the area in 1787. Carla’s family donated a 300-acre conservation easement on their farmland to the Otsego Land Trust in 2006. And they also worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to create the 1,200-acre General Jacob Morris State Forest from an additional piece of their land. “We wanted [our land] to stay in agriculture,” Carla said. “We don't know how it will survive generations going forward, but this way we know that the open space, the lands, the waters and the forests will maintain themselves in perpetuity.”
Texas School House State Forest holds 1,245 acres. Every year, great blue herons return to nest above a wetlands in the forest.
David Diaz of the Otsego Land Trust stands on an 82-acre property known as Mussel Flats along 7,000 feet of Butternut Creek. In 2021 the land was purchased by OLT with support from the Upper Susquehanna Coaltion (USC), and then transferred to the Wetland Trust to serve as a wetland mitigation bank. USC planted nearly 5,000 trees and shrubs on roughly 20 acres, adding a forest buffer along a stretch of the creek that supports yellow lampmussel and eastern elliptio. It was also the site of a release of roughly 6,000 young American eels, which serve as hosts for mussels.
Graham Stroh, former executive director of the Butternut Valley Alliance, walks through Texas School House State Forest with his daughter, while setting up for last year’s art exhibit there. “One of the things that BVA has been able to do with this whole [art] project is just kind of get people out here seeing that there’s something to be focused on, and that’s really powerful,” Stroh said.