When James Delaune, the City of Newburgh’s former economic developer, applied 14 years ago to lead the Orange Land Trust, he had no experience in open space preservation.
Once hired, he “learned on the job,” said Mary Yrizzary, a past president of the organization who was on the board at the time. “He knew how to get things done. He put the Land Trust on the map.”
Added Arlene Nolan, the current president: “he has taken us very far.”
He is a “visionary,” said Elinor Hart, the board’s the first vice president.
Delaune recently notified the board that he would be stepping down as executive director in April. Meanwhile, he will work with its members to create a revised strategic plan as a road map for the future and to recruit his successor.
“It’s time for new adventures,” said Delaune, who will turn 69 next month.
It won’t be the end of his “working life,” however. He will continue to serve as a member of the Ulster County Legislature representing New Paltz and southern Esopus and on the boards of the Chester Agricultural Center, the Ulster County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Millbrook Preserve.
The Mountainville-based Land Trust was established in 1993 by former County Executive Louis Mills and other citizens concerned that development was gobbling up the county’s precious open space.
It has evolved from what Yrizzary laughingly calls “a bunch of tree huggers” working out of a church basement to a sophisticated nationally accredited nonprofit that can call on expertise in law, real estate, education, communications, management, fundraising, biology and conservation. Its dedicated volunteers are backed up by staff of five full-time workers and one part-timer.
“We have the capacity to make things happen,” said Hart, who is co-chairing a search committee with Nolan to find a leader in Delaune’s mold as its next executive director.
The Land Trust has permanently protected 6,419 acres – unique meadows, fertile farmland, stream corridors, wetlands and recreational areas. It has achieved this through the negotiation of restrictive easements with 32 private landowners, the donation of property and the acquisition of private land by the organization. That amounts to 5.5 of the county’s 832 square miles.
During Delaune’s tenure, the Land Trust has protected 3,500 acres, more than doubling its tally in its first 13 years.
When he was new in the job, Delaune said he was spending so much time meeting with board, staff and supporters; exchanging emails and answering phone calls that he wondered when he would get his work done, but he says now that that the ties he forged have stood him and the organization in good stead.
“An open dialogue is how you win and maintain the trust and confidence of your partners and how you get their buy-in, all of which are necessary outcomes,” he said in an email.
“So my advice to a successor would be to make sure you go out of your way every day to stay in close contact with your partners. When working with a board, any board, respect the decision-making process. The process is often more important than the outcome. Appreciate your staff, they make you look good to the outside world. Focus on your goal and follow through. Do or say nothing that negatively reflects upon the organization you represent because you are its hood ornament. Have fun, dream big and stay the course.”
Matt Decker, who has worked the Land Trust for five years as its director of conservation and stewardship, said that his boss “brings people together. If he is your friend, you have many other friends because of him.” He also appreciates that Delaune is “a fun person to work with even in times of stress.”
The Land Trust owns 13 nature preserves sprinkled around the county. Utilization of the parcels open to the public has never been greater, Delaune said. During the pandemic, local residents cooped up in their homes have hungered “to get out in nature to someplace safe.”
But land preservation is expensive, and the pandemic has impacted the organization’s ability raise money.
COVID-19 forced the Land Trust to cancel its fundraising gala and county funding had been suspended. Delaune hopes that a new planned giving program will help fill the gap. The organization was recently notified by the state Attorney General that it has received a $188,000 bequest.
“I’m pleased that the organization has grown in size, relevancy and impact within the region,” Delaune emailed. “We have developed strong ties with other conservation-based organizations and that has allowed us to do more with less. We are a fiscally strong and responsible organization, in times like these it pays off.”
But he added, “We haven’t done a good enough job in making more people aware of the work we do, how critical it is and the overall benefits of land conservation. It’s hard to argue that the continued degradation of remaining natural habitats tales its toll, especially in terms of water quality. Retaining as much wilderness as possible through sustainable use and conservation makes overwhelming economic and moral sense.”
The Land Trust’s mission remains more crucial than ever. For one thing, “Climate change is happening and its accelerating,” Delaune said. “We can help mitigate climate change by doing what we’ve always done: conserving more land and being good stewards of that land.”
But Delaune is concerned by a crush of pending development proposals he says is greater than at any time during his 14-year tenure.
“We only have a few years left in Orange County to protect what is most important to us and then it’s over,” he said.