Presenting “Rooted in Giving: Local Land Conservation Supporters”

Join us as we spotlight supporters who are making a real difference in local land conservation. Discover their inspiring stories and the lasting impact they’re creating for our environment.

This past week we were able to sit down with Ethan Winter, current landowner of the upcoming Graphite Range Community Forest (GRCF), for a Q & A.

Q: So, first question, when did you first become interested in conservation? 

A: I’ve been involved in conservation for most of my adult life. I had a career in land conservation, working for the Land Trust Alliance and directing the New York program, and that was based here in Saratoga Springs. And coming out of that work, I became more interested in the opportunity to help Saratoga PLAN accomplish conservation here in our community. In addition to my conservation work with the Land Trust Alliance, I’ve worked in clean energy and I’m now the National Smart Solar Director for American Farmland Trust. So, this project is just one example of my interest in conservation.  

Q: What are the personal and environmental values which led you to want to use your land as the site of a community forest?  

A: The community forest model is unique in that it empowers members of a community to be responsible for the long-term care of a forest resource. That idea has always appealed to me. And as I got to know the U.S. Forest Service Community Forest Program during my work at the Land Trust Alliance, I really decided that this was a great model for a project in the Adirondack Foothills. And that was really the kernel of what became Graphite Range Community Forest 

Q: When did you first acquire the land that would later become the Graphite Range Community Forest and what factors influenced your decision to purchase the land? 

A: I started looking at land about 15 years ago for conservation and investment purposes and this property was interesting because it had access on Route 9, could be redeveloped for commercial purposes, but also had access into the Palmertown Range and the Adirondack Foothills. And with that first acquisition of about 21 acres, the old driving range, I had the opportunity talk to other neighbors and add to that over about a 10-year period. So, it’s actually been several different transactions over a long period of time that have enabled us to get to the final 200-acre project. 

Q: Why is having a community forest in Saratoga County important to you? 

A: Saratoga County is such an interesting place because you have the Hudson River, Mohawk River, the Adirondacks, and Saratoga Springs right in the middle. And a community forest was interesting to me because it could create both access for the community to the forest resource close to town and a model for shared stewardship. That was really interesting. I worked with Saratoga PLAN and the Open Space Institute on this concept. We applied for funding through the U.S. Forest Service Community Forest Program. We ranked fifth in the country during that funding cycle and that was exciting because we really wanted to elevate this concept not only for Saratoga County, but for other counties in New York that are looking at this. We drew inspiration from the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance and their project in Rensselaer County. So, this is the second community forest project in the state after the Rensselaer County projects. We wanted to demonstrate a high level of trail design and intentional public access improvements for land that could be owned by the county.  

Q: What do you hope will be the primary benefits of the Graphite Range Community Forest? Could you share a vision of what this community forest could look like in its full glory and what types of recreational and educational activities will take place on the property? 

A: Yeah, that’s a great question. So the first benefit, of course, is conserving this really interesting piece of land that has a diversity of ecological features and habitat. Conservation of the forest is really the first benefit.  

This land contains the headwaters of the city’s water supply, as well as supplying the aquifer for the town of Wilton. It’s a critical resource for water quality as well as habitat. And of course, this is going to provide access to the community into the Southern Adirondack Foothills. And for a lot of people, we didn’t have that access. So, this is going to create an opportunity for people of all walks and abilities to appreciate nature, get to know our forest, and hopefully learn to take care of it and build a bit more support for conservation and the work of organizations like Saratoga PLAN, and other conservation groups in the area. My vision is that there’s a really energetic community presence in terms of taking care of the trails and utilizing the trails and that the users understand that these are shared trails and a shared resource. We have included in our signage this concept of Ride with Gratitude, which is an idea from the Kingdom Trails in Vermont, which is a very successful 100-mile trail system all on private land. 

We are bringing that Ride with Gratitude approach to Graphite Range Community Forest. The idea being that the trails have been built to suit a range of abilities of mountain bikers and those trails are also usable for other users, especially runners, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and we want to make sure that everyone on these trails has a shared sense of ethic and appreciation for the resource. That’s really the vision that we’ve been bringing to this project all along, and that’s one reason why so many people are interested in it. Long term, there will be hopefully some great opportunities for education to engage students and all members of the community and what kind of forest we have here, the threats to forests, and the role that we all have in protecting them. 

Q: All right, so that leads to my next question, which is, can you tell us about the unique ecological features of the land and how this community forest will help preserve the local ecosystem? 

A: The Graphite Range Community Forest occupies a really interesting area in that it connects these foothills of the Southern Adirondacks, the Palmertown Range, right to the valley floor, essentially to the sand plains. And so, it occupies a continuum of habitats. And that makes it really interesting from a climate resilience standpoint. And actually, scores quite highly looking at a methodology that The Nature Conservancy developed to measure climate resilience of intact conservation areas. So, from a broad perspective, it’s a really important corridor for wildlife and plants as we think about climate change and climate resilience. The property includes three different drainages and associated wetlands, as well as rock outcrops and a variety of different forest types. So, within a couple hundred acres, you have a lot of variety that can help educate people about just what wonderful forest resources we have here in our area. 

Q: Philanthropy, advocacy, and volunteerism can be powerful drivers of positive change. What message would you like to convey to inspire others in the community to get involved in supporting land conservation efforts and participating in the development and maintenance of this community forest? 

A: As this project has developed, I’ve really focused on the concept of communities building trails and trails building communities. And this project has been such a fun experience for me and my family, because every time we take people out on the land, we make new friends. And I tell people now, it’s a community forest, and it’s also a friend factory. We’ve made so many great connections with people in the community who are interested in the history of the graphite mines, or interested in the recreational opportunities that the trails will provide, or simply curious about how to access this forest area. And so, this has been a neat way to engage the community in trail building and really create a model for our area. I can’t say we made this up. There are terrific examples in the Northeast where communities have centered around trails. And we’ve taken the best of those ideas and examples to apply here for Graphite Range.  

Q: When did you first hear about Saratoga PLAN and our involvement within the Saratoga community?  

A: Well, my wife Anne and I moved to Saratoga in 2005 and because of my work with the Land Trust Alliance, I quickly got to know Saratoga PLAN and folks like Barbara Glaser, who were great mentors for me in conservation. I was actually on the board for a couple of years at PLAN and I’ve been a supporter ever since. So, I’ve known the organization well and I’ve always felt like there was an opportunity to help PLAN with a project that would really increase its profile by offering great access to trails and to the resource. And that’s what this project is all about.  

Q: What other activities and projects are you involved in within the Saratoga community? 

A: Well, I have three children that are actually not children anymore. Owen, who’s 17, Savannah, who’s 15, and Kendall, who’s 13. And all three are in the public schools here and love getting outside. My son Owen is a mountain biker and has been helping me think about trail design from the beginning. And so, raising our family has been a big focus and project for me. I’m also on the board of the Adirondack Council and have been pretty involved in land use and wilderness protection in the Adirondacks. And of course, that’s really the backyard here for where we are here in Saratoga Springs. I work for the American Farmland Trust based here in Saratoga Springs, but it’s a national organization that is headquartered in Washington, D.C. quite active with my work here, but based in Saratoga. And in terms of other projects, I hope that this project will lead to more. This is meant to be an example of what landowners and supporters can do working together collaboratively and we would love to see more trails linking from north to south from Saratoga all the way to Moreau State Park. I’m excited to see what the next project will be. 

Q: Are there any final comments or anything else you want to touch on that we haven’t talked about? Anything you’d just like people to know? 

A: I want to express my deep appreciation to the community for supporting this project. Saratoga PLAN has played a key role along with the Open Space Institute, but also the towns of Wilton and Greenfield and especially Saratoga County. Jason Kemper, the Saratoga County planner, has been a really important ally in this whole project. I want to thank the volunteers who make up the Graphite Range Advisory Committee as well, along with the neighbors who have been supportive of a community forest in their area. Finally, I want to make sure I acknowledge all of the families that have invested so much in this project and also share that we are planning an appreciation event later in August!