GARDINER, N.Y. - As a young man in the mid-1950s, John Atwater Bradley was so taken by the Shawangunk Ridge that he skipped the last day of a conference to hike into the wilderness. He returned 14 hours later, he said, after trekking more than 40 miles.
"I didn't expect to be gone that long, but every time I saw something or found something, I just kept going," said Bradley, now 70, who tells the story of his marathon hike to friends and fellow members of the Explorers Club in Manhattan. "It is a wonderland."
Bradley has bought up much of the Shawangunks (locals say SHON-gums), a vast wilderness area sprinkled with pearl-colored cliffs, waterfalls and thick forests about 80 miles northwest of New York City. By his count, he has spent more than $3 million to piece together 2,700 acres, becoming one of the largest landowners in Ulster County.
Now he plans to develop this land selectively, saying that it will be better protected as a private retreat for affluent, conservation-minded people like himself than as a state park.
Recently, Bradley announced a partnership with Chaffin/Light Associates, a developer known for its eco-friendly projects, to build hundreds of Adirondack-style homes, along with a fitness center, dining club and 18-hole golf course.
A middle ground
This plan reflects a growing effort across the country to carve out a middle ground between traditional land conservation and the kind of urban sprawl embodied by McMansions and strip malls. During the past decade, architects and developers have begun to cluster houses in smaller areas with more trees and nature areas.
"It's an antidote to sprawl," said William Hudnut, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based research and education group. "The emphasis is not on more cookie-cutter suburbs moving farther out, but on quality development that means careful design and conservation of green spaces."
Hudnut and others say that such projects supply housing for an expanding population and increase the local tax base. (Bradley, who made his money as a consultant to foreign governments on economic issues, paid more than $120,000 last year in taxes on the Shawangunk land.) At the same time, supporters say, this type of development offers conservation that does not strain the limited resources of state park services.
View of opponents
But opponents say that even the most carefully planned development can harm fragile ecosystems and fragment the landscape.
This larger debate over whether development and conservation can work together is now playing out in the Shawangunks, where "Save the Ridge" signs have begun popping up in windows and yards. Many residents say that a subdivision would block their views, jam their narrow roads with traffic and infringe upon the simple pleasures of country living.
"It's the most beautiful place I know," said Kerry Clair, who started a Web site, www.savethegunks.com, to oppose the development. "I can't imagine looking over the ridge and seeing rooftops and people with their little golf shoes and caddies. It would break my heart."
While not as famous as the Adirondacks or the Catskills, the Shawangunks have drawn rock climbers, hikers and patrons of the Mohonk Mountain House, an 1869 Victorian castle that is the most famous landmark here. More recently, its charms have been discovered by scores of weekend homeowners and celebrities, as varied as the actor Robert De Niro, Jim Fowler (the star of Wild Kingdom) and the architect David Rockwell.
The Shawangunks, more commonly called just the Gunks, are a series of ancient stone ridges that have fractured into steep cliffs and shelter several dozen rare plant and animal species, including one of the best known dwarf pine barrens along the ridge top.
Nearly half of the 85,000 acres here have been turned into state parkland or private nature preserves, including the 12,000-acre Minnewaska State Park.
`On everybody's list'
Conservation groups say they have repeatedly tried to buy Bradley's sprawling property, which adjoins the Minnewaska Park, but he has refused to sell.
"It's on everybody's list," said Joseph J. Martens, president of the Open Space Institute.
In a 1988 study, the Friends of the Shawangunks, a grass-roots organization, warned that Bradley's property was the "soft underbelly" of the Minnewaska Park because of the potential for development.
"I've always been afraid of what he would do," said Keith LaBudde, the group's president. "People have been trying to protect that land for years, and he has resisted for his own reasons."
Bradley, who shuttles between a Manhattan apartment and a rambling chestnut log house here, said that he always intended to conserve the land in some way when he acquired it. But, he said, neither the state park service nor the conservation groups had the resources to protect it from careless people riding mountain bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
"This land is too fragile," he said. "It will not take that."