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  • Annie Jacobs

Keeping the Snake Hill cliffs wild

Annie Jacobs

March 12, 2023

As you drive past the new Barberville Falls Preserve parking area on Blue Factory Road in Postenkill, with the falls on your right, you may catch a glimpse of the rocky cliffs known as Snake Hill. These cliffs are not only visually striking – they also contain rare plant communities, including the only Red Cedar Rocky Summit known on the Rensselaer Plateau. Porcupines, bobcats, snakes, and other animals find shelter in the cliffs, too. 

In Fall 2022, 50 acres of Snake Hill, including much of the rocky ridge as well as open fields and forest, were conserved for good, never to be developed.  

Snake Hill and Barberville Falls Preserve, adjacent properties with a road dividing them, make up an important piece of the Rensselaer Plateau’s western escarpment. Conserving them together will make a lasting difference for our climate, wildlife, water, and opportunities for recreation.

This amazing conservation win was possible thanks to the care and support of our Forests Forever Campaign donors, including John Swartwout, who sold the Snake Hill property to RPA, along with making a generous donation.  

The Barberville Falls Volunteer Committee will oversee Snake Hill and will be working on a Management Plan this spring.  

“It will be great to have a trail from Barberville to Snake Hill. Just imagine walking from the deep, shady Poesten Kill gorge up to those dry, rocky ridges with a view,” said Jim Bonesteel, RPA’s Executive Director.  

The story of how Snake Hill came to be conserved goes back generations. 

A love of the land  

John Swartwout remembers his great-grandmother, Margaret (Maggie) Andrews Baxter sitting on the front porch of Glen Royal, the Baxter family estate, looking out over Burden Lake at the Rensselaer Plateau. She and her husband John Brown Baxter—who immigrated from Scotland—had a love of the land that was passed down through the family to John Swartwout’s parents and brothers.  

John believes the waters and wildlands of the plateau reminded his grandfather—a poet in his spare time—of the rocky hills of Scotland. A poem of John Brown Baxter's celebrates the beauty of the land he came to love in Rensselaer County. 

“Its bonnie bowers and braes are bathed in golden rays,

When the sun shines bright o’er Glen Royal,

Where lake and woodland meet and the Berkshire foothills greet

The stranger to the shores of Glen Royal.”

- From God’s Footstool, by John Brown Baxter 

For John, his parents, and his brothers, the forests of the Rensselaer Plateau were a center of gravity. John’s family lived in Latham and Menands but would spend time at Glen Royal, enjoying the land around Burden Lake that Maggie and John Brown Baxter had loved. After his great-grandparents’ estate was sold when John was a boy, his parents bought a small camp along the Poesten Kill not far from Barberville Falls Preserve. From 7th grade through college, John spent summers there cooling off in the creek and exploring the woods, and in the winter cross-country skiing.

John’s mother, an avid conservationist, was involved with The Nature Conservancy in the early days of TNC’s ownership of Barberville Falls. His father was more involved in his work around the world as an optometrist, but he was an active volunteer with the Kiwanis Club. John’s parents instilled in John and his brothers a sense of caring for the world around them.

As adults, John and his brothers were able to buy land around Barberville Falls for the sake of keeping it wild, along with their family camp. “We felt very tied to that locality,” John said. He and his brother Frank still play bluegrass music together out on the land each summer.  

John and Frank bought the Snake Hill land – 50 acres including much of the Snake Hill Cliffs

John enjoys cross-country skiing in the woods near Snake Hill and Barberville Falls

– in 1986. Frank grazes his horses in the open fields, and John and Frank have hiked and camped up on the cliffs. Otherwise, they’ve left the land to be wild. Over the years they received offers to log the land or to install solar farms. John couldn’t imagine tampering with the land and was never tempted. When Frank and John learned that RPA might be interested in conserving the land and adding it to Barberville Falls, their interest was piqued.  

John sold the 50 acres of woods, cliffs, and open fields to RPA in October 2022, and donated $10,000 to the Forests Forever Campaign.

“I just want it to stay a natural area, with trails connecting it to Barberville Falls,” said John, an environmental engineer with the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. “This area has been important to my family since the ’60s. I’m happy that it can stay as a forest and be there for others to enjoy.”  

left to right: Snake Hill cliffs, fields, and rocky slopes


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