Kim Elliman announces retirement after 31 years
By Tim Rowland
Christopher “Kim” Elliman, a central figure in the creation, conservation and enjoyment of public lands in the Adirondacks and beyond, announced his retirement from Open Space Institute Tuesday, an organization he has guided since 1992.
Elliman, 70, will remain with OSI as president and CEO through March 2024, as a national search for a successor is conducted by Russell Reynolds Associates, the institute said in a press release.
Under Elliman’s leadership, and with collaborating land trusts and a team representing a who’s who of Adirondack conservators, OSI protected and opened to the public more than 160,000 acres of mountains, forests and waters in the Adirondacks. Plus 2.3 million acres from Canada to Florida, as OSI grew from a small Hudson Valley land trust to one of the nation’s most important conservators.
With a holistic view of wild lands that include human interaction, climate resilience and social justice, OSI under Elliman has raised and brokered millions of dollars in funding for land acquisition, parks, trails and historical sites. Also, the OSI assisted in storied Adirondack public land acquisitions such as the Split Rock, Finch Pruyn and Tahawus tracts.
Elliman called the “yin and yang” of wild lands and human use a guidepost of his career in conservation, which, he said, essentially began with his first visit to the park. He was just a few months old, and with each annual visit he watched loons and warblers with his grandparents and experienced “the profound quiet of the wilderness — for a kid it was bewitching.”
In his early career, Elliman worked in the private sector, but always with an interest in renewable energy, healthy local foods or forest management that eschewed clearcutting.
Early work at OSI
After his arrival at OSI, Elliman demonstrated his flair for bold initiatives, coalition building and a touch of riverboat gambling when conservationists purchased Split Rock Mountain on the Adirondack Coast in a last-second deal just as the property was about to be auctioned.
For OSI it was a make or break moment. “We metaphorically bet the farm,” Elliman said. Aided by Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner (and later colleague at OSI) Joe Martens and a bond act signed by Gov. Mario Cuomo, a stretch of Lake Champlain shoreline was saved from development.
Elliman and OSI, often content to operate in the background, helped facilitate many land deals, but also valued the role of Indigenous peoples, urban parks, recreation and strategic acquisitions for wildlife corridors, while promoting diversity and accessibility to public lands.
Elliman and OSI were on the rise at a critical time in the Adirondacks, when the paper industry was on the wane and companies such as Finch Pruyn & Company and International Paper were divesting of timberland.
Elliman recognized the historical moment, with the future of the park at stake. He feared these large tracts would be sold to developers, who would build condos, ring pristine lakes with camps and close scenic rivers to public access.
An Adirondack vision
In a 1985 essay for The New York Times he wrote, “In the year 2000, the Adirondacks could be much less wild and beautiful than they are now. Or they could be preserved forever as a magnificent natural sanctuary within a day’s drive for 60 million people — living proof that human beings can co-exist in harmony with their natural environment.”
With tens of thousands of acres at stake, Elliman envisioned a new, more critical role for land trusts.
“He transformed things for the whole Northern Forest,” said Willie Janeway, former director of the Adirondack Council, of which Elliman was a board member from 1982 to 1994. “He thought of conservation on a scale rarely envisioned several decades ago, (and) was revolutionary in his thinking.”
Janeway said Elliman is known for conservation, his own private philanthropy and a political connectivity that went right up to New York’s executive mansion.
Elliman understood what influenced each governor’s environmental positions, and also understood what it took to work with local supervisors such as Newcomb’s George Canon, with whom he constructed a deal involving the old mining town of Adirondac. Today, Elliman said this melding of nature, history and recreation at the Upper Works trailhead is among his proudest accomplishments.
Peg Olsen, Adirondack director of The Nature Conservancy, said she came to know Elliman during a collaboration with OSI on the purchase of the 4,600-acre Sam’s Point property on the Shawangunk Ridge in the village of Ellenville. It was, she said, “one of many big wins for conservation” under Elliman.“I know he will never retire from being a leading voice for conservation,” Olsen said. “His passion, drive and willingness to take risks have resulted in millions of acres preserved for the benefit of people and nature. OSI’s work in the Adirondacks has greatly improved habitat connectivity for wildlife and recreation opportunities for local communities.”
Elliman said he’s “incredibly upbeat “ for a new chapter of his life that will include his upcoming marriage and his first grandchild. He said he will live in New Paltz, while still spending appreciable time in the Adirondacks. “I’ve had three loves, the wilderness, the Adirondacks and OSI,” he said. “I still want to play a role in this great asset that is the Adirondack Park.”
John Adams and Amelia Salzman, co-chairs of OSI’s board, praised Elliman and his team: “This highly effective group of individuals is among his greatest legacies and will further cement OSI as one of the nation’s foremost conservation leaders for decades to come.”