Get to know John Baker, the new executive director of the North Salem Open Land Foundation


John Baker is the new executive director of the North Salem Open Land Foundation. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Growing up, John Baker spent Sundays with his grandparents, exploring the undeveloped property they owned in New City, Rockland County. Baker’s grandfather would teach him how to identify the various trees throughout the property. His grandmother would have him help her in the garden, and point out the birds who visited the bird feeder. Those early childhood experiences set Baker on a path to devoting his professional life to caring for the natural world.

Now, North Salem residents stand to benefit from the values that Baker’s grandparents instilled in him. On July 1, Baker took over for Jocko McKean as the new executive director of the North Salem Open Land Foundation, a nonprofit that works to maintain the environmental and ecological integrity of North Salem. In this role, Baker will be responsible for continuing the organization’s work of preserving the rural character and beauty of North Salem.

“The foundation and its board is an incredibly dedicated group of individuals,” Baker said. “The work that Jocko and the staff have done here since Jocko started five and a half years ago has just been outstanding in terms of community engagement and the stewardship of the preserves that NSOLF has. That will continue.”

Baxter Preserve is the 'crown jewel' of North Salem Open Lands. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Preserving land has been the throughline of Baker’s entire career. He spent 15 years as the director of conservation for Westchester County Parks. “Westchester County has a nationally acclaimed park system,” Baker noted. “To have open space like this available to people has just been a gift that I don’t know many residents have realized they have–to have so many parks and preserves within a short distance drive or walk from their homes.”

Most recently, Baker served as land conservation projects manager for the Westchester Land Trust. “All the land trusts and conservation organizations are really tightly knit together. We all participate in the Hudson to Housatonic partner network.” (Hudson to Housatonic is composed of regional land trust organizations from Westchester, Putnam, Fairfield and Litchfield counties.)

Lances Preserve was the first tract of land given to NSOLF by Audrey and Leo Lances in 1974. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

“At Westchester Land Trust, I really, truly understood what land trusts do and their dedication to preserving and maintaining open space. The land trust community is seriously focused on land and preserving it. That’s done through stewardship and protecting and obtaining more open space,” Baker said.

Despite being well versed on the ins and outs of land conservation, Baker still plans to spend his first six months with NSOLF in listening and learning mode, getting to know the organization and the community better than he already does. From there, he intends to focus on land preservation and “seeing how we can expand conservation easements or obtain additional preserves.”

Durand Preserve is located behind the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

As part of its mission to actively engage the North Salem community, NSOLF will return its “Race for Open Space” at Baxter Preserve September 18, following its inaugural event last year. As a lifelong runner, Baker is particularly excited to help improve and expand on the race. This year, there will be a 5k race, 4k fun run/walk and a kids’ fun run. “This is hopefully going to be one of our flagship events,” Baker said. “We want to lay the groundwork for the future.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

Looking ahead for NSOLF, Baker sees plenty of potential. “We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2024. We’re looking at how we set ourselves up for the next 50 years - how we can increase the management of our preserves, how we can identify open space for future protection, and really engaging the community,” he said.

For Baker, the work of engaging with the community starts now. “I invite people to reach out to me, to talk with me, to meet me,” Baker said. “To have the opportunity to walk their properties with them, to see if we can lend any type of conservation advice to them in terms of how to maintain their properties or perhaps even to preserve their properties going forward.”

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