A “huge conservation win” that will enable creation of “a recreational trail that will be among the most scenic in North America”: That’s the ambitious vision of Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute (OSI) as he announced in a February 11 press release the land trust’s successful acquisition of the 135-acre Watchtower property west of the Wallkill River. With a $2.1 million pricetag, the parcel was the most highly coveted keystone in a “bridge-to-Ridge” corridor of contiguous preserved lands that is the intended route of a bicycle/pedestrian path linking the foot trails and carriage roads of the Shawangunks with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, the Walkway Over the Hudson and points beyond.
The Watchtower property lies to the north of Route 299 and east of Butterville Road. It connects lands to the west belonging to the Mohonk Preserve to the 144-acre former Van Alst property, previously acquired by OSI, which includes most of the north side of what Paltzonians call “the Flats.” It is through these two adjoining parcels that the New Paltz Bicycle/Pedestrian Committee has been drawing up plans to construct a pair of paths, one dedicated to the use of walkers and the other to cyclists.
“The proposed recreational corridor, which is expected to include the parcel known locally as the ‘Hillside’ property, will support hiking, bicycling and cross-country skiing activities. The trail project will be privately funded by OSI and its partners, with no additional costs to the town or county,” OSI promises. “OSI will lead in the development, construction, maintenance and patrol of the new ‘New Paltz Flats Trails’ to ensure that they are well-planned and cared for; and that they balance the interests of recreational users, successful agricultural operations and area residents.”
Noting that preserving the parcel has long been “one of the top-priority project goals of New Paltz’s Open Space and Farmland Protection plans,” OSI emphasized its “scenic and agricultural value,” saying that “its acquisition will preserve scenic views of the Shawangunk Ridge, while enhancing recreational and farming opportunities for years to come.” The Hillside property has most recently been in use as a hayfield and is a favorite destination for photographers and plein air painters, especially during haymaking season.
OSI says that the Watchtower parcel will remain on the town’s tax rolls as an agricultural property. The Ferrante family, owners of Wallkill View Farm, have expressed active support for the project and are currently in talks with OSI to expand their farming operations across the road into the new parcel. “The acquisition of the Watchtower property and Van Alst Farm by OSI will permanently preserve a longtime agricultural heritage, protect prized community views and allow the public to use and enjoy a multi-use recreational trail from the Wallkill River to the Shawangunk Ridge,” Peter Ferrante said.
But for local big-picture planners who see tourism as the key to the mid-Hudson’s future economic prosperity, the big win here is clearly the way the transfer of ownership drops a crucial link into place for a trail network that proponents hope will ultimately make Ulster County the hub of non-motorized traffic from all points of the compass. Via the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail’s connections to the O & W Rail Trail on the western side of the Shawangunks, the planned Catskill Mountain Rail Trail’s Kingston terminus and a hoped-for connector trail from New Paltz to Highland’s Hudson Valley Rail Trail, one day a cyclist may be able to travel from Dutchess County to Sullivan County or the heart of the Catskills purely by pedal power — and will need places to sleep, eat and otherwise spend tourist dollars along the way.
“OSI’s protection of this iconic property will not only preserve the incredible beauty of our area for generations to come, but will also make possible critical connections between New Paltz and the extensive trail network along the Shawangunk Ridge,” Ulster County executive Mike Hein commented. “As the county continues to develop and connect its growing bike and pedestrian trail network, we are grateful for OSI’s leadership and work towards realizing the vision to create a world-class tourism destination.”
New Paltz-based officials touted the benefits closer to home: “The trail system envisioned in association with the protection of Watchtower will provide New Paltz residents greater and more varied recreational opportunities,” said mayor Jason West. “Now someone in downtown New Paltz will be able to walk, hike, bike, snowshoe or ski up to the Shawangunk ridgeline, formerly only accessible by car.” And Chris Bernabo, president of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, called the property “key to protecting the unique rural character of the New Paltz landscape and vital to giving New Paltz that unique sense of place that makes living here so special.”