Let’s say that your community group would like to conserve a piece of local land. A hiking trail has been proposed for the site, or a small park could be established there. Perhaps there’s a local river that needs recreational access to it improved-upon. But how does a project like that get off the ground? And once it’s up and running, how do you best support it?
That’s where the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program of the National Park Service (NPS) comes in. It provides assistance to community organizations or state or local governments by connecting them with a conservation- or recreation-planning professional who works with the group for a year or two, and then exits gracefully once the project is on its feet.
The RTCA program isn’t about supplying funding or grants. “You get our technical assistance,” says Karl Beard, upstate project director for the National Park Service’s RTCA program in New York State. (His territory also includes Long Island.) Beard works out of an office located at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum site in Hyde Park (which is operated by the NPS).
The Rivers and Trails program is the community assistance arm of the NPS. “We’re charged with bringing National Park expertise and planning to communities that don’t have national parks,” Beard says. “We help communities create rail trails, parks or preserves: things that are of interest to them. We’re not advancing a National Parks agenda; we’re making our expertise available to communities where we can be useful to them.”
And the idea is not for the NPS to come in and take over. When a community group approaches the RTCA program for help, “We try to make our assistance catalytic,” Beard says. “You receive our hands-on time helping to headache out whatever problems are relevant in your community’s particular case, and help you figure out strategies for getting people engaged. We can help address certain technical planning issues, funding strategies – things like that.”
The projects that they get involved with run the gamut in terms of size and complexity. “It could be a startup project from scratch, or it could be a sort of transitional phase: when things in a community or on a trail are at a certain stage and they need to rethink or up the game in terms of stewardship or management. We usually work on a project for two years, maybe three, but there is no long-term National Park Service role afterward.”
The assistance is awarded on an annual application cycle. While the RTCA responds to simple questions from organizations by phone or e-mail, its capacity is limited, says Beard; so if a group is looking for something more intensive, it should apply to the program. The due date for applications is August 1, and assistance is given according to the federal fiscal year: from October 1 to September 30. Applications are for one year of assistance, with those receiving help welcome to reapply for a second year. “It’s a little harder for groups to get assistance for a third year,” Beard says. “We like to see groups get on a trajectory toward success. It’s not appropriate for us, in most circumstances, to stay involved.”
One relatively recent project that the program worked on was the Hyde Park/Dutchess County Healthy Trails initiative that created a network of trail linkages between the FDR site and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site (also managed by the NPS), as well as a series of programs promoting physical activity. Beard says that the venture originated when the NPS began getting complaints that people who were walking on park trails were turning up in people’s backyards. The NPS collaborated with the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Boy Scouts, the Town of Hyde Park, the Winnakee Land Trust and Scenic Hudson not only to figure out a way of improving visitor information at the parks so that this wouldn’t happen, but also to find a way to connect the FDR site, the Vanderbilt Mansion site and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill, all of which are miles apart. The result is more than 20 miles of trails that connect the historic sites with town parks, with more connections to come at Mills/Norrie State Park and the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg.
The system of trails has become a real community trail system, says Beard, not just a park trail system. And along with that has been an effort to collaborate with the Dutchess County Health Department on the Walkabout program, which gets the message to residents that they can find “great hiking opportunities basically right outside their doors” and use the trails to stay fit.
“Connecting the dots” between disjunctive sections of rail trails has become common around the country, Beard says, with a current project happening in Kingston to develop a 1.5-mile rail trail within the city that will connect a number of rail trails. “A part of why Kingston is so interesting is that a number of other rail trails point directly at Kingston on a map, and then do not actually connect inside the city limits. The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail comes pretty much up to the city line, and then ends at Rockwell Lane in the Town of Ulster. The O & W Rail Trail that comes up through the Rondout/Esopus Creek Valley makes it up to Hurley and then does not connect into the city limits. We now have a concept plan underway to connect those.”
The Hudson Valley has been a leader in the rail-to-trail movement “in some ways,” says Beard. “The movement really got its major launch in the Midwest, but one of the earliest rail trails in the country is up in Warren County [in the Lake George area]. And when the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy first opened its doors, the very first call that came into their office was from a woman named Eleanor Mettler, who was trying to work on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in Dutchess and Columbia Counties. The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail was also fairly early on.”
But the real “game-changer,” he says, was Walkway over the Hudson. “It’s a spectacular destination, and visitation has exceeded pretty much everybody’s expectations.” Given that it’s just a few miles long, however, and people who travel some distance to get to the Walkway want to take full advantage of their travels, a great deal of planning is currently underway to develop a network of what Beard calls “destination-quality” connecting rail trails in order to create an attractive enough experience that those tourists will stay longer to experience more of the area, creating their entire itinerary around the trail systems.
Beard says that he himself was not convinced at first about the value of rail trails in a community. Growing up in New Paltz, he started off as a runner, but dropped out of the track team in high school to take up rock climbing in the Shawangunks. “That’s what really opened my eyes to the value of parklands, and it got me interested in hiking,” he says. Beard went to work at the Mohonk Preserve, as a climbing ranger at first and then as a naturalist. After grad school, he was one of the first hires for the Rivers and Trails program and was a part of figuring out what the program would look like and how it would work.
One of the first things that the program did was partner with the newly created Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which operates nationwide. “So we did a little tour of rail trails around the country with their staff,” Beard says. “I had grown up hiking mountain trails and climbing mountains, and the idea of these flat, wide trails that go through places where a whole lot of people live was not instantly appealing to me. But after seeing enough of these around the country, and stopping people on the trails and asking them where they were from and what it was they liked about the trail, it quickly became obvious to me that this was something that was going to become very popular.”
An area of recent growth is in water trails, Beard says. “If you look at what people have on their roof racks these days, you see an awful lot of kayaks. And they’re not just putting the kayak in a pond and going in circles; many people are seeking out paddling experiences on a defined route, where they’ll put in at one place, take out at another and maybe even keep going, overnight or on multi-day trips.”
There are more than 100 points of access along the Hudson River, he points out, so while one has to plan a trip to paddle with the tide, people who are interested in traveling on the river find it a great experience. Beard is currently working on extending the state’s water trail system through the Erie Canal system, focusing on the Mohawk River section next year and several projects in the Finger Lakes.
Many people outside New York State don’t realize what a wealth of outdoor experiences we offer here, says Beard – not even his counterparts from around the country. When he meets people in his line of work who live in the archetypal Great Outdoors places like Colorado and Alaska, they will invariably ask him, “How can you stand to work in New York?”
“They don’t realize what there is in New York,” Beard says. “They don’t know how wonderful New York is. I’m so surprised by that question, because I feel blessed. The Bronx River is now the site of an annual paddle event that’s wonderful. You’d never guess that it’s actually a great experience to paddle in a canoe down the Bronx River. But it is. And most people really don’t know anything about upstate New York: the incredible historic communities that are strung out all along the Erie Canal system. The Adirondack Park, at six million acres, is the largest protected area in the country. And people don’t realize that there is a federally designated wilderness area in New York State. There’s only one, but it’s located on Long Island. It’s part of the Fire Island National Seashore Federal Wilderness Area.”
Bottom line, Beard says, is that “We live in a wonderful place, and rail trails and water trails are one of the ways we can get out and enjoy the communities in which we live. And even if the area grows, trails, ideally, are a way of letting us live in those growing communities without being hemmed in by that growth.”
There is incredible talent in communities all the way across the state, he adds: “capable, interested, caring people who want to get involved. I get to work with a lot of the best people that New York State has to offer. And that is so invigorating.”
Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, 4097 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park; (845) 229-9115, (202) 354-6900, www.nps.gov/rtca.