Once in a while, a landowner loves her property so much, she decides, when she is getting on in years, to preserve it instead of sell it to a developer. Such is the case with Elaine Chaback, who donated her 123-acre forest to the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC) as the Israel Wittman Sanctuary, named in memory of her father, “who not only enabled me to own the property,” Chaback has stated, “but who instilled in me his love of animals. And now visitors will enjoy it too.”
WLC, which acquires and stewards undeveloped land in the region, held an opening ceremony for the Wittman Sanctuary on October 7, welcoming visitors to the 1.2-mile loop trail that traverses the property, located where the Towns of Woodstock, Saugerties, and Ulster meet, off Zena High Woods Road. The ceremony also honored the many volunteers who helped prepare the trail for public access.
“This property is our newest and largest preserve,” says WLC executive director Maxanne Resnick a few days later, as we walk between tumbledown stone walls from the sanctuary parking lot to the start of the trail. “It has mixed forest, vernal pools, rock ledges, quarries, and the trail is not very challenging, gradewise, almost level most of the way around, so it’s accessible to a lot of people. There’s no hunting, and we don’t allow dogs because they disturb wildlife.”
She stoops to pick up a branch that has fallen across the path and tosses it off to the side. We reach the start of the loop, clearly identified with trail markers on the trees. When WLC acquired the land, the trail was mostly in place already, but volunteers spent time over the summer on tasks such as outlining the pathway with logs and large branches. Much of the trail is bordered by low, swampy land, so Woodstock’s Geezer Corps built two small, elegant wooden bridges to cross areas that grow boggy in wet weather. The Geezers — Richard Heppner, Lorin Rose, Jim Hansen, and Tom Unrath — are a group of vigorous elders who meet weekly for breakfast at Bread Alone in Woodstock and throw themselves into community service projects. Oak planks for the bridges were donated by the widow of Dave Corbett, who was deeply involved with organizing at the Comeau Property in Woodstock.
The Housman family, gathering for an annual five-day service project, performed several tasks for WLC preserves, including making handsome wooden signs for the sanctuary, building a kiosk at the Zena Cornfield, and doing trail work at Sloan Gorge.
“I wonder if we’ll see red efts,” muses Resnick and then immediately spots two of the orange salamanders ahead of us in the path. We pass an abundance of logs completely covered in brilliant green moss and an isolated boulder, misshapen and composed of layers.
WLC is also devoted to advocacy of such projects as the Ashokan Rail Trail, as well as public education. First Saturdays on the Trail is a weekly program of walks and educational programs on topics from nature photography to animal tracking. Meditation teacher Ronnie Shushan has already led a silent walk at the sanctuary. Participants walked the loop for an hour and a half, refraining from talking as they bathed together in the peace of the forest. “Everyone loved it,” said Resnick.
The Woodstock Land Conservancy’s Israel Wittman Sanctuary opened to the public in October 2017. Located in the Zena Highwoods area where the Towns of Ulster, Woodstock and Saugerties meet, this 123-acre Sanctuary offers a gentle grade two-mile trail loop through a mixed hardwood and coniferous forest, vernal pools, a seasonal stream, bluestone quarries and rock walls. This Sanctuary is named after the donor’s father, and to further protect the forest’s habitat and animals, dogs are not allowed here. The preserve is located at the end of Old Sawmill Road in Saugerties, NY.