While new development and sprawl encroach on the counties to the south of us, in Ulster County it’s trails rather than highways that are getting built. Despite being less than 100 miles from one of the world’s largest metropolises, Ulster County is still pretty bucolic, as if it had been bewitched. But it’s the vision and hard work of several not-for-profit environmental organizations, not a magic wand, that’s increasingly ensuring the county’s future as a rural haven, thanks to the ever-expanding network of rail trails and preserved woodlands and fields. The Open Space Institute (OSI) is one of the major players in land conservation and trail restoration and construction.
OSI is active in 20 states along the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Canada, but its roots are here: It was launched in the Hudson Highlands in 1974. OSI was instrumental in protecting hundreds of acres in the Shawangunks from a proposed Marriott hotel and housing development, and much of its energies remain focused in the region. “We started as a local grassroots land preservation organization and developed a model of working with state agencies,” said Eileen Larrabee, OSI’s vice president of communications. “Most recently, we embraced the public-access component. Ultimately, our mission is to convey to the public the value of land protection. Land conservation strengthens communities; economic activity and flood prevention go with it. Access is free, and we want the land to be welcoming so that people have a great experience. We want to build the next generation of land stewards.”
“We are in essence like the Central Park Conservancy, in that we raise private money and sometimes can move faster in the bid process than the state can, especially if we are doing improvements on land we own,” said OSI president and CEO Kim Elliman. OSI raised $1.5 million to purchase the Rosendale Trestle in 2009 and transform it into a vital link in the 11.5-mile segment between New Paltz and Kingston, part of the 24-mile Wallkill Valley Rail Trail extending to Gardiner. It also recently acquired stretches of the 29-mile O&W Rail Trail in Wawarsing. When fully developed, these two trails will enable bicyclists and hikers to traverse the county from Ellenville to Kingston and east to Walkway over the Hudson.
OSI also has made two land purchases. “Quite often, we acquire properties on the perimeter or boundary of state land, or the property might be surrounded by state land,” said Elliman. One parcel is within the Bluestone Wild Forest and the other is South Mountain, which is adjacent to the Sundown Wild Forest in the Catskill Forest Preserve. Eventually OSI will transfer ownership of both acquisitions to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which owns both preserves.
Bluestone Wild Forest, South Mountain and River-to-Ridge Trail
In the case of the 208-acre property adjacent to the Bluestone Wild Forest, “The DEC identified this project as a priority,” said Larrabee. “Our contribution is making these projects happen, and then we hold on to the land, sometimes for years. Sometimes we’ll make improvements before transferring the land to the state.”
Purchased for $650,000 from the Aldulaimi family, the parcel will connect Jockey Hill and Onteora Lake and encompasses the northern portion of Pickerel Pond. OSI is currently working with the Woodstock Land Conservancy, which will help manage the property, to raise $200,000 to $250,000 to extend and connect the existing trails through the new property and construct a small parking lot, trailhead and signage kiosk off Morey Hill Road. There are also plans to build a new six-mile loop.
Onteora Lake has become increasingly popular as a place to swim, canoe, fish and kayak, with the parking lot frequently overflowing in summer and early fall. Rather than just build a bigger parking lot, which would attract even more cars, OSI “tries to create more points of access, so we don’t burden any one spot,” said Elliman. In the Bluestone Wild Forest, “We are working with a bike trail group and really depend on them to do that sort of analysis,” as well as for other aspects, such as signage, he said.
South Mountain was purchased for $665,000 from Dr. Sam and Delia Adams, whose family had owned the land since the Hardenbergh Patent of the 1700s. Located in the Town of Olive near Route 28A in West Shokan, the 261-acre parcel will be preserved to help protect the Ashokan Reservoir watershed, as well as the mountain views. There are no plans currently to construct trails on the property. OSI also acquired 214 acres on the north side of the mountain two years ago, as part of its consolidation of wild lands in the Catskill Park, and it funded the engineering and feasibility study for the Ashokan Rail Trail.
Another one of OSI’s recent projects is the River-to-Ridge Trail, a six-mile loop passing through gorgeous farmland that connects the Village of New Paltz and the shoreline of the Wallkill River to the foothills of the Shawangunks, where it will eventually connect to the carriage roads of the Mohonk Preserve. The trail consists of a ten-foot-wide pedestrian and bike road of crushed stone, which meanders along the river before turning inland over farmland to the forested ridge. It begins off a village sidewalk on Route 299, with parking available off Springtown Road.
In an unusual arrangement, OSI permanently owns the 400 acres of farmland, which it leases out to farmers “to preserve the look and feel and heritage of the area,” according to Larrabee. “People pass hayfields and even a herd of cattle on the trail. It’s a great way to directly connect people to the land.”
The amazing generosity of Gilbert Butler
The River-to-Ridge Trail, including the land acquisition, was made possible by funding from the Butler Conservation Fund. “These trails are very expensive,” said Elliman, who serves as vice-chair of the fund. “A riverside trail a mile-and-a-quarter long costs a million three” (a “well-drained flat stretch” would cost less). The first segment of trail, which was begun three years ago, has been so popular that OSI decided to add the additional loop, which will be completed this summer, Elliman said.
The Butler Conservation Fund has donated more than $41 million to environmental programs located in the US, Canada, East Africa and Patagonia, besides the Gunks and western Adirondacks. Gilbert Butler, who grew up in the rugged Tug Hill region just west of the Adirondacks, attended Harvard and Columbia Business School and served as vice president of the Trust and Investment Division of Morgan Guaranty Trust Company before co-founding the Butler Capital Corp., a private equity firm that later became the Black River Management Company. It had a subscribed capital of more than $1 billion in 2005, when Butler began to wind it down to focus on environmental philanthropy and started the Conservation Fund. His appreciation for nature dates back to his childhood, and he is an accomplished outdoorsman whose pursuits include kayaking, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and mountaineering.
Resurrecting Old Smiley Road and building Minnewaska visitor center
The Shawangunks are “one of OSI’s legacy landscapes,” said Larrabee. “It’s a priority.” The Butler Conservation Fund has also donated money for OSI’s restoration of 12 miles of carriage roads at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, part of a 100-mile network extending into the adjoining Mohonk Preserve. The “broken-stones” technique first used to construct the paths back in the late 1800s is based on a tradition extending back to the ancient Romans. Peter Karis, OSI’s capital projects manager, described it: The biggest rocks are laid down on the bottom layer of the roadbed for structure, with smaller stones laid down in the middle course for “shaping.” The final, top layer consists of a very fine gravel, which sheds water and hence is used to control drainage. Roads that were designed to accommodate horse hooves and carriage wheels in both their surface materials and gentle grades are perfectly suited for foot traffic, bikes and cross-country skis, said Karis. He noted that these broken-stone roads in the Gunks were the model for the roads built in Acadia National Park.
Besides restoring the existing roads, OSI will resurrect the Old Smiley Carriage Road, which was built 80 or so years ago to bring travelers disembarking from the O&W train station at Ellenville up to the hotels on the lake at Minnewaska. The restored path will connect Ellenville to High Point, and from there to Lake Maratanza at Sam’s Point, as well as to Lake Awosting, in the other direction. Karis said that the work should be done by 2021.
OSI is raising money for a new visitors’ center at Minnewaska, which is also getting donations from the Butler Conservation Fund. Right now, “When you get to Lake Minnewaska and arrive at the parking lot, there’s nothing that greets you and shows you the way,” said Larrabee. The new center will be “a jumping-off point” that not only has bathrooms and fresh water, but also maps and a park staff person to advise visitors of the highlights. Ground will be broken for the building this summer, with the opening expected in the fall of 2020. The state is installing a new septic system, burying utility lines underground and making improvements to the parking lot that will make the area much more attractive, she said. The entire project is budgeted at $10 million, which is equally divided between the state and OSI. To date OSI has raised $3 million.
“The natural resources in Ulster County are still pristine,” Elliman said. “Hopefully we can protect them before there’s too much upward land value. You’re protecting water resources in particular, if you build trails with less erosion and less siltation. And as studies show, the closer people live to parks, the better the quality of life.”