Taming the wild forest

Hudson River domestic landscape from Andrew Jackson Downing’s” A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” 1841. (Creative Commons)

“People seem to have a greater interest in healthy activity,” said Bill Rudge, veteran New Paltz-based supervisor of natural resources for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “Many people seem to want to take a simple, easy route that makes the decisions they don’t want to make.” That’s part of the explanation, Rudge said, for the increased interest in recent years — particularly by urban folks — in various recreational trails, both urban and rural. 

Last week, a national group, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, announced plans for a trail between Washington, D.C. and Seattle. It may take a decade or two to complete the Great American Rail-Trail, but the group had detected substantial unmet demand from people itching to walk across America on railbeds from sea to shining sea.


New York State isn’t waiting that long. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Empire State Trail from New York City to the Canadian border and from Albany to Buffalo, is scheduled for completion next year. To judge by the widespread support for these activities from politicians at every level of New York government, investment in trails has been widespread and continuing. 

In Ulster County, several former railbeds have been or will be converted into trails. Since 19th-century railroad engines couldn’t climb steep grades, those on Ulster County’s trailbeds are gentle and sometimes meandering, allowing for the physically less challenging routes many people may prefer. 

Local Ulster governments are adding their efforts to county government’s. Kingston’s ambitious proposed network of urban trails, complete streets, bike lanes and linear parks is envisaged as a hub for non-motorized transportation and tourism connected to state, regional and county trail systems. 

An informational meeting to discuss new trails in the Bluestone Wild Forest (almost 3000 acres of soon-to-be-contiguous state land parcels north of Route 28 west of Route 209 and east of Zena Road/Basin Road), attracted 75 attendees to Kingston’s Senate Garage in the Stockade neighborhood on May 7. Speakers from DEC, the Open Space Institute (OSI), the Woodstock Land Trust and others described plans for expanding trail network usage. The audience, almost entirely a conservationist constituency, expressed approbation of the efforts not only to attract greater recreational use of this land but also eventually to connect it with other trail-building projects, particularly the former Ulster & Delaware railbed from Kingston west to Delaware County. 

New York’s state constitution specifies that state-owned land in the 705,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve “shall be kept forever as wild forest lands,” not leased, sold or exchanged. The DEC develops and amends unit management plans (UMPs) divided into four categories. There are five wilderness units, 14 wild forest units, eleven intensive use areas and six small administrative holdings. 

According to a count several years ago, there were then about 143,000 acres of forever wild land within the Catskills “blue line,” plus 130,000 acres of wild forest land, 6000 acres of state land in intensive recreational use, and 824 acres in administrative use. The New York City DEP owned an additional 40,500 acres.

The mix of human activities in the state wild-forest holdings has changed, Rudge said after the meeting. In particular, public interest in mountain biking has increased, particularly because today’s public highways discourage roadside biking. 

As in a number of other transactions involving forest land in the Catskills, the Open Space Institute served as interim purchasing entity in the acquisition of a key 208-acre parcel from the Aldulaimi family. That holding connects the Jockey Hill and Onteora Lake sections of the state’s Bluestone Wild Forest.

Before completing the transfer of the Aldulaimi land to the state later this year or next year, OSI intends to extend an enhanced non-motorized-vehicle pathway referred to at the meeting as “the turnpike,” the spine of the trail system in the Onteora Lake section. Other marked trails will be added to the existing system. Tom Gravel of OSI noted modestly at the meeting that the new purchase “fits in very well with the broader trail network.” 

This less wild kind of wild, now almost as extensive in acreage in the Catskills as forever-wild land, is, as the DEC diplomatically expresses it, “capable of withstanding a higher level of recreational use.” DEC estimates that about twice as many visitors per acre visit wild forest than wilderness land. As last week’s meeting made clear, greater management attention is required to make that additional recreational use of wild forest possible. 

A zest for blending wild nature’s unruliness with mankind’s desire for domestication is hardly a new experience for the Hudson Valley. In his writing in the 1840s, Newburgh nurseryman Alexander Jackson Downing lauded the healing effects on mankind of interaction with nature. He encouraged urban Americans to take advantage of the mobility offered by the railroad and the steamboat to visit places that followed the principles of landscape design he espoused. 

The conversion of public wild land to more carefully planned and intensely managed recreational use is entirely in harmony with Downing’s thinking. Downing favored the creation of less developed places that could be enjoyed by all classes of society. He would probably have loved GPS.

The money to increase access to public land is being spent.

According to its current capital improvement budget, Ulster County government has allocated $17.3 million to two rail-trail projects to the west of Kingston — most to be spent this year. The capital budget contains $15 million for the spectacular 11.5-mile recreational trail (including a 360-foot trestle and another substantial non-vehicular bridge plus 46 culverts) through New York City-owned Ashokan Reservoir land from Basin Road in West Hurley to Boiceville, and an additional $2.3 million to connect the former Ontario & Western railbed from Washington Avenue in Kingston to the existing Hurley rail-trail. If the spending schedule is adhered to, all the work will be finished this year.

It’s a complex financial package. There’s $4.1 million in federal funds, $4.6 million in state money, $2.5 million in New York City DEP funding, and about $6.2 million in county obligations (including $2.335 million in already authorized bonding). Eventually, county deputy planning director Chris White told the May 7 meeting, “all of this should be connected to all of that,” “all of that” meaning the rest of the county and state trail network.

There’s no more enthusiastic a proselytizer for “the best trail network we can have” than Woodstock Land Conservancy’s board chair Kevin Smith, who lauded the plans for expanded trail development in the Bluestone Wild Forest. The conservancy, along with Fats in the Cats and other volunteer groups, has supplied a lot of the labor for cleanup projects, trail improvements and attraction enhancements in this wild forest.

Like other speakers, Smith emphasized that the Bluestone Wild Forest was not distant from the City of Kingston. “That it’s so close to an urban center is unique,” he said. “It’s surprisingly wild.”

Smith extolled the neighborhood’s virtues. The land is mostly rolling terrain. The marks of its former uses are everywhere. It boasts varied flora and fauna. It’s an important resource for tourism and economic development in general (“They spend money,” Smith reminded his audience). But the importance of the health benefits, he said, echoing Downing, “far outweigh the other benefits.”