The Open Space Institute (OSI) has unveiled a plan so vast and green that, when fully implemented, it would connect more than 20 communities in three counties (Ulster, Sullivan and Orange) through 250 miles of interconnected multiuse trails. Dubbed the Growing Greenways Plan, the focus is centered on regions west of the Wallkill in the Hudson Valley that can tie into the Catskill Forest Preserve and to the Empire State Trail, both of which would make these regional trail connections seemingly limitless.
“The bones are there,” said Peter Karis, vice president for OSI’s Parks and Stewardship, who has been working intimately with every aspect of this project, referring to the miles of abandoned transportation infrastructure that historically served this part of New York State. “These communities were all once connected through the railroad system, canals; and as they ceased being used, these hamlets and villages and towns become these isolated islands.”
OSI has been working doggedly to purchase, develop, create, repurpose and expand trails throughout this landscape for the past 50 years and has protected more than 100,000 acres of land in the Hudson Valley. The public tends to learn about what appears to be a pocket project near them: a new section of rail trail, an improved carriage road, the preservation of historic farmland. “This plan helps all of the various projects OSI has been working on make sense in a larger scope,” Karis said.
Some of the not-for-profit land trust’s signature projects include the restoration of 15 miles of Victorian-era carriage roads at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, sections of carriage roads at the Mohonk Preserve, 19 miles of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail including the stunning restoration of the Rosendale Trestle and most recently, the River-to-Ridge Trail, which connects all of these areas together without the hiker or cyclist ever having to get into a car.
“People crave that connection to nature, and we know that they’re much more likely to get outside and onto trails if they’re close by, easily accessible, mostly flat and wide,” said Karis. “Communities that have green corridors and public access to trails are by far healthier, happier communities.”
He said that the timing of the implementation of River-to-Ridge, a partnership with the Mohonk Preserve and the Town and Village of New Paltz, ended up being “our Ground Zero when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic.” This approximately five-mile connector trail can be accessed in the Village of New Paltz via the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, enabling the user to cross the Wallkill River, wind through the cornfields along the Flats and up into the foothills of the Mohonk Preserve. Not only did it prove a boon to residents and tourists and outdoor enthusiasts alike, but it was a “critical respite during the pandemic when people desperately needed a safe place to get outside,” said Karis. “Usage of the River-to-Ridge trail went up 150 percent in 2020 and 2021!”
Inspired by R2R’s success when the pandemic hit, OSI doubled down on its efforts to create more trails and linkages between systems so that every community could have ample green spaces and offroad trails to walk and bike and enjoy all of the natural benefits that come with exercising and movement in the outdoors. There was also an influx of government funding for green infrastructure, which the organization leveraged, as well as work that all three counties are doing to identify, design and fund more green spaces and trails for public use.
OSI continued its work on the Smiley Carriage Road and the High Point Carriage Road, which, when completed this summer, will fully connect the Sam’s Point Preserve Visitors’ Center with the Minnewaska Visitors’ Center: approximately 10 miles of smooth carriage road for hikers, runners, cyclists and cross-country skiers. It is also working on a spur of the Smiley Carriage Road that dips down into the Village of Ellenville.
The old O&W Railroad bed runs along Berme Road in Ellenville; OSI is working to restore two miles of it from the Village to the Eastern Correctional Facility. There is also a restoration project in process that would create another ten-mile section of the old O&W railbed into a rail trail that would connect the hamlet of Accord to Kerhonkson.
The greatest opportunities for growth and connectivity, when looking at OSI’s Growing Greenways Plan, include both Ellenville as a real locus for trail connections and the City of Kingston. “There are four possible connection points within the City of Kingston to the Empire State Trail,” said Karis. “Kingston has so much going on right now that’s exciting in terms of green infrastructure.”
The OSI vision looks at connecting Kingston with the Ashokan Rail Trail via a six-mile section of railbed that is currently owned by Ulster County. “It’s going to be tricky,” Karis admitted. “But it’s doable and it’s already publicly owned.” The 39-mile Kingston to Catskill Park plan could connect a trail system that goes from the City of Kingston to the Ashokan Reservoir, through a half-dozen small hamlets and villages all the way to various Catskill Park trailheads.
There’s also a plan to connect 57 miles of the old O&W railway from Port Jervis in Orange County to Kingston. “That’s mindblowing in terms of how vast these offroad networks can be. Within two years, we could be the largest feeder system into the Empire State Trail.”
OSI recently closed on a thousand-acre parcel of contiguous forested land with an intricate watershed that will also help connect the 32,000 acres of protected land in the Shawangunk Ridge with the 260,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve. Each step that the OSI has taken has been done in partnership with private, local, county and state agencies.
“Connecting and improving the trails of three counties – Ulster, Orange and Sullivan – creates a trail system of great length, diversity and quality, which will attract visitors from around the country and around the world,” said Dr. Kathy Nolan, Ulster County legislator and senior researcher at Catskill Mountainkeeper. “Putting trails closer to where people live increases their use, and we know that health improves dramatically the more people use trails for recreation and transportation.
“We also need to connect people from towns and villages, and from the centers of our cities, into the vast and beautiful spaces of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Park. These are lands set aside for the use and enjoyment of the people of New York State, and these new and more completely interconnected trails will make it far easier for them to be enjoyed by everyone,” Nolan concluded.
“While OSI has been building and improving trails throughout the Hudson Valley for decades, what has long been missing is a unifying vision to connect people to nature and to each other at a regional scale,” said Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute.
New York State Parks commissioner Erik Kulleseid added that in his estimation, this Greenways Plan “demonstrates how strategic planning and big-picture thinking can maximize the range of trail assets that exist throughout the three counties to create something greater than the sum of their parts. This interconnected trail system will leverage wonderful regional offerings and create a unified trail and greenway system for generations to come.”
“OSI has been helping Sullivan County implement a plan we completed in 2020 to build out the O&W Rail Trail. We are working to connect five existing trail segments into a 50-mile trail crossing Sullivan from Mamakating to Rockland, and also have the potential for a spur line running down to Orange County,” said Sullivan County Planning commissioner Freda Eisenberg. She added that revelations from the NYS Greenways Plan included the fact that “Trail users prioritize length when choosing a trail, and OSI’s regional vision speaks directly to that preference.”
According to Karis, the projects proposed in OSI’s Greenways Plan focus on extending and improving each of the seven major existing trails. The initiative will require land acquisition, new trail development, improvements and realignments to existing trails as well as trailhead improvements.
“We’ve been building and honing our skills in terms of how to restore historic carriage roads and how to design and engineer plans to take an old railbed and turn it into a multiuse public trail,” Karis explained. “Rail trails have a lot of underpasses and overpasses and vary greatly in terms of their existing conditions. There are workarounds we have to think about, and some sticking points in terms of connections and more partnerships that need to be made, but we’re firing on all cylinders in terms of vision, planning, design, engineering, acquisition, construction, and we have amazing partners to work with.”
Everyone Hudson Valley One spoke to mentioned the inherent natural beauty of the Hudson Valley region and how these corridors that traverse preserves, forested lands, meadows, lakeshores and ridgelines will allow residents and visitors to enjoy that deep and primal connection with the landscape. “The plan exemplifies how connection – connected communities, connected places and connected purpose – is a force that drives lasting and beneficial community outcomes,” Elliman added.
Having raised and invested more than $100 million toward land acquisition, trails and other visitor amenities in the area over the last decade alone, OSI is pursuing additional partnerships, private funds and grants to achieve the ambitious Growing Greenways Plan fully. The ultimate fundraising goal needed to accomplish this visionary project is more than $8 million and is defined by a combination of engineering studies currently underway and stakeholder outreach.