2020 Corps Season: Notes from the Field

October 21, 2020
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


2020 Corps Season: Notes from the Field
Taconic Trail Crew view of the Hudson River.


The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Corps trains the next generation of environmental stewards to preserve the integrity of trails and natural areas and engage volunteers to inspire a deeper appreciation for the care that open space requires. Our AmeriCorps program is fielding three trail crews, two invasives crews, and two trail steward crews in 2020. Here’s an overview of the impact they’ve made so far this season.

Trail Crews

Service Location: Sterling Forest State Park

The Palisades Crew focuses on implementing Sterling Forest State Park’s Trails Plan. This year, they are focusing on reroutes on the McKeags Meadow Loop and construction of the new Augusta Mine Trail, which will connect other trails in the park and increase multi-use mileage and loop options via sustainable design and building techniques. Crew members excavate new trail tread and construct rock retaining walls as well as trailside features to accommodate bikes and horses while reducing potential conflict between users.

Challenges: The extremely boulder-filled terrain has made work slow and difficult in places. “It seems like for every big rock you want to dig out, you need to remove two others first,” said crew member Matt Nemeth. “It’s tough because in a lot of places there’s no good soil underneath to build on—just more rock.” The amount of crushed gravel fill required behind retaining walls also takes its toll. “After a day or two of heavy crush-making, I usually need to give my joints a break from it for a day or two,” crew member Frank Kazimir said.

Accomplishments: Since June, the Palisades Crew has constructed nearly 1,000 feet of new or relocated trail, including almost 100 square feet of handset rock retaining wall. “Learning the principles of wall building was challenging at first,” crew member Kevin Murphy admitted, “but once I got the hang of it, it’s been really satisfying to see it come together into a finished product.” An avid mountain biker, he added, “it’s going to be a great trail once we’re done. I can’t wait to ride it!

Service Location: Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve

The Taconic Crew addresses needs in Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock state parks. This year’s focus has been on finishing the ground-up renovation of a portion of the popular and scenic Washburn Trail near Breakneck Ridge, where poor trail definition has led to hikers creating social trails, resulting in vegetation loss and erosion. The crew’s work has included constructing wide stone staircases and rock retaining wall across bedrock ledges to safely and sustainably shepherd users to the trail’s stunning vistas.

Challenges: Sourcing all the stone needed has been a tall order. “A lot of the rocks we were allowed to harvest were too big to move or use as they were, so we had to do a ton of drilling and splitting to make them work,” said crew member Michael Sullivan. Crowds of hikers on weekends also complicated matters. “Sometimes we’d have to stop every few minutes while people went by, just to be safe,” crew member Abbie Urbanak said. Finally, the shortage of suitable trees for rigging required some technical creativity to fly rocks through the air on a highline cable. “The big tripod we’re using is a serious piece of hardware,” noted crew member Bob Delap. “It takes a while to set it up properly, but once the system’s running, we’re able to move a lot of stone.”

Accomplishments: Adding onto the nearly 100 steps set last year, this year’s Taconic Crew has already set dozens more, as well as constructed a long, technical section of retaining wall across an area of bedrock. They are currently working on constructing a large viewing platform at one of the trail’s popular overlook areas. “It’s a technically demanding trail project but rewarding at the same time,” said Ed Zubrowski, who is serving on this crew for his second year. “Working on it has taught me a lot of new skills. Plus, the view is great.”

Service Location: Harriman State Park

This crew’s efforts are focused on the southwest portion of Harriman on sections of trail near the towns of Tuxedo and Sloatsburg. The emphasis this year has been on the westernmost section of the Ramapo-Dunderburg Trail, which was first built 100 years ago. Work here involves building and repairing stone staircases, defining the trail tread, and closure of social paths. Our thanks to Valley Rock Inn, the Silman Family, and an anonymous donor who generously donated to the care and protection of trails in Harriman State Park and made the crew’s work possible this year.

Challenges: Proximity to property boundaries and rugged terrain have made obtaining enough stone difficult. Crew member Amaris Reed noted that “some of what we’re using had to be quarried and moved from a couple of hundred feet away, which takes time.” Crowds of backpackers on weekends also meant that the crew had to temporarily route users around their worksite. “People can get a bit confused about where they’re supposed to walk and ask questions, but everyone thanks us for our work, which is nice,” said crew member Scott Campbell.

Accomplishments: So far this year the Harriman Crew has set more than 30 new steps and made repairs to six more. Crew member Frank Forte said of the progress, “it’s nice to open up an area you just worked on and see people using it after you made the trail more durable and nicer to hike on.” In addition to more steps, the crew plans to invest time before the season’s end more thoroughly closing an old route that was decommissioned by the park some years ago.

Invasives Crews

Aquatic Invasives Strike Force
Service Location: Lower Hudson Valley

The aquatic ISF Crew focuses on protecting the region’s waters through the management and monitoring of aquatic invasive plants, zooplankton, and shelled invertebrates. They also educate boaters and anglers about aquatic invasive species spread prevention through voluntary boat inspections on the Hudson River. The crew is funded by the Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management; it is hosted and led by Teatown Lake Reservation.

Challenges: “It was tough not being able to have volunteers for water chestnut removals,” said crew leader Erin Carrus. The crew spent over a month and a half pulling this plant, often accompanied by mucky, sulfurous sediment, and lots of spiders, crayfish, and other “friends.” On the Watercraft Inspection Steward Program, crew member Kate Cooper noted that “it’s difficult to explain the importance of cleaning and inspecting a boat when some of these invaders can’t be easily seen, so boaters may not recognize it as an issue.” Aquatic plants can be easily transferred between water bodies by hiding inconspicuously on boat trailers, while smaller animals can even hitchhike in standing water that isn’t properly drained.

Accomplishments: The crew removed over 92,000 water chestnut plants at 11 sites. “We were slow in the beginning, but by the end of the removal season we learned how to be more efficient and pulled more plants than in previous years,” said crew member Conor Harrington. The crew has also completed 22 surveys for aquatic invasives, coming across new locations of emerging invaders like Brazilian elodea and European frog-bit. Crew member Elinor Stapylton is the resident expert on microscopy and has been instrumental in helping the crew identify zooplankton and phytoplankton, which is especially useful in detecting possible harmful algal blooms. “It’s been really fulfilling to be on the front lines collecting water samples and alerting managers about potential health hazards on a lake and protecting the public,” said Elinor.

Terrestrial Invasives Strike Force
Service Location: Lower Hudson Valley

The terrestrial ISF Crew surveys for, manages, and monitors invasive plants throughout the Lower Hudson Valley. However, they don’t typically manage the usual widespread offenders like Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and burning bush. As part of a regional strategy, they work with emerging invasive species that have recently arrived in the area with the goal of total eradication. One of these projects is managing sticky sage, which has only been reported a few times in the entire United States. The infestation spans over 100 acres, but with continued effort, the ISF Crew hopes to eradicate it. They are also involved with education and outreach. Their work is funded by the Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasives Species Management through the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

Challenges: Many of the ISF Crew projects are ongoing since it takes years to deplete the seedbanks of invasive plants. “One of the most challenging things is getting to a site with certain expectations and discovering the site is larger than we thought,” said project manager Ryan Goolic. “The crew has to be flexible and ready to change their plan every day.” The weather has also been problematic. “After the hurricane in August, there were downed trees on trails and throughout the treatment areas, making navigation and management difficult,” explained crew leader Devyani Mishra.

Accomplishments: So far this season, the ISF Crew completed 15 projects, surveying and managing just over 200 acres and removing nearly 35,000 plants! Crew member Katie Kearney takes photos before, during, and after management. She said it “feels great to see how different our management areas look at the end of the day. I know we’re making a tangible impact on the health of our forests.”

Trail Stewards

Trail Conference Trail Stewards have been bringing face-to-face user education and sustainable, on-the-ground solutions to some of the region’s most popular outdoor destinations since 2013. They are vital in protecting the ecological integrity of these special places being threatened by issues such as misuse and high usage.

Trail Stewards serving through the Trail Conference Conservation Corps have been in the field since June. They have been providing assistance and education at five locations: the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain State Park, Breakneck Ridge and Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, the Catskills, Croton Gorge Unique Area, and Minnewaska State Park Preserve. (New this season, the Minnewaska program is supported with funding from an NYS Park and Trail Partnership Grant and New York’s Environmental Protection Fund. Park and Trail Partnership Grants are administered by Parks & Trails New York in partnership with the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.)

At the end of the season, our Trail Stewards had already interacted with nearly 100,923 trail users. They have been recording notes on their experiences; find some of the highlights below and on Instagram at @tcconservationcorps.

Service Location: Catskills

JUNE 28 Giant Ledge, Catskills

"Today is my first time on Giant Ledge since training concluded. The weather is ideal and the view is beautiful. Despite all this, not all is perfect on Giant Ledge. On our hike, we dismantle several illegal fire rings and cover damaging social trails with brush. It is discouraging to see fragile places treated this way but it reminds me how much Stewards are needed here. We also assisted several hikers in finding the best trail to take."
Claire McMahon, Catskill Crew

JULY 17 Breakneck Ridge

"In previous says stewarding here, there have been very few people who didn't have enough provisions or proper equipment to hike Breakneck, and most of the work involved advising people which trails would give them the experience they wanted. There were people who were unprepared and resistant to advice, but they felt like rare exceptions. Not today.

Today, we had multiple people an hour who were wearing flip-flops, sandals, and in one case, dress shoes. They insisted they were fine or just walked past us. Even more troubling, there were many people who had little to no water who were looking to hike Breakneck. On a day with the temperature climbing above 90, that was a potentially deadly mistake.

People were mainly receptive to our insistence that they do not attempt the hike without water. I think the fact that they were drenched in sweat from the walk along the highway to the trailhead helped strengthen our argument. Later in the day, someone experienced heat exhaustion; we provided assistance. This was the day that outlined exactly how needed Stewards are at Breakneck."

- Ryan McClean, Hudson Valley Crew

JULY 18 Bear Mountain

"It was a beautiful day at Bear Mountain! It was quite amazing to see so many people: more than 1,000. It was remarkable to me the diversity in visitors to the park. Whether hiking or picnicking, there’s something for everyone! I’m really enjoying stewarding at Bear Mountain, if only for the fact that we are helping a lot of people engage in the outdoors for the first time. It is many people’s first hiking experience and to be able to help them have an enjoyable time is really rewarding for me. Any information was valuable to them, and I taught quite a few people how to read blazes. There were multiple groups that came to say thank you after their hike and all seemed eager to come back."

- Rosa Bledsoe, Hudson Valley Crew

AUG. 22 Minnewaska State Park Preserve

"Today was a great day on the trail. High traffic throughout the entire day from start to finish. My hike time seems to get less every time I venture my way to Gertrude’s Nose. On several occasions I passed large groups ready to brave the hike; I educated them on the rare plant species that live atop the Nose. Around 2 p.m. I heard the loud buzzing that is starting to haunt me in my sleep; I immediately ran over to the gentleman manning the drone before he even got lift on the device. I informed him that drone use is indeed prohibited in Minnewaska and he politely put it away.

The day went by quickly, and I chose to complete the entire loop (7.8 miles) back to the parking lot. On my way back, I encouraged each and every hiker who was taking a break to take a good break, because this is a more intense hike than most people (including myself) may initially realize. Intense equals rewarding to me when it comes to hiking, and I like to pass that message on to hikers: It’ll be worth it. And boy was it worth it!"

- Patrick Hunsberger, Catskill Crew

AUG. 30 Croton Gorge Unique Area

"Stewarding at the Croton Gorge Unique Area is truly a unique experience. The gentle flow of visitors allows for a genuine conversation to take place—a conversation about why the area is closed and how we aim to mitigate negative environmental impacts to this site in the future. The vibrant yellow police tape and glaring orange “CAUTION” signs stage this area almost as if it were a crime scene, and in reality, it is. The overuse and misuse of this resource is truly a crime, the Croton River being the victim. Seeing these symbols so closely associated with wrongdoing in our society integrated with the landscape of an area so well-loved often piques the interest of those passing by and creates an opportunity to teach. It is very rewarding to interact with individuals who are genuinely curious and willing to expand their environmental education. These long conversations about conservation and environmental degradation with residents and visitors is what gives me hope that the site will one day be able to return to its former glory."

- Sarah Dickinson, Hudson Valley Crew

Thanks to Our Supporters!

The 2020 Steward Program would not be possible without support from the following: