Trail Conference 2020 Look Back, 2021 Look Ahead
In March, life as we knew it changed for the greater New York metropolitan area. The pandemic created unprecedented circumstances and challenges for the trails and our service community. As the world grappled with a new reality, we closed our headquarters and decided to put safety first, suspending all volunteer activities from March to May and delaying our Conservation Corps season until June. All this at the same time trails began to face record-high use with millions of people seeking respite in the outdoors.
Despite these challenges, our Trail Conference community demonstrated resilience. We had many great successes this year.
- Engagement Program
- Trail Program
- Ecological Stewardship Program
- Trail Steward Program
In response to shutdowns, our staff and volunteers launched a new digital engagement initiative and created a series of educational webinars and pre-recorded content to engage our community. Our volunteer leaders demonstrated flexibility and leadership as they adjusted their plans for the season and kept their teams informed during the quarantine. Some volunteer leaders hosted online get-togethers with their teams, and one trail crew, the Trail Tramps, even held weekly meetings over Zoom to keep their crew’s culture and project-planning alive during the hiatus. Our volunteer committees also continued to hold meetings over Zoom and worked on projects from home.
We saw a tremendous response to our online volunteer training, so when we resumed individual volunteer activities in May, many newly trained volunteers were able to quickly start their positions. Volunteer leaders who were comfortable took the new trail maintainers and corridor monitors on walkthroughs, and our new Invasives Strike Force surveyors completed their first assignments. Our Conservation Corps Stewards also trained a new team of volunteer Stewards for Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock state parks.
In mid-June, we reinstated limited group activities, and our volunteer crews began their projects for the season, including our new volunteer Invasives Strike Force Crew in New Jersey. Our crew leaders took on the added responsibility of enforcing our COVID-19 safety protocols to mitigate risk on work trips. When our sawyers and swampers returned to the trails, they met the challenge of clearing blowdowns following the damaging Tropical Storm Isaias.
Trail Conference staff were unsure if a Trail Conference Conservation Corps (TCCC) season was even possible. We put many additional safety measures in place, and with the enthusiastic support of our members, decided that a 2020 season would go on. Despite many obstacles, it was our largest Corps season to date, with 39 members serving in local parks. Our members not only did amazing work, they also brought amazing personalities and enthusiasm to the organization. The individual Corps crews created some of the strongest bonds we have ever seen. While their achievements speak for themselves, a true shining light is the unwavering excitement for the work, the mission of the Trail Conference, and each other. Wherever their trails take them, we are certain their careers will be as great and dynamic as they are.
Our volunteers and Corps faced this year’s challenges with determination and provided inspiration and hope during a time when we all needed it.
As we look back on the successes we’ve had in improving access to the outdoors in 2020, we look forward to 2021 and the ways we can use what we have learned to become a stronger, more impactful organization. Whatever the new year brings, we’re excited to continue this journey with you, and grateful to have you along with us.
The suspension of in-person events enabled us to explore digital options for volunteer engagement and training.
- Our staff and volunteers have held over 45 webinars since April. Since in-person trainings and events remain suspended, we put together a program that includes Volunteer Skills Trainings, General Skills Trainings, and Trail Talks. Our volunteer instructors have dedicated over 100 hours to creating and presenting content.
- Even though we were not able to have volunteers in the field with Corps Crews due to COVID-19 restrictions, Corps members were still able to engage with the public and Trail Conference volunteers by putting on informational webinars. This was the first time the Corps members hosted their own webinars, and they did a great job showing the skills they had acquired over the season.
- So far, our webinars have yielded 1,500-plus participants. Over 600 people have dedicated over 1,000 service hours attending our digital volunteer trainings.
- Through our Digital Engagement Initiative, so far we have placed 121 new trail maintainers and corridor monitors and 107 new Invasives Strike Force surveyors. See the accomplishments of our Trail, Ecological Stewardship, and Trail Steward programs.
- This initiative resulted in a new Online Learning Library that provides volunteers, members, and the public with on-demand educational videos. Our recorded webinars have received more than 5,000 views on YouTube.
- We started a Continuing Education Series for the Conservation Corps. Members could participate in eight seminars on topics such as leadership, cartography, basic plant ID, and ornithology.
- Our Ecological Stewardship team created a prerecorded educational video series as a resource for our community to learn how to identify native and invasive plant species in the region. Our Species Spotlight, Field Identification, and EcoQuest Challenge content have received over 7,350 views.
- Our committee volunteers have been meeting virtually since March and have contributed 2,150 hours so far this year.
2020 has been a big year for recruitment:
- Our trail volunteer leaders have assigned 261 trail maintainers, corridor monitors, and shelter caretakers to 310 trail sections and shelters. Compared to 2019, we have already assigned 60 more volunteers to 88 more trail sections and shelters. At least 47 more volunteers are currently in the process of being placed.
- Of these new trail volunteers, 42 new trail maintainers and 12 new shelter caretakers were placed in the Catskills, dramatically decreasing regional vacancies from 63% to 5.4%. To learn more about this year’s successes in the Catskills and those who contributed to these efforts here.
- The Invasives Strike Force also set new program recruitment numbers in 2020. Out of the 175 individual survey volunteers in 2020, 107 of these surveyors were new to the program.
- We completed our largest Conservation Corps season to date, with 39 AmeriCorps members serving parks throughout the region. We hosted a Career Development Day where the TCCC and our partners MEVO and Rockland Conservation & Service Corps came together to hear from a dynamic panel on the best way to turn their time this past season into a career. There were over 100 individuals in attendance.
- Once we resumed individual activities, our trail volunteers worked hard to maintain and clean up the trails after months of high use. From mid-May to July, our trail volunteers contributed 12,192 hours to trail maintenance.
- Our trail crews faced limitations in group size but still managed to complete major projects. Trail crew volunteers dedicated 1,956 hours from mid-May to July.
- The Trail Tramps performed substantial maintenance to the 12-mile Briarcliff-Peekskill Trailway, clearing and blazing the entirety of the trail as needed to increase accessibility.
- The West Hudson South Crew constructed new steps at the Stony Point State Park Lighthouse. Read more about the project.
- The West Jersey Trail Crew built a 120-foot floating walkway over a difficult crossing on the Terrace Pond Circular Trail in Wawayanda State Park.
- The Long Path Trail Crew, with assistance from the Long Distance Trails Crew, removed more than 300 blowdowns from the Long Path this season.
- The Long Distance Trails Crew has continued their work on the technical Upper Nyack Trail relocation at Hook Mountain, providing a durable and scenic new route for the Long Path. They constructed 2,000 feet of new, sustainable trail this season.
- Harriman State Park, based on a design from crew member Erik Garnjost. The steel cables were installed to hopefully discourage bears from searching for food in this popular backpacking spot.
- Sawyers and swampers worked hard every week following Tropical Storm Isaias to remove hundreds of blowdowns across the region.
- North Jersey volunteers Nick McKenna, Keith Scherer, Chris Connolly, Tara Spear, and Mike Bousquet led the effort to clarify trail networks in Ringwood State Park, Ramapo Mountain State Forest, Abram S. Hewitt State Forest, Wawayanda State Park, Norvin Green State Forest, and Long Pond Ironworks State Park by reblazing trails. In partnership with local park partners, they combined shorter trail segments into larger, coherent loop hikes to greatly enhance the visitor experience.
The 2020 TCCC Taconic Crew continued work started by the 2019 crew on the Washburn Trail in Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve. This project involved substantial trail improvements along a one-third mile stretch of trail leading up from the old quarry to the Cold Spring overlook. This section of trail had become extremely eroded with poor trail tread definition, in part due to very high traffic volumes.
The 2020 crew completed 4,050 service hours and installed 41 new stone stairs and 135 square feet of crib wall. The crew also began the installation of a large culvert across the main gully that runs alongside the quarry. Due to concerns about sensitive habitats and limited suitable rock for building, the crew drilled and split almost all of the stair and wall pieces on their own and then transported these pieces using a highline system set up with an aluminum tripod. This allowed the rocks to be transported significant distances across the site without causing disruption to the surrounding area.
One of the highlights of the year was the installation of a viewing platform at the edge of the quarry, allowing hikers to safely take in the beautiful views of the Hudson River and Storm King Mountain. The crew received many thanks and compliments from hikers who commented on how much more pleasant an experience it is hiking up the new trail.
The crew faced several challenges, including a truncated season and the added precautions required to safely build and transport materials on a site with high visitor numbers. (On one of the busiest days, 1,900 people came through the trailhead.) Nevertheless, the crew completed their goal of opening this new stretch of trail to the public before the end of the season.
The Harriman Crew consisted of four TCCC members. This crew began work on a new trail improvement project in Harriman State Park on the historic Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail. This trail is very popular with hikers and backpackers, in part due to the trailhead’s proximity to the Tuxedo train station. The crew focused on repairing and improving previously installed stone stairs, as well as adding in new stone staircases in areas of need. Most notably, they began construction of a welcoming new stairway at the entrance to the trail and added a staircase up a particularly steep section that was starting to erode.
In total, 843 service hours were worked at this site with 37 new stone stairs added and six stairs repaired. The crew also worked to block off social paths to better define the trail and closed off 150 feet of informal pathways. The crew utilized a variety of tools to complete this work, including extensive use of grip hoists to pull a suitable stone from the surrounding area.
The Palisades Crew consisted of three TCCC members working in Sterling Forest State Park along the McKeags Meadow Trail. Significant work has been put into building a network of multi-use trails in this park over the past few years, and this year’s crew contributed to the efforts.
On this site, 1,474 service hours were worked. By season’s end, the crew had constructed 805 feet of rerouted trail, built 75 feet of the causeway, and constructed 150 square feet of crib wall. The crew began the season on the McKeags Meadow Trail, working on rerouting a section close to the Laurel Meadow Pond trailhead to make the trail more friendly to mountain bikers. This work consisted primarily of bench cutting the new route and creating climbing turns to cut out a steep climb and keep grades suitable for hikers and bikers.
Later, the crew moved their work farther north along the trail and began construction on a section that will eventually connect the McKeags Meadow loop to the nearby Augusta Trail. Once the ground was broken on this section, the crew faced the challenge of installing an extensive amount of crib wall and creating a large amount of crushed rock to act as fill for these cribbed sections. This was compounded by having a smaller crew working onsite than was originally anticipated. Despite the challenges, excellent progress was made on the trail this year, and when fully opened, the loop is sure to be an enjoyable ride for the local mountain biking community
Despite a shortened field season and continually shifting COVID restrictions, there were many program successes to celebrate in 2020. It was a record-setting year for our Invasives Strike Force (ISF) survey program in almost every major metric category, including total survey completion number and rate (193 and 88%, respectively), volunteer survey hours dedicated (1,686), and miles of trail surveyed (350). Thirty-three Habitat Helper volunteers, including 25 new recruits to the program, dedicated over 330 hours to maintaining the native gardens outside of Trail Conference Headquarters, helping to ensure the grounds look better than ever! Nineteen volunteers and four interns devoted over 450 hours to a variety of different online projects, including database programming, website updating, citizen science data curation, and invasive species research. These “behind-the-scenes” efforts are critical to our program’s success and highlight the dedication and versatility of our volunteers.
Our Invasives Strike Force Conservation Corps Crew successfully managed, and in some cases fully eradicated, many high-priority, emerging invasive populations at multiple project sites in 2020, including those first detected in previous years by surveyors, such as the invasive kudzu vine and invasive shrub, Siebold’s viburnum. We even expanded our ISF Crew program to include the first-ever, volunteer-led ISF Crew team in New Jersey led by volunteer, Rich Rockwell, who helped organize seven workdays in various parks in the Garden State. This is a big step for our program to expand our reach to natural areas and parks in New Jersey. Over the entire season, the ISF Crew completed 25 management projects spanning 270 acres and removed nearly 40,000 plants!
Early detection and rapid response was also a key theme in 2020 for our Aquatic ISF Crew, whose lake survey work throughout our region have helped identify pristine lakes that have not yet been overtaken by invasive species. Their removal efforts have helped keep waters accessible and navigable by recreational users. In 2020, the AISF Crew spoke to 878 members of the public and inspected nearly 600 boats for invasive hitchhikers at four sites along the Hudson River, with 83% of boaters committing to continue Clean, Drain, Dry practices on their own. The crew also spent 19 days removing invasive plants, including over 91,000 water chestnut plants at 12 sites, as well as removing Eurasian watermilfoil and water hyacinth at these same sites. They completed 37 surveys over 2,600 acres in state parks, county parks, and private lakes, reporting just over 2,000 observations in iMapInvasives.
The Conservation Dogs Program added three new invasive species to the dogs’ search list in 2020: oak wilt, sticky sage, and kudzu. These are all species that are not yet common in our region’s natural areas, so early detection by the dogs, followed by rapid response removal efforts by our ISF Crew, can be carried out with the possible goal of full eradication at our target sites. It is these synergistic connections between our various programs and our focused efforts in inspiring a sense of shared responsibility for environmental protection that will continue to drive our Ecological Stewardship Program into 2021 and beyond.
For nearly a decade, the Trail Conference has joined with land managers and local partners to provide training, management, and oversight to several Trail Steward programs at multiple trailheads and summits in New Jersey and New York. Trail Stewards help to protect the trails, the environment, the visitor experience, and the local communities—an absolutely vital job in 2020 as more people than ever before began to explore trails throughout the region.
Trail Conference Volunteer Stewards and Stewards working for other environmental organizations trained by the Trail Conference provide Steward presence in Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, Fahnestock State Park, the Ashokan Rail Trail, and several NJ DEP parks. The visitor count at the Ashokan Rail Trail from January to October was more than 225,000 people.
The Trail Conference Conservation Corps Trail Steward Program trained 14 AmeriCorps members to serve in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in 2020. Locations included Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, Fahnestock State Park, the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain State Park, the Croton Gorge Unique Area at the Old Croton Aqueduct, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, the Sam’s Point area of Minnewaska, and several summits in the Catskills. From June to October, Corps Stewards engaged 100,923 trail users. They are key in protecting the ecological integrity of these special places being threatened by issues such as misuse and high usage.
The Trail Conference will continue to expand our role as the leading caretaker of trails and natural areas in the region. Through user education, public participation, and sustainable, on-the-ground solutions, we will keep striving to inspire the next generation of trail users to become champions of the outdoors.
In 2021, we plan to:
- Empower the public to safely enjoy trails and understand their impact on natural areas. In 2020, our Conservation Corps Trail Stewards engaged more than 100,000 people at some of the most popular trailheads and summits throughout the region. As leaders in assisting trail users, our outreach and education programs will continue to be results-oriented.
- Build, repair, and care for beloved trails, new and old. In our hearts, we will always be trail builders. From restoring the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail in Harriman State Park—the first trail built by our organization—to collaborating with mountain-biking groups to revitalize the Jungle Habitat trail network in West Milford, N.J., we are committed to building and maintaining safe, sustainable trail experiences.
- Collect data to motivate state officials to increase investments in outdoor space. We will provide the public and our partners with the necessary expertise to defend our trail lands from threats such as ecological degradation due to high usage and the spread of destructive invasive species.
- Address challenges facing trails and equitable access to public lands by collaborating with and convening stakeholders. Serving on coalitions such as Governor Cuomo’s Catskill Park High-Use Advisory Group and the New York Outdoor Recreation Coalition, we will address issues such as overcrowding at trailheads and obstacles to diversity outdoors.
- Recruit, train, and support volunteers and Corps members who work to protect natural areas and provide access to the outdoors.
- With the launch of our digital engagement platform this spring, we have been able to recruit and train more new volunteers than ever before. Working off this momentum, we will continue to enhance training and growth opportunities, both in-person and online. By prioritizing recruitment and onboarding of volunteer leadership positions, we will work on filling vacancies in these important roles.
As we move into 2021, our Ecological Stewardship programs will add an additional emphasis on ecological restoration and native plant reintroduction. For example, with the help of volunteers from our Habitat Helpers Crew, we have begun the process of growing native plants to be introduced into strategically targeted natural areas in 2021. Further highlighting this focal shift towards restoration, we will also begin conducting vegetation surveys on former Conservation Corps crew worksites in an effort to more closely monitor the ecological recovery process. These new efforts will truly allow us not only to identify, report, and remove invasive species, but also to restore sites to diverse native habitats.
We will also continue to strategically target less common, emerging invasive species with our survey, Corps crews, and Conservation Dogs teams in 2021, with the latter focusing on early detection of spotted lanternfly, an ecologically and economically destructive invasive insect pest that was recently discovered in multiple locations in New York State. In addition to leading these initiatives, we have also been supporting the development of New York’s state-wide data modeling tool that will help identify focus areas for management and aim to maximize organizational and partner resource efficiency. The results of that modeling tool are expected to be available this winter and we look forward to using these results to help guide our 2021 invasive species management.