Our Trail Builder Goes to Washington

By Ama Koenigshof, Trail Builder and Educator

Ama lobbying in DC

In February, Ama went to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives and talk about the importance of trails.

It’s early February, which means most of my trail work is taking place indoors. Currently, I’m on the train heading to Washington, D.C., for the Corps Network National Conference and Hike the Hill, an effort by the American Hiking Society and the Partnership for the National Trails System to give environment-minded folks access to members of Congress and land management agency officials to advocate for trails.

At the Corps Network National Conference, I’m representing the Trail Conference and the Trail Conference Conservation Corps by giving a talk on our unique model of mobilizing volunteers. It’s six action-packed days of presentations, workshops, networking, meetings, and inspiration alongside the staff and partner agencies of conservation and service corps from all around the country.

For the second year in a row, I’m taking advantage of my time in D.C. to also educate our senators and members of Congress about the Trail Conference during Hike the Hill. For a person who “teaches people how to stack rocks” for a living, meeting with our U.S. representatives can be a daunting task. What do I talk to them about? How do I convey the importance of what we are doing on the ground in a way that they can relate to? How do I inspire them to vote in ways that will positively affect our organization? What do I wear?

Thankfully, I have some help. I’m working with Karen Lutz, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, to schedule our Hike the Hill meetings together as much as possible. Both the Corps Network and Hike the Hill provide participants with talking points and information on relevant legislation and appropriations. Since December, I’ve been studying a spreadsheet I made on the senators and members of Congress who represent regions the Trail Conference covers. The sheet includes info on their districts, what committees they are part of, and what causes they stand for. Before I left for D.C., I met with Trail Conference staff to get up to speed on the hot topics in our regions, made packets for each U.S. representative—including relevant reports and trail maps—and picked out what I was going to wear. (I left the suit coat at home this time in favor of comfortable and professional-looking dresses.)

My first meeting this year is with a staff member from New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez’s office. I look over my spreadsheet and talking points and arrive no more than five minutes early—after factoring in the time it will take to get through security at the Senate Hart Office Building, meet up with Karen, and navigate back staircases and strings of people in suits to find the Senator’s office. Karen is a Capitol Hill pro, so I let her talk first and learn from her expertise. We keep everything short and to the point. I tell stories about all the wonderful work we are doing in New Jersey, give statistics, and share the legislation and appropriations that affect us. I ask for support of the Public Lands Service Corps Act, which expands the authorization of the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior to provide service opportunities for young Americans, thereby promoting our Conservation Corps. Karen asks for support of the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides funding for the protection of land and water conservation projects, outdoor recreation access, and the continued preservation of our nation’s historic, cultural, and iconic landmarks. The staff member seems fairly engaged; we thank him for his time and leave. Once I am back in the quiet, sun-filled hallway, I take a deep breath and head to the next meeting.

Learn more about the Trail Conference’s advocacy and conservation efforts on our website.

Posted in AmeriCorps, Conservation Corps, New Jersey Trails, New York Trails, Profile, Trails | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advocacy, Lobbying, and a Call to Action in New Jersey

By Adam Page Taylor, Trail Conference Volunteer

Say "no" to pipelines that create a severe negative impact on local trails.

You can make a difference! Say “no” to pipelines that create a severe negative impact on local trails. (Photo credit: NorthJersey Pipleine Walkers via the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline)

On Jan. 11, my volunteer work for the Trail Conference led me to Trenton. The flags atop the State House snapped briskly as I walked up to the building’s front entrance. Members of the carpenters union, most clad in neon T-shirts pulled over hooded sweatshirts, had assembled and were milling about to stay warm. New Jersey Education Association members walked by, displaying pins of support for various issues affecting our schools. Despite having been a volunteer for the Trail Conference for the past six months, this way of supporting trails was entirely new to me.

Last fall, I was volunteering at Trail Conference Headquarters a few times a week, assisting the Invasives Strike Force with GIS mapping. One afternoon in mid-December I began talking to Peter Dolan, New Jersey Program Coordinator, about the Pilgrim Pipeline and its potential impact on a number of trail sections overseen by the Trail Conference. The proposed project involves two parallel pipelines, each 178 miles long, sending Bakken shale oil and refined products such as kerosene between Albany and Linden, N.J. It quickly became clear that there was plenty of advocacy work to be done, and a need for volunteers to assist with this critical endeavor.

Why? Because my voice matters. I tend to think advocacy, in very simple terms, consists of sharing and listening. One shares his passions and reasons for supporting or opposing a cause with individuals who agree or disagree with his view. Actively listening to their responses provides insight into how to potentially win them over, or realizing their stance is absolute, and your energies are better utilized elsewhere. Just as important is actively listening to the responses of your supporters and learning how to be more effective in communicating your message to those who share your goals. Having just started work on my master’s degree in sustainability studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey and with 15 years of event management experience under my belt, I pledged to help the Trail Conference by encouraging others to take action in what they believe is just for trails and organizations that maintain and protect them.

A few days into 2016, I received an e-mail from Peter introducing me to New Jersey Bill A4197, which would authorize spending of the open space funding N.J. voters approved in November 2014. The State Senate had voted unanimously to approve the bill, and State Assembly approval would be a critical step in obtaining the promised funding, which would benefit groups that support open space preservation efforts throughout New Jersey—groups like the Trail Conference.

Two days, later I was participating in a discussion with members of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition about how to best mobilize our supporters and help secure passage of the bill. We talked about how to improve our communication about advocacy issues to our members and how to encourage members to respond to “calls for action” when necessary, whether that be writing letters, picking up the phone, or showing up at an event in-person. I admire this attitude; I feel it’s critical for any organization to be consistently evaluating, refining, and strengthening the communication it has with its members. The Trail Conference must listen to what is important to its members while also sharing what is important to the organization.

With a call to action in place for Bill A4197, we assembled in Trenton on that brisk day in mid-January, encouraging members of the Assembly to pass the bill as they entered the State House floor. The bill was indeed passed by the Assembly, but Governor Chris Christie pocket-vetoed it the following week.

As Bill S969, the open space funding was again approved with strong bipartisan support by the Senate on March 14. Now known as Bill A780, it must receive Assembly Appropriations Committee approval before moving to the Assembly Floor for a vote. It will then be sent to the Governor’s office for signature. The Trail Conference’s work on the issue will continue until these voter-mandated funds have been distributed.

It was a trails advocacy issue—the Pilgrim Pipeline—that sparked my interest in helping the Trail Conference’s conservation efforts, and within a month I found myself lobbying at the state capital on behalf of the organization. It’s more important than ever to ensure that the interests of the Trail Conference and its members are represented on both a local and state level. When done with righteous intention, at the end of the day, both advocacy and lobbying efforts are about speaking up for what you believe in. Call yourself an advocate, call yourself a lobbyist, call yourself someone who believes in something so deeply that you take action.

Get involved, make a difference! Here’s how you can help our advocacy efforts:

Posted in New Jersey Trails, New York Trails, Profile, Trails, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ask a Trail Builder: Understanding Grade Reversals

Erik Mickelson headshotBy Erik Mickelson, Field Manager

The trail I maintain has issues with water channeling down the tread. What can be done to fix this?

It sounds like your trail has a lack of grade reversals. A “grade reversal” is not what happens when trail builders reduce the quality of their work by playing too many video games instead of studying for that test on bog-bridging. A grade reversal literally refers to a reversing, or changing the grade of a trail—going downhill to uphill, and then back downhill again (or vice-versa). In one word, a grade reversal is all about drainage.

Ideally, when you lay out a trail, grade reversals are built in. Just how frequent these reversals occur is a subject of debate, and I won’t try to answer that here, but I will talk about two types of post-hoc, or post-construction, add-on grade reversals: grade dips and rolling grade dips. The idea of both reversals is to shed water off the trail before a rill (a shallow channel cut into the soil by erosion) becomes a gully, and the trail washes into, or becomes, a stream.

A grade dip is the construction of a depression in the prevailing, or running, grade.

grade reversalsA rolling grade dip involves a grade dip as well as a “speed bump” of soil piled up on the downhill side of the dip. Ramp heights should be kept close to dip depths.

Grade dips with a half-circle shape are called “knicks.”

knickRather than abrupt channels, grade reversals should be soft and smooth undulations that are almost unnoticeable while walking through them. Of course, achieving this is often easier said than done here in the rocky Northeast, where dips may be more practical than rolling grade dips. It’s important to also note that when grades start to exceed 15 percent, dips alone are more practical, as rolling grade dip ramps will only increase the steepness of the trail.

If grade reversals are built on side-hilled trails, the outflow can drain down the mountain. If the outflow is steeper than 15 percent, there’s a good chance it will be self-cleaning. Otherwise, like most after-the-fact drains, they’ll have to be monitored and cleared of debris. If there are large volumes of water exiting the drain, and/or grades exceed 25 percent, then adding some rip-rap (rock) to the outflow will help reduce the chances of the outflow eroding. For non-side hill trails, a channel and/or pit or sump can be added to the outflow so drainage water has a place to collect or disperse away from the trail.

Want to learn more about trail building? Sign up for a Trail University workshop!

Posted in Hikes, New Jersey Trails, New Trail, New York Trails, Science, Trail U, Trails, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lobby Days: Promoting the Importance of Trails

Trail Conference staff and volunteers annually attend lobby days in the New York capitol to speak with elected officials about issues that affect our work and mission, such as funding for the Environmental Protection Fund and the Catskill Park. You can find recaps of two of our recent visits below. We’ll be posting updates on the legislature’s final votes on these important initiatives at nynjtc.org.

Catskill Park Awareness Day
By Doug Senterman, Catskills Program Coordinator

Catskill Park Awareness Day 2016

The Catskill Park Coalition received an official proclamation from the State Assembly honoring Catskill Park Awareness Day.

On Feb. 9, organizations and individuals from around the Catskills traveled to Albany to speak with elected officials for Catskill Park Awareness Day. Created to help secure funding to build a modern Catskill Park, the day is organized by the Catskill Park Coalition (CPC). The Trail Conference is a founding member of the Coalition and sits on its steering committee, which decides the group’s priorities for each year:

2016 Catskill Park Awareness Day Requests
• Support for a $300M Environmental Protection Fund
• Creation of a $4M line item in the EPF for the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve
• Creation of a Catskills line item in the DEC Aid to Localities budget of $500K
• NYS DEC Forest Ranger and Division of Lands & Forests support
• Catskill Interpretive Center improvements and support
• Priority land acquisition
• Support for park stewardship programs

Catskill Park Awareness Day 2016

Trail Conference staff and volunteers joined other environmental groups to meet with New York State elected officials, such as Sen. George Amedore Jr., second from right,  during Catskill Park Awareness Day.

A number of Trail Conference staff and volunteers assembled for this year’s Catskill Park Awareness Day, meeting with 47 representatives from Niagara Falls to Montauk, including legislators from every part of the Catskills region. We also had the opportunity to speak with members of every important committee related to the Catskills, from Environmental Conservation to Agriculture to Small Business Development.

As a result of our in-person efforts, the Coalition received an official proclamation from the State Assembly honoring Catskill Park Awareness Day. Thanks to everyone’s enthusiasm, a letter was circulated by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther—before our morning meetings had even concluded—in support of our request for a permanent line item in the NYS Environmental Protection Fund.

On March 11, news broke that the Senate Democratic Conference had included our request for a $4 million line for the Catskills in the Environmental Protection Fund in their budget priority letters to the Senate majority leader. One day later, the State Assembly put its full support behind the $4 million Catskills budget. This was a monumental step towards securing the 2016 funds needed to start building a modern Catskill Park.

We now need to ask representatives in the Senate and Governor Andrew Cuomo to include an ongoing $4 million budget line for the Catskill Park in a fully-funded Environmental Protection Fund budget. How you can help:

• Use this email form, provided by our Catskill Park Coalition partner, Catskill Mountainkeeper, to ask your State Senator for support.
• Tell Governor Cuomo to support the Catskills budget. Call 518-474-8390 or use this email form.
• Thank the Assembly and Senate Democrats for including this critical funding in their budget proposals.

We’ll keep you posted about NYS budget negotiations at nynjtc.org. To find out more about the Catskill Park Coalition, including how you can get involved in promoting the Catskills year-round, visit catskillparkcoalition.org.

EPF Lobby Day
By Sona Mason, West Hudson Program Coordinator and John Leigh, Volunteer Coordinator

Trail Conference staff and volunteers met with New York State representatives to advocate for open space during the EPF Lobby Day.

Trail Conference staff and volunteers and several other environmental groups met with New York State representatives such as Sen. George Latimer, far right, to advocate for open space during the EPF Lobby Day.

Every winter, staff and volunteers from the Trail Conference travel to Albany with several other environmental groups to meet with elected officials and ask for their support in funding the New York State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). The EPF pays for programs that protect open space and parks, enhance trails, and more, so it’s important that the Trail Conference be an active participant on EPF Lobby Day, organized by We Love New York and The Nature Conservancy. Luckily, we went to Albany this year with one influential politician already on our side: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In January, Cuomo announced his commitment to funding a $300M EPF—the highest in state history and more than double what we’ve seen since 2011—in his executive budget. Our job on EPF Lobby Day was to convince representatives to back the Governor’s proposal.

Lobby days in Albany are surprisingly genial, with most legislators happy to meet with us (and perhaps relieved to find a friendly crowd). During our visit on Feb. 24, several elected officials expressed intimate knowledge of their districts and a passion for protecting the environment. They demonstrated their support for our concerns, and most were, in fact, already supportive of the EPF.

For more information about the EPF, including how the EPF has benefitted each county throughout the state, visit keepprotectingny.com.

Posted in Catskill Region Trail News, New York Trails, Trails, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where, When to Find the Rare Bloodroot

By Mike Adamovic, Trail Conference volunteer

Bloodroot. Photo credit: Mike Adamovic

Bloodroot, featuring ivory petals surrounding a bright, golden center, is one of the earliest wildflowers to be awakened each spring. (Photo credit: Mike Adamovic)

Quickly after the last of the winter snow has dissipated and a flattened, tawny earth emerges to greet the first rays of the spring sun, certain streamsides and other moist areas throughout our region find themselves covered once more with a dense layer of white. This time the cloak originates from beneath the newly warmed ground, rather than the upper reaches of the chilled atmosphere. Bloodroot (Saanguinaria canadensis) is an uncommon spring ephemeral whose ivory petals surround a bright, golden center. It’s one of the earliest wildflowers to be awakened by even the most minimal of April heat, eager to bask in the untapped reserve of sunshine now flooding every nook and cranny of the understory.

As the name implies, these plants do indeed possess crimson roots. Moreover, this species bleeds the same as any injured animal. A broken leaf or stem will cause the plant to exude a fluid alarmingly similar to blood. It stains anything it touches, and has been used in years past as a dye by both Native Americans and colonists.

Additionally, root extracts have historically been used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from cancer to lung disease to sore throats. And up until recently, it was even employed as an ingredient in Viadent toothpaste to combat gum disease and the build-up of plaque. At the moment, though, the efficacy of bloodroot on anything health related is dubious at best. Numerous sources relate that the root is toxic, and even coming in contact with its juices can cause dermatitis, similarly to poison ivy. It’s hard to believe it was ever consumed—the root’s taste is so acrid that a minor quantity can induce vomiting. Some concoctions were once made more palatable by adding copious quantities of sugar. This is probably one plant that should be appreciated by sight alone.

When it comes to habitat, these plants prefer moist, rich soils, having an inclination to grow along gently sloping banks. More often than not, they will be found along some type of water body, be it a river, lake, or even a temporary rivulet born of snowmelt. While one of the loveliest flowers of the early spring, it also lives up to the category of wildflowers it’s grouped into exceedingly well (spring ephemerals). Trying to locate an intact specimen requires razor-sharp precision, time-wise. With flowers usually lasting no more than a few days, it certainly is imbued with a fleeting nature. Plants will only produce a single blossom, which once lost, will not attain another until the following spring. Typical bloom dates are from mid-April to early May.

Like many other spring ephemerals, bloodroot uses ants as a means of seed dispersal, a technique known as myrmecochory. Each tiny seed is equipped with a lipid-rich appendage called an elaiosome. This tempting morsel entices ants to transport the seed back to their nest where they remove the elaiosome and discard the seed body in waste pits that provide an enriched medium for growth. In this way, bloodroot is able to colonize new locales away from the parent plant and ensure optimal germination.

Usually found in small groups or clusters, large colonies can develop, containing in excess of several hundred individuals, the result of vegetative propagation, another form of reproduction which produces clones by extension of the rhizomes, or roots.

With bloodroot awakening much sooner than other plants, the large blossoms, as well as the glaucous, almost succulent leaves, create a striking scene among the withered foliage and broken stems of last year’s growth. A particularly large, showy grove is easily spotted at a considerable distance and visually eclipses other ephemeral populations that attain a similar size. There’s something entrancing and fairy-like in the demeanor of these uncommon flowers, with their unique ability to pop up seemingly overnight, transforming the landscape like magic. Such vigor and color contrasts greatly with the bleak debris that surrounds, creating an image of surpassing beauty that’s sure to be emblazoned in memory and sought out year after year.

Mike Adamovic works at One Nature, LLC and also manages his photography business, Adamovic Nature Photography.

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Improving the Long Swamp Trail, One Hike at a Time

Eagle Scout could earn another prestigious Hornaday Conservation Award for his efforts combating invasive species in Sterling Forest

By Zachary Kunow, Trail Conference volunteer

Zack, his troop, friends, and family have all pitched in to improve the Long Swamp Trail.

Zack, his troop, friends, and family have all pitched in to improve the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

I am a 16-year-old Eagle Scout with Boy Scout Troop 21 of Suffern, N.Y., and have been a member of the Trail Conference for the last three years. My Eagle project was to build a 60-foot bridge over a stream on the Long Swamp Trail, a 3.2-mile loop in Sterling Forest State Park. As a result, you can now hike the Long Swamp Trail year-round, not just when the stream is frozen over.

This was a great project, and I really enjoyed working on it—so much, in fact, that my troop and I adopted the trail and have been maintaining it for the last two years. The troop takes at least four hikes on the Long Swamp Trail each year, and my family and friends hike it many other times as well. I’ve noticed that after all the improvements to the trail, its popularity and usage has increased significantly.

Bridge on the Long Swamp Trail (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

The bridge Zack and his crew built on the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

Since completing the bridge, I have set my sights on earning the Hornaday Conservation Award, one of the many awards you can earn even after you’ve attained Eagle, the highest rank in Boy Scouts. This is a very prestigious award—each medal is only earned by approximately a dozen scouts per year. And I am now one of those scouts!

One of the duck boxes Zack constructed. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

One of the duck boxes Zack constructed. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

There are three levels to the Hornaday Conservation Award. The first level is the Hornaday Badge, which requires the completion of one conservation project. The project must be equivalent to, or can even be, your Eagle project; I worked on a recycling project to earn the Badge. The next level of the Award is the Bronze Medal. This requires three conservation projects in different categories. My recycling project, Eagle project, and a third project making wood duck boxes that were positioned in key areas of Sterling Forest have earned me the Hornaday Bronze Medal.

The Gold Medal is the highest conservation award that can be earned in Scouting. To earn this medal, a fourth project in yet another area of conservation must be completed. In considering another project, I looked to the Trail Conference. I knew that the Trail Conference had an Invasives Strike Force headed by Dr. Linda Rohleder, and I decided to reach out to her to discuss a project on the Long Swamp Trail involving invasives. In partnership with park officials, we agreed on a plan to remove six invasive species: Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, wineberry, Oriental bittersweet, garlic mustard, and Japanese stiltgrass. I would lead the project; work would be completed with the help of my troop, family, and friends.

Invasives are crowding out many native plants and are changing the landscape in Sterling Forest. Japanese barberry and multiflora rose are becoming more and more prevalent in the park and on the Long Swamp Trail, which is one of the main reasons why I chose to work on invasive species. To tackle this project, I set up a workshop with Dr. Rohleder to train my troop on the identification and proper removal of these invaders. During our training session, Dr. Rohleder provided me with descriptions and pictures of each species so they could be properly identified on the trail. I laminated these identification guides so they could be reused each time we went on a hike. These turned out to be very helpful—there were times when the first person on one of our hikes missed a plant, but one of the other spotters would see it. (We found that there were “missed” invasives almost every time we went on a hike.)

I planned to have several hikes in the spring and fall so that we could identify as many invasives as possible. Garlic mustard is best seen in the spring when it is flowering. Japanese stiltgrass is easiest to identify in the summer as it gets taller. I found it easier to identify the other invasives after “leaf-out.” It was even easier later in the summer when plants were mature and sometimes flowering.

Zack and his team removed invasives along the Long Swamp Trail. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

Zack’s invasives team made five trips along the Long Swamp Trail, removing 250 Japanese barberry, 125 multiflora rose, 35 wineberry, 25 Oriental bittersweet, two large patches of garlic mustard, and many patches of Japanese stiltgrass. (Photo contributed by Zachary Kunow)

The initial plan was to walk the trail and identify each invasive sighting, capturing the GPS coordinates, then go back to the locations at a later date and remove the plants. We soon discovered that it was easier to remove the invasives as we identified them. Once removed, these plants were placed on rocks or hung in trees so that they could dry out and die. This way, we wouldn’t contaminate another area by taking the invasives outside of the park.

In total, my invasives team went on two hikes in the spring and three in the fall. We used several different tools for the invasives removal, including ratcheting clippers to trim large plants like barberry and multiflora rose lower to the ground. To get to the roots, we found a small pickaxe to be the most useful. For stiltgrass and garlic mustard, we mostly did manual pulling, which was time consuming. A four-pronged rake made this work a little easier—and with less bending. We used the pickaxe on the wineberry and the ratcheting clippers on the bittersweet.

During of our five trips tackling invasives along the Long Swamp Trail, we removed approximately 250 Japanese barberry, 125 multiflora rose, 35 wineberry, 25 Oriental bittersweet, two large patches of garlic mustard, and many patches of Japanese stiltgrass. As a result, the trail is now more esthetically appealing. It will also allow for native plants to survive and flourish, since they will not have to compete with the invasives.

The impact of this project has been significant—even after those first spring hikes, we could notice an improvement. I plan on making the invasives program part of my troop’s normal trail maintenance on the Long Swamp Trail. This will allow us to keep on top of invasives species management along the trail and give native plants time to grow back.

Zachary Kunow is currently completing his junior year at Suffern High School and starting to think about college. The conservation work he’s done with the Boy Scouts and the Trail Conference has whet his appetite to study environmental engineering. He is on the varsity volleyball, swimming, and crew teams at Suffern; he’s hoping to row in college. In addition to his Scouting background, Zachary is a member of the Fire Explorers, which is run by the Boy Scouts of America. He has also recently joined the Tallman Fire Department.

If you’d like to learn more about combating invasive species with the Trail Conference, visit the Invasives Strike Force page on our website, or email Linda Rohleder.

Posted in Hikes, Invasive Species, New York Trails, Profile, Science, Sterling Forest, Trails, Volunteering, West Hudson Trails | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Stay Away from the Woods”: Countering the Idea that Nature Is Unsafe for Our Kids

By Hank Osborn, Senior Program Coordinator

What messages are our children receiving about exploring the outdoors, and how will they affect future efforts to protect our environment?

Hank's son, Knox, loves exploring the outdoors.

Hank’s son, Knox, loves exploring the outdoors.

My wife and I try to get our young ones outside as much as possible. We experience a great sense of satisfaction and a feeling that we are doing something right when we see our children enjoying nature. We love watching them hike through the woods or play in a stream or simply skip down a trail. We feel it’s educational to allow them to explore the outdoors and their surroundings. We know that our views are not shared by all parents, but to be honest, it seems strange to us that some parents’ positions appear to be the exact opposite of ours.

We’ve been witness on several occasions to parents actually scolding their children for getting close to nature. “Stay away from the woods! Be careful, there are wild animals in there. There are bears; there are snakes.” Many, many times we have overheard, “Don’t go in the grass, you’ll get dirty.”

It seems that some parents think it’s easier, cleaner, and safer if their kids stay indoors and out of the woods.

Yes, it is harder to keep an eye on children when they’re outside. Supervision can be much easier indoors where children can’t wander away and get into trouble out of sight. It seems that some parents feel safer when their children of all ages sit inside all day and play on their screens and devices—iPods, phones, tablets, video games, TV. Not only are these parents not pushing their kids outside, they are actually encouraging their children to stay indoors—because it’s easier.

Kids can get dirty outside, absolutely. It is a pain, and it can be expensive if they ruin their clothes. Some parents seem to want very badly to keep their kids clean—and their children are listening. My neighbor told me that he understands his son’s aversion to time outside. “He won’t play outside because he doesn’t want to get his shoes dirty,” he says.

Knox exploring the outdoorsKids can get sick or hurt outside, sure. But don’t forget that they can get hurt indoors, too. Parents today are scared, but maybe it has to do with the way the world is ruled by the media. They are afraid that their kids will get hurt or get Lyme disease or get lost or abducted. We have neighbors who won’t let their kids go outside because they are afraid of bees—year-round!

Although many parents don’t encourage their children to go out at all, there are parents who do recognize that outdoor time for kids is a good thing. One time a parent asked me, “How do you do it? How do you get your kids to play outside? Mine just want to sit inside all day.” It’s not always easy, but we try to lead by example.

Exploring the outdoors is foreign to some of today’s youth as kids are becoming more and more disconnected from nature. Some public schools are now offering “forest preschool” programs in an attempt to counter children’s lack of natural experiences. We think this is great, but it is also sad that the inability of parents to encourage outdoor play has reached a level that requires the schools to introduce children to nature.

According to Richard Louv, child advocacy expert and author of Last Child in the Woods, “Never before in history have children been so plugged in-and so out of touch with the natural world.” Many, many children are not connecting with nature. They are not understanding the outdoors the way past generations have. Is the future of humankind changing? Our relationship with nature is changing. Could the consequences be dire?”

By not being in touch with the outdoors like our ancestors or our parents or ourselves, children are losing contact with the natural world. If the youngest generation’s relationship with our planet is changing, will the movement to protect our planet be affected? Will no connection equal no protection? If they are not connected to nature as children, how will they feel about protecting the environment and our natural resources as adults?

The Trail Conference’s tagline is “Connecting People with Nature.” We work to improve public access to open space. I want to think that the trends we’re seeing with some of today’s youth are reversible. We must continue our efforts to get more children and their parents outside. We must work to further advance natural experiences by finding ways to deliver easy access to parks and preserves. Children and their parents need to play in the woods. Let’s make it happen.

If you’d like to give back to trails or get your family involved in building, maintaining, and protecting trails for future generations, check out our volunteer opportunities.

Posted in Hikes, New Jersey Trails, New York Trails, Profile, Science, Trails | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bird Count at Closter Nature Center Reveals More Than a Dozen Species

By Steve Kelman, Trail Walker Contributor

Downy Woodpecker (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

Downy Woodpecker (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

On what may prove to be one the coldest days of this winter season, a small group of birding enthusiasts gathered at the cabin in front of the Closter Nature Center to take part in the Bergen County Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.

After a spate of unusually warm December weather, the mercury took a nosedive on this particular Saturday morning (Dec. 19) as this assemblage took to the Center’s nature trails in an effort to learn about and identify resident birds and waterfowl as part of the Audubon Society’s 67th annual event. More than a dozen species of birds were identified on our walk, which took us through a mix of wetlands and woodlands and around two ponds located within the Nature Center property: Ruckman and the “Hockey,” or Second Pond.

Screech Owl (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

Screech Owl (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

A highlight of the morning was getting a rare opportunity to view a screech owl as it rested (trying not to be seen, I’m sure) in an exposed tree stump along the Center’s Fern Trail. A serious effort was required to see this very small owl due to the fact that it perfectly blended in with its environs. Among the other bird species observed on our walk were tufted tit mouse, white breasted nuthatch, kingfisher, mallards, mourning doves, grackle, black capped chickadee, cardinal, downy and red headed woodpeckers, a pair of turkey vultures, and a red tail hawk. Some of these birds also were seen at feeders located near the cabin and Nature Center parking lot.

In addition to the numerous bird species, other wildlife was also observed on this outing. A group that took a separate trail spotted a coyote from what was, they said, “a safe distance.” And then there were others who watched “a floating log” on Ruckman Pond; that log was none other than a resident muskrat fishing for his breakfast.

 House Sparrow, left, and House Finch (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

House Sparrow, left, and House Finch (Photo credit: Steve Kelman)

The Christmas Bird Count took place throughout Bergen County. The objective was “to count all birds within a 15-mile diameter circle centered at the River Edge train station,” according to information in the Bergen County Audubon Society’s Newsletter, The Blue Jay. The official count period was from December 16 through 19; more than 80 species of birds were identified, Bergen County Audubon President Don Torino said.

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Registration Now Open for April 15-17 Dry Stone Wall Workshop at Trail Conference Headquarters

Photo simulation of the dry stone wall to be built at Trail Conference Headquarters this spring. (Photo credit: Brian Post)

Photo simulation of the dry stone wall to be built at Trail Conference Headquarters this spring. (Photo credit: Brian Post)

Registration is now open for the first of two freestanding dry stone wall workshop weekends scheduled to take place at Trail Conference Headquarters in Mahwah, N.J, this spring. These workshops, held in partnership with The Stone Trust from Dummerston, Vt., will take place at our new HQ at the historic Darlington Schoolhouse April 15-17 and May 28-30. The third day of each course is optional to learn about worksite prep and management. All skill levels are invited to participate.

The purpose of these workshops is to to construct a dry stone wall along the front of our new HQ at the historic Darlington Schoolhouse and expose the art and craft of dry stone walling to the larger Trail Conference community and our partners. Our thanks goes to Ramapo College of New Jersey, which has donated local fieldstone for the project, and Legacy Stoneworks, Inc. / The Hillburn Granite Company, Inc., which has donated quarried stone for the wall.

Our partner in this project, The Stone Trust, advocates for the preservation of existing dry stone walls and promotes using the correct structural standards for the construction and restoration of dry stone walls. The instruction for this workshop will be led by three of the top Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA-GB) Certified Dry Stone Walling Instructors in North America.

We’ll be updating this blog, as well as our calendar of events and Trail University page, throughout the winter with news on these workshops, registration details for the May courses, and more. Stay tuned… and don’t forget to register for the April courses today!

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A Closer Look at Snow Fleas

By Hope Rogers, Trail Walker Contributor

Snow Fleas

Although we rarely notice them, snow fleas are all around us on the forest floor, performing their crucial role in the food chain. (Photo credit: Angie Oliver, Packbasket Adventures, Wanakena, NY)

On a bright winter day, have you ever noticed what look like specks of dark soot in the snow, especially at the base of trees? And then, upon closer inspection, the “specks” are crawling and jumping? What are those things?

Those minuscule, lively creatures are a type of springtail, Hypogastrura spp., commonly known as snow fleas. They’re actually with us all year long, and in huge abundance. They can be found throughout the forest, living in leaf litter, in moss and fungi, and around ponds. They even walk on water, their light bodies supported by the water’s surface tension. However, without the white background of snow, their tiny dark bodies, approximately 1/16 of an inch long, are rarely noticeable.

Snow fleas, like fleas, are tiny jumpers. However, they aren’t fleas or even flea relatives. Fleas are parasitic insects; snow fleas are wingless arthropods that never use human or animal hosts. Snow fleas’ jumping mechanism is also different from fleas, which propel themselves upward on powerful legs and toes. Snow fleas have two forked tails, or “furcula,” that they hold folded under them. When they release the hook-like structures that hold the furcula in place, the tails “spring” out, propelling the tiny creatures willy-nilly into the air.

Snow fleas are an important link in the forest food chain. They are decomposers, consuming decaying plant material in the soil, breaking down nutrients into forms that plants can take up. In late winter or early spring, they sometimes form huge colonies, as wide as a yard, devouring the algae that grow on wet, decomposing leaf litter in the melting snow. They are also eaten by slightly larger creatures, including salamanders, daddy long-legs, beetles, and centipedes.

One thing snow fleas must have is moisture. They breathe through their skin rather than through a respiratory system, which makes them vulnerable to drying out. So they move around in search of moist, sheltered locations. Every spring, springtails mate, and the females lay eggs in the soil. Tiny springtail nymphs emerge from the eggs and begin to grow, repeatedly molting their exoskeletons. By winter they have developed into the mature creatures we see in snow.

Snow fleas and other springtail varieties possess a rare characteristic: they make their own “anti-freeze,” a protein that prevents ice crystals from forming in their cells. This recently discovered protein is unlike other known proteins; scientists are studying its structure in the hope of using it in applications such as safely chilling human organs destined for transplant, and perhaps for producing ice cream that never develops ice crystals. Protected by their “anti-freeze,” snow fleas venture out on sunny winter days in search of decaying plant matter and sap oozing from trees.

Although we rarely notice them, snow fleas are all around us on the forest floor, performing their crucial role in the food chain. Look for them on sunny, snowy days, especially in late winter and early spring.

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