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Green Design Drives OSI’s New River-to-Ridge Trail

Running along the Wallkill River and active farm fields in New Paltz, New York, the Open Space Institute’s newly opened River-to-Ridge trail has quickly become a popular community destination. The six-mile loop trail, traversing more than 360-acres of OSI-protected land, allows walkers, runners, cyclists, and others to experience the breathtaking splendor of this landscape while providing safe access to the trails and carriage roads of the Shawangunk Ridge.

As caretaker and steward of this new public trail, OSI is taking several steps to sustainably manage the surrounding property; finding a balance between ecological, agricultural, and recreational uses and challenges.

“OSI protects land to support the needs of diverse human, wildlife, and plant communities, and I am glad that those values are reflected in our new River-to-Ridge Trail,” says Peter Karis, OSI’s Capital Project & Design Manager who oversaw the design and completion of the trail. “Given our conservation history and ethos, it made perfect sense for us to construct, and now operate, the trail using some common sense ‘best practices’ to promote water quality and healthy habitat for wildlife.”

For Karis that meant consulting with colleague Bill Rawlyk, OSI’s Mid-Atlantic Field Coordinator, who has been spearheading much of OSI’s ongoing work to protect the Delaware River watershed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Among the techniques Rawlyk emphasizes in pursuit of cleaner water is riparian buffers. These undisturbed corridors, of native vegetation and woodlands along streams, keep runoff carrying sediment, fertilizer and pollutants from fields and paved areas from flowing untreated into a waterbody.

“Riparian buffers are key to filtering runoff, especially agricultural runoff – and improving the long-term health of rivers and other waterways,” says Rawlyk, who worked with Karis to incorporate riparian buffer corridors into the River-to-Ridge design between the Wallkill and the active farm fields. “By widening the land buffer between the farming and drainage ways, we will improve the quality of the water entering the river along the trail.”

In addition to the increased riparian buffers, OSI and its farming partners are transitioning to the use of organic compounds for fertilizing hay fields adjacent to the trail. And when designing the trailhead and parking area, OSI added a naturalized ‘bioswale’ feature which will act as a natural catchment for stormwater runoff, to further filter water before it enters the river.

“It was really helpful to be able to apply the insight and expertise that OSI has developed through our work on the Delaware here on the Wallkill,” says Karis.

Karis also notes that in protecting the river-front land and surrounding fields from development, the property will continue to mitigate the effects of flooding. “New Paltz will be well-served by the fact that this property was protected from development. As seasonal and storm flooding gain in intensity, these lands will continue to act as a natural sponge and help absorb and filter excess water, protecting the community and its residents.”

Another design element that was integrated into the trail seeks to promote the movement of wildlife. Over the waterways and wetlands, OSI installed three oversized drainage culverts and two bridges that allow the trail to lightly traverse over these sensitive areas while accommodating animals of varying sizes to move about under the trail. More importantly for animals, each of these crossings maintain ‘natural bottom’ conditions which is particularly important for the movement of amphibians. The buffer areas along streams also provide food, nesting habitat and sheltered corridors for wildlife movement and also serve as pollinator meadows for bees and butterflies.

Along the trail itself, after a narrow, mowed shoulder, OSI will allow tall grasses and native wildflowers to grow to provide habitat for various bird species. Karis adds “Over time and with careful management, these buffers will revert to a forest edge condition with shrubs and small trees further promoting biodiversity.”  In addition to promoting animal and plant biodiversity, the grasses will provide additional buffer areas to neighboring property owners and help keep trail users on the trail.

These environmentally friendly design and management practices are just a few steps that OSI is taking to help protect this high-functioning, irreplaceable and scenic landscape for future generations.

Having protected over 33,000 acres on and around the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange counties, the creation of the River-to-Ridge Trail is an extension of OSI’s commitment to this community. Maintaining this landscape for future generations requires conscientious management now, and OSI’s work is positively impacting the future health of the land, the river, and the people. 

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