ANDREWS, SC (August 9, 2017) - South Carolina’s Black River meanders through an otherworldly hardwood swamp of submerged bald cypress and tupelo gum. The majestic trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are reflected in mirror-smooth water. On any given day, you’re likely to see a flotilla of kids in brightly colored kayaks standing out against the dark river as they paddle downstream. The young kayakers are likely floating along the banks of an OSI-protected property while participating in a Butler Conservation Fund (BCF) outdoor education program.
Kayaking alongside with a careful eye is Gates Roll of Coastal Expeditions, a local outfitter operating an outdoor education program that has taken some 13,000 young people out onto the water since 2012.
“Lots of the kids we work with are very disconnected from the outside world,” says Roll. “One little girl almost jumped out of her kayak because a butterfly got stuck inside it, and she wasn’t sure if it was going to bite her. By the end of the trip, she was splashing and having fun. You see them get over that kind of fear, see it melt away, and it’s replaced by joy.”
The Black River project is emblematic of a thriving partnership between OSI and BCF that is taking conservation to the next level – by making spectacular, protected landscapes more inviting, accessible, and enjoyable to those who are unfamiliar with nature, and may even find it intimidating.
Learning by doing
There is a saying among environmentalists that you can only love what you know, and you can only know what you experience. A single kayak trip may be enough to give a young person an indelible taste of the beauty of the natural world, and new access points such as trail systems, paddling docks, and visitor centers, are the way to encourage an even deeper and more lasting attachment.
The Black River project is the latest outgrowth of the longstanding partnership between OSI and BCF that aims to build this attachment and grow an ethic of land protection. For OSI, a leader in protecting land for public enjoyment, the partnership builds on its park improvement initiative launched five years ago.
To date, the OSI-BCF partnership has grown dramatically in three locations: The Black River of South Carolina, in the town of Andrews; the East Branch of the Penobscot River in the central Maine Highlands region; and the Shawangunk Ridge, located just ninety minutes north of New York City, where OSI’s conservation leadership dates back more than a quarter-century. All three will be open to the public.
Coming of age in the Gunks
Nowhere is OSI’s partnership with BCF having a greater impact than in and around the Shawangunk Ridge, where OSI has protected nearly 33,000 acres through the years, expanding the natural beauty of Minnewaska State Park Preserve and the Mohonk Preserve, while restoring a network of over 80 miles of badly degraded historic carriage roads.
Building on OSI’s goal of integrating these carriage roads, existing trails, and two abandoned rail beds into a trail system that could eventually cover more than 200 miles, OSI and BCF have joined forces to create a new amenity between the Shawangunk foothills and the village of New Paltz. Named the River-to-Ridge Trail, this six-mile long connector will wind through large tracts of farmland previously conserved by OSI, and is coming together with support from BCF and the personal efforts of Gilbert Butler, its founder and president.
The trail is welcome news to Mark Ruoff, who fell in love with the landscape growing up nearby. Today, as coach of New Paltz High School’s cross- country ski team, Ruoff sees a new generation of outdoor explorers coming of age in the Gunks.
“Last winter, one of the boys and I were out. He said, ‘I gotta tell you coach, I love sports, but more than anything I love being on the land.’ Since his family wasn’t especially into nature, cross-country skiing was his gateway to being in the forest,” Ruoff recalled.
Learning to love the outdoors
On the East Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine, BCF funding supported OSI’s purchase of two properties totaling more than 4,200 acres near Baxter State Park and abutting the newly-created Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
The OSI-owned properties will serve as home to the Butler Conservation Fund’s Maine Waterside Trails – aimed at introducing young people to 70 miles of beautiful river corridor and trails for hiking, biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
“For some of these children, it’s the only field trip they get all year,” said Matt Polstein, founder of the New England Outdoor Center, which operates the BCF outdoor education program. “Students come from around the region to take part. You can see their eyes light up when they see and interact with nature, water, and trees.”
Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, the new mile-long Cypress Swamp Side Trail will complement the popular paddle program, welcoming new hikers and cyclists to search for birds and experience the natural world. From his kayak on the Black River, nature guide Gates Roll can see first-hand the impact the programs are having by the expressions on kids’ eager faces.
“A lot of these kids see only school, home, and a plastic superstore,” said Roll. “As the natural world gets whittled away, it’s more and more evident how needed it is to get them back to the outdoors.”