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OSI’s River-to-Ridge Trail Showcases Green Design and Operations

Just west of New Paltz, New York, a bucolic expanse of farm fields and meadows stretches from the Wallkill River to the foothills of the Shawangunk Ridge. Though renowned for its scenic beauty, the low-lying riverfront land also experiences heavy flooding that can persist for days after heavy rains.

In 2018, the Open Space Institute permanently protected more than 360 acres of the land, preventing development of the flood-prone land and began creation of what would become the hugely popular River-to-Ridge Trail. During the trail’s development, OSI staff also seized the opportunity install a series of features, including bioswales, that augment the land’s natural ability to manage the recurring floods and protect the nearby Wallkill River.

Today, as an estimated 200,000 annual visitors run, cycle, and stroll along the trail, they recreate alongside OSI-installed educational signage that explains the connection between responsible land use and water quality — and past the latest OSI projects that manage and improve the land’s natural flood-mitigating properties.

“OSI’s planning, design, and maintenance of the River-to-Ridge Trail represents balance of meeting environmental and human needs,” said Peter Karis, OSI’s Vice President for Parks & Stewardship who oversaw the creation of the trail. “Through holistic management, we are creating a model trail that incorporates sustainability and resilience, with benefits that extend into the local community.”

Installation of a culvert at the River-to-Ridge Trail.
Installation of a culvert at the River-to-Ridge Trail.

Managing the flow of water is an important consideration in any trail design but was especially critical in the construction of the River-to-Ridge Trail because of its proximity to the Wallkill. Thinking creatively, OSI designed the six-mile loop and associated parking areas to withstand and even direct annual flooding, incorporating green features such as bio-retention areas and “bioswale” channels, which divert stormwater from the trail and use native plants to slow and filter water before it enters waterways.

To maintain clean water, OSI also focused attention on the nearly 90-acre floodplain along the neighboring river, expanding the width of the vegetated buffer between the river and active farm fields. Native trees and shrubs along the riverbank called “riparian buffers” filter sediment, fertilizer, and pollutants from the water flowing through fields and paved areas before it flows into the river.

“Through careful planning and site design, OSI has improved the quality of the water entering the Wallkill River, and set an excellent example of how improved land management can benefit water quality in the Hudson River,” said Bill Rawlyk, OSI’s Mid-Atlantic Field Coordinator, who oversees OSI’s land protection grant program focused on water quality in the Delaware River Watershed.

Rawlyk explained that a 100-foot vegetated buffer along a stream can reduce sediment and pollutants entering the stream by up to an astounding 80 percent. “By harnessing these buffers OSI is setting an inspiring model for other landowners along the Wallkill and beyond,” he said.

The riparian buffers along the Wallkill River received a further boost in the summer of 2020 with the help of nearly 30 volunteers who planted 110 native, trees and bushes in partnership with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program and the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance. As the plants along the riverbank continue to flourish, they will beautify the trail while filtering runoff, alleviating erosion during flooding events, and providing additional wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Meanwhile, even though it is open to the public, River-to-Ridge remains an active agricultural landscape. With OSI’s partnership, farmers are phasing out the use of agrochemicals near waterways and the public trail.

By the sides of the trail, fields abundant in native wildflowers like milkweed and goldenrod are left out of agricultural production to provide vital habitat for insects and other wildlife. On certain fields, seed mixes containing pollinator flowers are planted, while others are mowed less frequently to promote habitat for ground-nesting birds such as bluebirds, bobolinks, and the American Kestrel.

Most recently, the lowland fields subject to annual flooding have transitioned to organic, no-till hay production. This change will improve the soil’s ability to drain and result in cleaner water flowing into the Wallkill River.

“At the River-to-Ridge Trail, the many benefits of land for clean water, wildlife, and community well-being are vividly on display,” said OSI’s Peter Karis. “OSI is proud to protect and amplify the land’s many values.”

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