Mother of the American Youth Conservation Movement

Liz Titus Putnam looked at dozens of people in the dining hall at a Dutchess County summer camp — eating, talking and laughing — and she saw a room full of connections.

Although many people in the Sharpe Reservation hall that October morning were in their early 20s, their ties stretched back to 1953. That was when Putnam, a 20-year-old Long Island native and junior at nearby Vassar College, came up with an idea.

After reading a magazine article on the deplorable state of the national park system, Putnam used her senior thesis to propose a voluntary student service program to work at the parks. Her inspiration came from the Civilian Conservation Corps created two decades earlier by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

“I knew that I would be interested in doing that work. And I thought other young people would be interested, too,” Putnam said.

Through timely encouragement and helpful connections that seemed to show up just when needed, the new college graduate founded what became the not-for-profit Student Conservation Association (SCA), with its first crews of 53 men and women (Herself included) arriving in 1957 at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks to do trail work. The Peace Corps and Earth Day were still years away.

Six decades later, more than 90,000 young people from every part of the U.S. and many foreign countries have gone through the SCA, with most members later going on to jobs and careers in the field of conservation at a myriad of organizations.

Since the beginning, SCA members have performed about 40 million hours of public works service at parks and other public lands. In today’s dollars, that would be worth about $600 million.

Last month, their ranks grew by another 40 people who graduated from the Hudson Valley SCA 2019 program under Putnam’s appreciative and proud gaze. The ceremony was held at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.

“I have so much hope for the future, to see young people getting involved,” said Putnam, now an 86-year-old resident of Vermont where she lives on a farm. She retired from running the organization day-to-day as its president in 1969, but under the title of Founding President remains active and involved.

“You will have many adventures. You have one life, and it goes by very fast,” Putnam told the Hudson Valley SCA graduates. “It is what you do each day. You are part of a team, with the humans all around this earth. Each person counts.”

President Barack Obama presents Liz Titus Putnam with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2010. The award is the nation’s second-highest civilian honor. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Putnam believes that connections helped her all along the way, starting with her faculty advisor at Vassar who encouraged her to pursue her idea. Then through a family connection, she met the daughter of the late Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service. She in turn introduced Putnam to his successor, former park director Horace Albright. He was intrigued enough by the idea to urge her to visit four national parks to gauge local interest in a volunteer corps, giving her a letter of introduction to ease the way. After that trip in 1955, the superintendents at Grand Teton and Olympic said yes to accepting her student volunteers.

Liz Titus Putnam (left), near Grand Teton National Park during the first year of the Student Conservation Association in 1957. To the right is fellow Vassar College alumna Martha “Marty” Hayne, who co-founded the SCA and later was a member of its board of directors. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)
Liz Titus Putnam and Martha “Marty” Hayne share a laugh back in the day. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

“I had no connections at the time, But the connections appeared when they were needed. That is the miracle,” Putnam told a visitor at the Hudson SCA graduation.

Speaking there, Putnam shared her tale of actually joining the group that she helped found. It was after fires had devastated Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and the SCA was lining up people to come help. She was 56 years old.

“I spoke to our staff, asking if anyone could join. And they said yes. And I asked if I could join, and they said yes,” Putnam said. “And I said, no special treatment, treated just like everyone else? And they said yes.”

After filling out an application, she got her SCA acceptance letter (she recalled saying ‘Yippee!” upon opening it), later arriving at Yellowstone under an assumed name to wield hand tools and help other members repair burned out bridges and cut downed trees. One day, a college student from Texas said he knew who she was, because she had spoken at his school about the SCA. “I asked him to keep it to himself, and we would be fine. And he did,” said Putnam.

Liz Titus Putnam plans a tree at Vassar College during a ceremony in her honor in 2018. (Credit: Vassar College)

“Liz is very inspiring,” said Dana Reinstein, a 23-year-old Queens resident who is finishing her second SCA stint. “I got to meet her when she was at Vassar last year, when she was helping plant a tree there.”

Now serving as an environmental educator in New York City schools, Reinstein said working at the SCA was about “a lot of new connections and experiences,” starting with lessons on how to use hand and power tools. “This is not something that I ever thought I would do. When I started, I did not even know how to use a hammer properly.”

A graduate of SUNY Fredonia with a degree in geology, Reinstein became part of an SCA team that provided more than 71,000 hours of service, valued at $1.7 million, working this year on trails, waterways, and recreational habitat.

Marking its 20th anniversary, the Hudson Valley SCA works with New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, local Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Scenic Hudson, Audubon New York, and Vassar College. The Hudson Valley SCA Corps is an AmeriCorps program.

Some 900 young adults have gone through the Hudson Valley SCA since it started, logging some 1.7 million hours of service that would have cost $30 million if workers had to be hired.


Check out this slideshow of some of the members of the Hudson SCA 2019 session. (Credit: Hudson SCA)


‘Once an SCA member, always an SCA member’ seems to be a cardinal rule of the organization. When Putnam asked how many people attending the graduation had been in SCA, many hands went up.

One belonged to Melissa Miller, park manager for Grafton Lakes State Park, Cherry Plain State Park, and Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Miller did two SCA terms in 2001 and 2002, working on landscape tours at Olana State Historic Site, and then as an environmental educator at Grafton, where she was hired subsequently as a State Parks employee.

“Before that, I had been working in a restaurant. Being in the SCA was such a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “It gave me my career.”

Sarah Davies, an alumna of the original Hudson Valley Corps in 1999, is now Chief Environmental Educator with State Parks after service with DEC. “SCA was the best decision of my professional life. It was the catalyst for my 20 years in government service,” she said.

Liz Titus Putnam, left, with Ann Harrison (center), bureau chief of environmental education at the state Department of Environmental Education, and Sarah Davies (right), chief environmental educator at NYS Parks. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks


Learn about applying to SCA here.

See Liz Titus Putnam interviewed on the 2009 Ken Burns film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Read the 1953 Harper’s Magazine article that inspired Liz Titus Putnam — then a 20-year-old college student — to create the Student Conservation Association. She described the article as “hitting me like a bolt.”

Read this in-depth interview with Liz Titus Putnam

Watch a short history of the SCA

Hope Takes Wing for Endangered Bird

Here in New York, we have residents nicknamed ‘snow birds’: People who enjoy summers on New York’s beaches, but escape our harsh winters by traveling south to Florida. Making that journey right along with them is another species of beach bum — the small, endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover.

Usually weighing about two ounces or less, the Piping Plover is a tiny bird that is undeniably and objectively cute; just ask anyone that is working to restore the population. It’s a bird that’s easy to fall in love with but that requires hard work to recover.

There are three distinct populations of Piping Plover: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, which both breed in New York State, and the Great Plains. Due to shoreline habitat loss and disturbance, all three populations significantly declined in the mid-twentieth century, leading to their listing under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (Atlantic and Great Plains populations) and endangered (Great Lakes population) in 1986.

The recovery of the Piping Plover has been a slow and intensive process. At the time of listing, the endangered Great Lakes population had only an estimated 17 breeding pairs — with no birds nesting on the Great Lakes shores of New York. For 29 years, no plover nests had been seen on New York’s lake shores.

Finally, in 2015 a pair of Piping Plovers showed up on the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in and around Sandy Island Beach State Park in Oswego County.

Sandy Island Beach State Park is located on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. (Credit: Google Maps)

New York State Parks and Department of Environmental Conservation employees, Audubon New York employees, and volunteers teamed up to monitor the plovers and reduce disturbances from humans and predators in hopes that the birds would stick around and raise their young.

Although the birds were not successful that year, plovers kept returning each summer to the State Park, and in 2018 and again in 2019, were able to raise chicks

These adult Piping Plovers, banded with orange flags on their legs, successfully nested at Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. The male plover (right), can be distinguished from the female by its bolder brow and neck bands.

Throughout the spring and summer months when Piping Plovers are found at breeding sites, shorebird technicians monitor nests and chicks until young birds are fledged, meaning they are capable of sustaining flight. Researchers also band as many plovers as they can in the Great Lakes. Used for identification, bird banding is a common research practice, and is an extremely useful tool in understanding behavior, life expectancy, population sizes, and migrations of birds.

Above: A trained and licensed bander prepares to apply unique bands to a chick in 2018. Below: In 2018, the Piping Plover chicks had Lord of the Rings-inspired nicknames: Frodo (right) and Pippin (left) show off their new bands as they scurry back to their nearby parents. Photo Credit: Tom Morrissette.

For endangered populations, banding can provide essential information about site use that can guide future conservation in both breeding and wintering grounds. For the plovers at Sandy Island Beach State Park, bird banding helped researchers track two fledglings after migration, one to Georgia in 2018 and another to Florida in 2019. These were the first Great Lakes fledglings from New York to be spotted in their wintering grounds in the south.

The young birds are each marked with a unique combination of bands, like name tags, which allows staff to identify individual birds and assign fun nicknames to the newly hatched chicks. The fledge sighted in Georgia in 2018 was named Gimli, and our 2019 fledge, affectionately nicknamed Chewie (proper name Chewbacca) was spotted in Florida soon after it had left New York. The first fledge from the Great Lakes seen on wintering grounds in 2019, little Chewie had made the nearly 1,300-mile journey in only three to four days!

Chewie (background) and its sibling, Yoda (foreground) both successfully fledged from Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. They can be distinguished by the unique combination of colored bands on their legs.

This feat is no small matter, as plovers face many challenges before the eggs have even hatched. Coastal development has reduced available nesting habitat, and the open sand suitable for nesting is also the most desirable location for human recreation. Conflict with humans can lead to birds abandoning territory, nesting attempts, and even viable eggs. If a nest can be established, the threat of predation now looms.

Piping Plovers lay their eggs in the sand. These nests generally contain four eggs, and the adults often spend time “decorating” the nests with delicate rocks and shell fragments.

Plovers lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow depressions, called scrapes, on sparsely vegetated sand. This makes it easy for plovers to spot predators, but also provides no protection from critters that discover the nests. Therefore, it is common for shorebird stewards to build an exclosure around the nest. This is a fence with spaces large enough for plovers to pass through, but small enough to prevent predators from reaching the eggs (click here to learn more about the work of State Parks Plover Stewards). This can prevent eggs from becoming a meal for foxes, crows, gulls and other predators, but still does not guarantee hatching. Their beach home can get flooded by high water levels and the exposed sand can become very hot.

Still, Piping Plovers are adapted to these conditions and are dedicated and attentive parents. Exclosed nests have a high chance of reaching their hatch date.

The new chicks hatched safely within the wire of the predator exclosure that was placed around the nest. But they won’t stay in there for long!

But our small friends are not in the clear yet! The chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The highly mobile chicks obtain food on their own under the watchful eyes of their parents, but constant running can easily exhaust the hatchlings and makes them an easy target for predators.

Combined with the stressors of human recreation, it truly becomes a miracle to reach fledging age. Humans can disturb plovers, often unintentionally, by scaring adults off nests, preventing adults and young from feeding near the water, or even accidentally stepping on nests and eggs. Remember that these birds are very small with feathers and eggs that are well camouflaged for sandy beaches, so be sure to keep an eye out when visiting beaches with designated nesting areas!

It should be no surprise to learn that, on average, for every pair of plovers only about one chick typically survives to fledging. This one fledgling must then face a long journey south to wintering grounds on their own. That two young birds, including Chewie, were raised at Sandy Island Beach State Park and made it to their winter homes was a good sign. Continued monitoring in New York will tell us whether these plovers return to raise their own young.

This map shows the typical migration routes for all three populations of Piping Plover. Credit: Illustration by Megan Bishop/Cornell Lab of Ornithology and accessed via Facebook page for Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort.

From egg-laying and hatching to fledging and migrating, Piping Plovers face threats and obstacles at every turn. Since the return of the Piping Plovers to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there have been six successful fledges from Sandy Island Beach State Park. Until we know if the young survived their first migration south, it can be difficult to gauge the success of the recovery plan. Therefore, this incredible flight of young Chewie, documented by its unique bands, is a symbol of success and high hopes for the ongoing efforts to recover the population of this charismatic shorebird.


Post by Lindsey DeLuna, OPRHP Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member

Cover Photo: The fledgling from Sandy Island Beach State Park, nicknamed “Chewbacca,” after his arrival at a Florida beach in early August 2019. Photo Credit: Wendy Meehan.

To learn more about Piping Plover banding and how to report sightings, follow the links below:

https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/reporting-plover-observations

https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/report_bands.html

All photos, unless otherwise stated, were provided courtesy of Alivia Sheffield, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator at Sandy Island Beach State Park and a trained staff member. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe distance, and never approach nests or chicks.

Fire On The Mountain

As all park managers know, times of peace and quiet in the park are only temporary.

On a Friday afternoon last month, Hudson Highlands State Park in the Taconic Region felt the transition from tranquil to full-throttle, when after a trail steward with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, crossing the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge over the Hudson River, noticed smoke to the south. And it was coming from Sugarloaf Mountain in the park.

Smoke rises from Sugarloaf Mountain. (NYS Parks photo)

It was a little after 4 p.m. on September 20 when the steward reported his sighting to State Parks. Almost simultaneously, Hudson Highlands Park Manager Evan Thompson — elsewhere in the 8,000-acre park — was told by a patron of a potential fire on nearby Breakneck Ridge. That report turned out later to be of the Sugarloaf blaze, but added to initial uncertainty over possibly having two fires at the same time.

Gathering staff to investigate Sugarloaf and knowing that recent dry conditions had increased the danger from wildfires, Thompson also called the New York State Park Police, Parks Forest Rangers, and the Department of Environmental of Environmental Conservation for assistance. He learned that DEC officers were responding to a search at Minnewaska State Park Preserve and another fire at Cranberry Mountain, both several counties distant.

After additional contact with the Park Police, DEC sent Ranger Robbi Mecus to the park. Park Police officer Jeremy Pickering arrived at the trailhead as did Mecus, with the pair leading a crew of eight on a 2.4-mile hike up 900-foot Sugarloaf Mountain. There, they found a fire covering about nine acres at the rocky summit.

A state Police helicopter was called in, dropping water drawn from the nearby Hudson four times before dark in an effort to slow the spread of the fire. The crew stayed on the mountain digging fire lines — areas where dried grass, brush, trees and other flammable materials were cut and shoveled away to create a buffer line difficult for fire to cross. The ground crew only stopped when it became too dark to see safely.

Smoke covers the scorched summit of Sugarloaf Mountain . (NYS Parks photo)
On this map, Sugarloaf Mountain is located at the red trail labeled SL, with its summit marked by the binoculars icon.

By then — perhaps only four hours after the first report of the fire — Taconic’s Assistant Regional Director Tom Watt had asked for additional assistance from DEC and the State Parks’ adjoining Palisades Region. State Parks Forest Ranger Lt. Mickey Cahill from Palisades Region arrived, sharing Incident Commander responsibilities with DEC Forest Ranger Captain Greg Tyrrell.

Watt also started calling State Parks facility managers at home to gather manpower needed for the next day; he soon had a roster of twenty Parks staffers scheduled to report to an 8 a.m. briefing Saturday. Meanwhile, several other agencies and organizations offered help, including the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

A crew of more than 30 was ready to climb the mountain by that morning, coming from State Park’s Palisades Region as well as from the far reaches of the Taconic Region on the other side of the Hudson. Splitting into two teams, the crews continued the physically-demanding process of hand-digging fire lines — also called fire breaks — around the perimeter of the rugged, rocky mountain top.

Crews on Sugarloaf Mountain use shovels and other hand tools to create the fire break meant to contain the blaze uphill from them. (NYS Parks photo)

At Sugarloaf, crews made these breaks by scraping the ground clean of combustible material for up to four feet, with a foot-wide, 6-inch deep cut into ‘mineral earth’ along the center of the break. Hazard trees nearby were downed, both to protect crews and prevent fire-weakened trees from falling across the fire containment line to act as a bridge for fire to spread. Digging these breaks was challenging due to the steep, rocky terrain and a thick layer of duff, which is decomposed organic material overlaying the soil.

From the air, a State Police helicopter continued dropping water gathered from the nearby Hudson River. And the fire itself was not the only hazard for those working the mountain. Crews had to watch out for fire-loosened rocks that tumbled down cliff faces without warning, as well as for rattlesnakes and ground-dwelling wasps. By Saturday evening, a preliminary line of fire breaks had been created to isolate the blaze, which by this point was estimated to cover about 14 acres.

A State Police helicopter brings a massive container of water from the Hudson River to drop onto the fire. (Photo by New York-New Jersey Trail Conference)

By Sunday’s 8 a.m. briefing, the fire-fighting crew had swelled to more than 75 people, with many working to strengthen fire lines in temperatures that soared to more than 90 degrees. In some instances, their work meant abandoning a section of line that would be difficult to defend — on a very steep slope, for instance, where burning material could tumble downhill across the line to spread — and dropping back to dig a new section.

Crews also created ‘cupped’ lines by piling material on the downhill side of lines meant stop burning material from sliding over and spreading. By this time, the fire covered about 25 acres.

On Sunday morning,  a complex network of fire hoses was laid out just outside the fire line. The hoses were routed to portable tanks at locations where tanker trucks could deliver water; gasoline-powered pumps provided water pressure to the hoses. Air operations by helicopter continued throughout the day. By nightfall on Sunday, the fire lines were as good as could be expected given the difficult terrain, but hardly impregnable.

A crew member uses a hose to water down the brush fire at Sugarloaf Mountain that has ignited dry grass. This summit is classified as one of the best examples in the state of a Rocky Summit Grassland natural community by the NY Natural Heritage Program. Learn more about this fire-adapted ecosystem in NYNHP’s Conservation Guides. (NYS Parks photo)

Monday dawned sunny and warm, with crewing working to improve the fire breaks. More than a mile of containment line was dug or improved on the rugged western flank of the fire, and by the end of the day, Park Rangers were confident that the lines were good. That evening, Rangers and Parks staff lit backfires on the east side of Sugarloaf to consume combustible material under controlled conditions. During the night, numerous large trees fell from roots being burned and weakened by the fire, with crews cutting trees that crossed the line.

The next day, Parks Rangers and DEC backburned privately-owned land to protect a cluster of houses at the north end of the mountain. With permission of the landowners, crews successively lit fires inside the containment lines and allowed the fires to consume burnable material. Crews then went to work to extinguish flames within 25 feet of the lines. That evening, crews again patrolled overnight to ensure that the fire remained ‘on the black side of the line.’

Crews keep working the fire break line. (NYS Parks photo)
Crews that manned the fire line. (NYS Parks photo)

By Wednesday morning, Sept. 23rd, the most immediate danger had passed, although the fire was still burning inside the break lines, which by this point contained about 50 acres. Secure breaks and less combustible material inside the lines meant that the hardest work was done.

The fire was contained, with no one hurt and no homes damaged. The Wilkinson Trail to Sugarloaf summit has since reopened, although part of the trail at the summit is rerouted to avoid steep, eroded and dangerous conditions.

A smaller team remained at the mountain for several days to conduct “mop-up” operations, like corralling equipment that had been distributed over miles of trails and patrolling for sparks or breaches of the fire line.

Given the nature of the soil and the terrain, the fire was expected to continue to smolder and burn until rains finally put it out. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, although initial reports suggested it might have been an illegal campfire. State Parks rules allow fires only in designated areas under supervision by an adult.


Post by Steve Oakes, manager of Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park and Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site

How will the plants and animals that make up the Sugarloaf Mountain ecosystem respond and recover from this fire? Keep your eye on the NYS Parks Blog for a future post on that subject.

Connecting Kids to Parks Brings History Home

Thanks to support from the state’s Connect Kids to Parks field trip program, 30 campers  from the Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park summer camp visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island.

This was just one of the 4,400 field trips for students across the state funded through the State Parks grant program since it started in 2016.

During their visit in July, the 11- and 12-year-olds learned from Riverbank about the former president who led America’s defeat of fascism, and his famous 1941 speech in which he described his vision for a post-war world.

The campers participated in a lesson focused on Roosevelt’s message that people must stand up when freedom is threatened and not expect others to defend it. To better understand that, the children created their own buttons with slogans and images as an exercise in free speech, which FDR cited as the first freedom.

Campers at FDR Four Freedoms State Park.

“Their day began with members of Four Freedoms Park Conservancy’s education team leading an inquiry-based investigation into Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and his vision of a world order founded upon four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear,” said Ryan Lockwood, Manager of Education at Four Freedoms State Park.

The campers also explored the Park, marveling at renowned architect Louis Kahn’s final project, while also examining primary sources from the FDR era to about what it was like to be a child during the Great Depression. To do this, campers used Depression-era photos by famous photographer Dorothea Lange and an excerpt from FDR’s 1941 State of the Union Address in which he outlined the Four Freedoms.


A portrait of a migrant mother, taken by Dorothea Lange during the Depression in 1936, is one of her most iconic photographs. (Photo Credit: U.S. Library of Congress)
At FDR Four Freedoms Park, the words of the president’s 1941 inaugural speech outline the four freedoms he envisioned for a post-war world.

Following a lunch break, staffers encouraged the young visitors to see themselves as activists capable of making the world a better place, just like FDR. After identifying current issues that mattered to them, the campers created “Activist Buttons” to persuade others to join them in creating the kind of world they would like to see in the future.

Many campers made buttons that demonstrated how the four freedoms are not static, said Lockwood. For instance, while in Roosevelt’s time freedom from fear from fear likely involved war, for today’s campers, freedom from fear meant not having to be afraid of another school shooting. 

Once they had their photo taken with their new buttons, the kids finished their visit playing fun games on the Park’s lawn like Jenga, Connect 4, Checkers and more. 

Game time at Four Freedoms Park.

This year, campers from Denny Farrell also have taken Connect Kids-supported field trips to Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, Bear Mountain State Park, and Roberto Clemente State Park.

Four Freedoms Park is among several hundred state parks, nature centers, historic sites, or Department of Environmental Conservation nature centers or fish hatcheries, that more than 200,000 schoolchildren have visited during the three previous school years under the Connect Kids to Parks program.

The most popular destinations for trips have been Niagara Falls State Park, Fort Niagara State Park, Letchworth State Park, Buffalo Harbor State Park, and Midway State Park.

Since inception, the Connect Kids to Parks Field Trip Grant Program has grown from providing 777 field trips for 30,202 students in 2016-2017 to its current level of about 2,100 field trips for 101,000 students in 2018-2019.

Funding comes from the state Environmental Protection Fund’s enhanced Environmental Justice programming approved in the 2019-20 State Budget. Information for school districts and other eligible organizations on how to apply for the grant is available here and here.



All photographs courtesy of Four Freedoms Park unless otherwise credited.

Parks Won’t Let Invasive Species Get Its Goat

Invasive plant species are a huge problem in modern conservation at our State Parks. These plants can overrun areas and if left unchecked, push out our native species, disrupt natural systems, and negatively impact human activities.

Controlling large infestations is challenging, and sometimes requires using chemical herbicides, which can come with unforeseen costs and undesirable consequences.

But there can be another way that is easier on the environment. To deal with invasive plants at Heckscher State Park on Long Island, we are experimenting with a greener and much cuter alternative – a small army of hungry and quite friendly invasive plant-eating goats.

A little goat can be a big eater of invasive plants. Goats can eat up to a quarter of their body weight each day.

The goats came from Green Goats, a company from Rhinebeck in Dutchess County that for more than a decade has hired out its goats to combat these invaders at various public parks. Their herd has traveled to seven states, as far away as West Virginia and as close by as Riverside Park and Fort Wadsworth in New York City.

Last year at Heckscher, we released goats into a fenced-in, five-acre site overtaken by an invasive plant called Chinese Silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis). The goal is for the goats to eat the silvergrass so there will be room for our native plants to again take hold. The goats also have been eating other invasives, including Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), common reed (Phragmites australis), and Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata).

Chinese Silvergrass (Photo credit Western New York PRISM)
The hungry herd takes on the Chinese Silvergrass.

However, since goats will eat pretty much everything, we did not want them to eat the handful of native shrubs left in the enclosure, including eastern baccharis (Baccharis halimifolia), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and common elder (Sambucus canadensis). So, we put up fences around these native plants to protect them so that when the goats leave, these shrubs will be able to spread into cleared areas.

Last year, we had a bit of a late start and only received the goats in September, but by the end of the growing season in October, we had 70 goats moving and eating through the area. When the goats left for the season, there was significant thinning of the silvergrass and quite a few individual plants were eaten down to the ground. The goats also ate a lot of the Japanese honeysuckle and, surprisingly, killed several angelica trees by eating their bark. The bark and leaves of the angelica tree are covered in many sharp thorns and spines to dissuade herbivores from eating it, but that didn’t stop the goats, who happily stripped the bark right off the invasive trees!

This year, our goats arrived in June and as of this month, we have 61 goats working in the area with more on the way. We have used a drone to fly over the site to track their progress, and expect to do another flight shortly.

A goat stretches for its meal of Silvergrass.

A hungry goat can eat up to 25 percent of its body weight each day, said Larry Cihanek, owner of Green Goats with his wife, Ann. An adult goat can weigh between 140 to 180 pounds, so that works out to up to 45 pounds of invasive plants a day. For our herd at Heckscher, that is up to 2,700 pounds of plant invaders being eaten every day!

And the goat “droppings” are a good source of nutrients for the soil as well.

“Using goats like this is like mowing your lawn over and over,” said Cihanek. “You keep the goats on site for a season, and they keep eating as the plants continue trying to regrow. But the goats keep eating the new growth and eventually they starve the roots bit by bit, and the plants will die.”

Ann and Larry Cihanek, owners of Green Goats in Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. They have about 200 goats in their herd. (Photo courtesy of Green Goats)

The Cihaneks now have about 200 goats in their herd, with nearly all the animals being donated by former owners who had been using them for milking, for show purposes, or as pets.

“Eight years is about the maximum for milking, but goats can live for 12 to 14 years. So, this is their second career with us,” he said. “Our goats are living the American Dream: They eat for a living.”

In addition to helping project the environment, the goats are also a good way to draw more people into the park. “In some of our past projects, we have seen that attendance at a park can go up by about 20 percent after the goats come in,” said Cihanek.

Officials at Riverside Park in New York City even held a celebration after the goats finished working there this summer, making the goats the stars of a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser at a lawn party in August. More than 800 people showed up and there was a contest to vote for the most popular goat, with the winner being Massey, who was presented with a medal and an elaborate bouquet of weeds.

Riverside Park President & CEO Dan Garodnick honors Massey at the winner of the public “Vote the G.O.A.T” contest in August. (Photo by Riverside Park Conservancy)

If you would like to see the goats in action, they are staying through October in the eastern section of Heckscher State Park, to the north of the cottages. The Long Island Greenbelt Trail briefly passes a section of the enclosure when it turns westward.

If you see goats with numbered collars, these are the goats that were honored at Riverside Park.

The goats are quite friendly and like being petted. But please, stay outside the fence and do not feed the goats. They are already surrounded by all the food they need!

A Parks visitor encounter with one of the Green Goats.

All photographs by New York State Parks unless otherwise credited.


Post by Yuriy Litvinenko, New York State Parks Regional Biologist for Long Island

The official blog for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation

%d bloggers like this: