All posts by New York State Parks

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Glide Through Winter on State Park Ski Trails

“Can you imagine anything freer and more exciting than when you, swiftly as a bird, zoom down the wood-clad hillsides while country air and spruce twigs whiz by your cheeks and eyes; brain and muscles tense, ready to avoid any unknown obstacle which any moment might be thrown in your path? You are one with your skis and nature. This is something that develops not only the body but the soul as well, and it has a deeper meaning for a people than most of us perceive.”

Fridtjof Nansen – Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and advocate for cross-country skiing, 1890

The use of skis to cross winter terrain dates back millennia, with the oldest-known image of a person on skis carved about 5,000 years ago into the rock of a Norwegian island.

When winter graces the state with snow, State Parks are a great place to enjoy cross-country skiing, with many miles of ski trails for all abilities, from beginner to expert across 104 state parks and eight historic sites spanning the state.

Known in shorthand as XC (or also as Nordic) skiing, this family-friendly sport is a full-body, low-impact cardio workout as well as a wonderful way to get outdoors during winter to see how beautiful the season can be. Skiing is quiet as well, so skiers often have a chance to spot wildlife (and also get a close look at its tracks) that has not been scared off by their approach.

A 1938 poster by the Works Progress Administration promotes cross-country skiing in New York State. (Photo Credit-Wikipedia Commons)

After a promising December start for XC skiing, this season has suffered from a dearth of snow. Perhaps a snowstorm or two is still to come before spring, or if not, this list can be held until the start of next season. Always call ahead to check on snow conditions.

This online map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also is a handy tool for getting a picture of snow cover across the state when planning a ski trip.

Either way, to help decide where to go in State Parks when conditions allow, here are some staff favorites. Check each park’s website for a map of their trails:

Allegany Region

With 24 miles of trails, the Art Roscoe Cross Country Ski Area at Allegany State Park in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, offers some of best groomed skiing in western New York. Novices can try the 3.5-mile Christian Hollow Trail, a loop with gentle grades, or the multi-use, 3.5-mile Red House Bike Path.

Intermediate skiers can try the 3.3-mile Patterson Trail, which is a former rail bed. There are parking areas at both ends of the gently sloping trail, so a shuttle trip can be done by leaving cars at both ends.

Other more adventurous skiers can tackle the Ridge Trail for a 7.7- mile trek geared to intermediate to advanced skiers.

Ski equipment rentals are available at the park’s gift shop at the Red House Administration Building. Trail reports can be found online here.

Finger Lakes Region

The extensive trail network at Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area in Springwater, Livingston County, has grooming and is about an hour’s drive south of Rochester. Be prepared to share some of the trails with fat tire bikers on occasion.

A golf course can be a great place for novices to learn and practice, since such terrain is open, free of obstructions and tends not to be very steep. Going doing hill as a beginner? Remember to hold those skis in a “V” shape to control your downhill speed as you test out the friendly terrain at  Soaring Eagles Golf Course at Mark Twain State Park in Horseheads, Chemung County.

Central Region

There are 12 miles of trails at Selkirk Shores State Park in Pulaski, Oswego County. A staff favorite is a beginner/intermediate three-mile loop that incorporates the Front Pond Trail, Pine Grove Trail, a section of the 52C snowmobile trail, and Red Fox Trail, before returning to the Pine Grove Trail

Verona Beach State Park, in Verona Beach, Onedia County, offers miles of trails where they might encounter wildlife like white tailed deer, squirrels, foxes, and more. The two-mile Hog’s Back Trail loop follows a natural rise along Verona Beach’s massive swamp. Keep your eyes open at the overlooks for a potential glimpse of the nest of a mated pair of bald eagles.

There are about 15 miles of trails at Gilbert Lake State Park in Laurens, Otsego County. The mile-long trail around the namesake lake is periodically groomed, as is the two-mile Ice Pond Trail to the Twin Fawns Lake Trail.

Genesee Region

In Wyoming County, head for Letchworth State Park in Castile, and its Humphrey Nature Center and the Winter Recreation Area at Trailside Lodge. Here, there are three beginner trails, each about 1.5 miles long.

The park contains seven different parking areas to access about 15 miles of (usually ungroomed) trails. Glide through old-growth forest on the Gravel Loop and the Bishop Woods Loop. For great views of the spectacular Great Bend Gorge, check out the Chestnut Lawn Loop.

Long Island Region

There are two ungroomed trails at the Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, Suffolk County _ the 1.5-mile beginner Green Trail that goes through woods, fields and wetlands, and the 1-mile Orange Trail that offers view of Willow Pond.

At the Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, Suffolk County, there are many miles of marked hiking trails that can be skied. There is no grooming, and trails range from one to eight miles in length. The preserve includes an historic former sportsmen’s club and a newly-restored 18th century gristmill.

About six miles of ungroomed trails, ranging from intermediate to advance, are found at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park, Suffolk County. Take the Field 4 Trail to ski through woods before reaching overlooks for Sunken Meadow Creek and Long Island Sound. No skiing is allowed on the golf course.

Niagara Region

At Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, Erie County, explore the Outer Loop Trail that begins at the Red Barn Parking Lot. A 2.7-mile trail suitable for beginners, it meanders through open pastures and fields, with some short legs through forests and views of farmlands and valleys.

Explore trails at Evangola State Park in Irving, Chautauqua County, to capture views of Lake Erie. The trail network covers about five miles, with the Rim Trail running along the edge of the lake.

Saratoga/Capital Region

At Mine Kill State Park in North Blenheim, Schoharie County, start at the park office for the moderate, three-mile Long Path/Bluebird Trail Loop, which offers sweeping views of the Schoharie Valley and the Blenheim-Gilboa Reservoir. Snowshoes and a small assortment of XC skis are free to borrow from the Park Office with a small deposit.

The moderate/intermediate Shaver Pond Trail at Grafton Lakes State Park in Grafton, Rensselaer County is a two-mile loop around the pond, where you can often see signs of beaver activity. The trail has some roots and rocks, so be mindful of snow cover. The park office rents snowshoes, but not skis.

Skiers have been going to Thacher State Park in Voorheesville, Albany County, for years because of its extensive trail network. Try out the lesser-used North Zone of the park, and its Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail, a three-mile intermediate loop through fields and forests. Use the Carrick Road parking area.

Beginners can practice on groomed trails that run for a total of three miles through the camping loops and around the lake at Moreau Lake State Park in Moreau, Saratoga County. There is skiing on ungroomed trails through the rest of the park.

Taconic Region

While there are no marked or groomed trails for skiing at James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, the park’s golf course and many small, undulating hills there are a great place for beginners to practice climbing, turning, slowing and (maybe a little) falling.

Skiers could spend days touring the 25 miles of carriage roads at Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville, Westchester County. Some favorites are the beginners’ 1.15-mile Brothers Path/Swan Lake Carriage Road, with views of the lake; the Thirteen Bridges/Gory Brook Carriage Roads, which along 2.5 miles of intermediate terrain offer view of the Pocantico River and waterfalls; and the intermediate Rockwood Hall Middle, Lower and Foundation Loop Carriage Roads, that go past the Hudson River.

There are 12 miles of trails at Fahnestock Winter Park in Carmel, Putnam County. Equipment rentals are available at the lodge, which also marks the start of the popular Lake Trail. Weather permitting, trails are also groomed on the lake. The trail will take you by a beaver lodge, over the dam built by the Civil Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and past many small islands.

Cross-country skiing at Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County can be as near as one’s own backyard, as most of the ungroomed 26-mile trail is bordered by homes.  As the park is level, the area is great for those who are new to the sport. 

The Aqueduct is crossed by many streets, and the best cross-country skiing is found in the sections with the fewest road crossings.  Top on the list is the section from Gory Brook Road in Sleepy Hollow to Country Club Lane in Scarborough, about two and a half miles of level trail through the woods.  This section connects to Rockefeller State Park Preserve.   Those who like hills should enter Rockefeller Preserve just north of the Weir chamber and follow the Peggy’s Way trail south for some gentle hills before returning to the Aqueduct.

Another popular area is at the northernmost section by the Croton Dam.  Here the trail clings to the sides of a steep gorge through which runs the Croton River.  The Gorge is a park of its own, operated by the Department of Environmental Conservation and called the Croton Unique Area.  Only two lightly-traveled roads cross the 2.5 miles of wooded Aqueduct trail as it heads south to Croton.

Curiously the most densely-populated area through which the trail runs also features a fine area for skiing.  This section, likewise of about 2.5 miles, has two road crossings, but almost all of it runs through the woods, with unparalleled winter views of the Hudson River and Palisades. 

Palisades Region

There are stunning clifftop views from trails at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. Being free of rocks, roots and other obstructions, the 16-mile network of carriage trails are wide and “skiable” even with only a few inches of snow.

Thousand Island Region

At Robert Moses State Park in Massena, St. Lawrence County, there are more than five miles of trails through the woods and along the St. Lawrence River in  NY. The Nicandri Nature Center offers ski and snowshoe loans for all ages as well as ski instruction.

In the western Adirondacks, Higley Flow State Park in Colton, St. Lawrence County, has the popular 1.3-mile Overlook Trail that passes through a pine and spruce forest.  This trail connects with the Backcountry Trail (1.9 miles) and the Warm Brook trail (1.6 miles) for those wishing to challenge themselves further.

This is just a sampling of the ski trails at State Parks. So, when snow is on the ground, grab your skis, and get out there!


Cover Photo: Skiers at Saratoga Spa State Park. All photos by State Parks.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks


Read this history of cross-country skiing in the Adirondacks.

State Parks Take Star Turn For Oscars Week

The Oscars were years away when a young Syracuse native came to icy gorges and waterfalls outside Ithaca in the Finger Lakes as a silent movie star in 1917.

In a film entitled “The Great White Trail,” 20-year-old actress Doris Kenyon played the role of married woman falsely accused of infidelity fleeing to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life.

Poster for “The Great White Trail,” which was produced by Ithaca-based Wharton Releasing Corp. (Photo Credit- Wharton Film Museum)

Ithaca-based producers (and brothers) Leopold and Theodore Wharton thought that the area’s rugged winter beauty, highlighted by the frozen 115-foot Lucifer Falls, could stand in for Alaska. A few years later in 1920, this dramatic setting in Tompkins County became the 1,256-acre Robert H. Treman State Park. The first Oscars awards for the burgeoning motion picture industry, now firmly anchored in Los Angeles, finally arrived in 1929.

Ithaca played a critical role in the history of the silent movie industry when the Wharton brothers ran their studio in what is now the city’s Stewart Park from 1914 to 1919, making more than two dozen movies. There were stunts and antics, including when the brothers bought a trolley car from the city to film careening off a bridge, and the time when dozens of skunks from a local farm were rented for a scene, only to escape, spray the actors and crew, and shut down production.

Shooting in their studios and on location in the dramatic gorges around the area, the Whartons brought famous movie stars of that era to Ithaca, making it the unofficial capital of the silent film industry, as reflected in these early newspaper clippings from the Wharton Studio Museum.

Ithaca stockbroker F.W. Stewart was cast as the villain in The Great White Trail. Afterward, bitten by the acting bug, he became a professional actor and director in the early film industry. (Photo Credit- Wharton Film Museum)

“The Wharton brothers and Ithaca were pioneers in this emerging art form. Some very unique history happened here,” said Diana Riesman, executive director and co-founder of the museum.

One of the Whartons’ silent film stars, Irene Castle, lived in Ithaca after marrying local resident Robert E. Treman, the son of Robert H. Treman, a prominent upstate political and financial leader who later donated the land used for The Great White Trail that became the state park now bearing his name.

Many of the Wharton’s film reels were destroyed in 1929 when the highly-flammable nitrate film caught fire in their lawyer’s garage in Ithaca. However, the original Wharton studio building still exists in the park, and is used by the city public works department for maintenance.

In the years since the freewheeling Wharton brothers, the variety of landscapes found in State Parks have shared the spotlight many times in a wide range of films, television programs and other productions, from the well-known and prestigious to the obscure and unsung.

Some are little nuggets of film history. Did you know, for example, that iconic comedian Henny Youngman’s final film appearance came in 1995 at the former state Kings Park Psychiatric Center in what is now part of Nissequogue River State Park in Suffolk County?

The former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, closed since 1996. Trespassing is forbidden. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

In the little-remembered “Eyes Beyond Seeing,” which was the story of a mental patient with religious delusions, the then 89-year-old “King of the One-Liners” played a brief cameo role as another patient who thinks he is … Henny Youngman. He must have cracked himself up. <rimshot>

Niagara Falls State Park has one of the most dramatic backdrops available anywhere, within numerous films using the thundering cataracts, including the 1953 film “Niagara.” This film noir thriller helped establish the sensuous image of 27-year-old actress Marilyn Monroe, who received top billing for the first time in her budding career.

Poster for “Niagara,” starring Marilyn Monroe, whose image is incorporated into the waterfalls. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

In recent years, other films at the falls have included the comedy “Tammy” in 2014 with Melissa McCarthy, part of which was filmed at the always-torrential “Hurricane Deck” at the Cave of the Winds. The park also was featured in “Henry’s Crime” in 2010 with Keanu Reeves, whose falsely-accused-of-a-crime Buffalo toll taker has a romantic interlude at the falls.

Melissa McCarthy at Niagara Falls.
Keanu Reeves during shooting at Niagara Falls State Park.

Surf and sun always make for a good movie, with Jones Beach State Park and other shoreline parks in Long Island long popular as shooting sites. In 1949, middle-aged actor and future President Ronald Reagan filmed a romantic comedy at Jones Beach, aptly titled “The Girl From Jones Beach.”

“The Girl From Jones Beach” post, featuring future President Ronald Reagan, as well as Virginia Mayo and Eddie Bracken. (Photo Credit-Wikipedia Commons)

Other films of more recent vintage that have shot at this iconic oceanside park have included “Men in Black 3 (2012), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2” (2016), and “Mildred Pierce” (2011).

The 2004 romantic film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” filmed in part at Camp Hero State Park on Long Island at Montauk Point, had one of the characters uttering the phrase “Meet me at Montauk,” which can still be found on t-shirts and promotional items for the area.

The lighthouse at Montauk Point State Park.
This scene on a frozen river with Kate Winslet and Jim Carey from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was shot in Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park about 40 miles north of New York City in Westchester County.

If skyline is what a filmmaker needs, the Big Apple has that in spades. Numerous films have been shot at State Parks in the city, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2012 at Bayswater Point State Park), the senior citizen heist comedy  “Going in Style” (2017 at East River State Park), and “Still Alice,” a 2014 film in which Julianne Moore plays a woman coping with an Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis that was shot in Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park.

The 2015 short film “The Bench,” is set at a bench in Gantry Plaza State Park, with its spectacular views of the midtown Manhattan, where a suicidal man has a conversation with a passerby that changes his life.

This dramatic cityscape park has been used in many feature, foreign and student films, including the 2016 Ricky Gervais comedy “Special Correspondents,” the 2019 comedy “Holiday Rush” about a DJ dealing with losing his job, and “Here Today,” a 2019 May-September comedy with Billy Crystal.

Some thirty miles north of the city, the former estate of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller – now the Rockefeller State Park Preserve – has been used for many films and television shows, most recently the 2019 gangster epic “The Irishman” by director Martin Scorsese, who shot from the 13 Bridges Trail to film driving scenes on Route 117 below.

The office at the preserve stood in for the police station in the 2001 prankster cop comedy “Super Troopers.” A scene where a police car goes screeching into reverse down a highway was filmed on Route 117 in the park.

Scene from opening of comedy film Super Troopers, shot on Route 117 inside Rockefeller State Park Preserve.

Further up the Hudson Valley, the great lawn for the estate at the Staatsburgh State Historic Site along the banks of the river was used as a backdrop for the 2019 superhero movie “Avengers Endgame.”

The digitally-enhanced great lawn at Staatsburgh in “Avengers Endgame.”

In the Capital Region, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” (2009), a story of how the Woodstock music festival of 1969 came about, was filmed at Cherry Plain State Park in the rugged eastern hills of Rensselaer County. And parts of the 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer” were shot in Saratoga Spa State Park.

Out in western New York, the base-jumping scene in “Get Him to The Greek” (2010) was filmed in the spectacular gorge setting of Letchworth State Park, often called the “Grand Canyon of The East.”

The base-jumping scene at Letchworth State Park from “Get Him to The Greek.” (Photo credit- Parks & Trails New York)

And sometimes, an even more primeval look is what’s called for. That’s what producers of the low-budget 1983 caveman comedy film “Luggage of the Gods!” found in the rocky trails and mountains at Harriman State Park. Filming centered around the Claudius Smith Den, a rock shelter dating back to Native American times and used during the Revolutionary War by a notorious gang of Tories.

Finally, something altogether darker might be needed, and State Parks has places for that, too. The grounds of Glimmerglass State Park and the nearby 50-room, 18th century estate at Hyde Hall State Historic Site were the setting for a short horror film “A Nightmare Awakes.” The film tells a story of Mary Shelley, the young author of the book Frankenstein, as she begins to experience vivid hallucinations.

So, State Parks can offer aspiring filmmakers a setting for every story. Such films are part of the state’s efforts to attract such activity through the Governor’s Office of Motion Picture & Television Development, which has drawn productions that have contributed billions of dollars to the state’s economy.

And should you ever wish to see The Great White Trail, the silent film set at Robert H. Treman State Park, or another classic silent film, check the event page for the Wharton Studio Museum or Taughhannock Falls State Park . The film has been shown during summers at the park in recent years and is still drawing an audience. A silent movie screening is planned there for summer 2020.


Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks.


Learn more about the silent film era in Ithaca in the Finger Lakes at the Wharton Studio Museum.

Cornell University Press is releasing a book in April on the history of Wharton films in Ithaca entitled Silent Serial Sensations by Barbara Tepa Lupack.

The Wharton Studio Museum is part of the newly-created Finger Lakes Film Trail, which also includes the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, and the Case Research Laboratory in Auburn. The sites host film events, lectures, and screenings.

Parks Cave As Sanctuary for Embattled Bats

More than a decade after a devastating, bat-killing fungus was first discovered at a State Parks cave in the Capital Region before sweeping across half of the U.S., that same cave now offers a glimmer of hope for some survivors.

Hailes Cave stretches for nearly a mile beneath the 100 million-year-old limestone escarpment at Thacher State Park in the rural western portion of Albany County. It was in this cave, long an important winter hibernation site for thousands of bats, that state wildlife biologists in 2007 observed the first cases of what was later known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

This fungal disorder kills bats by infecting their skin, disturbing their hibernation, exhausting critical fat reserves needed for winter survival, and rousting them early from caves to starve without insects to eat. WNS has swept out since in all directions, killing millions of bats in 32 states and seven Canadian provinces

“White nose” refers to a ring of white fungus seen on the nose of affected bats, and which can spread to the rest of its body. The fungus originates in Europe and Asia, where native bats have developed a resistance to it.

Map shows how White Nose Syndrome has spread since its first discovery 2007 in Hailes Cave in Thacher Thacher State Park. Click here to see an animation of this map. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

With bat populations exposed to WNS in the U.S. plummeting by 90 percent or more, the outlook has been uniformly bleak for more than a decade, since there are no known methods of treating infected bats or eliminating the cave-dwelling fungus, identified as Pseudogyymnoascus destructans.

Some Bats Fending Off White Nose Syndrome

But now, it appears that a certain species of bat – the little brown bat, or Myotis lucifugus – is evolving its own natural resistance to better survive the fungal infections, according to a December 2019 study of hibernating bats in a former cement mine in Ulster County in the Hudson Valley. (The location of this mine is not revealed to reduce the risk of human intrusion, which can reduce the bats’ potential for survival.)

Little brown bats cling to the ceiling at Hailes Cave during their hibernation. This is when bats enter a episodic state called “torpor,” in which their metabolism slows. Torpor allows the tiny mammals to sustain critical levels of body fat reserves needed to survive hibernation until springtime, when they can emerge and find insects to eat. (Photo Credit- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)
A little brown bat infected with the white fungus around its nose and face. The fungus can also spread to other parts of the bat’s body, and disrupts the bat’s period of torpor, causing it to use critical body fat reserved critical to surviving hibernation. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation).
State Parks biologist Casey Holzworth checks cracks and crevices for hibernating bats during a 2015 visit to Hailes Cave to count the bat population. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

The recent study is co-authored by Carl Herzog, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC); Craig L. Frank, with the Department of Biological Sciences at Fordham University, and April D. Davis, with the Griffin Laboratory at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany.

Historically, Hailes Cave has been a critical statewide cave for hibernating bats. Caves provide a constant temperature above freezing all winter long that allows bats to hibernate until spring, and as such, is called a hibernaculum. During this period, bats are in a state called torpor, in which their bodily functions slow dramatically, allowing them to slowly draw down a reserve of body fat needed to survive until spring, when insects return as a food supply.

Hailes Cave can be tight quarters. State researchers crawl on their hands and knees to reach the bat hibernaculum. Read Parks’ staffer Emily DeBolt’s account of the 2015 visit here. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

Hailes Cave Shows Rebound in Bat Population

Researchers have found that the numbers of bats hibernating at Hailes Cave, which plummeted after the onset of WNS to a low of about 1,200 bats by 2010, have been steadily rebounding, and by 2019 totaled about 7,200 animals. Before the fungus arrived, however, bat populations at Hailes were at least double this level. Bat populations at the Ulster County hibernaculum also increased significantly during that same period.

Most importantly, the recent study found that little brown bats at the Ulster County site are somehow developing a natural resistance to the fungal infection, so that an increasing number of bats get only a moderate infection, or perhaps no infection at all, even though the fungus is present in the cave. And this resistance appears to be behind the increased population at Hailes Cave.


“Clearly, Hailes Cave provides what little brown bats need, but exactly what those factors are is a subject of some speculation… there is some research suggesting that caves draw bats from a geographically larger summer range than mines, because caves have been available for thousands of years, whereas most mines only became available in the 20th century.”

DEC Wildlife Biologist Carl Herzog

Normally, bats wake from torpor during hibernation about once every three weeks. Bats infected with WNS were waking up every week and using up precious calories in the winter months, causing them to leave caves early and die of starvation. Now, little brown bats are waking up an average of once every two weeks, the study found.

This allows these bats remain in hibernation longer and retain sufficient fat reserves needed to survive until spring. Exactly how the little brown bats are developing this resistance to WNS is still unknown.

However, this encouraging evolutionary adaptation applies only to little brown bats, meaning that other bat species found at Hailes Cave, including the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) are so far demonstrating no such defense, and their numbers are not rebounding.

The resurgence in the little brown bat at Hailes is also tempered by the fact that this species has not rebounded at other bat caves surveyed by state wildlife officials in Albany and Schoharie counties. This implies that surviving WNS-resistant bats from around the region might be congregating in Hailes for reasons as yet unknown. Brown bats can travel many miles from their summer ranges to ar hibernaculum, with the record for a little brown bat being a journey of 300 miles.

But for now, the study is a small bit of hope in a story that so far has been very grim.

State Parks, DEC and Cave Explorers Group Work Together To Protect Hailes Cave

In 2013, to protect the remaining beleaguered bats at Hailes from being disturbed by human intruders, crews from Thacher State Park, DEC and the Schoharie-based, not-for-profit Northeastern Cave Conservancy installed a two-ton steel “bat gate” near the Hailes entrance. The gate has bars that allow bats to come and go, but blocks human entry.

Crews haul steel bars for the construction of the “bat gate” inside the entrance to Hailes Cave. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)
The “bat gate” is welded into position. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

Read this 2014 account in the New York State Parks blog about the gate project…

State Parks crews at Thacher keep an eye on the cave to ensure the gate remains in place to deter trespassers. When crews last spring noticed that some emerging bats died after becoming trapped in burdock patches near the mouth of the cave, those plants were cut away.

Every entry by people into a hibernaculum while the bats are present is likely to cause harm to the bats. It is illegal to enter most active bat hibernation sites in New York. To help the bats, people must stay away to prevent spread of WNS and to not disturb the bats.

Hailes Cave is among the largest bat hibernation caves in New York, and plays an important role in supporting our remaining bats. This cave, along with the Ulster County mine site, is now also giving us insight into how this tiny mammal appears capable of a rapid evolutionary response to a fungal attacker, which may help it to survive as a species.


Post by Brian Nearing, State Parks Deputy Public Information Officer

Cover Shot: Little brown bats cling to the ceiling at Hailes Cave (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

What Can You Do To Help Bats?

  • Build a bat house for their use during the summer season.
  • Reduce your use of pesticides and more, based on these tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For More Information

Read the Bats of New York brochure; some of these bats are rarer than they were when brochure was created.

New York Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guides, which cover seven of the nine species of bats found in NY.

Growing the Future in Gilded Age Greenhouses

State Parks contain a diversity of habitats, from forest and fields, to shrub swamp, marshes and streams. All these landscapes support a wide variety of native plants.

As part of efforts at Parks to restore land and protect biodiversity, it is important to have the right plants for the right habitats in order to support healthy ecological function, provide critical habitat for wildlife and reduce the threat from invasive species.

Such projects require a source of plants that are native to the area. Since it can be difficult to find such plants commercially, the Plant Materials Program was started at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in 2016.

This program was created by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team, which was working at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ontario County, to restore a grassland habitat critical for endangered birds. And the job called for 200 different species of native plants.

Since then, such plants have been grown in the Sonnenberg’s historic greenhouses in Canandaigua, at the north end of its namesake lake in the Finger Lakes region, to cover parks projects in the eastern part of New York. Many of the Sonnenberg greenhouses had been vacant for years, so this was a perfect match for the facility.

Seedings for native plants, grown from seeds hand-collected in the field by State Parks staffers at the Plant Materials Program, fill the greenhouses at Sonnenberg.

Plant Materials Program Coordinator Brigitte Wierzbicki, Lead Technician David Rutherford and technician Elizabeth Padgett, supported by seasonal staff, partners, and interns, run the program. To fill orders, they identify native species in the field, sustainably collect seeds, propagate those seeds in the greenhouses, and deliver plants back to project sites.

Now in its fourth year, the Ganondagan project aims to recreate the oak savanna grasslands found there in the 1600’s, when the land was managed by the Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) people. This last season, the Plant Materials Program provided more than 5,000 plants towards this project, and over 100 pounds of hand-collected seed have been sown on site.

Currently, the Plant Materials Program provides for environmental stewardship projects across six State Park regions of the state, from the Finger Lakes Region and eastward to the Taconic Region. The program also works with Parks Western District Nursery and its Native Landscape Resource Center, managed by Kevin McNallie at Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, which provides native plantings for the western regions of the state.

Additional guidance on plant suitability for specific habitats or sites is provided by NY Natural Heritage Program.

Why Native Plants?

A wealth of literature points to native plants and species diversity as critical factors for successful restoration. Native plantings are better able to compete against invasive species than non-native plants. Planting more native species also increases both plant and animal diversity. Ensuring that plants are not only native, but regionally appropriate and genetically diverse increases the likelihood that the plantings will be successful and contribute to their local ecosystem.

Plant Materials Program staff search for wild, naturally-occurring populations for each project within the same ecoregion. Ecoregions are zones defined by their plants, soil, geography, geology, climate, and more. Plants that live in the same ecoregion have adaptations that help each species survive in those precise conditions, so seed has the best chance of survival if it is replanted within that zone.

New York State is split into 42 different ecoregions, with each region warranting a different seed collection so that seed is often not shared across projects. In the Sonnenberg greenhouses, plants are not allowed to hybridize (or cross-pollinate) with plants from other regions. Preserving the plant genetics of each ecoregion is important to maintain each unique habitat.

Science of Collecting Native Seeds

Seed collection involves more than just taking a seed from a plant. Our collectors ensure collections aren’t harming the population. Only a small fraction of seed is taken from each plant, so that enough seed remains to support that population, and to serve as food for insects and other animals.

Populations of a plant must be large enough to support seed collection. Areas are monitored before and after collection, and they are not collected from again for multiple years. The conservation of intact ecosystems is more effective than planting and restoring ecosystems, so it is important that seeds are collected in a way that protects existing plant populations.

Measures are also taken to capture genetic diversity, including collecting multiple times a season and using field techniques to collect evenly or randomly across a population. Collectors avoid selecting for specific traits, as that can reduce a population’s ability to adapt, and can in turn negatively impact other populations.

Native Plants Help an Endangered Butterfly

In the Capital Region, the Plant Materials Program collects wildflower seed to support Parks Stewardship staff in restoring rare butterfly habitat. Saratoga Spa State Park is home to the state and federally-endangered, and globally-rare Karner blue butterfly. This small butterfly lives in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and during its caterpillar stage, it feeds on only one wildflower: the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis).

Blue Lupine. (Photo Credit- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Karner blue butterfly on lupine. (Photo credit- C. Voight)

Picking seeds from the right lupine plants is extremely important, as the chemical makeup of lupine has been shown to vary across the range of the species. Introducing a new strain of lupine might be harmful or even toxic for the butterflies. For example, the same species of lupine growing in another state could be different enough from the ones growing at Saratoga Spa State Park that, if planted there, could be toxic to the Karner blue butterflies living in the park.

A 2015 study found that survival and development of the Karner blue was linked to which lupines caterpillars had fed upon. Expanding lupine at Saratoga Spa through local seed is the safest option to protect the unique genetics of both the butterflies and lupine.

New Life for Sonnenberg’s Historic Greenhouses

Each spring, the Plant Materials Program grows a new cycle of plants in Sonnenberg’s historic Lord & Burnham greenhouses. These are greenhouses which date back to the Gilded Age of the early 1900s and reflect the botanical passions of the home’s original residents, Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, two prominent philanthropists.

The historic greenhouse complex at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. (Photo Credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion)
One of the greenhouses that is currently under restoration. A not-for-profit group that manages the site is fundraising to help support such work. (Photo credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion).

At the time of construction between 1903 and 1915, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg reflected state-of-the-art technology. Only a handful of other such Lord & Burnham structures survive today, with some major examples found at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

The federal government acquired the Sonnenberg grounds in 1931 and passed it to a not-for-profit preservation organization in 1972. State Parks bought the property in 2005, while the not-for-profit group continues to manage it and raise funds to support the restoration of these historically-significant greenhouses.

This 50-acre estate and its greenhouses, gardens, and Queen Anne-style mansion are all open to the public from May through October. A portion of the greenhouses interprets the legacy of the site, including a palm house, orchid house, and cactus house.

Patrons can tour the greenhouses utilized by the Plant Materials Program and learn about the thousands of plants grown for restoration of native ecosystems. Housing the program at Sonnenberg expands the interpretative value for park visitors and supports the restoration of these historic structures.

During this long winter, know that the next generation of native plants for New York State Parks projects is being nurtured in a historic greenhouse complex that dates to the Gilded Age, and come spring, will be ready to preserve and protect some of our most precious places.

Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in winter. The site is open May 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

Post by Brigitte Wierzbicki, Plant Materials Program Coordinator

Cover photo by Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Site


Consider Native Species When Planting At Home

  •  Check if you have natives already coming up in your garden or yard. It is likely that you already have some native plants that are providing habitat, and these will be best adapted to your local ecosystem. Use indentification resources to see what is from NY or New England. Apps like iNaturalist, online guides like GoBotany, or field guides like Newcomb’s (Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb) are great resources for getting started.

  • Native Plantfinder is a great resource to choose which plants are native to your zip code! It also ranks plants based on the number of native butterflies and moths that can use the plants—meaning you will be bringing in more wildlife into your garden including pollinators and birds. It is still in development and only a small fraction of these will be available commercially, so double check your favorites with what’s available.
  • Use the New York Flora Atlas to ensure the plant you’re interested in is native to the state. Even better if it’s native to the county you’re planting in!
  • Utilize the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Saratoga Tree Nursery. The 2020 Seedling Sale is currently ongoing and is an affordable way to purchase native plants and support environmental conservation work in the state.
  • Check out the Native Plant Nursery Directory to find your local native plant nursery. Request that your local garden center carries native plants, and ideally, ones that are from New York. Often the native species in nurseries are sourced from outside of New York, or even the southern U.S. These won’t be as well adapted to New York.
  • Avoid cultivars of native species. You may find some natives in nurseries with different names signifying they have been bred for different colors or flower shapes. These changes can reduce the ecosystem function of the plants, or even populations beyond your garden if they are able to breed. Our native species evolved with the native pollinators, and changes can make the plants completely unusable for native pollinators.
  • Do not collect from the wild for your garden. Taking from the wild can be more damaging to the ecosystem than the benefit that it may bring to your garden. Collecting from the wild is also often illegal. Many factors need to be considered for safe harvests, and many of our plant populations are experiencing declines due to development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, deer overabundance, climate change, and more. It can be hard to know if the seeds you’re taking will damage the population or remove a critical food source, so don’t take the risk!

References

Bakker, J.D. & Wilson, S.D. (2004) Using ecological restoration to constrain biological invasion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41, 1058–1064.

Fargione, J.E. & Tilman, D. (2005) Diversity decreases invasion via both sampling and complementarity effects. Ecology Letters, 8, 604–611.

Handel, K. (2015) Testing local adaptation of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) to its single host plant the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation).

Hereford J. 2009. A quantitative survey of local adaptation and fitness trade-offs. American Naturalist 173:579-588.

Johnson R, Stritch L, Olwell P, Lambert S, Horning ME, Cronn R. 2010. What are the best seed sources for ecosystem restoration on BLM and USFS lands? Native Plants Journal 11(2): 117-131.

Kline, V.M. (1997) Orchards of oak and a sea of grass. In: Packard, S.; Mutel, C.F., editors. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Washington, DC: Island Press:3-21.

Omernik, J. M. (1987). Ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Annals of the Association of American geographers77(1), 118-125.

Plant Conservation Alliance, P. (2015). National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration 2015-2020. Bureau of Land Management. Available at: https://www. blm. gov/programs/natural-resources/native-plant-communities/national-seed-strategy.