Category Archives: Park Projects

Trail Work: Excelsior Conservation Corps Helps out at Hamlin Beach State Park

Recently, members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC), an AmeriCorps program, visited Hamlin Beach State Park to help the staff with some major trail maintenance projects. The ECC is a partnership between State Parks, the Department of Conservation, the Environmental Facilities Corporation, and the Student Conservation Association. The members in this program range from ages 18-25, and have learned skills and methods in conservation and preservation of the environment. While working at Hamlin Beach, for nine days, the ECC crewmembers were given projects to work on at various trail sites.

The first area the crewmembers worked on was the Devil Nose Trail. This trail is located right next to some very high cliffs and had been closed off for a while due to storm damage. The team was given the task to help re-route a portion of the trail, so that it would be further from the edge of the cliffs. They also needed to widen the full route to 8 ft. so that a small all-terrain vehicle could drive through it in order to bring woodchips onto the path. The original trail was very uneven and hard to follow, so the goal was to create a nice finished and flatter area to walk on.

After clearing away leaves and moving the dirt aside to widen the section of the pre-existing trail, the crewmembers followed the newly flagged route to create a new trail corridor using chainsaws, and tools such as hard rakes, pick mattocks and Mcleods. The chainsaws were used to cut up fallen trees so they could be move away from the trails or used along the trail edge. The other tools were used to move dirt, sand, leaves and smaller sticks to level the path.

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A section of Devil’s Nose Trail before they cleared it away, photo by the ECC.

After the trail was cleared away, the Parks’ maintenance staff dumped piles of woodchips throughout the trail, and then the ECC members spread them out with rakes.

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Section of the Devil’s Nose trail completed with wood chips, photo by the ECC.

Once the half-mile long of Devil’s Nose Trail was completed, the ECC crewmembers were asked to work on maintaining a small short loop trail over by the campground. After walking the area, they marked off which trees were hazardous and needed to be taken down with a chainsaw. In the beginning of the trail the team noticed that there was a trail turnpike, but the area right after it was very muddy. Help was needed.

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Two ECC crewmembers working on using the chainsaw to cut the ends of the lumber to match the ends of the lumber on the pre-existing turnpike, photo by the ECC.

The purpose of a turnpike is to raise the trail surface out of a muddy or wet area to make the trail better to walk on. It consists of two short pieces of lumber that are laid down going across a trail. They are buried about 3/4ths down, and serve as “sills”, for the longer lumber to sit on. The long pieces of lumber need to be cut out with a chainsaw so that there are little sections for it to fit the sill. This makes them sitting level with the ground. Once all of the pieces of wood are laid out the open, area is filled with gravel so it will provide a durable surface for hikers to walk on.

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The turnpike in the process of being set into the sills, photo by the ECC.

The ECC members created a new section of turnpike completely from scratch. They searched for the lumber among the trees just cut down and had to actually de-bark the trees before the construction began. They then measured everything out and set up the pieces of wood to match the previously made turnpike. In the end the turnpike turned out to be 14 feet long!

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The finished turnpike. The new addition is the last section furthest away in the picture, photo by the ECC.

This is one of many projects the ECC has worked on this summer. They also helped remove invasive species at Ganondagan State Historic Site and make a new trail at Mine Kill State Park.  State Parks is grateful for the help ECC provides in our parks and historic sites.

ECC is recruiting for the 2019 season. If you would like to join the crew, follow this link for more information.

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC

 

Marsh Madness: Restoration of Iona Marsh from Invasive Phragmites

Iona Island, located along an elbow of the Hudson River in Bear Mountain State Park, is technically an archipelago of three islands connected by marshlands. Iona has had many owners in its storied history, prior to being bought by New York State in the 1960s. The Island was host to Native American tribes for thousands of years, who took advantage of the plentiful shellfish along its shores. In the last few hundred years, it has been the site of an unsuccessful vineyard, a hotel and weekend destination for NYC residents, a U.S. Navy arsenal, and a partially built park recreation area. The eastern side of the island past the railroad tracks has been closed to the public since the 1980s, but a small portion of the island consisting of the five remaining Navy buildings is used for storage for the Palisades Interstate Park system. The rest of the island has returned to a more natural state of woods, meadows, and rocky outcroppings and serves as a sanctuary for wintering bald eagles.  The island achieved National Natural Landmark status in 1974, and was designated a NYS Bird Conservation Area and Audubon Important Bird Area shortly thereafter.

A key natural feature at Iona is the extensive marshlands, 153 acres in all, flanking its western side.  Part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve (HRNERR), this brackish tidal marsh (marshes with water that has different concentrations of salt depending on the tides) teams with life including fish, waterfowl, waterbirds, plants, and crustaceans. In recent times, the rich biodiversity of the marsh, including a number of state rare species, has been threatened by Phragmites australis, or as it is more widely known, common reed.

Common reed (Phragmites australis) is a plant that was likely brought to the US from Europe and Asia in the 1800s through ship ballast or the water taken in by ships to allow them to balance on long voyages. Commonly referred to as just Phragmites, this non-native plant is invasive in the U.S., displacing and crowding out native plant species, such as cattails, rushes, asters, and many others. In turn, the presence of this species has undermined the complex web of marsh dependent organisms.

The non-native Phragmites is identifiable by its tall stature, dark blue-green leaves, and tendency to form dense stands, with little to no possibility for native species to grow in the areas that they occupy. A native species of phragmites (Phragmites americanus) occurs in NY as well, but this smaller plant with reddish stems grows with less density so it does not crowd out other flora.

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Iona Island Marsh in 2008 before treatment. Phragmites dominate the background.

The phragmites problem at Iona Marsh began in the early 1960s, when the first small colony appeared near a pipe draining into the marsh. Over the next 40 years, phragmites steadily expanded until it covered nearly 80 percent of the marsh area. Researchers tracking these changes noted a concurrent decline in marsh specialist birds and specialized brackish marsh plants, including state rarities.  In an effort to reverse these trends, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, while partnering with Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Highlands Environmental Research Institute, started a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) funded management program in 2008 focused on a 10-acre test area. The goal was to reduce the invasive phragmites, and make room for native plants to once again occupy the area. If the program was successful in this small area (1/15th of the marsh), it could be expanded to additional marshlands.

A multi-faceted control and monitoring program has been developed and implemented and the results have been dramatic. More than 90% of the phragmites was eliminated within one year and nearly 97% by the third year. Researchers saw the return of huge meadows of annual native marsh plants, including some state-threatened species, followed by perennial cattail stands. Marsh specialist birds such as Virginia rail, least bittern (State-threatened), and marsh wren followed soon thereafter.  Based on this success, the project was expanded to an adjacent 32-acre area of the marsh known as Ring Meadow. Both areas now have less than five percent Phragmites cover, an overall success on the journey to reestablish native vegetation.

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Map of the Iona Island Marsh Treatment Areas

While complete eradication of the Phragmites may be impossible to achieve, success can be maintained through continued monitoring and spot treating remaining and new patches.  Bird and vegetation surveys are conducted annually, as are measurements of sediment build-up on the marsh surface, as it relates to sea level rise.  The goal remains to restore the native plant communities in the marsh to promote biodiversity. A healthy, native marsh community will lead to increased productivity and habitats for fish, birds, and mammals – many of them specially adapted to the brackish conditions at Iona.  With continued management, the long-term outlook is positive for this Hudson River jewel, one of only four large brackish marshes on the Hudson.

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Ring Meadow in 2016. Cattail and blooming Rose Mallow have regrown where phragmites once were.

Interested in seeing Iona Marsh for yourself? While public canoeing and kayaking are not allowed in the marsh itself to protect this unique place, through collaboration with the State Parks, NYS DEC offers free public canoe programs each summer.  Not a fan of getting on the water? Iona Island is accessible by road. There is a parking lot approximately ½ mile onto the island, right before the railroad tracks (the boundary of the public accessible areas), where you can park and view the marsh. Lucky visitors may spot waterfowl, muskrats, frogs, turtles, wetland birds, deer, or even bald eagles!

Photo credit:   PIPC Archives

Dr. Ed McGowan,  2017 Annual Report Iona Island Marsh

Post by Jesse Predmore, SCA

Edited by: Dr. Ed McGowan & Chris O’Sullivan

Featured image: lulun & kame accessed from Flickr

Cool Finds from Afield – NY Natural Heritage Program in State Parks

Every year, the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) conducts field surveys in New York State Parks in search of rare plants and animals and high quality natural areas and features. There are always adventures as well as some surprises. Here a few highlights from 2018.

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NY Natural Heritage Program survey in parks across the state, to document rare flora, fauna and natural communities. Photo in Allegany State Park by J. Lundgren

Bear Bath

We surveyed dozens of vernal pools in Parks this season as part of a statewide project to help identify pools that are critical for critters like fingernail clams, fairy shrimp, wood frogs, spotted salamanders and others. Just as we finished our vegetation sampling in a vernal pool in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, a huge black bear wandered in and sat down! So close. We watched quietly until it wandered off, then packed up our gear to head to the next site. What a great day!

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This a huge vernal pool, filled with water in spring and mostly dry now. That dark spot in the center is the black bear that came to visit. Photo by J. Lundgren.

The Joys of Sedge-ing

Keen eyesight and a skill for noticing subtle differences in the structure and color of plant parts is required to find rare plants. Sedges, a grass-like plant, are among the tougher species to identify. A trick is to looks for the triangular stems – “sedges have edges” – as opposed to round stems of rushes and grasses. From there, botanists use plant keys to figure out the identity.

Botanist Richard Ring and our summer botany assistant Ian Laih set out to to the hilltops in Franny Reese and Storm King State Parks in search of rare sedges. Success! They documented new locations in both parks for two rare and easily overlooked sedges; black-edged sedge (Carex nigromarginata) and Reznicek’s sedge (C. reznicekii).

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A Flurry of Rare Dragonflies – Three in One Day!

The zoology team documented three species of rare dragonflies in one day at Harriman State Park: sable clubtail (Gomphus rogersi), arrowhead spiketails (Cordulegaster obliqua), and spatterdock darner (Rhionaeschna mutata)! The park’s forest habitat interlaced with streams, wetlands and ponds provides habitat for these cool critters.

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The rare sable clubtail (Gomphus rogersi) photographed and released. Photo E. White.

Piping Plovers Return to NY’s Great Lake shoreline

State Parks and NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) stewards discovered a pair of nesting Piping Plovers at a park on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and worked to keep them safe from pedestrians and dogs. Four chicks successfully hatched and entered the world. This is a really big deal, as the Great Lake plovers are federally endangered and the last successful fledging of chicks on NY lakeshores was in 1984! NYNHP had previously identified this area as among the best beach and dune habitats on Lake Ontario and has been working with State Parks to support protection of the rare species and habitats there. (Note you may be familiar with the piping plovers of the Atlantic coast which are listed as federally threatened).

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Note the colored bands which are put on the piping plovers to help identify individuals and track their movements. Photo by Alison Kocek.

Something Old and Something New

There are always many more places to survey and surprises to find. In the small Gilbert Lake State Park, while looking unsuccessfully for vernal pools, we were surprised to find a small patch of old-growth forest with large, over 120-year old ash, red oak, beech and maple. In Minnewaska State Park Preserve, NYNHP Botanist and Parks biologists surveyed the site of a proposed climbing route where a tiny rare fern, the mountain spleenwort (Asplenium montanum), was known. They confirmed and mapped an extensive population of the fern and also found a small but new location for the rare Appalachian sandwort (Mononeuria glabra). The new climbing routes can now be planned to avoid impacts to the rarities.

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Fen Finds

Park’s Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team discovered a new location for a rare Rich Sloping Fen community and assisted NYNHP ecologist with vegetation sampling. Fens are a type of wetland fed by groundwater and that tend to be less acidic than bogs which are typically rain-water fed. They often support rare plant species too and sure enough, NYNHP ecologist spotted the leaves of the state-threatened marsh lousewort (Pedicularis lanceolata), a new record for this plant. Park staff returned to photograph and document it when it bloomed in August.

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Salamandering

Allegany State Park in late June was the time to look for salamanders. Zoologist Ashley Ballou discovered a rare longtail salamander (Eurycea longicauda) near where they were last reported in 2009. This is a significant update of this almost 10-year old record. The park supports extensive and high-quality habitat for this and other more common amphibians like the red efts and red-backed salamander which we also saw during the surveys.

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Going Buggy

We did a lot of work on insects! The Empire State Native Pollinator survey was highlighted in a previous state parks blog Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers. There are still hundreds of specimens to be identified this winter, but some new rare insect species records have been confirmed already and there is such astounding diversity and beauty!

And thanks to expertise of others, we also obtained about 30 new records for rare moths in State Parks! Rare micro-lepidoptera (the smallest moths) were found in 8 state parks by Jason Dombroskie of Cornell University. And Hugh McGuinness finalized the results of a contract with us for moth surveys at two Long Island parks last year, adding a total of 20 records for rare moth species. All of this information goes into the NYNHP Rare Species Database.

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Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP)

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. NYNHP conducts many kinds of surveys and studies to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

All photos by NYNHP for use by permission only.

Building Bridges: the Excelsior Conservation Corps Lend State Parks a Hand at Mine Kill

Members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC) (an AmeriCorps program) recently visited Mine Kill State Park to help the State Parks staff with a few projects.  The ECC is a non-profit organization within the Student Conservation Association. The members involved in this program range from ages 18-25 and learn skills and methods on conserving and maintaining the environment. The ECC crewmembers were given the tasks of building a bridge and creating a new trail.

The members started off their workweek by focusing on rerouting the trail. The original trail was on an old tractor road. It was dangerous due to the steep slope, and would also become muddy and slippery when it rains. The ECC members chose to create a new trail that led uphill into a woodsy area.

When making a new trail “from scratch”, there are a few guidelines to follow to identify good areas for foot travel. Prior to the ECC arriving, Park staff confirmed that no sensitive resources like artifacts or rare species were present along the route. Then the ECC crew could move forward on the project.  One of the key factors is to make sure the path is a fairly flat surface with no obstacles in the way. When you’re in the middle of a wooded area, finding a natural path that meets these standards can be difficult, but the crew was able to fix a majority of the problems with the tools they brought. Another factor to keep in mind is to avoid putting a trail at the bottom of a slope, because water can collect and make it muddy and hazardous. If there is no other option than putting a trail in an area where the water pools, trail features can help diminish the impact of the water.

After the team marked off the proposed path with flagging tape on tree branches, they reviewed the route and identified needs. They brought out their tools and began digging up the dirt to make a more obvious trail. Shovels, pick mattocks, loppers and hoes are normally used for digging dirt up, picking out rocks and roots, and cutting down tree branches that are hanging over the path.

In certain areas, the path would hit a steeper slope. In order to even it out, the work crew needed to “bench” it. This required digging out a flat wall in the steep slope and dragging the dirt out to make it flatter for foot travel. This can help reduce erosion of the soil too, to make for a more durable and lasting trail.

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Two members of the ECC “benching” a steep path to make it flatter for hikers, taken by an ECC member.

In the end, the rerouted trail was measured to be a quarter of a mile long!

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An ECC member using the chainsaw to cut notches into the cedar tree, taken by another ECC member.

The other project was building a 14-foot long bridge. The ECC team began the task by cutting down two cedar trees in the woods to use as an under support system for the planks. After the trees were cut down, they carried them over to the site where they used knives and axes to “debark” the trees. Cedar is resistant to rot and by peeling off a few outer layers of the cedar trees, it delays decay even further in the future, which would potentially destroy the bridge.

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The cedar trees cut flat so they can support the planks And you can see how Red cedar get its name

After they took off the bark, they used chainsaws to split the logs lengthwise to create flat side to lay the planks. Once the trees were flattened out and put into place, the planks were drilled and bolted to lock them onto sturdy blocks of wood on either side of the creek. Finally, they placed each short plank on the cedar rails, spaced them out evenly and drilled the planks in, completing the bridge.

Now, thanks to the work of the Excelsior Conservation Corps, Mine Kill State Park has a new improved trail route and bridge crossing ready for patrons to enjoy.

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The finished 14-foot long Bridge, ready for hikers., photo by ECC members.

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC member

Rain Gardens: State Parks Has Them and You Can Have Them Too

What is a rain garden?

A rain garden is a plant-filled shallow depression that collects rainwater (stormwater) runoff. Rain gardens are a great do-it-yourself project for homeowners to manage small amounts of stormwater on their own property.  By directing runoff into the garden, the rain that falls on rooftops, driveways, and other impervious surfaces on your property infiltrates into the ground. The water in the ground recharges local and regional aquifers instead of running off across roads and parking lots eventually polluting local waterways.

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Rain gardens are pollinator gardens too! A tiger swallowtail is nectaring on the blazing star (Liatris spicata) in this rain garden.

Rain gardens are beneficial in many ways

In addition to keeping local waterways clean by filtering stormwater runoff, rain gardens also help to alleviate problems with flooding and drainage. Rain gardens are attractive and functional features that, enhance the beauty of yards and communities. When planted with native plants they provide valuable habitat and food for wildlife. like birds and butterflies and they can reduce the need for expensive stormwater treatment structures in your community.

 Selecting Plants for the Garden

When considering plants for rain gardens, remember that the they are flooded periodically and can go through dry times.  Plants in the middle of the garden, where it is deepest, should be the most adapted to very wet conditions and able to withstand being covered by water for a day or more.  Plants on the edges of the garden should be able to be briefly flooded with water, like a few hours. Be sure to stabilize the raised bank around your garden that holds the water in grass or dry-tolerant native plants as well.

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New England Aster is a great rain garden plant for fall color. And migrating monarch butterflies love them too!

Native Plants for Rain Gardens

Native plants are a great choice for rain gardens.  Planting natives helps protect New York’s biodiversity by providing food and habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Natives have evolved in our environment over many years and many of our wetland and riparian species are adapted to alternating periods of wet and dry.  The deep roots of natives absorb and filter runoff more effectively than the short roots of many turf grasses and other ornamental plants – making them a perfect fit for rain gardens!

Swamp milkweed, common boneset, cardinal flower, blue flag iris, Joe-pye weed, and white turtlehead are just a few of our native flowers that are happy in rain gardens.  Shrubs including buttonbush, bayberry, ninebark, summersweet, and winterberry can also be added if the garden is large enough.

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Swamp milkweed

Right Plant, Right Place

When constructing the garden you should consider if the site is sunny or shady in order to select the best plants. Remember – you need 6 hours or more or sun to be considered ‘full sun’.  It is easiest to find plants that work well for rain gardens that need sun, so keep this in mind when planning the location of your rain garden.  Just like with any other garden, think about what variety of height, color, and blooming period you would like as well. Mix a variety of flowers, grasses, sedges, for different shapes and textures above, and different root depths below the surface.  Shrubs are great in rain gardens too, if you have the space.  Consider planting flowers in masses of color to attract birds and butterflies.  Follow the tricks the professionals use and group plants in odd-number clumps, using 3, 5, or 7 (or more – just stick to odd numbers) of the same plant all together.  This way your rain garden is not only stopping stormwater runoff but is also providing you with a beautiful landscape to enjoy all summer long.

Get Outside and Get Inspired

Rain gardens aren’t just for homeowners. Here at New York State Parks, we use them to help manage stormwater on our properties too! Many local parks or other public places have rain gardens you can stop by and see.

In the Capital District area, there are rain gardens at Saratoga Spa State Park, Grafton Lakes State Park, Moreau Lake State Park, and Mine Kill State Park. Many of these sites also use other environmentally friendly practices for managing stormwater such as porous pavement as well.

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Rain garden at the Creekside Classroom at Saratoga Spa State Park. Coneflowers, blazing star, black eyed Susan’s, swamp milkweed, summersweet, winterberry and more are planted in this rain garden!

If you want to learn more about rain gardens, check out these great step by step how-to manuals that are available for free online

Post by Emily DeBolt, State Parks