For people with differing levels of physical ability, it can be difficult to know in advance whether a hiking trail might be too steep, too narrow, too soft, or otherwise not suitable.
Here at State Parks, we are working to help address that through something called the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). Developed in the 1990s by a Nevada-based company specializing in aiding differently abled people to engage in recreation, UTAP is a system of objective measurements taken at specific intervals along an unpaved trail to form an accurate picture of its difficulty, in terms of grade, width, surface firmness and cover.
UTAP is the creation of Beneficial Designs, whose founder Peter Axelson suffered a spinal injury in the mid-1970s. Axelson later went on to become a championship alpine adaptive skier and founded his company to design and fabricate adaptive recreational equipment for people with mobility impairments. The company also develops accessibility standards for ski areas, amusement parks, playgrounds and other outdoor recreation environments.
Parks is entering our third year of the UTAP program, having measured more than 19 miles of trails at 17 different State Parks in 2019 and 2020. It is a time consuming process done on foot with several hand tools, with measurements taken at least every 100 feet. That has meant nearly 1,200 individual measurement points have been recorded so far!
So if any hikers encounter Parks staff carrying a clinometer (a protractor-like device used to measure grade), a hand-held roller wheel (used to measure distance), a level, and a hand-held GPS unit (used to record locations), they have seen the UTAP process in action.
This year, a new wheeled “buggy” is being acquired by State Parks that will carry a laptop computer to make measurement recording faster. With the buggy, an entire mile of trail can be measured in about an hour, a big improvement over doing everything manually.
This work is being supported by a Recreational Trail Program (RTP) grant from 2019, with the project currently scheduled to run through 2022.
These thousands of measurements are meant to identify which Parks trails meet what is called Recreational Trail Accessibility Standards (RTAS), which State Parks adopted from the United States Access Board standards and United States Forest Service standards Trail Accessibility Guidelines. These standards set requirements for maximum trail steepness, width, surfaces, passing space, resting areas, trailheads, gates, and signage.
With such measurements, Parks will be able to publicize trails that already comply with RTAS and prioritize trail improvement projects that would increase trail compliance with RTAS.
So far, trails identified as meeting these standards include the Upper Falls Lookout Trail at Letchworth State Park and the Awosting Falls Connector Trail at Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
There are also several trails that are close to meeting RTAS with minor modifications including: the Bog Trail at Chenango Valley State Park, the Beacon Hill Trail at Minnewaska State Park, the Bike Path at Schodack Island State Park, and the Green Lakes and Round Lakes Trail at Green Lakes State Park.
Work is currently under way to improve the Green Lakes trails (park is #3 on the map above) so it meets standards.
More information on the UTAP assessment process and standards specific to State Parks and the trails examined so far, as well as an interactive version the above map, can be found here.
Once the measurement data is compiled and finalized, Parks will be able to provide a listing of accessible trails, as well as focus future improvement efforts on trails close to meeting accessibility standards.
The data we are collecting will also allow Parks to create detailed trail access information signs, which would provide visitors at trailheads with vital information such as slope, surface cover, distance, clearance, and elevation gains.
The goal of the UTAP program is to make Parks trails more inclusive to all, regardless of ability. If you have a favorite trail that could be assessed for accessibility, let us know in the comments!
Cover Shot – Parks staffer Sean Heaton assesses trails at Minekill State Park in Schoharie County. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)
Post by Victoria Roberts, GIS/Accessible Trails Technician, NYS Parks
If you haven’t noticed, New York’s ash trees have been struggling lately. Over the last few years, they have been rapidly dying due to a little iridescently green insect: the emerald ash borer (EAB).
An invasive beetle native to parts of Asia and Russia, EAB was first discovered in New York in Cattaraugus County in 2009. It has since spread to 55 of New York’s 62 counties, decimating once thriving ash populations.
Since its discovery in southeast Michigan in 2002, EAB has spread into 35 states and the District of Columbia, killing tens of millions of ash trees in their wake.
Emerald ash borers lay eggs between bark layers and in bark crevices on ash trees. Upon hatching, the larvae burrow through the bark and begin to feed on the tree’s living parts: the phloem and sapwood. The larval feeding creates galleries, which cut off the movement of nutrients throughout the tree. Eventually, as the infestation grows, the tree’s system of nutrient transport ceases to function, and the tree slowly starves and dies.
Ash trees are important for so many reasons. They provide cool shade in the summer heat, provide habitat for wildlife, and are a valuable source of timber and firewood. When large ash die, however, they can pose serious safety risks. Dead and dying trees often bring down powerlines along the road and cause blackouts.
In addition, many trails, campgrounds, parking lots and playgrounds are surrounded by ash that, once infested, become hazard trees that require removal. Parks’ staff must constantly monitor public use areas for the presence of dying trees that may pose a risk to patrons.
The fight to conserve ash has been an uphill battle. While pesticide treatments work, they only last a year or two before reapplication is necessary and also are too expensive to use everywhere. Statewide quarantines and public education have helped slow the spread, but these little beetles can fly over a mile and lay up to 200 eggs in a lifetime, making containment difficult.
Luckily, we may finally have a cost-effective, sustainable, and chemical-free solution to the problem. For the second year in a row, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are partnering to release three species of predatory wasps – known ecologically as biological controls or parasitoids – to battle EAB in select state parks.
These tiny warriors are heavily studied little predators from the EAB’s home countries which prey only on these beetles and pose no risk to our native ecosystem. (And don’t worry. These wasps don’t sting and are no threat to people).
The females of these species attack ash borers in the early stages of their life cycle. These three wasps were chosen because they each have slightly different ways of tackling EAB, making them a more effective as a group.
Here, let’s meet our winged team.
Tetrastichus planipennisi females lay eggs inside of EAB larvae, where the parasitoid larvae grow and eventually kill their host. They are used to protect smaller ash trees in particular, and they originate in China.
Oobius agrili lay eggs inside EAB eggs, where the parasitic wasp larvae hatch, grow, and kill the host EAB egg. These wasps are all female, so they reproduce asexually. They also originate in China.
Spathius galinaelay eggs outside of EAB larvae; when they hatch, Spathius feed on the EAB larvae, killing it. These wasps are best at helping larger ash trees, and are collected in the Russian Far East.
Last year, 11 State Parks received about 40,000 Tetrastichus wasps: Rockland Lake in Rockland County; Harriman and Bear Mountain in Rockland and Orange counties; Minekill in Schoharie County; Beaver Island and Buckhorn Island in Erie County; Clay Pit Ponds in Staten Island; Lakeside Beach in Orleans County; Golden Hill in Niagara County; Southwick Beach in Jefferson County; and Point Au Roche in Clinton County.
Starting this month, Jacques Cartier State Park in St. Lawrence County and Ganondagan State Historic Site in Ontario County will be added to that list. All three wasp species will be deployed, with an expected total of more than 50,000 wasps. All the wasps used are reared in a lab in Michigan, where they are shipped to New York and other states where USDA is coordinating its EAB biocontrol program.
For the wasps to be successful here, they need to find the beetle in its early life stages. In New York, the emerald ash borer generally begins to lay eggs in the summer; however, many larvae overwinter inside of ash trees, and are thus readily available as food for the parasitoids in the spring.
Parks staff introduces the wasps into infested ash trees through three methods:
Ash bolts are small sections of ash (think small ash logs slightly larger than cans of soup) that house mature parasitoid larvae. They are attached to infested ash trees using twine or zip ties. When the larvae mature, they leave the bolts and find EAB larvae to feed on within the ash stand.
Plastic cups containing adult parasitoids arrive on-site ready for distribution. The cups simply need to be opened, inverted and tapped gently against the trunks of infested trees.
Oobinators are used less frequently and only for the delivery of Oobius agrili. They are small, plastic pill bottles with a screen over the open end that can be attached to trees with zip ties or twine. They contain a sheet of paper with parasitized EAB eggs. Once mature, Oobius will hatch and escape through the screen.
While out exploring NYS Parks, you may see these “ash bolts” or “Oobinators” attached to trees. They are often marked with flagging for easy identification. While it may be tempting to try to get a closer look at these woodland wasp homes, it is important to let the parasitoids grow and feed uninterrupted, to give them the best possible chance of survival.
While parasitoid releases may be new to New York State Parks, USDA has been conducting releases throughout the country for several years. Subsequent studies indicate that that wasps are surviving and are feeding on the EAB.
Studies have also shown that the Tetrastichus wasps in particular can eliminate up to 85 percent of EAB larvae in ash saplings. (Duane et al., 2017)
These are promising results which suggest if parasitoid wasps can be reared in abundance, they may offer crucial protection to the next generation of ash trees. It is important to keep in mind, however, that success will not happen overnight. Wasps need to find enough EAB to build up their populations to sustainable levels and it takes time to see results, even if wasp populations are doing well. Parasitoids also will most likely not save most larger ash, but they can help manage EAB populations so smaller ash trees can have a chance grow and hopefully reproduce.
Parks is thrilled to partner with USDA in this important endeavor to protect our forests. You also can join in the effort by reporting emerald ash borer sightings or suspected damage to the iMapInvasives website or smartphone app. There is also a USDA online reporting form here.
Also, help stem the spread of EAB and other invasive forest pests by following state regulations that control the movement of untreated firewood, which can carry these invasive hitchhikers.
Untreated firewood may not be imported into NY from any other state or country.
Untreated firewood grown in NY may not be transported more than 50 miles (linear distance) from its source or origin unless it has been heat-treated to 71° C (160° F) for 75 minutes.
When transporting firewood, the following documentation is required:
If purchasing and transporting untreated firewood, it must have a receipt or label that identifies the firewood source. NOTE! Source is sometimes, but not always, the same as where it was purchased. Consumers need to use the source to determine how far the firewood may be transported.
If purchasing and transporting heat-treated firewood, it must have a receipt or label that says, “New York Approved Heat-Treated Firewood/Pest Free”. This is the producers’ declaration that the firewood meets New York’s heat-treatment requirements. Most “kiln-drying” processes meet the standard, but not all, so it is important to look for the appropriate label. Heat-treated firewood may be moved unrestricted.
Find out if your destination is within the 50-mile movement limit by using this interactive map from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Finally, if you encounter evidence of biocontrol release sites while out on State Parks trails, know that you are in the presence of these wasp warriors, engaged in a battle to save our beloved ash trees.
Above, Parks staff hang ash bolts and record release data used by USDA to measure the effectiveness of the project to combat the Emerald Ash Borer.
Cover shot – Emerald Ash Borer (Original Artwork – Juliet Linzmeier, Student Conservation Association member with NYS Parks) All other photo credited to NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.
Post by Sarah Travalio, Terrestrial Invasive Species and Biocontrol Coordinator, New York State Parks
Here are other easy tips that can make a big difference in helping stop the spread of all invasives:
Plant only non-invasive plants in your garden, or even better, plant native plants. You can use the New York Flora Atlas to check which plants are native to New York.
Clean your boots or your bike tires at the trailhead after hitting the trail – seeds of invasive plants can get stuck on your boots, clothes, or tires. You don’t want invasives in your yard or your other favorite hiking spots.
Get involved – volunteer to help protect your local natural areas, join your local PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) to stay informed, or become a citizen scientist by using iMapInvasives to report infestations of invasive species right from your smartphone.
Interested in taking a deep dive into research on the parasitoid battle against the EAB? Check out these scientific studies:
Jian J. Duan, Leah S. Bauer, Roy G. Van Driesche, Emerald ash borer biocontrol in ash saplings: The potential for early stage recovery of North American ash trees, Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 394, 2017, Pages 64-72, ISSN 0378-1127, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2017.03.024.
Duan, Jian J., Leah S. Bauer, Kristopher J. Abell, Michael D. Ulyshen, and Roy G. Van Driesche. “Population dynamics of an invasive forest insect and associated natural enemies in the aftermath of invasion: implications for biological control.” Journal of Applied Ecology 52, no. 5 (2015): 1246-1254. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12485
Jian J Duan, Roy G Van Driesche, Ryan S Crandall, Jonathan M Schmude, Claire E Rutledge, Benjamin H Slager, Juli R Gould, Joseph S Elkinton, Establishment and Early Impact of Spathius galinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) on Emerald Ash Borer (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) in the Northeastern United States, Journal of Economic Entomology, Volume 112, Issue 5, October 2019, Pages 2121–2130, https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/toz159
It’s July 1st, 1971. Nelson Rockefeller is governor of New York State, “It’s too Late” by Carole King is number one on the music charts, and gas is 40 cents a gallon. In the eastern part of the state, just shy of the Vermont border, a new state park opens in Rensselaer County, welcoming swimmers onto a monumental 1,000-foot beach.
Michael Hogan is an 18-year-old lifeguard at the new Grafton Lakes State Park, earning $1.76 an hour to keep watch over that beach with two other lifeguards, Sandy Town from Pittstown and Paul R. Jones, who everyone called “Buzz.”
Recalling the day 50 years later for the Grafton Lakes State Park’s new oral history project, Hogan remembers that his team performed a simulated rescue that aired that evening on an Albany television station covering the park opening, which was attended by State Parks Commissioner Dr. Sal J. Prezioso and other dignitaries.
Located in the heart of the Rensselaer Plateau, the new park included five lakes, 1,850 acres, a concession stand, and a park office. Hogan worked at Grafton for seven years, and now is retired and living in Rensselaer County.
This dawning of a new park was followed shortly by the end of another era at Grafton, when the Dickinson Fire Tower was shut down in 1972 after 48 years in service. One of the tower’s observers, who looked out from atop the 60-foot tower for signs of fire, was Grafton resident Helen Ellett. She was one of a handful of state female fire observers and was assigned to Dickinson from 1943 to 1965 to call in signs of fire in that heavily forested region.
According to Linda Laveway, Ellett’s granddaughter and another participant in Grafton’s oral history project, Ellett was a staunchly independent woman. Long days in the tower were no deterrent for Helen who felt pride every time she raised the American flag, knowing that through her work, she would be helping to save people’s livelihoods and possibly their very lives.
Helen Ellett was one of five women hired to be fire observers at Grafton between 1942 and its closing in 1972. When Ellett was hired in 1943 at age 29, she earned $100 a month, and was a young mother with a daughter. She usually rode one of her horses eight miles to work from where she lived in Grafton. At the tower, she was kept company by her dog, Tippy, and for a short time, her pet raccoon, Soggy.
In 1965, she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Sitting on Top of the World,” in which she described her initial training by a ranger to use spotting equipment to estimate the location of a potential fire. When she returned to the tower the next day alone and began to climb, she had to “admit the 81 steps seemed like Jacob’s ladder going to heaven … I finally reached the top and tried to open the lock with one hand to hang on with the other; I have never looked but I would not be surprised if my fingers left imprints on the steel railing. That was a long time ago. After a few trips up and down, I didn’t mind at all.”
In her last year of service in the tower in 1965, Ellett reported nine fires and 209 visitors to the towers. At that time, she was earning $122.09 bi-weekly.
After being shuttered for years, the Dickinson Fire Tower was restored by the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park and reopened in 2012, giving visitors the sweeping vistas that Ellett and other fire observers had. Now a popular hike at the park, the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the last remaining fire tower in the county.
How quickly 50 years have passed since opening day of the beach and park! Grafton Lakes park has now expanded to include more than 2,500 acres, 25 miles of trails, and six lakes, along with a new Welcome Center. The park spans both sides of Route 2 and is a favored place for kayakers, canoeists, and those who like to fish.
Amenities also include biking, boat launches and rentals, equestrian trails, fishing, hunting, pavilions and shelter rentals, playgrounds, and showers, During winter months, there is snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Over the last decade, about a quarter-million people a year annually have visited the park, so over five decades, totaling many millions of visits since 1971.
There is something for everyone at Grafton Lakes, no matter the season. Check out this slideshow below for some ideas…
With so many visitors and so many memories, Parks staff at Grafton is encouraging those who want to participate to come forward and share these tales for posterity in a mini-movie that will debut on the park’s beach the evening July 1st to mark the 50th anniversary. The event that day will also include an art gallery, historical walks, a photo scrapbook, and interpretive panels.
Those who want to visit the Dickinson fire tower will have a chance to meet Linda Laveway, take in the dramatic view, and learn more about her grandmother and the days of the fire observers. Retired, Linda still resides in Grafton and is an active member of the community.
Park staff will hold video interviews for anyone with Grafton memories during April and May. To participate in the oral history project or any 50th anniversary activity, contact the park by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 518-279-1155.
You can follow Grafton Lakes State Park on Facebook here. Hope to see you there July 1st as we look back over the last 50 years and make new memories for the years to come!
Cover shot – Kayakers paddle past the beach at Grafton Lakes State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.
Post by Tamara Beal, Environmental Educator, Grafton Lakes State Park
Grafton Lake State Park is holding an event May 1 for I Love My Park Day. Find details here.
Learn more about the history of the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park here..
Established in 1960, this prestigious award honors the project that best illustrates superior civil engineering skills and represents a significant contribution to civil engineering progress and society. Honoring an overall project rather than an individual, the award recognizes the contributions of many engineers.
Other past winners and nominees have included the new World Trade Center, Cowboys Stadium and seismic protection upgrades to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
This nomination for Niagara Falls recognized the complex and dangerous challenges in working in a place where 45 million of gallons of water a minute cascade over the 167-foot waterfalls and where freezing temperatures turn water into thick coats of ice. And that this work had to be done while the park remained open year-round to millions of visitors who come from all over the world.
Overseen by the global engineering firm of T.Y. Lin International, work at the park involved 21 separate projects, including bridges, roads, parking, pathways, observation areas, railings, landscaping, electrical, mechanical and drainage systems all spread across the 400-acre facility, its three waterfalls – American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe – and its five islands – Luna, Goat and Three Sisters. The entire park is now ADA-compliant, and accessible to all.
To start, engineers initially had to inspect the condition of the existing infrastructure at America’s oldest state park, established in 1885 and inspired by the landscape design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who had overseen the design of Central Park in New York City. These inspections included assessing Luna Island’s pedestrian bridge, which spans the Niagara River a mere 80 feet from the roaring precipice of Bridal Veil Falls.
This white-knuckle account in the March 2020 of Civil Engineering magazine describes what had to be done: “… the team inspected the underside of the bridge at night – using specialized rigging – to avoid conflict with ongoing construction at Luna Island and the patrons occupying the Hurricane Deck 167 feet below… Supported by a system of cables and aluminum platforms suspended just two feet above the flowing river, the engineers performed their hands-on inspection of the existing stone-clad, cast-in-place concrete arch bridge.”
And how much fast-flowing, thundering water that is. On average, 3,160 tons of water flows over Niagara Falls every second. This accounts for 75,750 gallons of water per second over the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and 681,750 gallons per second over the Horseshoe Falls.
A few feet away from the workers was the brink of Bridal Veil Falls. And this is what it looks like over the edge to the base of the falls and the Cave of the Winds viewing decks…
Similar engineering and contracting work was required to bring new utilities – such as water and sewer, electrical service, fiber optics and telecommunications – from the mainland to Goat Island suspended underneath a 700-foot vehicle bridge over the river. Goat island separates Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls.
This work “required safety harness tie-offs and specialized scaffolding – all of which required prior approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York State Department of Transportation.”
At other times, engineers, landscape architects and work crews had to deal with ice caused by the freezing of the constant mist over the falls, and the damage that freezing and thawing would do to rocky surfaces where walls and railings would have to be anchored.
There were some unanticipated man-man obstacles found in what was a heavily developed industrial area prior to becoming a park and generations of infrastructure had to be vetted. Ground-penetrating radar and seismic monitoring equipment were used to map the underground structures to determine whether to excavate or build around them.
And even the ground itself could be unpredictable. As described in the Civil Engineering magazine: “The park presented varying subsurface and poor soil conditions, for example, hidden pockets of soil with a consistency akin to quicksand that created design challenges and potentially hazardous conditions for the contractors.”
Niagara Falls was rebuilt as one of State Parks flagships under the NY Parks 2020 initiative. In addition to the $65 million spent on these projects, over $55 million more as been spent expanding green space north and south of the park as well as creating a new welcome plaza. So, for those who have not been to Niagara Falls for a while, now is the time to see the new and improved State Park, where engineers and other workers prevailed in a harsh and challenging environment to help bring the park into the 21st century.
The project was funded through Governor Cuomo’s Parks 2020 initiative and the New York Power Authority, via the Niagara River Greenway Fund.
The team that helped make this work and national engineering honor happen included:
T.Y. Lin International managed a team of consultants that included the LA Group,Saratoga Springs, which provided landscape architecture services; McMahon & Mann Consulting Structural Engineers, Buffalo; Foit-Albert Associates, Buffalo/Albany/New York, which provided architecture, engineering and surveying support; PGAV Destinationsand Design Island, St. Louis/Pittsburgh, which created the new Cave of the Winds Experience.
The award winner and two runners-up be be chosen Oct. 8, 2021 during the ASCE Convention in Chicago, IL.
Use this slideshow below to tour the revitalized Niagara Falls State Park…
And the map below shows the layout of the falls, the islands and the various infrastructure projects in the park’s revitalization..
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks
Learn more about how Frederick Law Olmstead advocated for the creation of Niagara Falls as the nation’s first state park in this 2011 book published by The Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo.
In the summer of 2014, a casual conversation with one of my neighbors revealed that two boys we knew with autism – one from Albany, one from New York City – each experienced an uncanny sense of calm and serenity during separate visits to Letchworth State Park in western New York.
Also, both families also had initially hesitated in bringing their special needs children to a state park for fear of their behavior not being understood or accepted. As we pondered this sense of exclusion, my neighbor Susan Herrnstein and I also wondered together if Letchworth might be the right place for a unique project to provide a safe and welcoming experience in nature for visitors with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities.
This winter, some six and one-half years later, construction began on The Autism Nature Trail (The ANT) at Letchworth State Park, the first nature trail of its kind to be designed specifically for the sensory needs of people with autism, a diverse range of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. In February, Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid attended the groundbreaking ceremony and opening of the trail is set for later this summer.
As a representative for Genesee County on the Genesee Region Parks Commission, I knew from the start that an undertaking of this magnitude could strain the Parks budget, so an early commitment was made that all funds to design, build, equip, staff, program and maintain this unique trail would come from private fundraising efforts.
Herrnstein recruited her friend Gail Serventi, a retired speech/language pathologist, to join our early team, and each of us took primary responsibility for an aspect of the project, which led to some involved in the project to eventually dub us the “ANT Aunts.”
Herrnstein led a Planning Committee and found an architect, a natural playscape creator and an organization in Rochester – Camp Puzzle Peace – which specializes in an Adirondack summer camping experience for entire families living with developmental disabilities.
Serventi convened an impressive Advisory Panel of all-volunteer academics and practitioners in speech, occupational and physical therapy, autism, special education and related services. Individuals with autism and parents and grandparents of children with developmental disabilities were included in the conversation.
I organized a Fundraising Team and began soliciting donations even before a full schematic design had even been approved by New York State Parks. So far, The ANT volunteers have raised $3 million in private funds toward the ultimate goal of $3.7 million to insure programming for the trail into the future.
The fundraising campaign was managed by the Natural Heritage Trust on behalf of State Parks. The trust is a not-for-profit corporation that receives and administers gifts, grants and contributions to further public programs for parks, recreation, cultural, land and water conservation and historic preservation purposes.
Early along the way, our quest to create The ANT also led to a connection with the amazing Dr. Temple Grandin, a woman diagnosed with autism in 1950 at age two and now a cattle industry expert who is quite possibly the world’s most well-known advocate for the autistic community.
Now a professor at Colorado State University, she was intrigued by the idea of a nature trail designed for visitors with autism. After her diagnosis, Grandin received early intervention thanks to a determined mother and went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. At age 39, she helped raise national attention to the issue of autism with her debut 1986 book Emergence, which described how it felt to be autistic in a neurotypical world.
Grandin went on to write a 1993 work on her professional specialty of livestock handling, and authored further books on living with autism, including Thinking in Pictures in 1995 and The Way I See It in 2008. Her life was the feature of a 2010 HBO biographical film that starred Claire Danes. That same year, Time Magazine named Grandin as one of their 100 “heroes” around the world. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls in Seneca County, New York, in 2017.
Grandin offered our ANT team very specific recommendations early on for our trail: (1) Find a place in deep nature. “Don’t build a strip mall nature trail,” she said. (2) Seek out program staff who are both autism experts and experienced in the outdoors, not one or the other. (3) Offer challenges to visitors who may never have been on a trail – but also build in predictability and choice. (4) Design a pre-walk station to orient the visitor. Make the trail a loop so that the end is visible at the beginning. (5) Position opportunities for soothing movement with seating such as cuddle swings, and provide small, private spaces for recovery from “meltdowns.”
Armed with her guidance, our team created a design for a one-mile looped trail with eight clearly marked stations, each meant for a different sensory experience. Activities along the trail support and encourage sensory perception and integration, while also providing enjoyable activities for visitors of all abilities and ages. The stations engage each individual’s auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive processing, using nature and natural materials as the tools for skill-building.
After meeting with team members during an event in Canandaigua to share our design, Grandin endorsed our plan, saying, “I’m glad that my suggestions for the Autism Nature Trail have been integrated into the final design and overall plan. The Trailhead Pavilion as a pre-walk station is important since many autistic children need to know what they’re getting into before they will engage. Cuddle swings and gliders are good choices for movement. I understand the cost involved in providing trained staff for the trail, but its success depends on people who are passionate about nature who will get the children engaged.”
Click on the slideshow above for renderings of the sensory stations ont the ANT, starting with 1) Design Zone, where visitors are able to manipulate materials from along the trail into patterns and structures, 2) Meadow Run and Climb, a place with paths to run, jump and balance along serpentine berms, 3) Playful Path, a place of twisting paths with different surfaces including pea gravel, mowed grass, and pine needles, 4) Reflection Point, a quiet point halfway on the trail under a canopy of trees, and 5) Sensory Station, where a collection of leave, moss, fossils, animal fur, acorns and other objects are to be touched, handled and even smelled.
Statistics show that young people with autism spend disproportionate amounts of time indoors, often finding comfort in digital activities which results in social isolation. This disconnectedness not only affects individuals with ASD but also can affect caregivers and entire families. The ANT is designed as a series of accessible and safe outdoor spaces in nature, yet far from the distractions and often overwhelming stimuli of everyday outside life.
The ANT also is ADA-compliant and situated adjacent to the park’s Humphrey Nature Center with full access to a large parking area, modern restrooms and WiFi. The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us that being in nature is a saving grace, and New York State Parks have remained open throughout the crisis. We also know that people can feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and even unsafe in environments where certain behaviors are not understood, and special needs cannot be met.
Our trail also has been endorsed by Hollywood actor Joe Mantegna, an honorary member of our ANT board and a father to a daughter with autism.
“We sometimes forget that children with autism become adults with autism — and they are adults a lot longer than they are children,” Mantegna said. “The Autism Nature Trail will provide a welcoming environment for visitors of all ages to experience the excitement, joy and comfort found in the wonders of our natural world. This unique form of direct and accepting engagement with nature in a world-class park adds a new dimension of exposure, with the potential of providing a lifetime of meaningful and fulfilling experiences.”
April is Autism Awareness Month, and a special GoFundMe charity campaign has been established with a goal of seeking individual donations of $25 to support ANT programming, which is also going to be supplemented by support from the Perry Central School District.
A link to the GoFundMe campaign can be found here.
Since the start, our project has received donations ranging from $5 to $500,000 from people coast to coast. Such generous donors include the Autism Team at the Bay Trail Middle School in Penfield, Monore County, which for five years has held an annual T-shirt design benefit contest, raising more than $900. Some other outside fundraisers have included regional photographer John Kucko and Cellino Plumbing of Buffalo.
Our team thanks everyone (and there are so many) who has supported our project to help make The ANT a reality, and we are grateful for any and all future support. You can find more information here about our trail at autismnaturetrail.com
This summer, perhaps we will meet some of you on The ANT!
Cover shot – The Trailhead Pavilion at The Ant, where orientation materials will be available to help visitors better experience what the trail has to offer.
Post by Loren Penman, ANT co-founder and board member, Genesee County representative to the Genesee County Region Parks Commission; with contributions from Brian Nearing, NYS Parks Deputy Public Information Officer
Here, Elijah Kruger, an environmental educator at Letchworth State Park, describes an autistic child’s encounter with nature, and how offering the opportunity for each person to explore nature at their own pace can promote a soothing experience.
Learn more about the life of autism advocate Temple Grandin here, here and here.
Listen to what she has to say about living with autism…