Category Archives: Park Volunteers

BioBlitz Weekend Strikes at Knox Farm

What is a BioBlitz? When I hear that word, images of scientists in white lab coats running madly about flash through my mind. Our first ever BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park, while not so chaotic, certainly had people dashing about.

Unlike my visions, it was not a cadre of sprinting scientists in lab coats, but rather a gathering of researchers and volunteers clad in hiking boots, cargo pants and sun hats. With magnifiers and nets in hand, cameras and binoculars strung around their necks, these 32 intrepid investigators were ready to spread out. Their mission? Find and document as many living species as possible in the park – and do it in just two days

Participants gather for the BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

If this sounds like a hefty undertaking, it is. With 633 acres of grasslands, woods and wetlands, Knox is a large area to adequately survey in a short time. However, that is part of the fun of a BioBlitz. Since the word “blitz” is the German word for lightning, this event is about speed as well as efficiency.

These high-energy events are designed to bring together biologists, conservationists, hikers, naturalists, park goers and nature enthusiasts alike, so anyone can get involved. No expertise required… This is an opportunity to learn, explore and share all the incredible species that call our parks home. The best part is, when people spread out to tackle a larger area, the chances are better that someone will find something completely unexpected.

A view of the grasslands at Knox Farm.

The team assigned to identify plant species goes to work. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

The stage set, so began the first ever Knox Farm State Park BioBlitz on the sunny weekend of August 22-23. Six field teams, each led by an expert, went on a search to survey targeted taxa such as birds, mammals, reptiles/amphibians, plants, invertebrates, and fungi. Guided hikes were led for each field team so participants could learn and share from other team members. BioBlitzers also had the option to tackle an assigned territory alone to help cover more of the park.

Eyes on the sky as the bird survey team identifies their targets. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

A light is used on a sheet to attract moths to be surveyed. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

With keen eyes, the group found and documented more than 400 species! This was well above the expected number given the tight deadline. In total, our community scientists recorded 179 species of plants, 164 invertebrate species, 49 species of fungi and lichen, 39 species of birds, six species of mammals, five reptile and amphibian species, and two species of fish.

One highlight was the discovery of a new species of butterfly for the park, the Harvester. An uncommon species, the Harvester butterfly has the distinction of having the only carnivorous caterpillar in NorthAmerica, feeding on the woolly aphids of beech and alder trees, making it a great discovery indeed.

The Harvester butterfly, which has the only carnivorous caterpillar species in North America.

Findings ranged from many common species like painted turtle, red-tailed hawk, New York fern, and turkey-tail fungus, to obscure and oddly-named insects like the sword-bearing conehead, pigeon tremex horntail and hedgehog gall wasp.

The data gathered during our BioBlitz will be incorporated in our Parks biota databases, which can be used for determining park conservation and management decisions.

For those interested in learning more about the BioBlitz, check out the Knox Farm State Park BioBlitz event page and explore all of the incredible discoveries for yourself. Don’t forget, while this BioBlitz was an organized group event, you can have your own personal BioBlitz whenever and wherever you’d like. You can even have a BioBlitz in your own backyard! This is a great way to learn about local nature and discover the incredible diversity we have in our own neighborhoods.

Remember, before surveying any land you do not own, be sure to contact the landowner for permission, and make sure to have any necessary permits needed to collect specimens. Many bioblitzes rely solely on photographic records, and having smart phone or tablet can make record-keeping easier. At Knox Farm, we used the iNaturalist app.

This map shows the species sightings recorded by the BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park.

For more information on having your own BioBlitz, check out this 10 steps to BioBlitz guide.

For those interested in learning more about Knox Farm State Park, which is located about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo in Erie county, there are year-round guided hikes are offered through the Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office. To help find your way around on your own, click HERE for a map.

See you at the next BioBlitz!


Cover Shot- BioBlitz participants practice COVID safety protocols.

Post by Matthew Nusstein, Environmental Educator – Niagara Region of New York State Parks

Learn about previous BioBlitzes at New York State Parks…

BioBlitz results!

On May 3, 2014, over a hundred volunteers with scientific backgrounds gathered at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County and Clark Reservation State Park in Onondaga county for two concurrent Bioblitzes, 24-hour inventories of the park’s biodiversity. Our objectives were to search the park for as many rare species and natural communities in the … Continue reading BioBlitz results!

Clark Reservation State Park Bioblitz

1 Park 70 professional scientific volunteers 365 acres Countless plants and animals Well, maybe not countless… In fact, on May 3rd and 4th nearly 70 volunteers with scientific backgrounds gathered at Clark Reservation State Park with one goal in mind: spend 24 hours searching for all the plants, animals, fungi, lichen, and even bacteria found … Continue reading Clark Reservation State Park Bioblitz

You Gotta Have Friends (Groups) … And Parks Does!

There are 90 years of history separating Bob Emerson and Dave DeMarco, but a common cause uniting them.

Emerson is the executive director at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site on Lake Erie, where a not-for-profit association was formed in 1927 to protect the then-decaying 18th century fort, making the organization the oldest “friends” group in the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

DeMarco is the president of Parks’ newest volunteer group – The Friends of Peebles Island State Park – that just formed in 2017 to help at a park in the Capital Region with its own Colonial-era military history.

Their groups bookend a statewide array of 76 such local organizations filled by everyday people who provide critical support and stewardship in partnership with State Parks. More people are deciding to help out at their favorite park, as more than 20 such groups have formed during the last two decades.


Use this map to find a Friends Group at a State Park near you…


Understanding the value of Friends groups, the state helps by offering up grants for key projects. Last year, the budget for such grants could be doubled to $1 million..

While such groups are mostly volunteers, like Peebles, there are some organizations with paid staff that raise funds and manage budgets for operations and renovations, like the Old Fort Niagara Association.

No matter the size, these volunteer groups have a large impact, accounting for more than $17 million in fundraising to benefit their respective parks in 2018, according to a recent report released by the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York. That was on top of nearly 132,000 hours of work by more than 5,100 volunteers that was valued at more than $3 million.

It doesn’t take a big checkbook to make a big difference. The majority of such groups do it all on $10,000 a year or less, according to the Parks & Trails report. The Old Fort Niagara Association, which has a full-time paid staff of more than a dozen people to run the historic fortress, also has historically had one of the largest budgets at more than $5 million annually.

“We are kind of unique here at Old Fort Niagara, in that we came into existence when this was still an Army base, before State Parks took it over. So, we were used to running this site,” said Emerson, who has overseen the historic site and its French-era fortresses as the facility’s executive director for 22 years.

DeMarco, a Waterford resident and retired administrator for SUNY Central, had been visiting Peebles Island State Park for years, bringing his kids there when they were young.

“Some years ago, I started leading an informal group of volunteers, who helped with trails and cleanups,” he said. “About four years ago, I was asked by the park manager to consider forming an official friends group. So that is what we did.”

DeMarco started with about a dozen members, and now that is up to about 45 people who volunteer their time to help maintain some five miles of trails in the 190-acre park, located on an island in the Hudson River that has a historic former bleach works.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental army encamped at Van Schaick and Peebles Islands with the intent to engage the British army heading south from Montreal. Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko designed earthwork fortifications on Peebles Island that still exist.

“Our members can also function as ambassadors to the parks, for when people come in. We can greet them, and tell them a bit about the park and its history,” said DeMarco. Members also help out on First Day Hikes on Jan. 1 and “I Love My Park Day” in the spring, and sponsor wildlife and naturalist programs at the park’s visitors center.

“I think our location here at Peebles is one of our advantages. We are easy to reach for a lot of people,” he said.

See Friends Group members at Peebles Island State Park involved with activities like First Day Hikes and trail maintenance.

At Old Fort Niagara, the not-for-profit association has more than 700 members, making it the largest such friends group in State Parks. Members were part of more than 32,000 hours of volunteer labor at the site last year, said Emerson.

The group is responsible for running programs at the fort, as well as overseeing research efforts and a collection of historic objects related to the site. It handles a food concession, a gift shop, and the hiring of up to 60 seasonal workers to run the operation during the primary tourist season.


Volunteers perform a range of roles at Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site.


Emerson has advice for those thinking about forming a friends group for their park. “First, have a relationship with your park manager and the regional manager,” he said. “Keep it up. Reach out to your local tourism promotion agency, too.”

DeMarco said he learned the “identifying your active core” of volunteers is a key step to setting up a friends group. Parks staff helped in the paperwork requirements, which include incorporation as a not-for-profit organization, and filing of appropriate paperwork with the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service

“You then need to identify your purpose,” Demarco said. “Finally, collaborate with Parks & Trails New York. They have all the resources that you will need to help get you started.”


Cover Shot- Members of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park roll up their sleeves during some trail maintenance there. (Photo Credit- Dave DeMarco)

All photos courtesy of The Friends of Peebles Island State Park and Old Fort Niagara Association.


By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Learn more about how to start your own Friends Group.

Read about what Friends Groups have done in other parks across the U.S.

Explore the Parks & Trails New York webpage on Friends groups.

Mother of the American Youth Conservation Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learn about applying to SCA here.

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

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

Read this in-depth interview with Liz Titus Putnam

Watch a short history of the SCA

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.

HamlinTrailBefore
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.

HamlinTrailWoodchips
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.

HamlinTrailECCWorking
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.

HamlinTrailTurnpike
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!

HamlinTrailTurnpikeDone
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

 

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.

ECC Benching
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!

ECC Chainsaw
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.

ecc-cedar-logs.jpg
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.

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

Post by Amber Goodman, ECC member