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Innovative Trail Brings Nature to The Autism Community

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.

Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid (center) joins with ANT supporters during the February groundbreaking of the trail at Letchworth State Park. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)
Construction work continues on The ANT in anticipation of an opening this summer. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

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.

Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid with the ANT “aunts” at the February groundbreaking for the trail. From left to right, Susan Herrnstein, Loren Penman, Gail Serventi, Commissioner Kulleseid. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

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.

Autism advocate Temple Grandin (center), meets with Loren Penman (left) and Gail Serventi (right).

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

Resources


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…


Nature Education At Letchworth During COVID

On the second weekend in March with spring in the air at Letchworth State Park, maple sap was being boiled down into tasty syrup in the newly built sugar shack at the park’s Humphrey Nature Center. Maple weekends were coming soon, and many gallons of syrup were needed to treat hundreds of visitors expected for outdoor education programs in one of western New York’s most popular State Parks.

But the next day, the sugar shack at Letchworth went cold. Because of emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Parks workers were told to immediately start working remotely from home. So public events at State Parks like Maple Weekends were cancelled. And a completely booked public field trip season at Letchworth for May and June disappeared as well.

If people could no longer brought to nature by park naturalists, perhaps those naturalists could bring nature to people remotely?

Immediately, newly hired NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker tapped prior video production experience to make a weekly video series called ‘Nature Detectives,’ for Letchworth State Park’s Facebook page. The approximately five-minute videos invited viewers, especially kids, to use their senses, or ‘nature tools,’ to make observations, or ‘notice nature clues’ about a mysterious plant, animal, or fungus found outdoors. Then, the video solved the mystery and encouraged viewers to find the same species in their own neighborhoods.

Conrad Baker tees up a video for the Nature Detective series on the NYS Parks Facebook page. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


While using these  videos satisfied the Park’s short-term goal of providing some safe, educational public programs,  none of the Nature Center’s field trips were happening for the foreseeable future. But within this challenge lay an unexpected opportunity. Now unable to deliver in-person programs as usual, Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger could use the sudden schedule vacancies to adapt existing field trip lesson plans into safe, immersive, virtual programming. With   Baker at the camera, Kruger took to the field.

Letchworth State Park educators and interpretive staff Mike Landowski, Steph Spittal, Karen Russell, Sandy Wallace, Doug Bassett, and Brian Scriven reviewed draft videos and gave crucial program design advice.

There are currently five virtual field trip videos on the NYS Parks YouTube channel. The playlist is accessible here.

Since previous records showed that the topics of Geology, Mammals, and Invasive Species were the most in-demand field trips, those videos were made throughout April and May, and released June 1. Next came more scientifically complex field trips about the natural world and the human relationship with it. A field trip on Forest Ecology was released Sept. 18. Life of the Monarch butterfly is the most recent to go up.

Normally, an in-person Geology field trip group would hike about three quarters of a mile between several gorge overlooks, with the trip taking about 90 minutes.  But using video, viewers can move instantly between overlooks and cover the entire field trip in detail in 20 minutes. This work pushed the limits of cell phones, birding cameras, free editing software, and existing office supplies that had to take the place of top-end video gear.

A Mammalogy field trip group is often stationary, sometimes even inside the Nature Center. An educator invites the field trip group to see and feel up-close details of mammal furs and skulls to learn more about their adaptations and roles in the ecosystem. On video, such furs and skulls are presented next to real-world outdoor signs left by these animals. Close-up cutaway shots were key to highlight the animals’ homes, scat, and habitats. Deep detail in teeth, bones, and furs were only visible by building on the right cutaways.

Previously, in-person Invasive Species field trip groups never hiked through the territory now covered by the Invasive Species virtual field trip. This third field trip video was an opportunity to use cutaways and editing to visually capture complex, multi-stage forest succession changes, like deer overbrowsing, in which deer damage the ecosystem by eating away at all the young trees and shrubs.

And some improvisation was needed to get the right shots. By using rubber bands to attach lenses to cell phone cameras, close-ups showed fine details in macro shots, like crawling ticks and the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that threatens the health of helmlock trees.

Previously, a Forest Ecology field trip group would walk about a half-mile of forest trail around the Nature Center, noticing content-relevant animals, plants, fungi, and environments along the way. Field trip video now assembles a kind of “best of” experience, with exceptional examples of lichens, woodpecker holes, short-lived fungi and quick glimpses of animals from miles apart and over several weeks into one cohesive experience.

The Life of the Monarch video is the culmination of skills and tools picked up from the four previous videos. The segments are carefully assembled from footage that was shot miles and weeks apart. Close-up cutaways show monarch butterfly handling and tagging. Footage of feeding caterpillars, time lapses of metamorphosis, and slow-motion videos of butterfly releases tie together the story of these creatures’ lives and how they benefit us in unseen ways.

The pandemic encouraged our environmental education staff to do what they do best – adapt and use the tools at their disposal to serve park visitors with safe, enjoyable, educational programs. In-person programming is now resuming with safety precautions. Still, teachers are already starting to request virtual guided field trips, where park educators join classes via video chat to answer questions and match virtual field trip video content to their class lessons.

So, what was born out of necessity and imagination has now become a regular part of Letchworth State Park’s mission to bring education nature programming to anyone, no matter where they might live.


Cover shot – Letchworth State Park Environmental Educator Elijah Kruger with a Monarch butterfly. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


Post by NYS Parks Corps member Conrad Baker

Glide Through Winter on State Park Ski Trails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allegany Region

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

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

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

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

Finger Lakes Region

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

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

Central Region

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

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

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

Genesee Region

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

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

Long Island Region

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

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

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

Niagara Region

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

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

Saratoga/Capital Region

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

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

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

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

Taconic Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palisades Region

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

Thousand Island Region

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

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

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


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

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks


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

Efforts to Control Invasive Species in Parks Gain a Four-Footed Team Member

One sniff at a time, an energetic Labrador retriever named Dia is changing the way we combat invasive species in New York State Parks.

Along with her handler Joshua Beese, this invasives-fighting team from the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is on the hunt for Scotch broom, a threat to the native ecosystems in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Dia uses her powerful sense of smell to help find small and sparsely distributed invasive species that might be missed by human searchers. Since November 2018, her incredible nose has been specially trained to sniff out the invasive plant Scotch broom.

Joshua Beese with Dia. Photo by nynjtc.org

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)is one of the most destructive invasives on the Pacific Coast, where it has had costly implications for agricultural industries. When it began showing up in New York’s parks, land managers became concerned. Scotch broom forms dense clusters that can displace native plant species and reduce biodiversity that is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

The Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (LHPRISM), which works to minimize the harm caused by invasives, ranks Scotch broom as a tier 2 priority invasive species. That means it is present in such low numbers in the Lower Hudson Valley that with proper action it could be completely eradicated from the area before the population becomes established.

Scotch broom plant in flower on May 2015 at Harriman State Park. Photo by Shelby Timm, nynjtc.org.

The New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team and the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force (ISF) Crew of AmeriCorps members, volunteers, and interns have collaborated over the past several years in a bid to eradicate Scotch broom in the region. The ISF Crew has been finding and removing Scotch broom in state parks since 2014, when 37 separate populations were recorded at Bear Mountain and Harriman.

A Scotch broom infestation at Harriman State Park in 2014. Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org
After the Scotch broom removal . Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org

While a few locations no longer have any plants, other locations are harder to manage. It becomes challenging to find the few remaining individuals among all the other vegetation, which means this destructive plant could still propagate. That’s where Dia comes in!

“Dia first comes into the field with her nose up, smelling what’s in the air, working to detect the Scotch broom scent,” explains handler Beese. “She’s using what are called scent cones; she works her way into a cone and uses that cone to help her narrow down the source.”

Once in a cone, she will search until she gets to the source and put her nose to the ground to sniff out smaller plants that may be tiny and low to the ground. She alerts Beese that she’s found the species by standing or sitting. “The most important thing is that she’s committed to an area where she’s detected the plant until I come and reward her,” Beese says. “Then we can mark it and remove it.”

Dia’s reward: Her ball on a rope with a game of tug and fetch. See Dia in action by following her on Instagram @diasavestheforest.

Dia on the hunt for invasives. Photo by Arden Blumenthal, nynjtc.org

Utilizing their exceptional sense of smell, dogs have been commonly used for search and rescue, as well as weapons and narcotics detection. These tracking and detection skills are now being used to protect our wild spaces. In 2010, the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management published a study that concluded trained dogs could smell and detect twice the number of invasive plants that humans could observe with their eyes.

Although other groups have used dogs for short projects to detect of invasive species, the Trail Conference’s Conservation Dog Program is the first permanent program of its kind in the Northeast.

This is Dia’s first season in the field; she has already been on more than 20 surveying trips. In several instances, the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force Crew had been to a site and completely removed every plant they were able to find—and then Dia found a few more.

Trail Conference Conservation Corps members removing Scotch broom plants in 2016. The flags indicate where plants have been removed. Photo by Matt Simonelli, nynjtc.org

Dia came to the Trail Conference from a farm in Wisconsin that breeds dogs for hunting competitions. She was selected for the program by Beese, an experienced search and rescue dog handler, who is assisted by volunteer Arden Blumenthal. He has trained Dia with the mentorship of Aimee Hurt from Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, an organization that has been working with dogs on conservation projects for more than 20 years.

In a metropolitan region highly prone to invasive infestations, early detection when populations are small is a key component of successful invasive species management. Not only does Dia make search-and-destroy efforts more thorough within infestations, she is also able to find stray plants outside the known boundaries where people had focused their searches. Dia helps make sure the area is really cleared to reduce the potential for reinfestation or further spread. With better search efficiency, it should be possible to declare New York State parks Scotch broom-free in the near future. 

Crew from New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team removing a Scotch broom plant. Phot by Linda Rohleder, nynjtc.org

Up next for Dia is slender false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), an invasive grass that can outcompete existing vegetation, including threatened and endangered species, and harm wildlife populations by altering food sources. Slender false brome has recently been found in Letchworth State Park, and this location will serve as a training ground for Dia.

***UPDATE: Dia and her team recently went to Letchworth State Park, where they did find the invasive slender false brome in areas where surveyors had missed it.

Conservation dogs can learn to detect up to three new species each year, meaning Dia’s incredible talents will continue to develop. “In three or four years,” Beese says, “we’ll be pushing forward the science on what can be done with invasive species detection using dogs.”

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dog team, from left, Arden Blumenthal, Dia, and Joshua Beese. Photo by Heather Darley, nynjtc.org

Post by Linda Rohleder, Director of Land Stewardship, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference and Coordinator, Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM)

Letchworth State Park Snowmobile Trails

Snowmobile trails at Letchworth State Park offer more than 25 miles of trail passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wyoming and Livingston Counties.  The corridor trail (C3) extends through most of the length of this 17-mile-long park.  Entering the park in the North from the Genesee Valley Greenway, the corridor trail follows along the main park road.

Between the Perry and Castile entrances, the trail is the main park road.  This stretch of the corridor gives riders spectacular views of park gorge overlooks not seen by many patrons during the winter months.  On the corridor, south of the Castile entrance, riders can view the iconic Archery Field Overlook of the Genesee River Gorge.  Continuing south, the corridor trail passes by the Humphrey Nature Center and Trailside Lodge where it then traverses the mature oak-hemlock forests of the park.

Parking areas to offload snowmobiles are located at the Highbanks Recreation Area, the Highbanks Campground Parking Lot, and at the Trailside Lodge.  The South Highbanks Shelter and Trailside Lodge are available as winter warming shelters with comfort stations available nearby.

Riding at night requires a Genesee Region night time snowmobile riding permit.  For more information regarding snowmobiling, winter accommodations, trail conditions, and permits online or call the Letchworth State Park Visitor Center at (585) 493-3600.

State Parks reminds all snowmobilers that their machines must be registered and insured to enjoy the trails in Letchworth State Park and the over 10,000 miles of additional trails throughout the state. The bulk of the registration fees is directed to the many volunteer-run snowmobile clubs across the state for trail development and maintenance. For information on joining a snowmobile club, visit New York State Snowmobile Association.

To help ensure a safe and enjoyable season, OPRHP offers the following tips:

– Young riders are required to attend a snowmobile safety course, but all riders can benefit from safety education. State Parks maintains a list of snowmobiling safety classes, check for course availability and age requirements.

– Use caution while traveling across frozen waterways. Check local ice conditions (ice should be at least 5” thick,) carry or wear a flotation device and self-rescue picks, limit travel at night, and “if you don’t know, don’t go.”

– Use the buddy system, leave a travel plan, and emergency contact information with someone at home.

– Wear proper clothing and remember that helmet use is required whenever operating a snowmobile. Using of a rigid chest and back protector is also recommended.

 

Grafton Lakes State Park is another great place to go snowmobiling. Grafton Trail Blazers will be offering free snowmobile rides during WinterFest, January 27, 2018.

Post by Bennett Campbell and Doug Kelly, State Parks