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A Sustainable Paumanok Path

In Suffolk County, New York we have been very successful in conserving our natural open space for aquifer protection.  Added benefits of this initiative include the maintenance of the natural habitat of many plants and animals and the availability of land for recreational activities. Suffolk County has protected more land than most states.  However, the manpower afforded the managing agencies for stewarding this vast resource is far from adequate. That is why we have to look to the non-profit groups to bolster the natural open space and trails initiatives.  The trails groups have taken on the responsibility of generating the necessary support from the local communities.  When sufficient public involvement is not forthcoming, it becomes necessary to redouble our efforts to motivate more people to participate. A small group of people cannot be expected to accomplish what many times their number could not. A trail must grow from the support of its local communities and institutions; you cannot give a trail to a region.

The Paumanok Path is a logical focus for community outreach initiatives and media exposure. The path is an incredibly beautiful 130-mile long trail traveling over some of Suffolk County’s most prime groundwater recharge areas.  It is marked with white painted rectangular blazes and runs from Rocky Point in Brookhaven, through a lovely piece of Riverhead, then onward through Manorville, Hampton Hills, Shinnecock Hills, Tuckahoe, North Sea, Noyack, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, Three Mile Harbor, Amagansett, Napeague and onward to the Montauk Light House. This path travels over land managed by Suffolk County Parks, Town Parks, NYS DEC, Federal Land, NYS Parks, The Nature Conservancy, Peconic Land Trust and private owners. Under the direction of the land managers it is stewarded by three trails groups and an advocacy group.  The Paumanok Path initiative will be an excellent impetus for an effective coalition for stewardship among the groups and agencies responsible for this trail. 

The most important factor impacting the success of an initiative is the number of people actively supporting it.  The hiking groups are working to introduce the members of the local communities to the resource.  The hiking groups are leading many hundreds of hikes and thousands of people are introduced to our natural open space in this manner every year.  They are building a wider support for their environmental concerns through direct involvement. These non-profit groups are not only building trails, but they are also building public support for environmental issues by introducing so many people to the ecological arena and showing them that concern about the natural world is relevant to their lives.  The challenge is to not only to create trails into the natural wilderness, but also to build paths into human hearts and minds.

At present, the Paumanok Path initiative has nowhere near enough capital and manpower to bring it to a level of sustainability.  We must communicate our message to the public if we wish to reach this objective.   A local hero among environmentalists, Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper points out that “No business would try to sell a product or service in the twenty-first century without an effective marketing and communications program.  It is equally difficult for non-profit community organizations to do their important work without a similar strategy.”  We need to sell the Paumanok Path and its network of trails to the local communities.  The land management agencies need the trails to steward the natural open space.  A healthy trail system will produce important economic benefits. It will create jobs, enhance property values, attract new or relocating businesses, increase local tax revenues, and decrease local government expenditures.  It is also good to remember that, in the words of County Executive Steve Levy, “visiting open spaces provides tranquility for the soul, an opportunity to free up your mind and cheer up your disposition”.  A healthy trail system will benefit not only the economy of Suffolk Country, but also the quality of life for its residents.

The fact that these trails exist so close to areas of dense population is a double-edged sword.  On the one side, when the trail becomes popular it could be “loved to death”.  On the other side, within only a few miles of the Paumanok Path we have 3 million potential stewards and an endless supply of potential corporate sponsors.  We need to increase the involvement of these resources in the stewarding process.  We also need to capitalize on a near wilderness experience so close to the sophisticated comforts of a metropolitan environment.

Some trails advocates say that the path is 90% done, but that is misleading.   Much of the length of the trail is cut and the trails groups are almost able to keep the “finished” portions clear and blazed.  Unfortunately this is only a small part of the work that needs to be done to keep the Paumanok Path sustainable.  The most important maintenance issue is to conserve the extraordinarily fragile soils on which our trails are built and protect them from excessive wear and erosion. Right now we are using the trails as a consumable resource.  Several miles of trail are being ripped up and eroded every year.  When portions of the trail become badly eroded, they become unpopular and under utilized.  This of course also leads to an even more accelerated deterioration of the resource, because the path is more easily abused if there are less people around to witness the abuse. A major portion of the Paumanok Path travels over sandy soil with a thin layer of living and dead organic matter holding it together.  Where the land isn’t level, disturbing this organic layer allows rainwater to rip the sand away and form ravines. Once the outer layer of the trail tread which is composed of leaves, small plants and roots is disturbed, the composition of the tread shifts to the almost pure sand that lies beneath much of the trail. This is hard to walk on and easily washes away.

In an Oak / Pine Forrest the undisturbed trail is a delight to tread upon.  Oak leaves and Pine needles are very woody, have a low pH and because of the sandy soil rarely sit in puddles.  They won’t decompose rapidly, and this is why they build up layer upon layer.  This is a vital component of the Pine Barren’s fire dependent ecology and this is also what gives an exhilarating bounce to the trail tread.  When the path was first built the few people who even thought about sustainability of trail tread were of the opinion that the tread would be stabilized and renewed every fall. Unfortunately only in a few places does this seem to be the case.
When constructing the Paumanok Path it was the policy to use existing trails wherever possible.  Some of these trails were old and had been stable for a century or more, others were boundary roads and firebreaks, large portions of which were not design
ed to function as trails.  There are many miles of trail that are already badly washed away and many more miles that are at the point of breakdown. We must have workshops where we can teach established practices and adapt them to our unique geology so we can best stabilize our trails. We need to locate, describe, list and photograph all the areas of issue along the Paumanok Path.  The map we are working on will help us to organize and locate the portions of trail that need to be addressed. Eagle Scouts can “shop” for projects from this list.  The trails groups will use this list to help organize their maintenance initiatives.  We can post these potential trails projects on the Internet.

Some hikers blame bicycles, and horses for wearing out the trail, but this takes the focus away from the fact that even if we only had foot traffic on the path, eventually, maybe over decades rather than years, we would be confronting the same issues we are facing today.  The trail cannot take care of itself.  It is up to the trails groups to develop support from the communities local to the trail, and this support must be organized into an effective stewardship plan. 

The trail has no hope of being sustainable however, as long as there is motorized traffic (dirt bikes and ATV’s) on it. Unless this conspicuous consumption of the trail ceases the Paumanok Path will have a very limited life span.  This rapid destruction is taking away the lead-time we need to properly study and address the challenge of stabilizing the trail. The public must be made to realize that the off-road vehicle manufacturers are profiting from the exploitation of our public lands.  The people who ride these machines on our nature and recreational trails are committing illegal acts.  They are stealing resources from the rest of us.  They damage the trails, create hazardous situations for hikers who could be walking where they are riding, and they disturb our quiet enjoyment of nature.  Getting motorized vehicles off the trail will also help with another important issue facing the stewards of this path; the dumping of garbage.  In some places people in a “dumping state if mind” find the trail conveniently near their houses, but in other places vehicles drive up the trail to dump garbage.

We need representatives from all the groups who have a vested interest in the Paumanok Path to work together in order to formulate a stewardship plan for it.  The trails groups must work cooperatively with the land managers to reach out for broad-based support from their members and from the local communities.                                                           

                                                                        Ken Kindler
                                                                       Trails and Natural Open Space Advocate
Long Island

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Ken Kindler
Open Space & Trails Advocate

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