Biologist sees wildlife imperiled as rail trail advances

MILLERTON—In a press release last November, the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association, Inc., announced that the rail trail extension from Millerton to Ancram is now open. The extension consists of an 8-mile section of graded, bridged, paved and railing-equipped pedestrian trail “perfect for runners, walkers, bikers and outdoors and park enthusiasts of all ages.” The trail, open from dawn to dusk, has restrictions on littering and leashed dogs, and allows no motorized traffic or horses.

A map on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail (HVRT) website,, shows the stops and crossings of the trail as it extends the 23 miles from the Metro North’s Wassaic train terminus in Amenia in Dutchess County to the Copake Falls area of Taconic State Park in Columbia County.

The master plan for the trail’s future has it continuing north to Hillsdale, then west to Craryville and north through Philmont and Ghent to Chatham, at the 46.1 mile marker. A short segment from Black Grocery Road to Hillsdale has been completed but requires the construction of a bridge over Route 22 to finish the Hillsdale connection. The map designates the segments from Hillsdale to Chatham as either “master-planned” or “shovel-ready.”

Ancram resident Michael Nicosia is a wildlife biologist. He travels around the country to observe and make recommendations regarding the impact on wildlife of various projects. Enticed by his interest in rail trails, he took a walk in the spring of 2019 on a section of the trail under construction and was dismayed by how many times he found himself rescuing painted and snapping turtles that had become trapped on a silt fence that was intended to keep them out. He began documenting the places that the fence was not maintained and the animals that had perished as they tried to find their way back to water.

From May to October 2019 he began his own study: roughly 24 visits to a 1.4-mile section of the trail just south of White House Crossing Road in Dutchess County near the Columbia County line. His findings are documented in hundreds of photographs of the impact of construction on plants and animals of the wetlands compiled in a presentation given to the Dutchess County Department of Public Works, the government agency oversight organization on the project.

“I had to really limit my focus,” said Mr. Nicosia about his unofficial and unauthorized study.

A statement from the Dutchess DPW’s communications director in Poughkeepsie, Colleen Pillus, says that the county worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to obtain the necessary permits, adding, “Throughout the course of construction the county maintained direct contact, including site meetings, with the permitting agencies to resolve project related issues arising from unforeseen construction issues and complaints by the public. At no point during construction did any of the environmental agencies find the County or it’s contractor to be in violation of the permit conditions.”

Most of the problems Mr. Nicosia documented in photographs show damaged silt fencing and trapped animals, some alive and some carcasses—frogs, snakes, turtles and salamanders.

As he explains it, silt fencing consists of a double row of low fabric intended to keep construction runoff away from sensitive wooded and wetland environment bordering the rail bed. It is also used to keep these creatures off the trail. Once construction is complete the fencing is removed.

‘Either there is siltation from runoff if there was no fence, or trapped animals when a fence is installed.’

Dick Hermans, chairman

Harlem Valley Rail Trail

The contractor, Colarusso and Son of Columbia County, was provided with specific plans for how the fencing should be installed and given the following mandate: “The snake barrier will be inspected daily,” and if holes or tears are discovered, they would have to be repaired immediately upon discovery. The mandate also says, “A licensed monitor will have to sign off that repairs have been sufficiently completed.”

“We were working for Dutchess County,” Dave Laspada, vice president of Colarusso and Son, said. “The work was done at their direction and with their inspection.”

Regarding the holes in the silt fence, he said, “In fact we were told to cut holes or put gaps in the fencing because animals were being trapped between the two rows of the fence.”

Mr. Laspada said that the Dutchess DPW made regular inspections as often as two or three times a week. He He also said that 9 of 10 comments from the public have been positive. “People were especially impressed with the elevated boardwalks and said, ‘How did you do that in such an environmentally sensitive area?’”

Eric Kiviat, executive director of Hudsonia, a non-profit environmental research institute based at Bard College, is not familiar with the Harlem Valley Rail Trail construction, but he knows about problems with silt fencing. “I have looked at other trail projects and I have seen things go wrong, primarily having to do with silt fencing. Maintenance is the weakest link. Construction and oversight agencies need to be more involved. These fences should be inspected daily,” he said.

“All outdoor activity has an impact and generally that impact is not fully considered,” Mr. Kiviat said. “Most turtles, like snapping turtles and larger snakes are slow reproducing. These species are adapted to a high rate of survival from year to year, so it doesn’t take a lot of individual fatalities to affect the overall population.”

Last year Mr. Nicosia presented his findings to the Hillsdale Conservation Advisory Council (CAC). Sitting on that council is another Hudsonia biologist, Gretchen Stevens.

In a phone conversation, Ms. Stevens said, “We think the contractor has been very irresponsible, and there is no way to think they would do otherwise in the future. We hope to recruit the town boards to find an independent monitor to oversee the work—somebody answerable to the public.”

“The Hillsdale CAC would like to see a different contractor,” she said.

“The HVRT is a wonderful thing, and I am delighted that it is happening. The Hillsdale CAC is very much in favor of it,” she added, “also very concerned.”

HVRT Chairman Dick Hermans acknowledged the trade-off when such projects are undertaken, saying, “Either there is siltation from runoff if there was no fence, or trapped animals when a fence is installed.” He said that the problem documented by Mr. Nicosia existed one season and now it is gone. “When that bed was put in in 1850 it was likely a lot more serious,” Mr. Hermans said.

He called the trail a great place for people to get out and exercise,” adding, “It also helps to make people more aware and sensitive to the environment and the animals that live there.” But he said that perhaps the DEC and Dutchess County DPW could have been more alert to the problem.

Big challenges still need to be overcome before the trail is completed. They include restoration of tunnels under Route 23 near Craryville and the Taconic Parkway in Claverack, but first there is construction of a pedestrian bridge over State Route 22, which would connect the already completed portion at Orphan Farm Road to the 2.4-mile-long completed section from Black Grocery Road north to Hillsdale.

Design for the bridge was drawn up four years ago by Hudson Valley Engineering Associates and the $2.4-million cost for construction accomplished with federal money matched with Rail Trail fundraising. Mr. Hermans says that the project should go out to bid this spring, and he hopes construction will start by the end of the summer.

“When we started this project we understood that it would be one of the premier trails of the Eastern United States,” said Mr. Hermans.

Comments are closed.