Trails (Too) Well Traveled, Part 4

Latino Outdoors

Groups such as Latino Outdoors work to get more people of color, such as these hikers in Fahnestock State Park, into the outdoors. Photo provided

The outdoors is getting crowded. Do we need to ration recreation?

Alma Padilla grew up in West Texas. Her family didn’t go camping or hiking. “The perception was that out there it’s the desert, it’s dangerous, there’s scorpions and black widows,” she said. But she was still drawn to nature and spent as much time as possible outside, even if it was just her backyard. In college, she followed her passions by studying ecology and biology, as well as exploring the outdoor activities she didn’t get to do as a kid.

“It’s very peaceful, and even if you sit still in one place you can see so much,” she said. She prefers to take her hikes slowly. “I don’t mind if we don’t travel far, as long as I can stop and look at everything and see what it is. It stimulates your brain in a healthy way. It’s not overstimulating, the way digital screens can be.”

Alma Padilla

Alma Padilla (Photo provided)

Today, Padilla is a field biologist at the Teatown Reservation in Ossining, where she lives after 10 years in the Bronx. She’s knowledgeable about the outdoors from a professional and recreational standpoint and jokes that she’s usually “in the uniform”: Chaco hiking sandals, a Camelbak backpack and other outdoor brands. But she still often sticks out when outside, because she is always the only Latina on her field crew. She said other hikers stared at her when they heard her speaking Spanish, in ways that made her uncomfortable.

“Safety is a legitimate concern,” she said. “If you’re outside, and you’re the only person of color, there are places where you won’t feel safe. And places where you won’t be safe.”

Those in charge of parks and other outdoor recreation areas, locally and nationally, are tasked with finding a balance between providing access to nature and making sure those areas don’t get so overwhelmed with visitors that they end up “loved to death,” full of eroded trails, litter and lost hikers.

But they also have started to look at who is in the crowds, which tend to be largely white. How can they overcome barriers that keep Black and Hispanic people, as well as the elderly and disabled, out of the outdoors? If access has to be limited to protect an environment, is everyone’s access equally limited?

Move along

The National Parks have been called “America’s best idea,” a hallmark of an egalitarian society in which access to the outdoors was available for all, not just wealthy landowners. Figures such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt are hailed as heroes of conservation for helping to create the park system.

But Muir and Roosevelt also expressed disdain for the people who were already living on what became America’s parks. The first white people to see the Yosemite Valley were members of an armed militia that drove out the Miwok peoples. The area of Central Park in Manhattan near the West 80s was once Seneca Village, a community of predominantly Black landowners. The city took their land via eminent domain, dispersing the former owners.

John Muir in 1912

John Muir in 1912

U.S. history is rife with similar examples of times when, under the pretense of conservation, people of color have been removed. In recent years, the environmental movement has begun to grapple with this legacy. In 2020 The Sierra Club, which was founded by Muir, distanced itself from some of his beliefs, including that the American West was an untouched, pristine wilderness, ignoring the Indigenous civilizations that had lived there for thousands of years. (Muir urged Roosevelt to move them along.)

“There is a dark underside here that will not be erased by just saying Muir was a racist,” Richard White, a historian at Stanford University, has observed. “It is not just Muir who was racist. The way we created the wilderness areas we now rightly prize was racist.”

The resistance to “outsiders” can be subtle. Breakneck Ridge, the busiest trail on the East Coast, owes part of its popularity to the Metro-North stop across the road. Chris Morris of the state parks department, who has been working on a visitor management plan for Breakneck, noted that is unusual. “It’s a diverse place because of that,” said Morris. “It draws a lot of people from different backgrounds and different ethnicities to come there and recreate. I love it for that reason.”

The Village of Cold Spring and the Town of Philipstown have been less enthusiastic. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority closed the station when ridership plunged during the pandemic shutdown, and elected officials in both locales urged the agency to keep it closed indefinitely. But outdoor managers point out that mass transit, in addition to being a more climate-friendly option than driving, disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic people when it’s closed, since they are statistically more likely to be poor and less likely to have access to vehicles.

Why This Series

Over the past two years, many state and national parks have set visitation records. In one sense, this is good news. The emotional, physical, mental and spiritual benefits of spending time outside have been exhaustively documented. But many parks found out the hard way that they were not ready to handle the crowds and are asking themselves some difficult questions such as:

How to best balance preservation with access? Can we make sure, in providing access, that we don’t destroy what makes the site special? Is there such a thing as a mutually beneficial relationship between hikers and the outdoors? How much “wild” do people want in their wilderness experiences? Are humans separate from the natural experience, or an integral part of it?

In Part 1, we look at the problem of Indian Brook Falls in Garrison, and the collateral damage that occurs when a once-secluded spot becomes internet-famous.

In Part 2, we look at how and why trails in the Highlands were created — and what might have been instead — as well as what happens when unmanaged wilderness suddenly needs to be managed.

In Part 3, we look at how recent changes at Breakneck Ridge have led to fewer visitors and rescues, and what the Fjord Trail could mean for the future of the Highlands.

With the station open, visitors to Breakneck are “more reflective of the makeup of our region and the area where we live,” said Hank Osborn, a Philipstown native who is director of programs for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “We’re reaching out to groups that may have traditionally been underrepresented in the outdoor experience and then providing information for how to get them into the woods, into nature and onto the trail.”

No Barriers

The predominant feature of the Breakneck Connector project, which is scheduled to break ground soon as part of the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, is a bridge that will lead people from the parking lots to Breakneck and the trail.

While the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a pedestrian bridge over the tracks, it isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Amy Kacala, the executive director of the Fjord Trail, said that the new bridge will reflect the ethos of opening the outdoors to everyone, including the elderly and the disabled.

The trail’s original design was much less inclusive, she said. “It was aimed at a young, fit hiker, who you were funneling safely from point A to point B,” she said. “This is about looking at the larger landscape, including aging in place. Age, or ability, shouldn’t be a limitation to people’s ability to be outside.”

Avi Golden

Avi Golden

The proposed bridge has drawn criticism from some residents, who wonder how many physically disabled people will need access to Breakneck. Avi Golden, who leads a group called NYC Outdoors Disability with nearly 2,000 members, says they may be surprised.

Golden was working as a paramedic and attending medical school when he had a stroke while undergoing surgery. It left him with aphasia, a disorder that makes it difficult to communicate, and hemiparesis, which made it hard to move the right side of his body. It took months of physical therapy until he could walk with a cane, and many more months until he could move his right arm.

Aphasia has its variations. But for Golden, it means that while he can understand what others are saying, and knows what he would like to say in return, getting the right words out is difficult. For example, his speech therapist might ask him to say “dog,” but when Golden responds it comes out as “cat.”

Today, Golden gives talks to medical professionals about aphasia and how to best help people suffering from strokes, while volunteering as an EMT. As a leader of NYC Outdoors Disability, he helps people with disabilities ranging from amputation to sensory disorders get outside and accomplish things that they never thought possible, including skydiving, skiing, scuba diving, surfing and rock climbing.

mountain trail

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference maintains a 1.3-mile loop at Bear Mountain that includes a 0.4-mile section that is handicapped-accessible and extends to a scenic viewpoint. (Photo by Jeremy Apgar/NYNJTC)

While the group still gets a few quizzical stares from onlookers who don’t understand why, for example, someone in a wheelchair would be attempting to golf, Golden said that 95 percent of the people they encounter are helpful. “They say ‘I’m sorry. I did not know that you are disabled.’ And then we’ll walk together.”

A speech disorder such as aphasia may not seem like a barrier to getting outdoors, but Golden remembers how hard that first year was for him, and how getting back outside helped. Speaking may still be tough, but when he meets someone with a disability such as his, he knows what to say.

“People who have aphasia, a lot of people are scared or crying a lot,” he said. “I say, ‘Look, I know it’s sad and lonely. But don’t worry. No. 1, work with a speech therapist every day. No. 2, how about we go do disability sports and have a good time?’ ”

Many outdoor recreation groups hope that if they can provide new hikers with the information they need to enjoy themselves in a safe and sustainable way, they will fall in love with the places they visit and want to care for them.

“I’m a strong believer that if you get people outdoors, and you get them to enjoy nature, and you can educate them, that they then develop a recreational ethic,” said Morris. “They’re more passionate and they’re more respectful of nature.”

“It leads to stewardship, which is what we want, right?” said Padilla. “We want as many people taking care of these public lands as we can, like ‘This is my park, I’m going to help keep it clean, I’m going to help fight invasive species.’ ”

She pointed to a 2019 study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that found that Latinos and Blacks are more likely to be alarmed or concerned about global warming than whites. That same survey found Latinos ranking global warming as important an issue as immigration, and ranking environmental protection more important than both.

As the climate crisis intensifies, public lands and the environment both need all the help they can get, which is why Alma Padilla knew she had to make sure she was no longer the only Latino person she saw when she went outdoors.

“I knew that my community was out there,” she said. “I just didn’t know where.”

Changing the narrative

Danny Harriston was working for a youth development nonprofit in Brooklyn when a co-worker asked him to chaperone some teenagers on a snowboarding trip.

“I said, ‘I’m a Black guy from Ohio, I don’t know anything about snowboarding,’” he recalled.

He decided to go, he said, because he was dating a woman who grew up in Vermont and if he learned how to snowboard they could do it as a couple.

Danny Harriston

Danny Harriston (Photo by Matt Petricone)

The trip changed the trajectory of his life. First, Harriston married the Vermont snowboarder. (The couple lives in Beacon.) Second, watching the transformation that the teens underwent on the mountain that day changed how he thought about youth development.

“When you’re dealing with kids from inner-city communities, a lot of them don’t get a chance to just be kids,” he said. “A lot of them live in single-parent households where their mother is working one or two jobs. They have to grow up quick.”

Snowboarding, he said, gave them a chance to have fun with something new. But snowboarding is hard, especially at first. You fall down a lot. But with instruction and practice, it can be mastered, just as other challenges can be overcome. “I told the kids, ‘We took you outside of your comfort zone. You’ve never seen anything outside of your community. But you were able to do this. So let’s think about some of the other things that you don’t think you can do and help you put the same sort of effort into that.’ ”

In 2015, while working at a Poughkeepsie middle school, Harriston took eight teens to Vermont and maxed out his credit card to give them a day on the slopes. The SHRED Foundation was born.

An acronym for Snowboarders & Skaters Helping Reimagine Education, SHRED has become Harriston’s full-time job. Every year he takes dozens of students from the Hudson Valley and Albany to the slopes.

Without SHRED, it’s likely the kids would never get to experience snowboarding. For one, the slopes are far away and unreachable by public transportation. There’s the prohibitive cost of equipment rentals and lift tickets. And many of the teens assume, as Harriston did, that snowboarding isn’t for them.

SHRED Foundation

The SHRED Foundation, founded in Beacon, takes teenagers snowboarding who may not otherwise have access to outdoor recreation. (Photo by Matt Petricone)

“We’re not seeing too much representation in the outdoor industry, especially snowboarding,” he said. “Snowboarding is a homogenous industry. Mostly white, mostly male. When you don’t see representation in that space, the community seems like something that isn’t for us.

“Even when I go and I promote the program, there’s been several individuals within agencies who say: ‘Well, we’re Black folks, we don’t snowboard, that’s not something that we do.’ ”

Harriston pointed out that tennis and golf were seen the same way until Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters came along.

He said that while few if any of the teens he mentors will become professional snowboarders, their time on the slopes may inspire them to pursue a career where they can be outside.

“The kids realize, ‘I might be interested in being a park ranger or an outdoor educator,’” he said. “Or, ‘Maybe I could work for a company like Patagonia or Potter Brothers.’ As you start seeing some diversity in the workforce, what happens is that those individuals are able to articulate what the outdoors can mean and look like for individuals of color. That’s what changes the narrative in those communities that ‘this type of activity isn’t for us.’”

Harriston suggested that the next time someone white hits the slopes or the trails, that person invite a friend who isn’t white. Without more Black and Hispanic faces on the trails or in the woods, he said, people “look around at who’s out there and who’s not and think, ‘Well, maybe they just don’t like doing it.’ ”

Redefining nature

Alma Padilla found her community the same way many people do: She went online.

In 2013, José González started a blog called Latino Outdoors. At first, it was a way to connect Latinos in California interested in outdoor recreation. Today, Latino Outdoors has chapters all over the country.

Padilla leads the chapter in the Hudson Valley. It’s the second one she’s helped create after she reached out to González in 2017 when she was living in the Bronx and launched a chapter there. The group ran into familiar challenges in New York City: lack of access to parks and transportation. So she started with birdwatching, community gardening and writing workshops.

“We tried to show people that there’s nature in the city, too,” she said. “People think, ‘Oh I have to go to a grandiose place to have a great nature experience.’ ” Eventually they added camping and hiking, activities she continued with the Hudson Valley chapter.

Among the barriers the group has encountered: Signage at trailheads is often only in English. During the pandemic, the parking at Teatown Reservation overflowed and the police were often called. The reservation responded by doubling its parking rates. That led to a further lack in the diversity among visitors to the site which, she says, was already far less diverse than the population in the surrounding community of Ossining.

On the other hand, Padilla understands the need to address overcrowding. “Land managers are already stressed,” she said. “They don’t have enough staff or resources. So how do you balance it? People are going to keep coming, and illegal use of the lands is even more damaging.”

latino-outdoors

Members of Latino Outdoors paused during a hike for a group photo. (Photo by Alma Padilla)

To help with overcrowding, her chapter has been following Trails Less Traveled recommendations issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that encourage hikers to visit spots that aren’t as popular as Breakneck Ridge or Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Westchester County.

The chapter has also partnered with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy to provide free bus and van transportation and identify trails that hikers can reach without a car. She said she is excited about what the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, which will connect Beacon and Cold Spring, will bring to members of underserved communities who otherwise don’t have access to the outdoors.

By bringing more people outdoors, teaching them how to recreate responsibly, and getting them involved with conservation, she’s hoping that Latino Outdoors can demonstrate that a more diverse outdoor community creates a stronger outdoor community for everyone.

“We can’t afford to say, ‘No, we’re not going to engage this community, it’s too much effort,’” she said. “We need everybody on board. There’s no time to waste in addressing all these environmental problems.”

This report was funded by readers who contribute to our Special Projects Fund.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

2 thoughts on “Trails (Too) Well Traveled, Part 4

  1. This whole concept for access to these difficult trails is, my opinion, ridiculous. There are so many easy trails and parks and rail trails that are accessible. The mountain is being destroyed. There are no facilities, the 911 calls are becoming more frequent and the mountain is getting messed up. The parking along Route 9D is horrendous, people are walking in the road, opening car doors into traffic. Let’s get real. There needs to be some police presence and state parks people supervising the mountain. It’s the Wild West. No municipality takes responsibility for maintaining the mountain. Everyone passes the buck. Hikers are swimming in the reservoir and riding motorcycles and Jeeps through damaged trails and having bonfires and beer parties up there. Stop the nonsense and get real about a functioning, preserved wilderness.

  2. What a fine series The Current published regarding local trails. All of it spot on — from the overuse and abuse of the trails, to the ham-handed approach of inconsiderate developers. Many local residents are unaware of such developments, in part due to the developer’s sequestering of information, including a failure to advise the village of its intentions.

    The Current is exemplary in local journalism – always expanding its compass to include special features like this. The recent “Trails” series alludes to the proposed tourist bridge spanning from Dockside to Little Stony Point, that raises serious misgivings that I raised – published in this newspaper — in 2016 and this past April. In those editorials I drew out a few facts and questions that bear serious consideration, the least of which was given by the developers, and the village. This we call “insidiousness,” proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.

    As the threat of an imminent pedestrian bridge looms, I would like to revisit some of the most pressing issues:

    The location of the bridge will necessarily destroy tidal river shore lines; ecosystems of birds, fishes, amphibians that depend on the shore to survive. The recent renewal of Dockside Park required stripping the eroding shore line, evicting 100 percent of the wildlife. This was a necessary evil. Further shoreline destruction only will exacerbate the blight.

    The ill-conceived idea of the bridge was, and is, dearly espoused by residents of Fair Street, who were bothered by hikers using the street to reach Stony Point. I believe that for this reason, much needed sidewalks on the northern leg of Fair Street, to provide a safe pedestrian passageway were fiercely opposed, and will likely never appear. In lieu of sidewalks are fortressed houses with bold stockade fencing to obscure the view of passersby.

    However, there is no necessity of the proposed tourist bridge, which would merely extend the destruction of coastal another one-quarter/mile of animal habitats to Little Stony Point. Although the developers of the trail spout about flourishing wildlife along the trail, that is either a disingenuous or ignorant assertion of the developers. The shore ecosystems took years if not decades to develop. It would be disingenuous of the developers to say otherwise, but then they would not know in absence of an Environmental Impact Plan. My understanding is that the plan is forthcoming next month. It should deserve the highest scrutiny by an impartial NGO, not the State.

    The recent and unsightly upgrades to Dockside Park will not facilitate foot traffic there, or to the proposed bridge and trailhead, and is not ADA accessible. A serpentine gravel path begins about 100 feet north of the park entrance, which will likely disappear by next spring. Part of the reason is owing to the exclusion of the private property to the south of Dockside, which will continue to erode, and perhaps might create an island geography as it rapidly recedes. It is unclear why a proper concrete path was not contemplated.

    It is also in the best interests of proprietors and merchants in the Village to oppose the trail: that is because it will divert hikers and tourists in the opposite direction of their stores, or other side of the tracks. Visitors will come and go without even passing by any commercial entity, save for the grubby tourist restaurant at Dockside.

    It strikes me as curious that Scenic Hudson, which purports to advocate for the environment, is one of the developer’s partners. When I last spoke with Scenic, in 2016, their rep indicated Scenic was unaware of the bridge, and against any such disturbances in the water. Why does an environmental advocacy group suddenly reverse positions and side with developers? I suppose once must follow the money.

    To learn more, and to make your voice heard, attend the Sept. 29 workshop, which is ostensibly intended to inform and partner with the village, which has no input over the state project.

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