Letters: Benefits of Fjord Trail

Since the onset of COVID-19, the surge in visitation to Hudson Highlands State Park has put unprecedented stress on Cold Spring, with no end in sight. Mitigation shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of residents and local government; it’s a shared problem requiring collaborative solutions.

The public-private partnership to create the Fjord Trail — conceived by local leaders over a decade ago to address hazards around Breakneck Ridge and related impacts on Cold Spring and the Route 9D corridor — is part of the solution. Such partnerships saved Olana, home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, and transformed a derelict railroad bridge into Walkway Over the Hudson. And Scenic Hudson is collaborating with the state to change a 520-acre former industrial site in Kingston into Sojourner Truth State Park, where nature is reclaiming the long-damaged lands.

The Fjord Trail includes several organizations — principally New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) and Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail (HHFT). Other organizations play important complementary roles, e.g., the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s Breakneck trail stewards provide hikers with invaluable safety advice.

Clarity in public understanding of these key organizations’ roles is essential to transparency and trust. The work around Breakneck — Fjord Trail’s Phase 1 — offers an opportunity to advance understanding.

Last year, HHFT utilized a state grant to build fencing around Breakneck’s Metro-North station, where one hiker was killed and another severely injured. With help from donors, HHFT built the Nimham Trail to provide a safer route down Breakneck and reduce emergency calls. With private funding, HHFT is managing improvements to Breakneck’s lower trail to repair long-term damage from overuse and to provide a new shelter safely away from 9D for trail stewards to orient hikers.

In the meantime, design of the Breakneck Connector and the bridge over the railroad tracks continue to advance, with construction slated to start in 2024. Its new features — restrooms, organized parking and the “Connector” trail from train platform to trailhead — are necessary safety improvements to existing destinations in a New York State park preserve that is along a busy state highway and accessible from a railroad station. The bridge will also provide New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with access to its aqueduct facility (which handles 40 percent of the city’s drinking water supply) to perform a long-overdue upgrade and routine maintenance.

That’s why we requested funding during the 2022 legislative session for a state share of this $84-million undertaking. Scenic Hudson and HHFT staff initially proposed a $35 million contribution. With board members and other project allies, we appealed to the governor and legislative leaders, ultimately securing $20 million in the final budget.

As a result, the cost of building the bridge (for which OPRHP is responsible) is shared by the state ($20 million), DEP ($14 million) and HHFT ($16 million). HHFT will build and pay for the balance of Phase 1 ($34 million), including all Breakneck Connector improvements, with private funding. HHFT has created, and will continue to grow, a permanent operation fund to support related maintenance services — restrooms, garbage, parking, landscaping.

This partnership not only helps solve issues of longstanding concern to Cold Spring and area residents and all those who enjoy hiking in the Hudson Highlands, but will also save taxpayers money due to the sizable private investment. We are grateful to our state leaders and private partners for bringing to bear essential resources to address these longstanding challenges.

Completion of a traffic study and development of a visitor management system — with input from a committee of local officials, residents and an independent consultant — will be important next steps.

Ned Sullivan, Poughkeepsie
Sullivan is the president of Scenic Hudson.

At the recent public session on the Fjord Trail (15 Questions, May 12), I was encouraged to see the turnout. I share the concerns of community members who have reservations about more visitation. I don’t disagree that the trail is likely to initially bring more visitors as was the case with the Walkway Over the Hudson. There was a peak of interest that has since fallen and leveled off. The fact remains that the people are already here; ignoring that is not a viable option.

The Fjord Trail offers solutions to many of the long-recognized issues. The proposed visitor center at Dutchess Manor, with plenty of parking, food options and restrooms, will be an alternative to Cold Spring. This is a short walk from the Breakneck train station. People looking to hike the trail at Breakneck will be directed to this location as a starting point.

The trail creates the opportunity to disperse people over its 7.5-mile length with multiple entry points in three communities and two counties. Traffic and pedestrian studies are in progress. Once complete, they will be independently reviewed by a consultant chosen by local municipalities. New York State will further review them as part of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

There are solutions to help disperse crowds. Currently very few of them are being employed. The Fjord Trail has the potential to better manage traffic and hikers, and create a better environment in the Village of Cold Spring.

Ideas of all sorts are shared during open discussions. Not all of them are appropriate, but that is what the process is for, to share ideas, vet them and either move forward or put them aside. If people are afraid to offer suggestions because the blowback is so intense, the process is the lesser for it.

Peak pricing for parking, wayfinding that directs people away from the village and making Dutchess Manor the hub with the largest parking area can all be a part of the solution.

Over 70 percent of the trail will be a gravel surface that will accommodate people of all abilities. Serious road cyclists are not likely to be cruising the trail on a weekend as they know that it will be a slow ride. I have ridden thousands of miles on various rail trails and never seen an issue.

Certain areas will require wooden walkways and raised shoreline sections. These are not the majority of the trail. This shoreline trail segment is also an opportunity to develop resilience measures for both submerged vegetation and to harden the rail line against sea level rise while creating access to the river.

There are also plans to restore landscapes that were disturbed in the past. The creation of better habitats for birds, mammals and reptiles by closing social trails, repairing erosion and re-establishing native plants is all part of the planned trail — all funded and maintained in perpetuity without taxpayer money.

The issues that we face are complicated and deserve the attention of all, including the best consultants, experts at state parks and all of us. I ask that people pay attention to the process and realize that there is still plenty of time to be heard.

Richard Shea, Philipstown
Shea, the former town supervisor, is a board member of HHFT Inc.

5 thoughts on “Letters: Benefits of Fjord Trail

  1. In his letter, Sullivan explains the role of Scenic Hudson in the Breakneck project — Phase One of a three-stage project. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, some of us already knew that “Scenic Hudson’s ally” had lunch in the city with the governor in early 2023. There he pleaded for $35 million of state money for Breakneck, a project that would cost $85 million. Gov. Hochul agreed to propose $20 million in her 2024 budget. Scenic Hudson and its “allies” now must fill the gaping hole in costs for Phase One.

    In that same letter, Sullivan also wrote, “HHFT has created and will continue to grow a permanent operation fund to support… restrooms, garbage, parking and landscaping.” Does he mean just for Breakneck? Because in an accompanying letter, Richard Shea, board member of HHFT, wrote, referring to the entire 7.5 miles, “all funded and maintained in perpetuity without taxpayers money.”

    Shame on Shea. He knows full well that in April 2021 — a full year before the governor’s lunch — HHFT signed a contract with New York State Parks, giving it the right to raise operating revenues anywhere along the entire project by selling concessions and advertisements. Shea is trying to neutralize the impression that taxpayers will pay, but they have already spent $20 million (plus more to help renovate Dutchess Manor), and we still have not seen a preliminary capital budget for the boardwalk and potential sources for its construction. Nor have we seen a scintilla of information on the total operating costs.

    But I am curious during the budget negotiations in Albany, did the parks commissioner tell the governor and the co-chairs of the state Assembly and Senate Budget Committees that he had already given public lands away to possible T-shirt vendors and ice-skating rinks? So long Dockside and Little Stony Point. Taxpayers deserve to know the truth. Anything less is an abdication of power.

  2. I see that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Shea are aware of serious concerns related to tourism in the Hudson Highlands, and that they believe that the Fjord Trail offers a well-thought-out package of solutions.

    I am skeptical about their statements for three reasons:

    1. The Fjord Trail is not only envisioned as a solution to overtourism, but also as a leading tourist attraction. I will be quite surprised if they can actually achieve both goals, and I suspect that the project will lean more toward attracting tourists than to regulating the crowds. I am clearly not alone in this belief.

    2. The leadership of the Fjord Trail is far from transparent in their communications. When they themselves host meetings, they dictate the terms of participation, and discourage open discussions. They don’t like being yelled at? No one does. They could reduce the number and intensity of scoldings by being more open and engaging more openly with the communities, and making their minutes easily available.

    3. HHFT claims in their publicity that the Fjord Trail project is community driven. That was true a decade ago. But in the current iteration, state parks, and even more so HHFT, have taken the ball and scurried down the field with it, with little community input. Until recently, they have shown little interest in community involvement. I object to their disingenuous claim that the current version of the Fjord Trail is community driven, and I would like them to stop making false claims such as that.

  3. At the recent Haldane forum, it was interesting to note the imbalance of the ability of some villagers to fully speak out. The time limits were limited by design, in the event that any tricky argument would be abruptly terminated at three minutes by a timekeeper and ordered to “Sit down!”

    On the other hand, villagers had to endure tedious — smoke and spin from the development team, and at times, mindless babbling, mostly stock hype on a loop — wasting valuable time trying to convince the audience that they could be both transparent and opaque at the same time. Why did the audience not have their own kill switch? I believe these forums are not particularly conceived by the developers to be open and informative of most the answers villagers demand, nor do they appear to be practiced in good faith. I’m beginning to believe it may be futile to keep going to these forums and expect to hear something new other than the same old fake news. That’d be madness.

  4. It’s bizarre that in Gretchen Dykstra’s speculations, the completed HHFT is a honky-tonk boardwalk through a park overwhelmed by T-shirt and souvenir vendors, advertisements, food trucks and “rainbow” gatherings. What evidence does she offer of such commercialization at any of the other parks operated by the state parks and Scenic Hudson? None.

    As enthusiastic campers, our family has visited, hiked and camped our way through many New York State parks and DEC campgrounds over the last 25 years. We’ve never seen anything akin to the scenario she describes. When we first started our ice pop business, we researched the possibility of selling our pops at parks and found there was no interest in expanding vendors of any sort beyond the concessions already established and operated by the park system.

    Canopus Lake is a perfect example. The park-operated concessions offer row boats and kayaks, firewood for campers, and a small snack bar during the summer months, winter sport equipment if the weather allows, and that’s it. Concessions are professionally managed to assure safety and reduce impact on the park’s beautiful environment while catering to the needs and enjoyment of visitors. We’ve found this to be the case at every other New York State-operated park we’ve been to.

    In my view, state parks shows exemplary stewardship of the lands comprising the state park system established for all New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy. As locals, we are lucky these beautiful, natural spaces are located on our doorstep. Many New Yorkers who pay taxes, just like we do, cannot say the same and must travel great distances to experience the forests, rivers, mountains, lakes and fresh air. They have just as much right to enjoy these natural resources as we locals do. Improving and expanding park infrastructure so that everyone can enjoy them safely and reduce burdens on local municipalities makes perfect sense.

    Monetary contributions from private individuals to help construct the HHFT should be lauded and met with gratitude, not suspicion, derision and fantastical speculation. Depicting efforts to build and manage this project through public-private collaboration as inherently corrupt and self-serving is deciding to view change only through a very dark lens; mean-spirited and ungenerous. If we choose to assume good will and imagine the possibilities, these innovations will benefit our local community just as much as those who come to share in the beauty that surrounds us.

    • Lynn Miller writes “If we choose to assume goodwill and imagine the possibilities, these innovations will benefit our local community just as much as those who come to share the beauty that surround us.” Goodwill and imagination are important, but only go so far in planning a project. We need to understand that the beneficence and even the best intentions of generous donors, and Scenic Hudson’s exemplary tradition of environmental stewardship do not by themselves guarantee a successful outcome for the Fjord Trail project. The Fjord Trail is not Canopus Lake. Dockside is not a sandy beach in the woods.

      A successful outcome for the $85 million Breakneck Bridge and Connector (Phase One of three) requires detailed planning (environmental and community impact, traffic impact, constructability, construction and operational budgets, funding for 20+ years of operations and maintenance, to insure that taxpayers do not end up footing the bill). There is no evidence that comprehensive traffic, visitation or even environmental impact studies that evaluate or mitigate the potentially negative impacts on the Village have been conducted and have been incorporated in the development of the heartfelt and graphically sophisticated HHFT Master Plan. For example, previous estimates of visitation by HHFT and its consultants have varied widely.

      This past week, to its credit, HHFT eliminated several minor elements and signaled a more responsive, interactive approach to working with the village, including assurances the HHFT “wants to proceed with care to ensure that we (HHFT) don’t inadvertently add to visitation and congestion.” To that end, HHFT announced that a Visitation Data Committee will be formed to include community representatives. Funding for a third-party technical consultant will also be provided. Promising news. However, this begs another question: What happens in the event that the comprehensive visitation and traffic modelling studies expose significant negative impacts on the community and the local environment? Would HHFT be committed to undertaking a significant re-design of the project to mitigate or eliminate these impacts?

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