REGIONAL – Hiking and biking are two of the biggest draws of tourist dollars in Ulster County. Because of this, there is now an effort to begin incorporating now-fallow prison farmland into a contiguous trails system, which will, hopefully, give even more visitors a reason to come to this area and spend their tourist dollars.
There are three big state prisons in southern Ulster County: Shawangunk and Wallkill in the Town of Shawangunk, and Eastern Correctional Facility in the Town of Wawarsing. The prisons have agricultural lands attached, that was once used for prison-run agricultural programs. But these programs have been cancelled as a result of austerity measures, thus the land is not being used in any meaningful way at the moment.
On July 27, the State Department of Corrections, (DOC) held a meeting with Town Supervisors from Wawarsing and Shawangunk, as well as interested parties from several other organizations, like the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, to discuss those lands.
Christie Ferguson, Executive Director of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, who was at the meeting, said, "That connection would be extremely valuable. We now have the 24 miles of trail above the prison, connecting Gardiner to Rosendale and then right up into the Town of Ulster to the Kingston city line. With the trestle bridge, where we are fundraising right now, we'll have a route all the way. Now, if we could find a way around the prisons, we could connect to the trail running below Wallkill, to Walden and Orange County."
On the west side of the ridge, there were other trail proposals and ideas.
John Adams, environmental activist in the Rondout Valley and member of the Wawarsing Environment and Conservation Commission, said, "One of the proposed trails would run from the Napanoch prison's Colony Farm up to Minnewaska State Park via Foordmoor Road, and would connect the park to the Delaware & Hudson Trail, which runs along the Rondout Creek. That trail was endorsed by the Ulster County Trails Advisory Committee, and that's part of the Catskill-Shawangunk Greenway."
Another possible connection mentioned by Adams, concerns the Long Path.
"We could have a re-routing of the Long Path, which would start at Minnewaska, then come down to Port Ben, and along Port Ben Road, between the prison parcels to Lundy Road.Then between those two connections, D&H and Long Path, you could have an interesting loop to hike or bicycle on."
Adams laid out an intriguing possibility for the future, when these connections would be in place.
"So, say people are turned away from a crowded Minnewaska Park, they can come down into the Rondout Valley, where we have a critical mass of trails for hiking and biking, and which offer loops and spurs into farmland, forest and the mountains."
John Valk, Supervisor of the Town of Shawangunk, mentioned the discussion of routing a trail around the DOC facility in the Town of Shawangunk.
"The town is looking at a route that includes Birch Road, right now."
The Town of Shawangunk has also expressed interest in using some of the lands along Birch Road for industrial development.
The DOC said it is willing to talk about routing the trail around the prisons on local roads. Unfortunately, the existing railway bed actually runs about forty feet inside the Wallkill facility perimeter fence, which creates security issues for the prison, thus it cannot be used for a trail.
Dennis Doyle, Planning Director for Ulster County said, "It was very kind of the Department of Corrections to come and have this discussion. Some of the proposals we discussed were known to the department and others were new."
He added, "There was a good, cordial discussion with the trails people about making the necessary public connections, and how that related to safety and security issues. I think now there will be talks between Supervisors and Superintendents of Prisons, and the meeting has helped start an ongoing discussion of all these things."
Other issues involved with the prison farm lands include the creation of a Little League field on some land in Napanoch, an issue close to the hearts of many in Wawarsing. Another proposal was to make the Colony Farm into an agricultural tourism site.
Supervisor Lenny Distel, of Wawarsing, said that the Town Board voted to endorse the meeting, including a list of items that the board was interested in. This list was also sent to Assemblyman Kevin Cahill's office.
"I think it would bring in more tourism," said Distel. "We have bike trails, hiking trails and rail trails. The key is connecting them all together."