The Call to Earth Documentary Resistance
Late one summer evening in early August I received a call from Margarita Meremeyev, a volunteer with Save the Putnam Trail. Margarita wanted to discuss efforts aimed to protect a trail in Van Cortlandt Park from being paved over with asphalt and/or concrete. She asked if Earth Documentary Resistance was aware of plans to pave over this beautiful trail.
Unaware of these plans and deeply concerned at this news, I began asking questions and offered to help by photographing the trail. We arranged to meet and document highlights of this vibrant nature trail under threat by bureaucrats and developers both in New York City as well as New York State. Most of the photos in this report I took that day, though there are a few taken earlier from other areas highlighting sustainable trail material as well as another area in Van Cortlandt Park illustrating an elevated non-paved walkway through a recognized wetlands area. I hope people who read this report and see these photos can appreciate the remarkable variety of nature that is present at this time on this beautiful trail. If plans go forward with the paving as contracted, much will undoubtedly change. As stated elsewhere on Earth Documentary Resistance’s website, humanity is changing our planet.
The John Kieran/Old Putnam Trail
The trail popularly known as the Old Putnam Trail overlaps with the John Kieran Trail as designated by NYC Parks. It is a fairly straight, mostly level, gray-graveled trail that heads north into Yonkers and beyond.
The John Kieran Trail is an absolutely fabulous nature trail, especially as urban areas are concerned but for one this filled with such diverse flora and fauna and to also be in such a densely urbanized area as New York City is nothing short of astounding. While Earth Documentary Resistance has covered some other wonderfully diverse natural areas in the Wetlands of NYC project, Van Cortlandt Park continues to impress with its vast assortment of wildlife and botanical wealth.
I was familiar with the trail Margarita described, having biked it many times. The first, in fact, will remain cemented in memory as I became so enchanted with the never-ending canopy of trees overhead, as well as on either side, that I simply never stopped. When I finally began seeing houses appear through the branches on my right I decided to take off through that neighborhood and head home, assuming I was still in the Bronx. Much to my surprise I had biked clear into Yonkers! I literally had become so enraptured with the forest I hadn’t wanted to leave.
Such an entrancing effect is a common experience to all who take the time to personally acquaint themselves with the majestic beauty of the John Kieran/Old Putnam Trail.
During the time since the Wetlands of NYC project was initiated, I’ve met a number of people within various organizations who are working to daylight Tibbetts Brook in order to restore it to its natural flow. Tibbetts Brook, the river, has its source in Yonkers, flowing south underground, then surfacing into Van Cortlandt Park Lake. It has never been completely held back as the wetlands throughout Van Cortlandt Park attest to its presence, including the Van Cortlandt Lake and surrounding swamps which are muddy or even under water year round.
John Kieran, a New York Times sports writer, was a great admirer of Van Cortlandt Park as well as the various natural wonders of New York City. He was such an outdoors enthusiast, in fact, he wrote the book, Natural History of New York City. NYC Parks honored John Kieran by naming this main trail, a/k/a the Old Putnam Trail the John Kieran Trail.
On the Google Maps photo, it is clear the John Kieran Trail overlaps with the Old Putnam Trail as well as the continuous loop to the NW, and a smaller one that meanders off and North to Van Cortlandt Park Lake’s edge. Unfortunately at the present time, the only visible markers are on that smaller loop adjacent to the lake, but even those do not provide more information than his name.
While NYC Parks has the John Kieran Trail detailed on their website, noting various historical markers bearing his name, as of this date no such historical markers are actually in Van Cortlandt Park, much less on the trail. As noted previously, there are 2 smaller markers which simply state the name “John Kieran Trail” on a small looped area close to Van Cortlandt Lake, which is, indeed, part of the trail but the way it’s presently identified in the park, no one would never know it’s actually part of the larger John Kieran Trail a/k/a/ Old Putnam Trail as is clearly identified on Google Maps.
Also noted on these Google Map images are the overlap between the Old Putnam Trail and the John Kieran Trail. What’s puzzling is why NYC Parks has not maintained the John Kieran markers, or even provided a map at the beginning of the trail (the trailhead) clearly showing the various looped areas as well as the more interesting aspects of Van Cortlandt Lake such as its source to the northwest of the trail, where Tibbetts Brook forces its way above ground.
Indeed, in a couple of prominent spots on the trail there are puddles which rarely dry up.
Some have even been filled in with gravel and other substances only to have that material sink in and disappear, eventually being submersed with water. Such behavior is absolutely emblematic of wetlands.
No doubt a pedestrian bridge would be more appropriate for such areas on the trail, allowing the water to flow naturally into the lake as well as restoring the area to its natural functions which as a wetlands, is meant to filter water and allow access for plant and animal life. The image below is of an elevated boardwalk/bridge in another section of Van Cortlandt Park, placed in such a way so as not to hinder the movement of water yet to allow people to safely traverse. This particular area beneath the walkway is also almost always muddy, icy or under water.
Simply acknowledging a wetlands’ existence and allowing these precious ecosystems to thrive benefits everyone in the long run. Flooding will otherwise continue indefinitely. To try and force the water against its natural course – a logistically unsound decision as well as an expensive one for taxpayers – simply makes no sense. As much of Van Cortlandt Park is situated on wetlands it makes much more sense to accept the situation and enjoy the wonderful diversity presented.
As wetlands are biodiversity centers supporting critical infrastructure of all ecosystems (please see Earth Dispatches’ inaugural report: Save Our Swamps), i.e., filtering of fresh water, one might assume every conceivable action that could possibly be done to protect such critical ecological infrastructure would be in place both legally as well as policies that recognize the irreplaceable value of wetlands.
Yes, one might think that but unfortunately, much of the public has a long ways to go to fully grasp and appreciate the critical, irreplaceable functions of these precious, ecological, life-sustaining areas. Of course it does no one any good when the common phrase “drain the swamp” leads people to believe that swamps are unacceptable, unworthy and unhealthy. Too few understand and appreciate that swamps are the critical infrastructure of the natural world.
The Consequences of Paving Such a Diverse Green Natural Area Must be Considered
Where the earth meets the pavement and no contingency is made for runoff, which notably, is not considered in the current paving plans, erosion sets in which further damages an area and again, flooding results.
Too often erosion continues unchecked, damaging tree roots which then kills the tree as well as discouraging new plant growth in the area. Again, more flooding will occur because trees are among the best possible natural barriers for floodwaters.
Trees also break windstorms, limit the accumulation of snow and of course shelter wildlife. Birds such as swans, ducks, geese; mammals such as squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, opossums, raccoons (all of which live in Van Cortlandt Park) depend on trees for shelter, food, and protection from predators.
Countless trees along the trail would be removed under the current plan, or simply irreparably damaged by the large heavy equipment that will be brought in.
The impact of major heavy equipment alone will be devastating as the paving itself is expected to take a year to complete.
The trail will be closed to the public and of course wildlife will flee from the noise and activity. Whether they return or not is questionable but no doubt the impact will be significant.
Promises of restoration will most likely result in a solid paved path with generic grass planted along either side creating a more fundamentally structured appearance rather than the wild, erratic natural appearance that now enthralls all who love and support protecting the Trail. While open areas such as meadows may not necessarily suffer so much from similar paving, it has to be emphasized again: This is a richly complex, diverse ecosystem that literally navigates through a wetlands forest including swamps and flowing water. To pave such an astoundingly ecologically wealthy region will be devastating to the environment, disrupting both wildlife and plant life thus resulting in permanent destruction as well as needlessly damaging an area for no morally justifiable reason whatsoever.
The Controversy: Why is Paving a Natural Trail Even Being Considered?
The State of New York, in its somewhat questionable wisdom, has unfortunately awarded a contract in excess of $2.6M to pave over this gorgeous gem of a trail that has inspired so many people, having even been named after sports writer, author, naturalist and Bronx native, John Kieran. John clearly treasured the natural places of New York City, especially Van Cortlandt Park, as much as anyone possibly could. To pave over a trail bearing his name is to unequivocally pave over his legacy which was meant to endure for all future generations.
Of course New York City has known plenty of controversies regarding development projects. Like others before it, this one follows the pattern of ongoing capitalistic development that holds in one hand a fistful of cash and in the other a promise of benefits for the “Public.” The Public includes all residents, regardless of interest in parks, or trails, or nature or even those who don’t bother taking time to understand the difference in a wetland and a desert. Developers are well aware of this nonchalance and are literally banking on overcoming any and all objections of those who actually do know the difference and most of all, those of us who care.
Developing any and all natural areas into entertainment zones meant to drive cash-paying consumers into neighboring commercial districts is literally the ultimate objective, never truly protecting what precious little remains of natural areas. Profiting from short term gains vs providing for future generations continuously overrides decisions that would actually benefit the Public.
The Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course is indicative of this twisted logic: it appears to be an enjoyable green zone set amongst the surrounding parkland. In fact, excessively high phosphorous runoff from chemicals treating the golf course, necessary to maintain its unnaturally monogamous grass cover, enters Van Cortlandt Lake on a regular basis, leading to algae growth in the summer and obliterating oxygen in the water which is needed for fish and other animals to thrive.
Over time, meetings are held, voices are heard, changes are sometimes implemented. Lawsuits are threatened, and sometimes actually commenced. Petitions are started, calls are made, nerves become frayed. Sometimes media picks up an interest to cover the controversy. Sometimes that coverage is fair, but other times not so much, as competent environmental reporters are scarce in all media, not just New York City.
Developers and career politicians are keen to wait it out more times than one might imagine. They bet on the never-ending energy it takes to object, counting on people’s commitment to eventually wear down, give up, or better yet, another pressing issue rises to the public’s attention which completely overshadows previous objections. People simply become exhausted.
Like all stalking predators, patience and persistence eventually do pay off for developers. Their projects are too often completed with yet another hulking brick and mortar monstrosity rising through the skies, blocking the sun, sucking up precious water and energy, releasing heat in summer to raise temperatures above normal, creating toxic runoff, even flooding where before there was welcoming earth and plant life to absorb snowmelt and rain.
And make no mistake about it: not only is runoff from asphalt toxic, but there most definitely will be runoff.
Continually increasing the immense concentration of humanity into such a small area as New York City literally suffocates what little life remains in the few natural areas struggling to survive.
And like so many other struggles within New York City’s history, the fight to stop the paving of the John Kieran a/k/a Old Putnam Trail in Van Cortlandt Park has played out over several years as the community group, Save the Putnam Trail, has been actively advocating for a more ecologically friendly as well as less costly renovation of the trail.
The Human Element with Our Personal Connections to Nature Need to be Considered
As Margarita explained the paving was slated to occur possibly within weeks, we arranged to meet as soon as possible. Consequently, one sultry summer day at the blue bridge on the southern end of Van Cortlandt Lake, we embarked upon the trail to discuss the various problems paving this beloved nature trail would create as well as how such paving would utterly destroy, corrupt and permanently alter the landscape.
As we walked along Margarita spoke of just how precious this trail was to her personally. She recalled to me, a total stranger whom she had just met and reached out to a few days earlier, how it was her only place of solace during tumultuous years in her life as a young woman. For the past 6 years Margarita had consequently become not just involved in protecting the trail from paving, but felt a personal connection to protecting it.
Margarita’s emotional experience is critical to understanding why natural areas are so important to protect. When people become acquainted with the natural environment we invariably feel profound, personal connections as much as we would towards a beloved family member. It’s not rocket science to appreciate such emotional bonding is a positive human trait and contributes to healthier, more stable communities. John Kieran also recognized this years ago and sought to share his knowledge not just of Van Cortlandt Park, but the natural world in general so New Yorkers and others could also find and appreciate it as much as he did.
As Margarita leads walks regularly through Van Cortlandt Park, she pointed out a circular loop of the John Kieran Trail which breaks off the main trail which I was previously unaware of. This side trail proved to be breathtakingly beautiful.
Stunning views of healthy swampland, broken trees in shapes befitting any sculpture on view at MOMA or The Met – or any museum for that matter – I was awed at the sheer raw splendor as the sunbeams struggled to penetrate multilayer barriers of leaves, branches, and flowers amidst vibrant understory.
Because it had rained the day before, the air was warm and humid but here within the forest it was remarkably fresh, with summer breezes lifting the air, gently caressing and cooling.
To pave any area, be it trail or field or beach means to suffocate that which is underneath. Forcing oxygen-sucking asphalt or concrete into the pores of the Earth and across its surface forces water to flow elsewhere which often results in flooding, as well as massive destruction of plant life. Of course wildlife is also often displaced or simply obliterated from the blatant disruption.
Paving any natural area is the every epitomy of what defines habitat loss and where and how it originates.
Therefore, to pave such a natural area as the John Kieran/Old Putnam Trail literally sends shockwaves to the very core of anyone who appreciates natural areas, whether or not they call themselves an environmentalist, a naturalist or simply an outdoorsperson.
Ecologically Acceptable Alternatives are Readily Available
Advocates to protect the John Kieran a/k/a Old Putnam Trail from being paved have urged officials to use more sustainable methods, many options which are readily available. Indeed, the substance currently in use is minimally impactful and can be improved upon with little disruption at a fraction of the approximately $2.6M presently contracted.
Several are visible in other parks in both New York City and New York State such as Bronx Botanical Garden and Rockefeller Preserve State Park.
These more ecologically sustainable methods are not particularly extraordinary structurally but are substantially cheaper which begs the question:
Why wouldn’t any government agency want to save taxpayer dollars to lessen the impact on an ecologically sensitive area while also protecting what is already being widely enjoyed by the public as it is now?
The question should never be:
Should We Pave or Should We Not Pave?
Rather, it should always be:
How Can We Protect an Environmentally Sensitive Area While Improving Accessibility?
Maybe if all of us – public officials, environmentalists, the general public – just asked the right questions, we’d have less concrete and asphalt as well as more beautiful trails like the John Kieran/Old Putnam Trail in Van Cortlandt Park.
Margarita, as a member of the Save the Putnam Trail group, emphasized how their entire purpose has been to openly advocate for a more ecologically sustainable material to be used, which also happens to be much less expensive to taxpayers, as previously stated, at only a fraction of the approximate $2.6M.
In addition to the Save the Putnam Trail group, the following local organizations all advocate for ecologically friendly, less destructive, more sustainable and less expensive materials to restore the John Kieran a/k/a Old Putnam Trail:
If you are a current or former resident of New York State, frequent visitor, or simply agree there needs to be a less expensive, more sustainable material used to upgrade the trail, please also call New York State Governor Mario Cuomo at (518) 474-8390 and let your voice be heard!
Preservation of ecologically endangered areas should always take precedent over profit and evironmental destruction. Parks are for everyone and importantly, future generations.
No doubt, it’s what John Kieran would have also wanted.
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This article has been presented as a part of the mission of Earth Documentary Resistance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to documentary storytelling:
Because Humanity is Changing Our Planet.
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