Two nonprofit groups have joined together to promote safety and protect a popular hiking trail and surroundings in the Hudson Valley. The partnership is for a Breakneck Ridge Trail Steward Program.
Visits to Breakneck Ridge have grown substantially in the past five years. The hiking destination that Trails.com has named as the number one trail destination in North America is within Hudson Highlands State Park in Putnam and Dutchess Counties. And with human traffic, says Michelle Smith, comes ecological degradation.
“And so as we’ve witnessed the tremendous increase in visitation to the area, we also witness what that does to the natural resources of the area,” Smith says.
Smith is executive director of Hudson Highlands Land Trust, which has partnered with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference for Breakneck Ridge Stewardship. It’s a program the Trail Conference began in 2013. And now the Land Trust is joining the effort.
“This area didn’t become a park overnight. It became a park because people fought it and people worked to conserve over, really over centuries. And so that’s why we got involved, because we’re very concerned about the natural resources,” says Smith. “We want them to be protected, and we want people to engage in the story of how they came to be protected and to continue that journey in protecting those natural resources.”
The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference estimates more than 100,000 people visit the mountain each year, with records broken during the 2017 season, including the most visitors in a single day (2,087) and a single hour (525). Hank Osborn is Regional Programs Manager and East Hudson Program Coordinator for NYNJTC. He says one of the biggest impacts of the growth in numbers is when hikers go off the trail.
“They either get lost or want to find shortcuts,” says Osborn. “For various reasons, they’re leaving the trail, and that can have the most impact to the environment because they’re going into areas that, although Breakneck is very popular there’s natural areas right next to it, and whole swaths of areas without trails going through them where there’s habitats for various species, and flora and fauna, that are potentially impacted by people walking through it.”
Trail stewards aim to keep visitors on the trails.
“These thousands of people that we’re seeing visiting Breakneck, the impact of new trails happens quickly,” Osborn says. “We need a program like the trail stewards program to help curb this trend and keep people from creating trails where we don’t want trails, where the environment doesn’t want trails.”
Stewards, who are paid, work weekends and holidays between Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. Osborn says the Trail Conference and Land Trust trained 20 stewards specifically for Breakneck Ridge.
“We are going to implementing a volunteer steward program,” Osborn says. “It’ll debut at Bear Mountain and in the Catskills this summer. And then we’re going to bring it to Breakneck Ridge.”
Meantime, Osborn hopes to expand the Breakneck trail steward program to weekdays.
“But I’ve heard from EMS services that during the weekends when the stewards are on duty, the need for EMS service to come in is much more reduced than it has been, but, on the weekdays, the need for rescues has increased because of the increased number of people. And we don’t have stewards on duty then,” says Osborn. “Also, later in the evenings, people are still going up Breakneck. Our stewards are only on duty till 6 p.m. We’re working to see if we can get stewards there later, but, after 6 p.m., we’re finding that people are still going up the hill and those are people that end up getting lost and requiring rescues.”
Every year brings rescues, injuries and sometimes fatalities. Just this May, a hiker died near Breakneck Ridge after falling from a climb, off the trail, on a weekday. Smith also hopes the steward program can be expanded to weekdays.
“I think, ideally, we’d love to see more stewards on for more hours for more days,” Smith says. “Then it’s a question of coming up with the funding to do all of that.”
Osborn says trail stewards will soon be counting the number of weekday visitors to Breakneck Ridge, to help gauge which additional days stewards are most needed. Trail stewards provide information and check to see if visitors are prepared for what is a difficult, steep hike, with rock scrambles. Osborn says if a steward sees a visitor seemingly unprepared for Breakneck Ridge, the steward will suggest other, less challenging trails in the area.