Trail Stewards: 2019 Season + 2020 Preview

January 13, 2020
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Trail Stewards: 2019 Season + 2020 Preview
Trail Steward Melissa Teaching TrailMaintenance in the Catskills.


Trail Conference Stewards provide the public with the assistance and education they need to have great trail experiences while doing their part to protect the environment.

2019 Corps Season

In the Field

Trail Conference Conservation Corps (TCCC) Stewards were stationed at Breakneck Ridge, on the Appalachian Trail in Bear Mountain State Park, and in the Catskills on Slide Mountain and Giant Ledge during the 2019 season. Stewards provided outreach and education every weekend from May through October and on Fridays when the weather was nice and visitation was expected to be higher.

The goal of the Stewards at Breakneck Ridge and Bear Mountain is to ensure each visitor is prepared for the hike and that the mountains are protected. Hikers often require education on adequate shoes and water for the journey, as well as a clear understanding of their route up and back. Stewards have greatly reduced the number of injuries and lost hikers along the trail, particularly on the rugged Breakneck. These efforts have also slowed erosion of the mountains’ ecosystem as fewer hikers wander off trail. Stewards integrate Leave No Trace (LNT) principles into conversations with hikers, which has had a significant impact on the reduction of litter on the trails. Stewards also discuss post-hike plans with visitors, providing ample opportunities to recommend the restaurants and businesses of the surrounding towns.

These actions ultimately make trails on Breakneck Ridge and Bear Mountain more accessible for new hikers, more sustainable for the ecosystem, and more supportive of the local economy.

The growing popularity of hiking in the Catskills has left a mark on areas such as Giant Ledge, which is a quick hike with a rewarding view. With an average of 300 visitors traversing this out-and-back trail on weekends, the presence of Stewards is crucial. Much of the Stewards’ day on duty is spent sharing information on legal campsites and the impact of illegal camping and firepits and removing signs of illegal use to deter visitors from gravitating toward those areas. Stewards use their knowledge of LNT to explain to visitors the importance of staying on the trail, being considerate of other hikers, and respecting the environment.

This season, the Stewards also performed outreach to potential new Trail Conference volunteers through on-the-ground Introduction to Trail Maintenance workshops. Stewards trained in the art of trail maintenance and light trail construction also joined seasoned Trail Conference volunteer leaders to clear neglected sections of trails in areas west of the Hudson River and in the Catskill region.

In the Classroom

TCCC Stewards developed the program’s first classroom component in the 2019 season. Stewards visited several classrooms over the fall, giving presentations to hundreds of kids in schools throughout the region. Topics included an overview of the work of the Trail Conference, the seven principles of Leave No Trace, why it’s important to let nature’s sounds prevail, places to hike locally, and why graffiti on trails is a complicated problem. Students also participated in activities focused on different LNT principles. Every class seemed to have fun with the presentation, and students showed a high degree of retention when quizzed on LNT afterwards. Classroom visits will be a regular part of our Steward program moving forward.

2019 Partner Programs

In New Jersey
In New Jersey, Trail Stewards are hired and managed by New Jersey State Parks staff with training, data management, and other support from Trail Conference staff and volunteers. This partnership allows State Parks to collect and manage more useful information than would otherwise be possible, while allowing the Trail Conference to be present and involved in the program without the challenges and expense of hiring more seasonal staff. After the State’s first year of Trail Stewards in 2018 at Terrace Pond in Wawayanda State Park was deemed a great success, minimizing illegal activity and injury at the popular site, the State expanded the Steward program to cover Ramapo Mountain State Forest and Worthington State Forest in 2019. The latter in particular is a high-value area for Stewards, who encountered 17,611 visitors in their time onsite from mid-June to mid-November.

At Terrace Pond, where the Stewards now have two years of data, both the narratives from returning Stewards and the numbers tell an astounding success story. In 2018, the site averaged 2.9 illegal swimmers per day. In 2019, that number dropped to only 0.6— about an 80% reduction in that dangerous behavior. Other activities, such as drinking and unauthorized camping, were similarly reduced or eliminated entirely.

The staff of New Jersey State Parks have expressed their happiness with the outcomes of this Steward year, and are looking toward growing the program even further in 2020.

In the Catskills
After a decade of planning and years of construction, Ulster County opened the 11.5-mile Ashokan Rail Trail (ART) in October. The ART follows the northern shore of the Ashokan Reservoir between West Hurley and Boiceville, N.Y., in the southern Catskills. It is the first time these lands have been open to the public without a permit in over a century.

Within the first month of opening, over 10,000 visitors enjoyed the trail. These visitation numbers continue to increase. Volunteer Trail Stewards trained and managed by the Trail Conference are playing a critical role in both the trail experience and visitor management. The program was created in partnership with the Woodstock Land Conservancy, Ulster County, and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

“Simply put, without the ART Stewards program, we could not have successfully managed the massive numbers of visitors who have come out since opening day,” said Kevin Smith, Chair of the Woodstock Land Conservancy. “[The Steward Program] has been an unqualified success.”

In November, the Trail Conference was awarded a $50,457 Smart Growth grant from New York State to support the ART Steward program. “The magnificent natural resources of the Catskill and Adirondack Forest Preserves attract visitors and residents from around the world, and it is crucial that New York continues to invest in smart planning to ensure the environment and local economies are protected,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

2020 Preview

In considering the future of the Trail Conference, the Steward program provides a clear blueprint for spreading the benefits of nature and outdoor recreation. We expect to once again field Stewards at Breakneck Ridge, Bear Mountain, and in the Catskills. Additionally, we are working with our agency partners to be stationed at New York’s Minnewaska State Park Preserve and Croton Gorge Unique Area.

At Croton Gorge Unique Area, Stewards will engage and educate visitors on Leave No Trace principles as well as the area’s rules and regulations. The program will begin in late May and run through Columbus Day weekend. Three uniformed Stewards will be stationed at the trailhead and parking area along the Old Croton Aqueduct State Park, adjacent to the trailhead to the DEC Unique Area. On weekends and holidays, one Steward will remain at the parking area while two Stewards will educate and interact with visitors along the Croton River. The Stewards will be bilingual to engage and educate both English and Spanish-speaking outdoor enthusiasts.

Read more about the Steward Program and support the cause.