SHAWANGUNK – The new Executive Director of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, Christine Ferguson, is an unusual bird of passage. That is, she's from Florida, and has bucked the trend by coming north.
"Yes," she says, "I'm from Miami. But I'm still excited by the changing seasons here in the Hudson Valley."
Now resident in New Paltz, where she and her husband Doug run a rock climbing business, Mountain Skills Climbing Guides, she has had a number of interesting jobs in the region.
"When I first came up here I worked for Minnewaska State Park as an intern. Then I was a zookeeper at Bear Mountain."
A zookeeper? "Yes. They have a collection of permanently damaged native animals there."
While she was zookeeping, she also collected two master's degrees at Bard College — in Teaching and in Science and Environmental Policy. Then, Ferguson worked for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which has been around since 1920. It organizes and collaborates with state park agencies to take care of trails, such as the Appalachian Trail and the Long Path.
"Working there really prepared me for this region, as well as the issues surrounding trails. And I came from there to this job and the office in New Paltz."
The Wallkill Valley Land Trust operates in eight towns in Southern Ulster County — Gardiner, Shawangunk, Lloyd, Marlboro, Plattekill, Rosendale, Esopus, and New Paltz — where it works to preserve open space.
"With current easements," says Ferguson, "we're at 1,500 acres now, and we're aiming to add another 300 within the next six months to a year."
The most recent addition was the Rosendale Extension of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, 65 acres in all.
"We had the 12 miles of the trail running from Gardiner through New Paltz, but the part from New Paltz to Rosendale wasn't included until this August 31, when we added 11 miles more, taking us all the way to the Rosendale Trestle Bridge, and a bit beyond that, on the northern side. It's 23.7 miles altogether now."
The ultimate hope is to connect all the way to Kingston.
"We're now entering into a major fundraising period, to restore the Trestle Bridge. We're working with the Open Space Conservancy, which is part of the Open Space Institute. We've sent in a grant proposal, and next comes our fundraising program."
Adding the 940 foot long Rosendale Trestle Bridge to the trail will not only extend the trail and open the way to take it on into Kingston, but will add a major tourist attraction to the area.
"When the bridge repairs are completed, then the Town of Rosendale's Highway Department and the Wallkill Valley Railtrail Association will take over the maintenance for that extension."
Any plans to extend the trail at the Gardiner end?
"Not at the moment. I've been there many times, and it just ends. But past that point is private land, and we haven't started planning for that."
The other major project for the WVLT at the moment lies in the Town of Lloyd.
"Last year we launched our campaign on behalf of the Pine Hole Bog. We're trying to save it from any development. It's an incredibly diverse gem of a habitat. There's wetlands there, and it draws a great number of birds. It's really gorgeous, and we want to raise awareness of this place, because people really don't know about it because it's not easy to visit."
From the Pine Bog to farmland, the WVLT is working to keep our landscape as open as possible.
"Last year we completed a campaign that preserved two adjacent farms in New Paltz. Both lie within the Huegonot National Historical District and cover 180 acres."
Ferguson emphasizes that the Wallkill Valley Land Trust is about "grassroots" organizing. "We're not trying to be Scenic Hudson, or another Open Space Institute. We're more the grassroots end of the land conservation movement. So that makes our partnering with OSI and Scenic Hudson a perfect way to mesh together our strengths with their strengths."
Ferguson notes that this is a crucial time for land protection groups and agencies.
"I'm really glad to be here, and to have the Hudson Valley as my home. I love the area and the people. And despite the difficult economic times, there is a lot of energy in so many excellent organizations that protect the land and open space. I'm excited about collaborating with them, and I see collaboration as the key now for surviving the downturn and making progress with our mission."
Between 3 and 5 p.m. on October 25 at the Bell Tower in Rosendale, the WVLT will honor the Town of Rosendale for its recent commitment to maintain the Rosendale extension of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
There will be music by Jay Unger and Molly Mason, along with wine, refreshments and hors d'ouevres. The Belltower is a 389 Main Street, Rosendale. Tickets for this event are $35 in advance and $40 at the door.