October 2, 2017Rebecca
CLC will celebrate the opening of the Harris Public Conservation Area at the intersection of Stonewall and Bloody Hollow Roads in the Town of Austerlitz at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18. The public is invited.
A few weeks ago on a beautiful Sunday morning my wife and I took a walk in the woods. We’d decided to explore a property fairly recently acquired by the Columbia Land Conservancy which, after a couple years of planning and preparation, was about ready to be opened to the public. I had walked the property several years previously, before we’d done an assessment of what is there or settled on an appropriate trail layout. And I remembered it as a lovely place. But on that gorgeous autumn day, we were blown away.
We headed out into a mixed hardwood forest on a well-marked path, walked up an impressive stone stairway and crossed two small footbridges spanning intermittent streams before entering into a large stand of stately pine trees. There was something magical about standing in the quiet coolness of those trees – a little like being in a fairy tale. And that feeling only increased as we proceeded on an easy upward incline to pass along the base of a dramatic rock outcropping, covered with moss and lichens – some of which are more than a century old. Beautiful, perhaps even a little spooky if you let your mind wander a bit. (Which fairy tale were we thinking about?) From there the trail took us past a good-sized forested wetland, and on to a small pond buzzing with insect life. We looped back to the parking area on an inviting pathway through a magnificent, old forest dominated by large hemlock trees.
The Property Will Open to the Public on October 18th
Over the past few months, CLC worked with the Greenagers, a Great Barrington-based nonprofit, to provide a paid summer employment experience to a crew of young adults who helped prepare the site. This team of students accomplished a tremendous amount of work that will benefit both human visitors and the plant and animal inhabitants of the site – removing invasive plants, preparing trails, building small foot bridges and that beautiful stone stairway I mentioned. With this effort, and a good deal of additional work by CLC staff, the property is now ready to be made available for public enjoyment.
What’s Special About the Harris Public Conservation Area?
The Harris property, a gift to CLC from Gordon Harris who owned the land since 1966, is really a gem. Although today it is mostly forested, its many stone walls testify that in the past much of the property was used for agriculture. However some of the wooded areas, in particular an extensive stand dominated by hemlock trees, appear never to have been tilled or grazed, and thus presents an example of the closest thing to be found in Columbia County to an “ancient” forest. Indeed, although the property is relatively small at 76 acres, the 1.5 miles of trails wind through a surprising variety of different habitat types.
The hemlock stand occupies more than one quarter of the site. Hemlock forests are important for terrestrial wildlife, providing habitat for owls, warblers, juncos and thrushes. The Harris Public Conservation Area includes a number of other forest types as well: oak-pine forest, mixed mesic (moist) forests, and post-agricultural forests. Each of these communities of trees support a diversity of birds, mammals, and plants, a number of which are not commonly found in Columbia County or the broader Hudson Valley. Notably, the property is relatively free from numerous invasive species that plague so many of the fields and forests of our area.
The Harris Public Conservation Area includes a variety of water resources, as well. Vernal pools, also called intermittent woodland pools, are extremely important for a variety of species, especially salamanders and wood frogs. These species and others rely on these seasonal pools for mating and laying their eggs. The vernal pools at Harris also include uncommonly found plants, such as ostrich fern, royal fern, and golden saxifrage. The Harris property is also home to permanent forested wetlands, intermittent streams, and a year-round pond.
Just one of the interesting things about this property is that it apparently hosts an above average bat population. Many of the habitats there provide benefit to bats. The forests create lodging opportunities. The cliffs and rocky outcroppings provide excellent roosting opportunities, as well. And the wetland features host a rich variety of insect food sources. There are a small caves and crevices in the rocky outcroppings, which also provide habitat for such creatures as porcupines, snakes, and salamanders.
Bats you say? Why would I want to go there if I’m going to run into a lot of bats? Unfortunately, the bat has become something of a maligned figure in our culture. They are often included in ghoulish Halloween images – nasty-looking witches, scary jack-o-lanterns, vampires – and bats. Bats are not dangerous. (Like many animals they can contact rabies, and direct contact should be avoided.) Indeed, they play an exceptionally important positive role in the ecosystem, consuming enormous quantities of insects including damaging agricultural pests. The value of the ecological services they thus provide has been assessed in the billions. And they are in need of our help now more than ever, thanks to a disease known as white-nose syndrome, a parasitic fungus killing bats in the northeast and spreading, now, westward as far as Texas. If for whatever reason this property is providing a healthy home for these fascinating little mammals, we want to keep it that way. And besides, since they are nocturnal critters, you’re not going to be running into them on your visit there in any event. But knowing all this will make your visit to the rock outcropping a little more interesting.
How Will CLC Manage the Property?
Like all of the public properties we own, we will manage the Harris Conservation Area to provide people with safe and rewarding access to the natural world and to nurture the health of the ecosystems and habitats found there. Before opening this property, CLC worked with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program to create a Natural Resource Inventory (NRI) for the site. The NRI includes a lot of information – land use history, plant and animal survey, and maps and habitat descriptions. The report provides a list of management considerations so that CLC can balance our goal of providing an attractive and interesting recreational experience with making sure wildlife habitat is protected. In order to protect the bats, for instance, CLC will leave non-hazardous dead trees standing, rather than remove them. CLC is also taking the wetland resources of the site into consideration, and will avoid building new trails in particularly sensitive habitat areas.
Where Else Can I Go?
The Harris Public Conservation Area is one of ten such sites owned and managed by CLC. These properties encompass over 4,000 acres and 30 miles of trails on some of the county’s most scenic and ecologically important lands. They are open free of charge 365 days a year, and provide a wonderful way to connect with that beautiful landscape you drive around in and look at every day and wish you could get out in and experience. If you would like to find out more about these properties, visit our website at clctrust.org and click on “Public Conservation Areas.”