The Putnam Trail is a one-and-a-half mile long, eight-foot wide trail in the heart of Van Cortlandt Park. It is a unique trail that it is a level path that runs between a marsh and lake, which is, in turn, bounded by a public golf course on the east and west. The trail, which replaced the abandoned New York Central Putnam line, is an environmentally-sensitive area designated YO-1 wetlands, the highest classification for protection. NYSDEC at one time described them this way: “This wetland has a diversity of wetland communities seldom equaled in Bronx County and contains habitat types found nowhere else in the Bronx.”
Freshwater wetlands — already under stress in urban settings
The Putnam Trail is a nature trail, as noted by a sign at the park entrance near the stables.
According to the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy Wetlands webpage, “New York City once contained 224,000 acres of freshwater wetland, however over the past 200 years, increasing demands of a growing metropolis have resulted in most of this land being filled or dredged. Only 2,000 acres of freshwater wetland remain in the city today.” We must protect this vital resource. “Wetlands slow erosion, prevent flooding, filter and decompose pollutants and slow global warming by efficiently converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.”
We believe the current plan to cut down 300 trees during new trail installation and replace them with 400 saplings is not environmentally sound. These living trees host migratory and resident nesting birds. In addition, the understory, which provides food and cover for birds and other animals, would also be destroyed. Moreover, since sapling survival rates can be 60 percent or less, the 400 saplings may not be enough to even numerically replace the 300 trees cut down.
The current design plan needs to be changed
The Parks Department plans to widen the trail from eight to fifteen feet. Ten feet would be asphalt to accommodate cyclists, three feet would be earthen with a 3% grade to aid in drainage and to accommodate pedestrians and two feet on the opposite side would be for drainage.
Concerned community members initiated a campaign, Save the Putnam Trail, after hearing of this plan in 2011. We acknowledge that there are ruts along the trail that get muddy after heavy rain, but we believe that this has resulted, in part, from the use of the wrong substrate for repairs over the last 30 years. Instead of compressed mineral earth, which would aid drainage, other biodegradable material was used, principally manure and wood chips. A proposal to improve the trail by using mineral earth and French drains was rejected by the Parks Department.
The choices became Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible asphalt pavement or an-also-ADA-accessible crushed stone. The Department of Parks favors asphalt, citing it as easier to maintain. Experience has been that paving with asphalt is not maintenance free: It crumbles, as has happened to many paved trails in Van Cortlandt Park. Save the Putnam Trail has submitted two alternatives to asphalt paving – packed earth and crushed stone (see here). Financially, a stone dust trail, the second alternative, is financially feasible and likely less expensive to build and maintain than an asphalt trail, based on this engineer’s report.
Those who favor paving the trail want to allocate a ten foot “multi-use” asphalt path for cyclists, walkers, and adults with strollers. Experience has shown that bikers will dominate, many at high speeds, pushing walkers, families, and birders onto the three foot margin with runners.
There is a health concern as well: The National Park Service has documented the carcinogenicity of asphalt: “Hazards to fish, wildlife and aquatic life: The main hazard associated with asphalt is from the PAHs (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) and alkyl PAHs in asphalt that can move into the ecosystem from the breakdown of asphalt. Since asphalt contains so many toxic and carcinogenic compounds and since leaching of harmful PAH compounds has been documented even in water pipe use, asphalt should be kept out of rivers, streams and other natural waters to the extent possible” (see here).
Asphalt is the least environmentally- and health-friendly option.
A Better Solution for all the Trail’s users
We ask that the nature of the one-and-a-half mile Putnam Trail be protected with either compacted earth (most environmentally sensitive) or a limestone crushed-rock option. In addition, the stone dust alternative is traffic-slowing so the trail is more likely to remain an actual multi-use trail and less likely to become a hazardous speedway. Also, the softer surface is easier on the joints for those on foot, ensuring that the trail will continue to be used by all, as it is now.
Debbi Dolan is a nature enthusiast who does volunteer work at Van Cortlandt Park.
Matt Turov is a painter who is passionate about preserving the natural beauty of Van Cortland Park with special concern for the currently-endangered Putnam Trail.
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