Ever Hiked in Northern NJ? Thank the NY-NJ Trail Conference

By Chip M. O’Brien

 

Howie Liebmann still remembers the moment that changed his view of hiking trails forever.

 

Bob Jonas and Estelle Anderson, Trail Conference Co-Supervisors at Morristown National Historical Park

He was hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a demanding trek in the best conditions, and springtime snowmelt had swallowed many stream crossings. In order to cross, he had to remove his socks and boots, wade through the frigid water, and dry off on the other side before continuing. It was arduous and exhausting.

 

“And then you come to a spot where there was a bridge built,” Liebmann says. “And you go: wow. Thank God for this bridge. I don’t know who built this bridge, but God bless ’em.”

 

It’s a familiar sentiment for the 24 staff members and 2,500 volunteers who power the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “They know bridges don’t happen on their own,” says Liebmann, who now leads volunteers in maintaining 75 miles of trails as the NYNJTC’s Northwest New Jersey Trail Chair. “And they want to pay it forward.”

 

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is a nonprofit organization that builds, maintains, and protects about 2,175 total miles of hiking trails from the Delaware Water Gap in northern New Jersey to just north of the Catskills in New York. About 760 of those miles fall within New Jersey, almost all north of Interstate 80. 

 

“Basically, we do work to make sure that the natural areas and trails in our region are accessible and sustainable for another century, for generations to come,” says Ashley Nester, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Trail Conference. 

 

The Trail Conference knows something about sustaining wilderness trails for generations: in 1923, after changing its name from the Palisades Interstate Trail Conference, the organization built the first completed mile of the Appalachian Trail near Bear Mountain, NY.

 

While the Trail Conference remains focused on building and maintaining hiking trails, as well as publishing

A Trail Conference bridge in the Jockey Hollow area of Morristown National Historical Park

famously authoritative trail maps by Sussex County, NJ cartographer Jeremy Apgar, it has also expanded to include conservation and stewardship work that ties to its mission. “It’s great if we have someone building a trail, but what about the natural areas around those trails?” Nester says. “You can’t really have a healthy trail system without a healthy forest for it to thrive in.”

 

On the local level, the Trail Conference’s work in NJ focuses primarily on three tasks: erosion mitigation, management of invasive plants, and trail upkeep and signage. All three have increased in importance as more people have turned to local trails for recreation and relaxation since COVID: Nester notes that the Conference’s most popular trailheads each saw about 20,000 users in 2022 alone. 

 

The battle against erosion has become increasingly challenging thanks to changing conditions: more intense summertime heat, followed by intense storms with heavy, eroding rain. “It has forced the Conference, particularly our trail builders, to think a lot more creatively about what a sustainable trail looks like,” says Zachary Cole, Long Distance Trail Coordinator for the Conference. Trail crews can deploy an arsenal of tools to control water flow and erosion: water bars, check dams, puncheon (a low plank bridge), and puncheon’s big brother: the much-beloved bridge.

 

Though erosion presents a constant challenge, many parks suffer from an even more aggressive enemy. “The biggest problem here is probably the proliferation of invasive botanical species,” says Bob Jonas, currently Co-Supervisor of Morristown National Historical Park alongside his wife, Estelle Anderson. Invasives choked the trails when they first arrived as Co-Chairs of the Central North Jersey Committee in 2008. A three-year concerted effort helped fight back the worst of it, ensuring wider trails and reduced regrowth. “They’re very prolific,” he says. “So it’s a constant job, really.”

 

The Conference focuses on about a dozen particularly aggressive invasive species in NJ, including barberry, Japanese stiltgrass, and multiflora rose. 

 

Estelle Anderson’s badge from the NPS honoring 1000 hours of volunteer service.

Training is also a major component of the Conference’s work: they offer rigorous apprenticeship programs for their certified sawyers as well as practical training and experience for their Conservation Corps members. “We’re really training the next generation of environmental conservationists and leaders,” Nester, the Community Outreach Coordinator, says. 

 

All of this work is accomplished in partnership with federal, state, local, and private entities, as the Trail Conference doesn’t own any land itself and must seek permission from land managers in order to service the trails. 

 

In the case of long distance trails, this might require conversation with literally dozens of land owners. The Conference serves three long-distance trails: the NY-NJ section of the Appalachian Trail, which it maintains alongside the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and two trails that it designs and leads: the 358-mile Long Path and the 180-mile Highlands Trail. 

 

The Highlands Trail is of particular importance to NJ because it passes through the federally recognized Highlands Region, which occupies less than 15% of the state while providing over 70% of its population with drinking water. By connecting separately owned pieces of the Highlands Region into one landscape, says Cole, the Long Distance Trail Coordinator, the Highlands Trail helps preserve NJ’s water and air quality while offering opportunities for recreation, as well as justification for preserving individual parcels of natural land.

 

If certain land is considered historically significant, several entities must approve major maintenance projects before the Conference can proceed. Anderson, Co-Supervisor of Morristown National Historical Park, notes the historical importance of the land she maintains: over 7,000 of George Washington’s troops were stationed at Jockey Hollow throughout the terrible winter of 1779-80 during the Revolutionary War. Every pile of rocks “could have been an encampment,” she says. “It could have been a fireplace, it could have been a foundation.”

 

The result: digging and moving rocks is not permitted in the park without approval from the State Historic

Estelle Anderson, TC Co-Supervisor, with check dams and trail blazes made by the Trail Conference

Preservation Office, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, and the Northeast Region Archeology Program. But Anderson and Jonas are undeterred. They’ve made a list of twenty trail signposts that they’d like to replace or service, as soon as approval and warmer weather arrive.

 

The Trail Conference enjoys a harmonious relationship with land managers and park staff. As a volunteer-run organization, the conference can perform necessary trail work that parks don’t have the time, personnel, or resources to do themselves. Liebmann, the Northwest NJ Trail Chair, recalls asking one park superintendent for her input about a tricky trail maintenance challenge. Her response: “Why are you asking me? You know the trails better than I do. What do you think?”

 

“And she’s right,” Liebmann says. “We’re on the trails all the time.”

 

This speaks to the especially vital role that the NY-NJ Trail Conference fills in NJ: our state allocates insufficient funds to its parks, leading to a lack of resources and park staff that many fear is unsustainable. In April 2022, ecologist Michael Van Clef, Ph.D. released the New Jersey State Lands Management Report assessing NJ’s public lands and resources. Clef depicts a dire picture of NJ’s state parks: the state’s operating budget for parks is one third of Pennsylvania’s and one sixth of New York’s, even as NJ state lands face more environmental pressures due to greater population density. Park staffing has been slashed to bare bone, with only fifteen Park Superintendents assigned to supervise fifty parks, and “invasive species control is virtually absent on park lands” due to a lack of personnel to tackle the job.

 

In short, NJ parks don’t have enough staff to do the work required to keep trails usable– and without the Trail Conference’s legion of volunteers, there would be no one to do the work at all. “They probably would just say, okay, close the trail,” Anderson says. “And not just our park… all through the state, if they’re not taken care of. They don’t have the staff to do it.”

 

Even the Trail Conference’s work is hamstrung in NJ due to a lack of partner funding. Though volunteer-run, the conference’s work depends on lumber and other equipment and materials that must be regularly replaced. Many programs run by the New York side of the Trail Conference, specifically those that hire Americorps volunteers, naturalists, conservation workers, and other professional contractors, rely on state grants that are unavailable in NJ.

 

One solution presented itself to Anderson and Jonas at Morristown National Historical Park. In April, the Friends of Jockey Hollow formed under its first Executive Director, Leslie Bensley. Its purpose: to help fund maintenance, restoration, and other upgrades for the park’s Jockey Hollow and New Jersey Brigade Areas, including historical structures and trails. With the nation’s 250th anniversary approaching, the task is particularly timely for this heritage site. 

 

“We want to promote the park. We want to protect the environmental… and cultural resources,” says Bensley. “We couldn’t be more pleased to have Bob and Estelle as our leaders because they are some of the most qualified and passionate trail leaders… How lucky are we that this is their park and we get to work with them?”

 

In his State Lands Management Report, Van Clef recommends creating a similar organization at the statewide level: a nonprofit friends group that could fund public lands projects across NJ. Such a proposal is already in motion. Bill A-594 proposes the creation of the NJ State Parks and Open Space Foundation, an organization that would fulfill this exact purpose. “[NJ parks] are precious jewels in the most densely populated state in the nation, and they must be maintained and protected at all costs,” writes Assemblywoman Shama Haider of District 37, who sponsored the bill. “The entity created with the passing of A-594 would make it easier for private citizens to support our public spaces, something that we should have done a long time ago.”

 

Assemblyman Alex Sauickie of District 12, a co-sponsor of the bill, agrees. “Parks play a critical role in quality of life and getting people outdoors, especially post-pandemic,” he says. He looks forward to lobbying for the bill and getting more cosponsors, mentioning the nation’s upcoming semiquincentennial as well: “There’s no better time than now, in my opinion, to be really focused on this.”

 

Bill A-594 currently awaits approval by committee before it can be referred to the state assembly. If the bill passes, the new organization would tie in well with the work of the Trail Conference. “What I think this bill speaks to is that the ones that are getting it done really well, right now, tend to be volunteers,” Sauickie says. The organization’s support would allow the Trail Conference to fund more ambitious projects throughout northern NJ.

 

In the meantime, as they have for the past hundred years, the volunteers of the Trail Conference continue caring for New Jersey’s trails, their presence largely invisible. “Before I started at the Trail Conference, I truly thought that the parks were the ones that were maintaining trails,” Nester, the Community Outreach Coordinator, says. “And that’s where I get chills because I think it’s so cool that we’re doing that work, and that there’s people out there who are willing to dedicate their time to keeping our public spaces accessible for us to use.” 

 

“It’s the community looking after community assets,” says Cole, the Long Distance Trail Coordinator. “They have a vision and a creative ability that is just unparalleled… it’s impressive, and it’s incredible.”

 

“If you saw these guys work…” says Liebmann, the Northwest New Jersey Trail Chair. “These people love doing what they’re doing.”

 

He remembers one particular project: building a 40-foot pedestrian bridge in Stokes Forest. He watched a crew of volunteer trail maintainers move Class 1 poles, essentially treated telephone poles, into the forest and set them up to form the bridge. “I was utterly in marvel,” he says. “We had thirty people standing on that bridge. You didn’t see that bridge drop an inch. They put a 40-foot bridge up in a day and a half.”

 

The next day, hikers enjoying Stokes Forest did not need to hop a precarious path across wet stones or wade across a swollen, muddy creek. Someone had built a bridge. 

 

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