On a recent Friday afternoon in Queens’ Alley Pond Park, workers with the Natural Areas Conservancy pointed to the fruits of their labor along a hiking trail.
To the untrained eye, their handiwork is almost invisible — but the five-foot-wide, trash-free clearing didn’t just happen by accident.
In fact, on some trails, that kind of maintenance barely happens at all.
The Natural Areas Conservancy is trying, though. It is one of a patchwork of groups teaming with the city Department of Parks and Recreation to keep the parks clean and functioning.
The effort that goes into keeping the five borough’s 300 miles of nature trails safe and usable falls largely on the shoulders of private groups — or even hearty individuals.
This summer, with many New Yorkers slowly coming out of pandemic hibernation and blinking in the sunlight, the Parks Department and private groups are looking to step up their efforts — introducing a new Strategic Trails Plan for making city nature trails safer and more accessible for New Yorkers.
Among the goals: better signage and maps; more varied experiences; consistent design and maintenance; and programs to engage the community — along with “diverse and stable funding streams” to pay for everything.
Even before last year’s 14% cut to the Parks Department’s budget, hiking trail maintenance wasn’t a duty primarily handled by city employees.
Instead, organizations like the NAC, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and local residents generally took on the work. While the nonprofits value their partnerships with the Parks Department, they also want the city to better fund the agency.
Parks funding is currently less than 1% of the city’s nearly $100 billion budget, a statistic that park and open space advocates are hoping to change with the next administration.
“No one wants to throw the Parks Department under the bus,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “I think this is a bigger issue about the funding that the Parks Department gets.”
Unlike the Prospect Park Alliance or the Central Park Conservancy, the NAC’s efforts don’t end with a single park: “Natural areas” includes all forests, grasslands and wetlands in the parks system and accounts for about one-third of all public park land in the city.
The NAC Citywide Trails Team’s full-time staff of four oversees hiking trails and manages volunteers in 50 parks across the five boroughs.
They say park appreciation is growing following a year-plus in which the pandemic severely limited public life. Shutdowns of indoor activity out the home and travel made local hikes an attractive alternative.
“We’ve seen a real culture shift already underway in terms of a real desire for access to nature and a desire for spending time in nature,” said Sarah Charlop-Powers, the group’s executive director and co-founder. “We’ve had a huge uptick during the pandemic as people looked for places to recreate safely and spend time outdoors.”
‘A True Partnership’
As more New Yorkers swarm outdoors, the NAC has taken on a major project of maintaining the city’s hiking trails. This includes clearing brush, adding signage and sometimes creating barriers to prevent hikers from wandering off the official trail and damaging the environment around them.
Kristy King, the Parks Department’s director of natural areas restoration and management, horticulture and natural resources, said the city’s partnership with the NAC is necessary because the group has “brought technical expertise” for trail building and maintenance.
The Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy plays a similar role. “The maintenance of trails in the city is a challenge,” especially when the Parks Department’s budget is taken into consideration, said Alex Zablocki, the group’s executive director.
Zablocki called his organization’s relationship with the Parks Department “a true partnership.”
“When we need something, they try to assist. When they need something, we try to assist,” he said.
Conservancy employees aren’t the only ones doing the work.
One Queens resident said he took on trail maintenance as a personal project in the southern part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Evan Boccardi, an engineer and former candidate in this year’s Council District 29 race, lives across the street from the southern tip of the park in Forest Hills, home to the Pat Dolan Trail.
“A few weeks ago, I just bought a hedge trimmer and I basically cut down what existed of the old trail — just 40 years of overgrowth,” Boccardi said. “I have kids now and I want them to be able to enjoy the park land that’s right next to me.”
He later said the city is not aware of his efforts, but would like the Parks Department to make the space more usable for everyone.
The Parks Department issued a statement disputing Boccardi’s characterization of the trail, saying, “It is not accurate that the Pat Dolan Trail hasn’t been maintained in decades — Parks staff last performed maintenance within the last two weeks.”
The thread between conservancies’ privately funded work and intrepid citizens is low funding for natural areas and city parks in general, outdoor space advocates say.
Councilmember Peter Koo (D-Queens), chair of the Council’s Parks and Recreation committee, lauded the work of organizations like the NAC and other nonprofits and volunteer groups. But he believes the current system isn’t ideal.
“In a perfect world, the city would have the resources, funding and the jobs to handle things like trail maintenance. But the fact is we just keep getting cut,” Koo said. “So we have to do more with less. And we have to rely on volunteers, private organizations and individuals to pitch in and do the work the city should be doing.”
Koo later added, “We can always improve and do more.”
For him, “more” means advocating for an additional $10 million for 100 new parks employees and 50 gardeners, and $4.5 million for the city’s trail network
Parks advocates hope the next mayoral administration will mean more green for the city’s trails and the Parks Department in general.
“Now is the moment for the next administration to step up and make sure that New York remains a livable place where people can survive and enjoy their lives,” Ganser said.