It was a bright, warm August day outside the Van Cortlandt Park Nature Center where Debbi Dolan passed around a sign-in sheet to the roughly 40 people assembled for her monthly nature walk through the park.
Many of these walkers are members of Vannie’s Nature Group, and Dolan greets some of them by name as she runs through her pre-walk announcements. The plan for this Saturday journey will take the group through Tibbett’s Meadow, up the Putnam Trail, and onto the John Kieran Trail so they can observe the monthly changes in flora and fauna throughout Van Cortlandt Park.
But this walk is different from the others Dolan normally hosts, because this week the Putnam Trail will close for the next year, turning the historically dirt path into blacktop.
The city’s parks department plans to pave the north-south path, creating a bike-friendly route from Westchester County through to Kingsbridge. The paving will bring the Putnam Trail into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing park visitors who use wheelchairs and other walking aids to access the trail safely.
But the paving isn’t popular with the Nature Group, fearing environmental impacts such work might create.
“We are concerned about the heat island effect, concerned about toxicity, concerned about staging of equipment being brought in, concerned about trees cut down,” Dolan said.
The “heat island effect” generally refers to the phenomenon of urban areas being hotter than surrounding suburban or rural areas, but can also encompass any higher temperature caused by human interference. Inside the park, for example, parking lots and other paved surfaces absorb and radiate heat, causing a smaller heat island effect.
Of greater concern to Dolan and husband Matt Turov, rainwater that comes into contact with hot asphalt heats up before it runs into nearby bodies of water. Even small temperature changes, they say, can damage sensitive fish populations and other aquatic plants and wildlife.
Dolan begins her tour immediately as the group moves toward Tibbett’s Meadow, pausing along the path to point out plant species like smartweed, sorrel, Virginia creepers and pokeweed.
“You can make ink from the pokeweed, and during the Civil War soldiers used to use the ink to write letters home,” Dolan said.
“And the Revolution,” shouted another walker.
“Yes,” Dolan said with a knowing smile, “and during the Revolution.”
Catherine Minty, in the meantime, has set up what she calls a memorial slideshow on a bench next to the trail. John Young, a lifelong park visitor and bird watcher, plays “Auld Lang Syne” on the harmonica.
“No explanation needed,” says Minty, the group’s unofficial historian, when asked about the chosen reflective song.
The slideshow remembers the trail’s past as railroad tracks, cutting through the park until the passenger line was decommissioned in 1958. Now, remains of old switching stations and tracks dot the modern Putnam Trail.
“This is a rail spike that fell into my hands,” says Minty, holding up the prized metal piece. “Kids love looking for these.”
Rita Freed passes out flyers claiming the parks department “steals nature from working people,” and that the paving is “all about the money.” For Freed, it’s all about encouraging lovers of a dirt-lined Putnam Trail to protest the trail’s temporary closure.
“Instead of petitioning politicians, we should have been doing mass outreach,” Freed said. “People don’t know about it, and now they’ll say, ‘What the hell happened?’”
After the slideshow, the walk continues up the Putnam. At Van Cortlandt Lake, a family of mute swans swims in formation.
“They started out with seven, and they’ve still got five,” Freed said of the fuzzy gray cygnets swimming between their parents. “They’re doing pretty good.”
Past the lake, the shaded path narrows, crowded by low tree branches and bushes. Some group members say goodbye at this point, heading home or maybe off to explore other parts of the park on their own.
Where the trail winds through wetlands, Dolan points out a great white egret as well as families of mallard ducks. The wetlands present another ecological concern for trail advocates, who say that the delicate ecosystem already has been impeded by development in the Bronx.
An impermeable surface, like asphalt, stops water from being absorbed into the ground, Dolan adds, and extra water that runs into the wetlands can contain contaminants and chemicals picked up on the pavement.
The Nature Group has backup plans for the year-long closure at Van Cortlandt Park, however. Next month, they’ll meet by the stables in North Vannie, and walk the trails that are still open there.
Still, it will be a significant change for those used to taking Putnam Trail on a regular basis. Says Margie Slavin, after hearing about the alternative trails: “They’re not like this.”