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Spring 2001

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Whose woods these are

Rich in history, Skidmore’s North Woods was a major thoroughfare for Native Americans, a prime property for European settlers, a playground for privileged guests of the Woodlawn estate, and a recreational haven for generations of Saratogians. Lately the woodland’s network of carriage trails is busier than ever, as more and more Skidmoreans and their neighbors use the area for a rich and sometimes conflicting mix of academic, recreational, and spiritual pursuits. To conclude its two-part series, Scope looks at the pressures and opportunities facing the North Woods today.

by Kathryn Gallien

     You’d be hard pressed to find a road not taken in Skidmore’s North Woods.

Brian Dobbins ’04, biology professor Corey Freeman-Gallant, and Phillippa Allebon ’04 handle a white-throated sparrow during a bird-banding session in the woods.

     A century ago, in the heyday of Woodlawn Park, as many as 200 carriages a night roamed the tidy, lighted trails that meandered through what is now Skidmore’s campus and adjoining North Woods. One can imagine finely dressed ladies taking in the fresh air from behind their furs and feathers and dapper gentlemen tipping their hats to other coaches as they passed.

     Today there are plenty of fresh-air gatherers on those same trails—for the most part just as cheerful and polite despite their sometimes conflicting activities—hiking, jogging, drawing and painting, bird watching, bee tracking, flower spotting, mountain biking, partying, studying, dog walking, horseback riding, camping, snow shoeing, and skiing. And then there is the illegal traffic—all-terrain vehicles, jeeps, and snowmobiles—widely acknowledged to be both safety and environmental hazards. In recent years, discussion about wheeled traffic has prompted questions of legitimacy and definition: is the North Woods a recreation area, science lab, protected habitat, party haven, spiritual retreat?

     For Skidmore, a woodland right next to the main campus is an invaluable academic resource, and more. Karl Broekhuizen, vice president for business affairs, elaborates: “Since we have no intention of selling the North Woods, its financial value to the College is de minimus. Its true value is as a buffer, as a place for members of the Skidmore community to get away from populated areas to someplace more peaceful and serene, as an academic resource for biology and geology and other disciplines, and as one more resource for the greater community to enjoy, besides concerts, exhibits, lectures, and sports events.”

     That’s a broad range of uses, requiring, says Broekhuizen, “balance and compromise.”

Flora and fauna

A blossoming trillium decorates the North Woods floor.

     The North Woods is a mixed deciduous forest of maple, beech, birch, and elm, along with some northern conifers like hemlock. Its ecosystems include ponds, moist woods, fields, and wetlands. And its underlying geology – a calcium-bearing bedrock that makes for a nonacidic soil—“supports a state treasure of botanical diversity,” says Karen Kellogg, Skidmore lecturer in environmental studies. “It also provides habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.” All of that makes the woods an ideal laboratory for Kellogg’s course “Ecological Studies in Environmental Science,” in which students examine the interplay of society, economics, and the environment.

     The botanical diversity of these woods is no secret to wildflower devotees, who, like the objects of their affection, come out strong in the spring. In mid-April, tiny white, pink, and pale blue hepatica blooms in almost every corner of the woods, and the fuzzy leaves of wild ginger apear low in the moss and leaf litter; meanwhile, more heraldic leaves poke upward too: trout lily, false hellebore in the marshy areas, and the first regal trillium, proudly displaying its large flower bud. Soon to follow are bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapple, bellwort, marsh marigold, lousewort, starflower, Solomon’s seal both true and false, and—a special reward—an occasional yellow lady’s slipper.

     According to Sue Van Hook, senior teaching associate in biology, there are 650 species of herbs, ferns, trees, and shrubs on the college’s official plant list. And, she adds, “We have the second-highest fern diversity in the state.” (Thirty-three fern species were spotted on a single June day, close to the state record of thirty-six.) A dozen of the woods’ plant species are protected by New York State law, including goldenseal and spotted wintergreen; other uncommon species include walking fern.

     In June 2000 members of the northeast section of the Botanical Society of America, the Torrey Botanical Society, and the Philadelphia Botanical Society paid a visit to Skidmore’s North Woods and were so impressed they gave it rave reviews. “The vegetation is diverse, attractive, mostly native, and largely in excellent condition,” wrote Larry Klotz, professor of biology at Shippensburg University. “I envy the biologists at Skidmore.” Carol Gracie, of the New York Botanical Garden, echoed sentiments shared by many: “Skidmore woods is a treasure that should be defended . . .[and] preserved as a botanical laboratory.”

     Indeed Skidmore science faculty have been active in the woods from the early days of the new campus. To mark the world’s first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, biologists Harold “Hank” Howard and Denton Crocker led nature tours in the North Woods. Howard, author of Plants of Saratoga and Eastern New York: An Identification Manual (1995), was an early advocate for preserving the woodland part of the campus. And biologist William Brown began working in the woods in the 1970s, with a census of the painted-turtle population in Wilson Pond.

     “The North Woods is one of the reasons I came here,” says biologist Corey Freeman-Gallant. Each semester he brings students to the woods for a hands-on field experience in bird-banding. They catch the birds in fine nets, quickly measure and weigh them, then clamp numbered aluminum bands on their legs; the numbers are registered with the federal government’s migratory bird office.

     The official North Woods bird list has 105 species, of which 50 or more commonly breed there in the summer, another 41 use the area as a stopover during migration, and a few are winter residents. Along with familiar “backyard birds” such as robins, cardinals, and chickadees, North Woods sightings include great-crested flycatchers, several melodious warblers and thrushes, indigo buntings that gleam almost turquoise in the sunlight, and a few species known to be declining in general but well represented in these woods, such as the small but noisy ovenbird. There are at least 15 (and perhaps as many as 21) reptiles and amphibians. The list of confirmed mammals is 23 (with another 15 probably present), from white-tailed deer to bats, raccoons, skunks, weasels, and foxes.

Recreation

     When Skidmore purchased the former Woodlawn Park in 1960, then-president Val Wilson talked about it as a replacement for the old campus’s Fifty Acres athletic area, which was to be sacrificed to construction of the Adirondack Northway (Interstate 87). But in 1961 the trustees voted to build an entirely new campus on the old estate. The “lawn” of Woodlawn would be the main campus; as for the “wood,” Wilson wrote in a memo to faculty that “much of the site will remain wilderness—cut only by trails for walking, skiing, and riding.”

     Skidmore students had skied in the park as early as the 1930s. As the new campus grew, the ski slope reopened in 1968. In the early 1970s, the college offered classes in downhill and cross-country skiing. In 1972 professor emerita Beverly Becker, then chair of physical education, formed the first nationally registered all-woman ski patrol. Though the slope fell out of use by 1977 and is largely overgrown, cement supports from the old rope tow are still visible. These days, many hardy souls cross-country ski along the former carriage trails.

     Runners love those trails too. “When I was a student, the North Woods was one of my favorite places to run,” says Larry Lichtenstein ’79, a development officer at Emma Willard School. “Its hills guaranteed a grueling workout. It provided wonderful solitude just a few hundred yards from Jonsson Tower. On a fall or spring afternoon, after a full day of classes, to find yourself in the midst of a beautiful and blissfully quiet forest . . . that’s something rare and special.”

Carol Gracie, visiting from the New York Botanical Garden, examines an intriguing plant in the North Woods.

     Structural geologist William “Lans” Taylor ’93, who as a student was national orienteering champ, ran in the woods daily. “I remember running on tiptoes with twisted ankles through the rocks at night,” he says, adding, “I remember the wonderful gold light of an autumn sunrise streaming below dark clouds through the misted woods, and the frozen dew defining each blade of grass.”

     Karin Bohacek Kirk ’90, a geology grad student at Montana State University, remembers spending the night in the woods as a student. Inspired by survival classes, she built a “debris hut,” a sleeping-bag-sized lean-to made of sticks and leaves, which, when it is no longer used, becomes part of the forest again. “It’s neat to sleep in,” says Kirk, “because you feel like you’re curled up in the palm of Mother Nature. Animals don’t take much notice; they walk right by, especially at night. I never knew how much went on in the forest until I spent a night in a debris hut.”

     Students today often enjoy a sunset from the “fire pit,” a favorite party spot at the top of the old ski slope, where they sometimes pitch tents for the night. Some prefer to party or sleep in the more remote North Woods structures: a half-built lean-to high on a ridge, a large teepee, a comfortably decorated shack. And others have made use of the artifacts closer to the loop road: wood-plank climbing walls from an orientation program in the late 1980s, the concrete stairway that ascends the city’s huge water reservoir, and Skidmore’s own water tower. In the ’60s Wilson Chapel was built as a quiet spot for meditation on the edge of the woods, and in the ’80s the Falstaff’s pub was built in the woods over the objections of the Campus Environment Committee (CEC).

Conflicting interests

     The skirmish over siting Falstaff’s was minor compared to what happened in 1995, when a state championship in mountain biking brought some 300 competitors plus spectators to the North Woods—and spurred a heated debate about legitimate uses. Biology faculty mobilized to document the erosion already visible on and off the trails and promptly demanded that biking be banned.

     Kirk, at the time a geology lab assistant as well as advisor to the Skidmore cycling club, found herself on the lonely side of a contentious issue. The founder of the student Environmental Action Club (EAC), she was a strong advocate for responsible biking, and she took great pride in organizing the annual mountain bike festival at Skidmore. She also enjoyed running weekly bike clinics for women, helping them gain competence and confidence in a male-dominated sport. Thus, says Kirk, “It was very sad for me when the bike issue turned into a huge debate.”

     In the end the CEC recommended that trail biking be limited to Skidmore faculty, students, and staff only; but that was overruled as too exclusionary by the Institutional Planning Committee. However, as part of the ultimate compromise, the state bike race was canceled for the following year. “Both sides were fighting very hard for what they believed to be right,” Kirk recalls. “I learned a lot from the whole mess.”

     According to the compromise, biking would be restricted to the large established paths; newer trails that threatened vegetation or exacerbated erosion would be marked as closed. Printed guidelines admonished visitors to respect natural areas and not to disrupt laboratory experiments. Biking was prohibited altogether during the spring wet season, March through May. All motorized vehicles were prohibited. The guidelines were handed out by volunteers during a 1997 North Woods Awareness Weekend and posted on trailhead kiosks. A Schenectady Gazette editorial at the time commended Skidmore for hammering out a wise land-use policy that put academic uses first, then recreation.

Geologist Karin Bohacek Kirk ’90 teaches a 1994 women’s mountain-biking clinic in the woods.

     But five years later, the printed guides have run out, information kiosks are outdated, and a trailhead registry stands empty, its wooden cover broken and dangling. And the biking controversy is still hot.

     The conflict is one reason that All Outdoors shop owner Chris Pitts bikes elsewhere, though he still leads group rides in the woods, mostly for beginners, with whom he stresses trail etiquette. Pitts would like to see the college get together with local shops and bike clubs that could help educate bikers about riding responsibly. “Skidmore’s trails are so well known,” he says. “The college is a great place to ride. People just need to be considerate.” Plenty are not: mountain-bike Web sites are filled with enthusiastic reports of the great fun to be had in Skidmore’s woods during the mud season.

     “The post-snow and post-rain erosion is extraordinary,” says Skidmore biologist David Domozych, who stipulates that many bikers are people who enjoy nature. “But their activity—tire treads rubbing against soil—causes harm.” And according to Freeman-Gallant, for most mountain bikers “part of the appeal is blazing new trails and dangerous riding.”

     Kerim Odekon ’01, co-president of the EAC, agrees that biking has “taken quite a toll. If the college values this amazing resource, we have to take a more proactive stand.” Odekon, a native Saratogian who has spent lots of time in the woods, says, “I used to bike there; I stopped because of the damage.”

     Likewise for Jason Forest ’01, an anthropology major and environmental studies minor who says mountain biking is his favorite sport. But in researching his senior capstone project—“Biologists, Bikers, and Business: A Stakeholder Analysis of the Skidmore North Woods”—he learned about the erosion. Noting dual historic themes in usage of the North Woods “for pleasurable recreational activities and as a place for new development,” his analysis turned to a discussion of the woods as a laboratory and the conflict this has posed with the biking community. Forest recommended that the college develop a stewardship plan for the woods, perhaps involving different use zones, and concluded that ultimately it may be necessary to ban bikes.

     “I don’t think I’ll be biking here,” says Forest, and yet, “I have a moral dilemma: I can say biking should be banned in North Woods, but we can’t ban it everywhere,” so the problem gets pushed somewhere else. (That somewhere else is the largely college-owned woodland behind Skidmore’s stables—the prime biking area these days.)

     “The biggest thing I learned,” Forest concludes, “is that it’s an incredibly complicated issue, one that will require a lot of dialogue.

Other assets and liabilities

     But “biology vs. biking” doesn’t begin to cover the range of uses. American studies professor Mary C. Lynn uses the woods in several courses. “In ‘New England Begins,’ we walk into the woods to discuss the reactions of European settlers to the American forest, reading a diary entry about being lost in the woods and an account of being captured by Indians. In ‘American Identities’ we go to the woods to discuss Thoreau at Walden Pond and Emerson’s essay on nature. And in ‘Born in America,’ a Liberal Studies 2 course, we look at some of the wild herbs that early midwives used.”

     The forest is a source of inspiration for other disciplines as well—and not always without controversy. Scientists’ eyebrows were raised last year when a student religion project manifested itself in thirty wooden poles driven into the perimeter of the “mayfly pond.” And last year the woods were either decorated or vandalized: bright red paint covered various rocks and marked the hollows in several tree trunks, and trees next to the pond were painted with the word “being” in white. Ornithologist Freeman-Gallant pointed out that the tree-hole paint could draw a predator’s attention to vital hiding places for small animals; others objected on aesthetic grounds; and Dennis Conway, director of campus safety, launched an investigation to identify the perpetrator. Then suddenly a printed apology was posted near the “being” trees. The anonymous artist wanted everyone to know that this was no eco-vandalism but an eco-friendly reminder that our being is tied to that of the trees. Those offended by the painting are glad to know that the artist received the message to desist from further decorating.

     In terms of policing the woods, Conway’s major concern is motorized vehicles. Abundant tire tracks on and off the trails conjure up the grim image of a truck full of kids spiraling out of control on some rocky slope. Signs will soon go up stating “No Motorized Vehicles Beyond this Point,” and safety officers are eager to respond to reports of motorized trespassers. In good weather, a bike-patrol officer could get there fast. (Perhaps that’s the ultimate irony: mountain bikers may serve as the woods’ best protectors.) But enforcement is difficult, and it is virtually impossible to lock vehicles out.

No walls or gates

     Sensitivity to the natural environs has been a guiding force since the first plans for the new campus espoused a need to “protect the natural environment.”

     A 1972 plan marked off a recreational area around the ski slope and designated much of the rest of the woods as “protected wilderness, greenbelt, and open space.” In the 1989 master site plan, which extolled the “spectacular hill-top, extensive natural woodlands and distant views,” planners developed the “vision of a college set in Arcadia” that had inspired the purchase of the property back in 1960. The plan involved expanding into the wooded areas as a response in part to what was seen as the tightening circle of paved roads and parking lots that surrounded campus buildings and separated them from the woodland setting. To bring the campus closer to the woods, planners designed a possible North Park—extending from the west of Wilson Chapel toward the top of the old ski slope—that could be used for new sports fields, parking, or future buildings.

     None of those plans has come to pass, but the site plan is “still a guideline,” says VP Broekhuizen. “But it doesn’t propose. Rather, it suggests possible configurations for a new residence hall or parking lot, should they become necessary.” For now, he says, “We want the North Woods to be a place of peace and serenity. The problems come with bikers and motorized vehicles, but we can’t preclude them because we don’t have the resources to keep them out,” and, he adds, “I’m not willing to build a wall around it.”

     “I’d like to see a strong sense of stewardship on the part of the college,“ says Freeman-Gallant, “and maybe that involves multiple uses.” But, he argues, there should be no wheeled vehicles. Broekhuizen, whose own home lies deep in the woods of Porter Corners, is reluctant to go that far: “We can’t deny reasonable use to responsible folks.”

     Of course, even the most responsible folks can have a lasting impact. “As a responsible and conscientious user of the area,” says orienteer Taylor, “I certainly accelerated erosion, trampled vegetation, scared away wildlife, and left tire tracks and footprints—inevitable results if anyone has access.” But he continues, “The Skidmore woods are so close to the school, almost entwined within it, that not being allowed to walk from your dorm into the woods seems overly restrictive to me.”

     Botanist Van Hook sees the North Woods as “an educational resource, first; then certain areas can be designated for use by facilities services; finally, it is an area for passive recreation.” She would ideally like to see a modest allocation of funds to support a part-time North Woods manager, improved signage, gates, trail maintenance, and educational outreach.

     Biker-geologist Kirk says, “the North Woods are a great resource—a living laboratory, a landscape for art classes . . . I think teachers should all get their classes out there at least once. But having a place to play and stretch your legs is also an important part of life, and of student life. And I like the way the campus is nestled into the woods; there is a soft transition from buildings to open space to woods.”

     Perhaps the only consensus is the need to educate people about using the North Woods. And that’s bound to happen, given renewed interest on campus lately. Concerns about the status of the woods emerged in this winter’s institutional planning process; Van Hook and the Campus Environment Committee are currently outlining a stewardship plan; and tours during last fall’s Family Weekend (cosponsored by the environmental and outing clubs, the environmental studies program, and CEC) were such a big hit that plans are under way to repeat them next year. Most heartening for Van Hook is a new spirit of general environmental activism among students.

     But even among eco-activists, there are no easy solutions to questions about appropriate use and access. And maybe that’s as it should be in an educational setting. In her 1961 “Charge to the Architects and Planners,” Skidmore’s trustee chair Josephine Young Case admonished: “One thing we do not want for our campus and that is walls or gates. For we want the world to enter. These students would not and should not have isolation from the immediacy of current problems, however dire.” Certainly the world Skidmore students will inhabit is filled with difficult environmental quandaries—from the neighboring Adirondacks, where tourists, environmental officials, and citizens clash over development and land use, to national debates over drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. And major issues know no borders: global warming, acid rain, pollution, overdevelopment.

     How to get a handle on such issues? Perhaps the North Woods is a useful starting point. Kellogg thinks so. One of the objectives for her new ecology course is to explore how patterns seen on a local scale—in this case, the North Woods—might influence environments on a regional or global scale. “I think the best way to teach people to be aware of the environment is to get them outside,” says Kirk. “Students will leave Skidmore and make decisions that affect the environment. Maybe if they share a connection with the outdoors, they will be more inclined to help the environment.”

     At Skidmore, that’s a connection easily made—just across the loop road, where anyone and everyone can listen to the resonant drumming of a magnificent pileated woodpecker, or watch the woods fill up with snow on a winter evening, or hike in on a spring afternoon to witness an explosion of white-blossomed trillium across a rocky slope.

Woods walker Kathryn Gallien has taken up the pastime of wildflower watching.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College