Future of Helderberg parks takes shape

The Enterprise —Tyler Murphy

A walk in the park: On Wednesday, Tracy Manning, with her daughter, Aven, on her back and a friend, Amor, in hand, enjoy a walk at Thompson’s Lake State Park. The park’s first-ever master plan calls for combining it with John Boyd Thacher State Park and adding more multi-use trails, including ones joining the two nearby Helderberg parks.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Concerned about fracturing in the rock at Thacher Park, Charles Ver Straeten stands before a map of the park at an Aug. 1 hearing as he expresses doubts about building a visitors’ center, as planned, at the Indian Ladder Picnic Area.  Alane Ball Chinian, the director of the Saratoga-Capital District Region for the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said this week that was the first she heard about geology possibly making building unsafe.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Environmental impact is minimized because most changes proposed for Thacher and Thompson’s Lake state parks are in areas that are already developed, says Senior Planner Salim Chishti in giving an overview of the plan at an Aug. 1 public hearing.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Packed house: Over 50 people attended the hearing at New Scotland’s town hall last Thursday on the first-ever master plan for Thacher Park. Seventeen people spoke, most of whom liked the plan although several pointed out problems or concerns.

NEW SCOTLAND — A geologist who works for the state said fracturing in the rock at Thacher Park makes it unwise to build a visitors’ center so close to the edge of the Helderberg escarpment, as described in a draft of the park’s first master plan.

Charles Ver Straeten was one of 17 who spoke last Thursday during a hearing for the plan, which would combine John Boyd Thacher and Thompson’s Lake state parks. The plan also calls for developing the former pool area with a ropes challenge course and hiring a concessionaire to teach rope courses; additionally, it introduces rock climbing to the park. (See related story.)

Expanded trails, including those for mountain bikes, are part of the draft as is building a visitors’ center to enlighten the public about the park’s assets, expanding the bird conservation areas, and managing invasive species. (See related story.)

Most of the speakers at the hearing favored the plan overall although a couple advocated for the return of the swimming pool, closed in 2006; several who live on Thompson’s Lake objected to expanding the beach there; two equestrians asked that horses not be forbidden; and the president of a cavers’ group said some of Thacher’s several dozen caves don’t require the tours the plan calls for.

A mountain biker representing Saratoga Mountain Bike Association was enthused the plan includes bike trails, and two rock-climbers representing the Thacher Climbing Coalition spoke enthusiastically about the proposal allowing climbing on Thacher Park’s cliffs for the first time.

Ver Straeten, a sedimentary geologist with the New York State Museum, said he was “a little mystified” why his advice was ignored in drawing up the plan. He called the degree of fracturing in the rock “a very important issue.”

Ver Sraeten told the packed meeting hall, which had about 50 people in attendance, that, if the swimming pool had not been placed so close to the edge of the escarpment, it would have lasted longer.

At the time the pool was closed, Michael Vincent, who had learned to swim there and had been in charge of maintaining it, told The Enterprise that the pool held 675,000 gallons of water, which came from Thompson’s Lake. The biggest problem with the concrete pool in its later years, Vincent said, was it lost several thousand gallons of water a day.

Chris Fallon, the manager at Thacher Park, said at the time of the closing, “It was the general consensus of the engineers…that it could not be repaired and was not safe to operate.”

Ver Straeten noted that east of Yellow Rock, fractures can be seen from top to bottom and geologists don’t know how much farther that reaches.

He declined to comment further after the meeting when The Enterprise asked about his concerns; he noted that, as a state employee, he is limited in what he can say to the press.

Ver Straeten’s specialty is sedimentary rocks — made of mud, sand, gravel, and shells — of the Devonian period, which ran from 420 million to 360 million years ago, precisely describing the Helderberg escarpment.

Karst topography has long been a concern for planning boards in the Helderberg Hilltowns since crevices in the limestone can carry materials, like sewage or oil run-off from cars, long distances, polluting water.

According to the draft, the new visitors’ center would be built at the Indian Ladder Picnic Area; it would include space for exhibits of park geology, for meetings, for park offices, and for restrooms.

Alane Ball Chinian, the director of the Saratoga-Capital District Region for the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, responded this week to Ver Straeten’s concerns. “If you look at the preliminary plan, the building is quite a ways from the edge,” she said.

Of Ver Straeten’s concerns being ignored, she said, “I’m sorry he characterized it that way. He’s close to the park. He’s married to the woman who runs the nature center,” Ball Chinian said, referring to Nancy Engel. “We really respect his opinion…He’ll help developing geologic exhibits.”

She went on, “Chuck has been opposed to rock-climbing…That’s where he may be feeling ignored.” She added that the hearing was the first she had heard concerns about geology making the building unsafe.

About the deterioration of the Thacher pool, Ball Chinian said, “That was a Moses-era pool”; she was referring to Robert Moses who shaped New York State through public authorities.  Ball Chinian said many state parks had 1960s-era pools that deteriorated. The “geological footing” may have been one of the reasons for the demise of Thacher’s pool, she said.

Ball Chinian concluded, “The building has not been fully designed.”

Thompson’s Lake concerns

Michael Reilly, whose family has had a camp on Thompson’s Lake for 80 years, said most of the plan’s recommendations were “great improvements,” but he was worried about the proposed expansion of the beach. He also said the limit on boats is never followed, stating there were five motorboats at the state campground last week.

George Christian has had a camp on the eastern shore of the lake for 24 years and is president of the Thompson’s Lake Improvement Association. He also chairs Berne’s zoning board. Christian expressed concern about zebra mussels, an invasive species.

He also said the environmental impact statement could be improved by stronger statements on educating patrons, noting that some bring invasive species from other bodies of water.

Christian recommended working with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to add signs about the need to clean boats so as not to continue the spread of zebra mussels.

He also said the campsite had been on the lake since 1963 and sand was regularly added to the beach. Christian expressed concerns about the sand on an expanded beach migrating to the lake bottom and affecting water quality.

He expressed concerns, too, about the visitors’ center affecting the “dark sky” and recommended lighting there as well as at the campsite be installed in such a way that it minimizes the effect on the dark sky.

Finally, he said that Canada geese can leave a pound of feces per goose per day and such resident species were not addressed in the plan. He said, too, association members are ready to work on milfoil control.

Eileen Newell-Criscione, whose family has a camp on Thompson’s Lake, said there was a scare a couple of years ago about sewage in the lake. She asked if land for expansion would be taken through eminent domain. She also said the zebra mussels are very bad, “cutting our feet” and that the algae blooms create “big, green globules.”

She concluded, “I’m all for milfoil control. We can barely swim in the lake.”

Ball Chinian said this week that the concerns raised about the sand being brought to the Thompson’s Lake beach and migrating into the lake was “a very valid point.” She said she’d like to “better understand” its effect on the environment.

Trail use

Marilyn Miles, an equestrian, said she enjoys hiking and snowshoeing in the park as well as horseback riding in its northern section. She said trails for horses were “conspicuously absent” from the draft and hoped it would not be forbidden.

Marietta Velvis said she wants to make sure the “multi-use trails” include equestrians. She noted there are many places in New York State where those who hike, bike, ride all-terrain vehicles, or snowmobile share the same trails.

A cross-country skier said the difference between snowshoers and cross-country skiers is like that between sheep and cattle ranchers. He hopes snowshoe and cross-country trails will be separated. He also opposed hiring private contractors to teach rope courses. “It should be a state institution,” he said.

Christopher Morris, the southern vice president of the Saratoga Mountain Bike Association, called the draft “a great plan,” stating there is “potential for cycling in the area that is definitely needed.” He also said his group would organize local volunteers to help Thacher Park make mountain bike trails a reality.

Woodruff Carroll with the Thacher Climbing Coalition supported the “radical step” of including rock climbers. Another member of the coalition, Justin Minder, of Albany, said he was excited about the plan and that with climbers would work “harmoniously” with the many other users that enjoy the park.

Ball Chinian said that the staff of the Minnewaska State Park on a Shawangunk Mountain ridge, which allows rock-climbing, was “helping us think through the issue” for Thacher. It is important to develop stable routes, to keep rock from breaking off, she said, both for the safety of the climbers and the preservation of the cliff.

“We want to open the cliff to safe climbing,” she said, “and are working with the climbing community.”

Asked if horses would be forbidden on the park trails, Ball Chinian said, “We want to make sure we designate for the most common uses.” She said she’d have to “regroup” and work with the team to address that issue. She concluded, “Parks are open and accessible to everybody. We’re not going to discriminate.”

Cave concerns

Thom Engel said there should be more about access to caves in the plan and stated all but two in the park are beginners’ caves, and elsewhere they would be used.

He also noted there are a number of historic roads in the park and said they “should be maintained as roads” rather than made into narrower trails.

Bob Addis, the president of the Northeastern Cave Conservancy, said he was concerned about “sanctioned and permitted guided tours” mentioned in the plan. “We don’t know what that means,” he said, adding, for example, that Hailes Cave, one of several dozen caves in the park, would not require visitors to have a guided tour. Addis also said that a cave management plan should be written. His organization would volunteer its skills and experience, he said, noting members agree with the closure of caves from October through May to protect bats.

Pool boosters

Another speaker said the Thompson’s Lake beach holds only 117 people, and hundreds more are looking to use a beach on a 95-degree day. “I would like to see you bring back the pool,” he said. He said, if the ground is stable enough for rock climbing, it should be stable enough for a pool.

A woman identifying herself as a New Scotland resident and a teacher by profession said she would “implore” the planners to include a swimming pool, which gives kids the “lifelong gift of learning to swim.” She also noted that the pool provided a “diverse environment.”

“We did a thorough analysis of the pool,” Ball Chinian responded through The Enterprise. “First of all, you need to look at demand.” She spoke of the “proliferation of community pools in the vicinity of Thacher” and also said many backyard pools had been built in recent decades. “Since the sixties, more municipalities have developed pools,” she said.

None of the Helderberg Hilltowns have municipal pools although the suburban areas nearby — the towns of Guilderland and Bethlehem, and the school in Voorheesville — do have pools.

Ball Chinian said that building a pool at Thacher could cost $4 million to $8 million or more.

“We want to develop more sustainable infrastructure in our parks,” she concluded. In New York City, she said, large numbers of children can be bused from schools and other programs for learn-to-swim programs at state parks. “We didn’t feel the demand was there,” she said of Thacher.

 “Comforting and wonderful”

Several spoke enthusiastically about the plan. Jim McNaughton said his 6-year-old son is in love with the Nature Center and that his family, which enjoys cycling, likes the plans.

Another speaker asked for more guidance on how trails are to be used. She said it was “comforting and wonderful” to see all that went into the draft environmental impact statement to protect things going forward. And, while she said she was looking forward to welcoming “the climbing community,” she “would plead for caution.”

Edie Abrams, a New Scotland resident, noted the local population is declining and getting older and suggested trails for handicapped and elderly.

Abrams also advocated making the park an attraction for people beyond the local area. “This could be a moneymaker for the towns around here,” she said, mentioning such business as restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Overall, Ball Chinian said, she was “delighted” with last week’s public hearing and “thrilled” that so many people came out.

She was especially pleased to have representatives from three organizations speak about the plan — Saratoga Mountain Bike Association, the Thompson’s Lake Improvement Association, and the Northeastern Cave Conservancy.

“I love those kinds of partnerships, where we can work with groups that have expertise,” she said.

The response at the hearing, Ball Chinian said, made her feel “confident we are headed in a good direction.”

People may provide comments on the plan through Aug. 23, by e-mail to thacher-thompson.plan@parksny.gov, or by postal mail to either Alane Ball Chinian, regional director, Saratoga-Capital District Region, NYS OPRHP, 19 Roosevelt Dr., Saratoga Springs, NY  12866 or to M. Pamela Otis, director, Environmental Management Bureau, NYS OPRHP, Albany NY 12238.

The draft may be read online at the State Office of Parks’ website and at the public libraries in Berne, Guilderland, and Voorheesville.

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