When COVID closed down bars, restaurants, and performance centers, people took to the parks and preserves of upstate New York in droves, and some trails strained under the impact. So any news of a new outdoor recreation area is good news. On June 1, the Winnakee Land Trust (WLT) officially opened the gates to Vlei Marsh, a 165-acre nature preserve that is Rhinebeck’s second largest wetland area. “Winnakee is thrilled to be adding additional scenic open spaces and trails for the community to explore, at a time when demand for outdoor recreation is at an all-time high,” says Carl Meyer, President of the Board of Directors at the WLT.
An accredited land trust and nonprofit, WLT has been in existence for more than 30 years, focusing on protecting and stewarding forests, farmland, natural habitats, and water resources from development, for both ecological health and community enjoyment. This remains their mission, though recently the organization broadened its purview to include acquiring and maintaining land in the Hudson Valley. For the past two years, under the careful guidance of Davis, the WLT has begun to focus on actively purchasing land and restoring it to its ecological potential, as well as rehabilitating habitats for endangered species. Vlei Marsh, acquired in December 2020, along with a $250K cash donation to maintain it and support its long term stewardship, is the latest triumph in this new approach.
Multi-looped, newly upgraded trails at Vlei Marsh take visitors through both wetland and a northern hardwood and oak-hickory transition forest, home to scores of mammals, amphibians, and birds. Designated as a significant biodiversity area by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Vlei Marsh is home to a high concentration of species and contains distinctive ecological features. The property boasts a Great Blue Heron rookery, beavers, turtles, and many more species tucked away in the landscape than you can see at first glance.
Vlei Marsh is free and open to the public, as long as visitors stick to the trail and follow Leave No Trace principles. At the trailhead, there will soon be a kiosk detailing guidelines for wildlife observers as well as habitat and species information. WLT plans to add more hiking trails to the property in future and will eventually offer late guided kayak tours, after most birds have completed their nesting process. “We have a longterm dream of one day establishing a conservation center on the property,” says WLT Executive Director Robert Davis, which would be a venue for public environmental education programs. He also wants to build an observation platform in the marsh.
WLT Marketing Director Uri Perrin will be creating and spearheading special events at Vlei Marsh. The first public project is a self-guided, family-friendly “Enchanted Forest” tour, open from June 5 to 19 and replete with six-foot dragons peeking out from behind the trees and a “fairy house”—a lean-to in Vlei Marsh with all-natural elements made by local set designer Richard Prouse. Local volunteers came together to create the set pieces for the enchanted forest, a concept inspired by Vlei Marsh’s magical quality.
On July 31, Hudson Valley ethnoecologist Justin Wexler will give visitors a guided tour through Vlei Marsh and teach them how local indigenous species names for plants describe their uses and roles in native culture. He will be sharing his 20 years of expertise in Hudson Valley native culture, language, history, and folklore. This event is $10 and requires pre-registration.
If you can’t attend these in-person events, WLT is also hosting a virtual party fundraiser on June 12 that will highlight its forest conservation efforts and community collaborations. Participants will purchase tickets in advance and receive a forest-themed party gift box the day of, consisting of locally made items like wine from Old Mill Wine & Spirits, Samuel’s Sweet Shop chocolate turtles, Hudson Valley Kinders Farm soap, and other specially curated items.
A Bright, Green Future
The WLT began “like every other land trust,” says Davis: with the concern of preserving the character of the community, using the traditional approach of conservation easement. Easements entail a landowner voluntarily agreeing to sell or donate certain rights associated with their property, often the right to subdivide or develop, to a private organization or public agency. What became readily apparent to Davis and the Board of Directors in recent years was that many of the significant threats to our landscapes are the kind of things that don’t respect property lines: overabundance of herbivores or rodents, introduced pests, pathogens, and invasive plants. “The easement is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough,” says Davis. “If we want to take matters into our own hands and begin to alleviate the effects of these negative impacts and restore the system to health, we have to get more involved.”
Vlei Marsh is one of the WLT’s latest accomplishments in this vein. Davis hopes that newly acquired property will bring an appreciation of the environment to the community and reconnect people who have been removed from the natural world for decades with the environment.
Parking for Vlei Marsh access is at 186 Vlei Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.
Winnakee Land Trust
187 E. Market Street, Rhinebeck, NY 12572