The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail | Environment | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Drive north from the Bear Mountain Bridge on the east side of the Hudson and before long you’ll start to notice green lawn signs dotting the roadside. The signs do not endorse a candidate for public office. They simply say “Fjord Trail”—some against a red, crossed-out circle, others beside a looming white question mark.

Whatever question is being asked, the implied answer is a resounding “No.”

A planned walking-and-biking path stretching 7.5-miles along the Hudson River through the Highlands, the Fjord Trail project has been more than 15 years in the making. It was first conceived as a modest roadside path intended to alleviate problems created by the popularity of Breakneck Ridge and other local trails. Yet the Fjord Trail has since turned into a far more ambitious project, an attraction unto itself—not merely a trail but a “world-class linear park,” a bucolic upstate cousin to Manhattan’s monumental High Line, far longer than the Walkway Over the Hudson with even more spectacular views. Financed by a combination of public and private funds and led by the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail (HHFT), a subsidiary of the environmental group Scenic Hudson, construction is set to begin early next year.

As currently planned, the trail will begin at state-owned Dockside Park on the waterfront in Cold Spring, then proceed via an elevated promenade over the river to Breakneck Ridge, where it will curve around the rugged point that both the train tracks and the state highway bore through via tunnels, then cross over the tracks on a state-of-the-art, $50 million pedestrian bridge and finally proceed on a path meandering through the woods up to Long Dock Park in Beacon. There will be six entrances along the route, with shuttle buses ferrying people between them. Designed to be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fjord Trail is intended not only to solve the traffic and safety issues around Breakneck but to open up a long and unspeakably gorgeous stretch of riverfront property currently closed off by the railroad tracks and private property. As the project’s master plan puts it, the Fjord Trail aspires to “welcome people back to the water’s edge.”

Yet the project’s evolution into what HHFT calls “Fjord Trail 2.0” has brought a storm of controversy to the eastern Highlands community. Gone are the days when the trail idea enjoyed near-universal support. (“[I]t’s unusual when everybody comes together like this,” Bob LaColla, then Fishkill supervisor, said in 2014.) In Cold Spring, the village of 2,000 people at the southern terminus of the route, the project has split residents and all but taken over the letters page of the Highlands Current, filled nearly every week with competing missives from those who welcome the initiative as a badly needed solution to overcrowding at Breakneck and those who warn it will both worsen those problems and irreparably harm a landscape the modern environmental movement was founded to preserve. A vocal faction of Cold Spring residents, formally organized as Protect the Highlands, fears that the plan is being pushed through without sufficient planning and without their input, and will forever ruin their fragile little village, often ranked among the most charming towns in the United States.

The green lawn signs peter out as the two-lane highway crosses through the Breakneck Tunnel and swings into Beacon, the small but booming city at the trail route’s northern end, where I live. Beacon will be nearly as impacted by the trail as its smaller, more fastidious neighbor to the south, yet there is a sense here that the city can readily absorb the new visitors, and that the benefits the trail will bring to locals are likely to far outweigh the costs. One hears little of Cold Spring’s conspiratorial talk about hush payments and secret cabals. More common are complaints about the maddeningly slow schedule set for construction—set to be completed somewhere around 2031.

This fall, I spent a few weeks walking the proposed route and speaking with residents of Cold Spring, both supporters and critics of the Trail, about their hopes and fears for the project, why it has so sharply divided the community, and where things might go from here.

The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail
Ross Corsair
Cars lined up along Route 9D near the trailhead for Breakneck Ridge in April 2020.

Overcrowding at Breakneck Ridge

Fifteen thousand years ago, during the most recent ice age, glaciers inched their way south from Canada, slowly yet inexorably, following the easy, low-lying route of a primordial valley, gouging deeper and deeper into rock. When the glaciers receded, salty seawater flowed into the trough, creating the estuary we know today as the Hudson, the deepest river in the United States. Near West Point, just south of Cold Spring, the riverbed lies 200 feet below the surface.

There’s a name for a mountain-hugged waterway scooped out by glaciers: a fjord. Derived from the Old Norse, it’s an unfamiliar term for most Americans, including locals in the Highlands. But this curious geological history is what has made this portion of the Hudson Valley such a staggeringly beautiful place, and is what draws some half-a-million visitors every year to the Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, six thousand acres of craggy terrain from Peekskill to Beacon, featuring views of the glaciers’ sublime handiwork.

Many of those visitors head straight for Breakneck Ridge, the brief but arduous rock scramble that is, by some counts, the most visited trail in the country, thanks in large part to incessant social media promotion. Breakneck looms over the river opposite Storm King Mountain at the northern entrance to the Highlands—what the area’s colonial Dutch inhabitants called the Wey Gat, or Wind Gate. In later years, travelers venturing upriver from New York City would invariably comment on the majestic views of the mountains as their ships passed through the narrow strait—a “giant gate opening into the New World,” as one European put it. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, sketched his first view of the valley’s scenery from a notch in Breakneck’s shadow.

Today, it can be hard to find the calming, Edenic peace that Cole depicted. Over the past decade, visitation at Breakneck has increased dramatically, making an already dangerous situation even worse. On busy weekends in summer and fall, hikers stroll obliviously along Route 9D, a state highway with an oft-exceeded 55 mile-per-hour speed limit—or park their cars at remarkably creative angles to squeeze in. It’s a situation local officials have long sought to wrangle under control, and the Fjord Trail began as a means of doing so.

Rather than solve those overcrowding problems, however, the new trail will increase them and bring new ones, says local realtor Michael Bowman, a former Cold Spring trustee and a member of the anti-Trail group Protect the Highlands. “What went from a solution to the problem of hikers walking on the street has morphed into this mega tourist attraction that’s going to destroy our small-town character,” Bowman told me.

The project has been guided thus far by a steering committee of public and private organizations, including local municipalities and state agencies, citizens’ groups, and Metro-North, which, along with New York State owns much of the land along the trail’s route. Above all, however, the Fjord Trail is the brain-child of Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization born amid a fierce battle in the 1960s over whether to build a power plant at the foot of Storm King, now the centerpiece of the proposed Fjord Trail’s viewshed. In that epic fight, which birthed the modern environmental movement, an older conservation organization founded to end quarrying at Bull Hill, south of Breakneck Ridge, endorsed the power plant proposal, destroying its credibility. Now, critics contend, Scenic Hudson is doing the same thing, tarnishing its legacy by backing an initiative that would undermine its own six-decade record.

The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail
Rendering by DarcStudio, courtesy of Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, Inc.
A rendering of the Breakneck Ridge connector section of the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, which would enable pedestrians to cross above the railroad tracks.

A Millionaire Donor

Since its creation in 2020, HHFT, the Scenic Hudson subsidiary, has raised more than $50 million dollars to get the project off the ground. Much of that money has come from the group’s board chair, Christopher Davis, a mutual fund manager and nearby resident who previously owned the Garrison, a restaurant, golf course, and events venue, before he donated a large part of the property to serve as the new home of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (the rest went to a local land trust). Now Davis’ involvement in the Fjord Trail has become a major point of controversy, as some critics accuse the wealthy donor of wielding undue influence over the project. Former Cold Spring mayor Dave Merandy, a leader of the anti-Trail forces, described HHFT and its allies to me as “the Davis Cabal.” The Highlands Current was recently accused in its own pages of being “solidly in the deep pockets of Chris Davis,” after it published a favorable piece about the Trail. A person I spoke with near the Cold Spring waterfront suspected I might be a Davis stooge, sent to gather information about the opposition.

“He may have the greatest, most altruistic intentions,” Michael Bowman of Protect the Highlands said of Davis, “but the fact is that his large donations are what really changed this project from something that was homegrown to something that’s very corporate.”

Davis avoids the spotlight and rarely grants interviews about the Fjord Trail or anything else. But he agreed to speak with me by phone. A native of New York City, he has lived in Garrison, just south of Cold Spring, for nearly 30 years. An avid hiker, he decided to get involved with the Fjord Trail around 2017, he told me, when he realized that the existing plans were “a little bit soulless, because they didn’t connect to the landscape.” At that time, there were no funds to bring the project to the next level. “The only impediment was financial,” he recalled. “My feeling was, ‘That’s the missing piece? I can contribute that.’” He paid for the 2020 master plan, which re-envisioned the Trail project, and helped bring on board the celebrated landscape architecture firm SCAPE to draw up a design. “You only get to do this once,” Davis explained, “so we have to do it gracefully, subtly, quietly, with reverence and with restraint. It has to be deserving of the place.”

As for the critics, Davis feels confident he will see them in a few years taking their children and grandchildren for sunset walks along the Trail they once lambasted. “All of these comments are so hard to hear,” he told me. “I get upset about it, but I also feel a lot of patience with the fact that people are afraid. We’re all afraid, because what we have is so precious.”

A Lack of Transparency

At times, the Trail planners have done themselves no favors. In 2020, when Scenic Hudson, newly flush with Davis’ largesse, went public with its new master plan, a Hank Osborn, a program director for the NYNJ Trail Conference and a member of the HHFT Steering Committee, told the Highlands Current, “There’s so much happening, but it’s 100 percent behind the scenes.”

That may not have been the wisest strategy, as it fostered the perception of a lack of transparency. Though she asked for it four separate times, Cold Spring’s current mayor, Kathleen Foley, only received the contract detailing the relationship between HHFT and New York State Parks when a local citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request and passed it along.

HHFT is now trying to play catch up, hosting a series of public meetings and conversations, abandoning some of the more easily ridiculed aspects of the plan (such as “forest nets” in which visitors could recline while dangling over the trees), and forming a visitation data committee with representatives from Cold Spring to help assess how the trail might impact congestion.

Still, many locals fear that even if the planned route is not yet chiseled in stone, all the critical decisions have already been made. Jack Goldstein, the former chair of the village’s planning board who died last June, expressed frustration that crucial stakeholders were being kept out of the loop. He criticized HHFT for being slow in providing details and presenting to the public only “pretty pictures and vague projections.”

The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail
Ty Cole, courtesy of Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, Inc.
Hikers on Breakneck Ridge looking south toward West Point.

Claiming Pete Seeger

On a crisp morning in early October, I met Richard Shea, an HHFT board member, at Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon, the northern anchor of the proposed Trail. Until 2021, Shea was town supervisor in Philipstown, the larger municipality of which the village of Cold Spring is a part. Shea was among the group of outdoorsy locals who first dreamed up a trail along this stretch of the river.

Shea’s Cold Spring credentials are impeccable. He grew up on Market Street, down by the water. His family has lived in the area since the 1840s, and his uncle and grandfather were also Philipstown supervisors. Shea has a degree in natural resources conservation and once lived in a shack at Little Stony Point, along the Fjord Trail’s route, while working as the park’s caretaker. He has been involved in local environmental issues for 40 years.

As Shea sees it, the number of visitors flocking to Breakneck Ridge and Cold Spring is certain to keep rising, no matter whether the Fjord Trail gets built, and the village alone does not have the resources to manage the hordes. “There’s no easy solution,” he told me. “There’s going to be trade-offs. If you’re just saying, ‘We want them to go away,’ that’s not a solution.”

In the fight over the Fjord Trail, backers and critics of the plan have each invoked Pete Seeger as a spiritual mascot for their cause. The famous folk singer lived for 65 years in a mountainside home looming over the river between Beacon and Cold Spring. He founded local institutions like Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and pushed for the city’s formerly industrial waterfront to become parkland. Michael Bowman of Protect the Highlands, observing that the late singer “fought to save the Hudson from folly projects that destroyed habitat and encroached upon sensitive environmental areas,” has argued that if Seeger were alive he would oppose the Fjord Trail, too.

Richard Shea isn’t buying it. “I worked with Pete Seeger,” he told me as we stood at the shoreline. “I worked on his house. I made maple syrup with him. I hiked with him. I played banjo with him. He was a good friend of mine. Pete Seeger was about getting people to the river, so they could care about the river.”

Hostility to the Trail may not be as widespread as the proliferation of lawn signs would suggest. “People who are in favor of it fear that if they speak up, they’re going to get shouted down or ostracized,” Mike Guillhorn, a Cold Spring resident who started a pro-Trail citizens’ group, Philipstown Advocates for Trails, told me. Most locals support the project, he believes, albeit warily, concerned about the details yet convinced that the problems caused by hikers sauntering along the highway between Breakneck and Cold Spring are not going to solve themselves. One local business owner I talked to—he didn’t want to alienate neighbors and customers by letting me use his name—put the matter bluntly: “If a group of hikers got plowed down and their bodies lay mangled on the road, nobody would say a word against the Fjord Trail. But until that day, they’re going to make a lot of noise.”

The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail
Michael Grandeau, courtesy of Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, Inc.
The half-mile Nimham Trail was constructed between October 2020 and July 2021. The trail has over 500 engineered stone stairs harvested from the slopes of Breakneck Ridge. It opened to the public on July 1, 2021.

Lessening the Burden on the Landscape

Opponents of the Trail have highlighted a clause in the contract between HHFT and state parks that says “sponsorships and concessions might be important sources of funding for both development and operations of the Fjord Trail Project.” They particularly fear that Dockside Park, a quiet spot on the waterfront in Cold Spring, where people walk their dogs and gather for outdoor movie nights in the summer, will be turned over to operators of for-profit skating rinks and holiday fairs, as in Bryant Park in Manhattan. Will this patch of protected shoreline be turned into a “theme park,” as critics have alleged?

That seems unlikely. It’s rare to find such vulgar commercialization at other state parks or Scenic Hudson properties. SCAPE, the landscape architecture firm behind the design for the Fjord Trail, has a portfolio of sophisticated public and private projects in the US and around the world—none of them theme parks. Gena Wirth, the design principal at SCAPE and the landscape architect behind the park’s vision, explained her vision to me as we stood near Breakneck Ridge on the stretch of scraggly landfill between the highway and the tracks, cars and trucks racing past us, trains blaring their horns—a reminder that this is not the pristine landscape of the Trail critics’ imagination.

“It’s not about creating a shiny object or trying to artificially frame the landscape and create Instagram moments,” she said. “It’s about opening up this state park for a wider swath than the incredibly capable people who can hike Breakneck. And it’s about magnifying the power and the beauty of the landscape and creating a place that people want to appreciate and steward over time.”

The first phase of preliminary construction work at Breakneck was finished this past summer. The much-eroded start to the heavily trafficked trail has been hardened with stair-like boulders. “Social trails,” widened over time by hikers eager for a short-cut or an early glimpse of the views, have been closed or more clearly delineated. For the volunteer trail stewards whose work advising would-be hikers—turning away those clad in high heels or flip-flops, making sure everyone has water—has been essential in lowering the number of emergency calls fielded by first responders, an elegant, grass-roofed shelter has been constructed a few hundred feet up the trail, well away from the highway. Already, Wirth told me, these interventions have had a noticeable effect on visitor behavior, and lessened the burden on the landscape.

Even many critics acknowledge that SCAPE’s designs are thoughtful and beautiful. They attend closely to variations in the landscape the Trail will move through and are resilient enough to withstand the rise in sea levels over the coming decades. Yet building the Fjord Trail is clearly a huge gamble: Will it do more to help people enjoy and cherish this landscape than to harm it?

Amy Kacala, executive director of HHFT, accompanied Wirth and me on the walk to the new lookout at Breakneck. An urban planner who had been working at Scenic Hudson when the organization first got involved in the Fjord Trail, around 2014, Kacala has been a tireless proponent of the Trail—and a lightning rod for local criticism. Asked why the controversy has grown so heated, Kacala said it was because it has finally become clear to everyone that the Trail, so long the subject of airy neighborhood conversations and interminable planning sessions, is actually going to be built.

Walking back to our cars, Kacala told me she had been surprised by the pushback the Fjord Trail had received in Cold Spring. “It jumped pretty quickly from questions to accusations,” Kacala said. “The level of vehemence is hard to understand, given that what we’re talking about is a park.”

The Battle Over the Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail
Drew Polinsky, courtesy of Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail, Inc.
Part of the HHFT project, a grass-roofed shelter for volunteer stewards has been constructed a few hundred feet up the trail away from Route 9D.

Negotiating to Yes

When I asked people in Cold Spring where they thought the current mayor, Kathleen Foley, stands on the Fjord Trail, many said some version of If you find out, let me know. Dave Merandy, her predecessor as mayor and one-time friend (the two now do not talk), accused her of kowtowing to Chris Davis and the Trail boosters, while Amy Kacala of HHFT paused a few beats, then confided that she was “not always sure” what Foley’s real position was.

So when I arrived at Village Hall on a postcard-pretty Thursday afternoon in mid-October—the village surprisingly crowded for a weekday, full of leaf-peepers drawn by the broad streaks of yellow arcing across Storm King’s face—I was fully prepared for the elected leader at the heart of this teapot-tempest to stonewall me with bland equivocations. To my surprise, she did not.

“My early meetings with State Parks and HHFT were very, very tense,” Foley said. “There was a real sense that I was being told—the village was being told—‘We don’t have to ask, we’re the state.’ That was literally said in this room. At the beginning, I felt there was gaslighting. Don’t tell me a contract isn’t available to me. There has been a withholding of information and a flaunting of the state’s superior sovereignty. That has not flown well with the public.”

Though she mentioned it only in passing, Foley, who was elected in 2021, has spent her career working in historic preservation and land-use planning. A brief online biography touts her experience with “conflict management in land-use processes.” Raised in the Finger Lakes, a Cold Spring resident for the past 17 years, Foley has serious concerns about the trail as currently planned and routed. She especially wants to see HHFT do more to discourage visitors from arriving by car. Yet she doesn’t agree with Protect the Highlands that the village should simply stand athwart the project yelling “stop”—not least because she knows it would get run over.

“The Fjord Trail is going to happen, one way or the other,” Foley told me. “We are either at the table negotiating for the best outcomes, or decisions get made without us.”

While she is concerned about how the fight over the Trail is dividing her village, Cold Spring’s mayor sees the debate as the democratic process playing out as it should. Considering the fragility of the historic village and the preciousness of the Highlands landscape, she told me, HHFT shouldn’t have been surprised by the criticism. “There is no land-use proposal that is not conflictual, and there will always be people who do very visible things to express their opposition,” Foley said, referring to the green lawn signs scattered around town. “This is how the process works. If HHFT wants to be a legitimate philanthropic entity that benefits the public, they have to thicken their skin. The job is negotiating through the no to the good yes. There’s no shortcut.”

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