Forever Wild Preserves
The Forever Wild Program is an initiative of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. The third largest of the City’s Forever Wild Nature Preserves, Van Cortlandt Park’s preserve is comprised of over half of the Park’s 1,146 acres.
Just a subway or bus ride away for millions of New Yorkers, a dense, hilly forest with rugged, 200-million-year-old rock outcrops, 150-year-old trees, and an array of spectacular wildlife extends as far as the eye can see. Hiking through the forest, which covers more than half of Van Cortlandt Park’s 1,446 acres in northwest Bronx, harks back to a time when wildflowers colored the floor of the city’s forests from spring until fall, when a diversity of birds from warblers to hawks nested and called throughout the summer, when white-tailed deer, coyote, and wild turkeys roamed stealthily through the trees and meadows. All this is still found in Van Cortlandt Park today, making it the poster child for what New York City’s natural areas can become.
Van Cortlandt Park harbors at least three threatened bird species on the Audubon Watch List—the wood thrush, willow flycatcher, and bay-breasted warbler. Its 600-plus acres of native forest provide interior habitat for declining forest birds such as the scarlet tanager, the red-eyed vireo, and several warblers. The diversity of its habitats, from interior forest and edge to meadow and wetland, provide forage and refuge not only for birds but also mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates, some of them, such as fox, spring peepers, and wood frogs, rarely seen in the city.
Once the hunting grounds of the Wiechquaeskeck Indians and the homesteads of early Dutch settlers, the park’s forest now features 30 miles of woodland hiking trails; scenic brooks and overlooks; a lake with many fish species; varied landscapes for birds and birdwatchers alike; a century-old, world-renowned cross-country running course through steep terrain; and bike and pedestrian paths that connect to other New York City parks and the Westchester County trail system.
More than an urban nature lover’s dream, the park’s natural areas are a critical part of the city’s green infrastructure. It is now widely recognized that natural areas, especially in urban parks, provide an array of ecological services essential to human health and quality of life. Natural areas cool peak summer temperatures, absorb potentially damaging stormwater, purify drinking water, remove air pollutants, release oxygen, and help slow climate change by capturing and storing carbon in vegetation and soils. Numerous studies show that contact with nature reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. By offering opportunities for physical exercise, natural areas can further reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. By cleansing the air we breathe, they also remove pollutants that trigger asthma and other illnesses.
Unfortunately, for over a century the city’s forests and wetlands have been overwhelmed by development. They have been carved up into isolated fragments, reducing their ecological value. Additional damage caused by the stress of human use and an unbalanced proportion of native to non-native species in these natural areas has been substantial.
With proper management, Van Cortlandt Park will be a place where urban natural areas can still thrive in New York City. But this is only possible with your involvement and support.
Over half of Van Cortlandt Park is a Forever Wild Preserve, a program established by the Department of Parks & Recreation to protect New York City’s most ecologically valuable lands. Giving the natural areas Forever Wild Preserve status has helped shield them from damage by construction, development, and other activities. Three major habitats in the park—forests, wetlands, and meadows—are protected as Forever Wild. The core forests are located in the northern part of the park, on terrain varying from the spectacular rock outcrops that provide a glimpse of the forest’s underlying geology in the northwest, to low, wet areas in the northeast. Divided into the Northwest Forest, Croton Woods, and the Northeast Forest, Van Cortlandt’s forests contain some of the city’s oldest trees, with large oak, tulip, sweetgum, and sugar maples forming the canopy and spicebush, arrowwood, and maple-leaf viburnum among the shrub layer.
The largest forest in Van Cortlandt’s Forever Wild Preserve, the Northwest Forest, is a dramatic, 188-acre woodland atop a north-south ridge. Looking north from the three-quarter-mile-long grassy expanse of the Parade Ground along Broadway, a view of the forest unfolds. Growing on rocky heights, it harbors the highest concentrations of rare plants in the city. The wildflowers carpeting the forest floor are diverse and abundant and include bloodroot, trout lily, baneberry, wood sorrel, jewelweed, and numerous asters.
Northeast Forest Photo Credit: Ana Lopez
The Northeast Forest’s wetlands and bottomlands are ideal for sweetgum, red maple, and pin oak trees. These low, wet areas and vernal ponds support a plethora of wildlife, including wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Foundations of early homesteads and an Indian battleground imbue this forest with a rich sense of history.
Croton Woods Named after the Old Croton Aqueduct, Croton Woods lies between the Northwest and Northeast Forests. Completed in 1842, the aqueduct once carried clean water from the Croton Reservoir in northern Westchester County to reservoirs in Central Park and Bryant Park, where the New York Public Library now stands. Today, the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, a State Scenic and Historic Corridor, traverses the entire length of the forest from north to south. The walk combines natural beauty with traces of the aqueduct’s historic stone and brickwork, including an old, Egyptian-style gatehouse weir.
Van Cortlandt’s wetlands serve as a vast catchment area, collecting and holding rain and snow melt. Much of the precipitation drains into the Northeast Forest and Tibbetts Brook, an 89-acre wetland corridor that bisects the park. Beginning its journey north of the Bronx in the City of Yonkers, Tibbetts Brook flows south to feed Van Cortland Lake, which was formed in 1699 when Jacobus Van Cortlandt dammed the brook to power a gristmill and sawmill. The wetland corridor and lake are home to marsh mallows, cattails, willow herbs, and other moisture-loving plants.
Meadows east of the Mississippi River, including those in Van Cortlandt Park, are typically temporary plant communities created naturally by storms and fire. When left alone, they eventually revert back to the forests that surround them. Though relatively short-lived when untended, meadows provide vital habitat for plants and animals that require open areas, including grassland birds and many pollinators. The Van Cortlandt Park Natural Areas Management Plan suggests maintaining some acreage as meadow to enhance the park’s ecological diversity.
A Refuge for Wildlife
Among the animal species that burrow, nest, feed, and rest in this urban wild are 12 mammals, 11 fish, at least four frogs, and three reptiles, as well as countless butterflies and other invertebrates. Some 240 bird species have been observed. Great 19th and 20th century naturalists and ornithologists studied Van Cortlandt’s birds, including Roger Tory Peterson and John Kieran, who worked on their first bird guides while hiking the park. Despite human impact over the decades, most of the 79 species that have been recorded nesting in the park have remained, and recently breeding pairs of the eastern bluebird, New York’s state bird, have been overwintering in the Vault Hill area where bluebird boxes have been installed.
Several remarkable wetland birds, including the green heron and common Moorehen and a number of secretive marsh birds, including the sora and Virginia rail, still nest in the Tibbetts Brook wetland. Predators like barred owls and red-tailed hawks hunt, and colorful wood ducks, known for jumping from their nests high in the trees soon after hatching, have been observed in the lake with their young. Tibbetts Brook continues to support animals more common in undisturbed, non-urban wetlands, including amphibians such as salamanders, which have moist, permeable skin, making them vulnerable to environmental changes, and rare dragonflies like the Fawn Darner.
The park’s reptiles include one snake, the eastern garter snake, and two native turtles, the eastern painted turtle and eastern snapping turtle. Among Van Cortlandt Park’s several frog species is the spring peeper. The tiny tree frogs can still be heard calling at wetlands in the Northeast Forest.
Among the park’s notable native mammals is the red fox, which has been spotted in the hilly northern forests. After a long absence, large mammals are returning to Van Cortlandt Park as well. The white-tailed deer, a rare visitor only 15 years ago, has entered the park from the suburbs of adjacent Westchester County, and the eastern coyote, which is native to the Plains states but is expanding its range in the Northeast, is also increasingly seen—all a testament to the bountifulness of the park’s natural areas to wildlife.
A Green Retreat for People
A Green Retreat for People For people, the park offers many recreational as well as ecological services. Strollers, hikers, birdwatchers, and bikers experience Van Cortlandt Park’s natural beauty via an extensive network of trails and paths.
John Kieran Trail
Giving visitors a glimpse of some of the park’s most scenic natural highlights and a tremendous variety of plant and animal life, this nature trail loops through freshwater wetlands where wood ducks can be found by Van Cortlandt Lake and red–winged blackbirds and great egrets flock amongst the surrounding vegetation. Chipmunks and squirrels dart through New York fern and Virginia knotweed.
John Muir Trail
Spanning the steep terrain at the park’s center, the John Muir Trail meanders east–west through prime birding habitat in the Northeast Forest, Croton Woods, and the Northwest Forest. Ten species of warbler may be spotted on a spring morning in mid-May. The warbling vireo, eastern wood-pewee, and great crested flycatcher are among the highlights during nesting season. When the weather turns cold, you may flush American woodcock and common snipe from the perimeter of the marsh near Nursery Road.
Located on the western edge of Van Cortlandt Lake and along Tibbetts Brook, this trail occupies the old rail bed of the New York Central Railroad’s Putnam Division, constructed in the 1870s and 1880s. Although freight trains chugged through the park well into the 1970s, they have since given way to hikers and bikers. Throughout the trail are remnants of the old rail line, including iron bridge structures and an old passenger platform. At the Westchester County line, the Putnam Trail joins the South County Trailway, a paved bike trail.
Old Croton Aqueduct Trail
Cass Gallagher Trail
A Living Classroom
Educational signage along trails such as the Jerome Wetland Walk offers spots where strollers and families can pause for leisurely lessons in ecology. Educators will find Van Cortlandt Park’s natural areas ideal for classrooms and laboratories.
Natural science concepts, American history, physical education, and visual and language arts can all be explored and experienced firsthand in Van Cortlandt Park. For teachers not yet comfortable leading groups of children in the great outdoors, there are experts ready to help. The Urban Park Rangers, City Parks Foundation, Van Cortlandt House Museum, and NYC Audubon all have curriculum developed specifically for Van Cortlandt Park and are eager to share it with students.
At a time when psychologists are concerned about nature deficit disorder in children, a number of park programs give students a chance to get outdoors and appreciate the importance of land stewardship while developing leadership and critical thinking skills. Since 1992 the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park’s flagship Summer Teen Program has sponsored hundreds of teenage interns who help preserve and protect the park by engaging in trail building, planting native species, lake monitoring, and other activities.
The Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy offers more opportunities for youth and large or small groups of volunteers to do community service by working on trails and forest restoration. The Green Jobs for Youth program, for example, allows students to receive an hourly wage working with Parks Department professionals and also earn college credit at Lehman College.
A Defining Time
Despite their educational and ecological importance and many pleasures, Van Cortlandt Park’s natural areas are at a crossroads. From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, management and maintenance lagged, human impacts increased, and harmful invasive plants degraded ecosystem integrity, diminishing the park’s ability to provide New Yorkers with critical services.
In 2006, when 35 acres of parkland were converted for the construction of a water filtration plant and some 300 large trees were removed, mitigation funding made possible the creation of the Croton Forest Management Program, including a Van Cortlandt Forest Restoration Crew. This funding, provided by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, has been vital to the efforts to stem and reverse the trajectory of decline. It has also provided an invaluable opportunity to create an updated and comprehensive plan for the management of the park’s natural areas. But that funding expires in summer of 2015.
The funding allowed for a 20-year comparative study, the first of its kind in the nation, to survey the entire park to obtain information about how its natural areas have fared since a previous study was done in the 1980s. The survey has provided NYC Park’s ecologists and land managers with important information on how urban forests change, enabling them to better manage the natural areas for the future.
One positive discovery was that the forests have matured and further closed their canopies during the two decades between evaluations. However, a number of negative trends also became apparent. The acreage covered by invasive non-native plants has increased throughout the park. These include perennial woody vines that smother and pull down canopy trees; invasive trees and shrubs that cast excessive shade, preventing other forest plants from regenerating naturally; and fast-growing annual vines and herbs that emerge earlier, grow faster, or produce more seed than the native varieties. Invasive plants also threaten the diversity of flora and fauna as they crowd out other species, alter soil chemistry, inhibiting the germination of other species, and support a more limited set of insects, birds, mammals, and other wildlife than a healthy and diverse native plant community.
Additional problems such as soil compaction and degradation have also worsened. The increasing severity of hurricanes, nor’easters, and windshears, as well as recent tornadoes, has compounded these problems.
A Plan of Action
Restoration of Van Cortlandt Park’s natural areas under the Croton Forest Management Program has been similar to emergency room triage. The damaging effects from years of increasing urbanization and passive management were (and continue to be) extensive, making prioritization essential. To reduce the spread of invasive species into surrounding intact woodlands, meadows, and wetlands, the most degraded areas of the park have been targeted first for restoration.
To address soil erosion and compaction, the park’s boundaries require protection to prevent incursion by ATVs and other recreational vehicles, and visitors need to be discouraged from straying off established trails, damaging vegetation and soils. In some cases, this can be as simple as replacing or installing guardrails, fencing, bollards, rock boulders, and educational signage. The park’s trails require not only protection and ongoing maintenance but also occasional reconstruction for their long-term preservation.
By acting like a sponge to absorb the resulting precipitation, the park’s natural areas reduce stormwater damage and the volume of water stressing the city’s sewer system. Restoring and increasing the absorptive area of the park’s forests and wetlands will improve the park’s ability to minimize the destructive effects of storms.
Once triage is complete, regular, ongoing management and monitoring becomes possible. Because urban natural areas exist within a physical, human, and economic environment that constrains healthy ecological function and thus their ability to provide ecosystem services indefinitely, active management will always be necessary.
Van Cortlandt Park’s sustainability depends on more than ecological soundness. Sustainable urban natural areas also require healthy financial support. The new management plan for the park’s natural areas provides a bridge from the Croton-funded natural areas program into the future. However, existing funding from the Croton program will not be sufficient for full implementation of the plan’s recommendations throughout the park’s extensive natural acreage. New sources of support are needed to complete the task, and for necessary ongoing maintenance.
Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy is working to provide additional resources with private funding when the Croton funds expire. However, grants alone cannot preserve the park’s natural areas. The efforts of thousands of volunteers who assist in restoration and maintenance and help spread the word about this unique urban forest are critical.
Also essential are the contributions of researchers and naturalists. Through breeding bird surveys and scientific studies that continue to track species such as salamanders and vegetation change, the academic community provides land managers with essential information on the park’s ecological health. Local birdwatchers and naturalists recently formed the Nature Group of Van Cortlandt Park to advocate for the park’s natural areas. Once solitary appreciators of Van Cortlandt Park, they now work together to increase public appreciation of the Forever Wild Preserve.
Van Cortlandt Park is one of New York’s greatest natural treasures, conserving an essential portion of the city’s biodiversity and providing significant ecological services that support human life and health. Yet it is confronted with formidable threats that have undermined it in fundamental ways over a period of decades. Only active conservation, careful restoration, and ongoing maintenance, made possible in large part by a corps of dedicated volunteers and supporters, can preserve this precious resource of the Bronx and ensure that it is available for future generations to use and enjoy.