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Agreement with NY State Protects Black Rock Forest

Black Rock Forest
Black Rock Forest provides students with a rich ecosystem in which to conduct their studies. In 2010, student Lia Friedman took notes on a soil core. Photo: Kevin Griffin

New York State will acquire a conservation easement for the Black Rock Forest, protecting the 3,800-acre preserve 50 miles north of New York City for both public use and scientific research.

No land is changing hands, and the area has essentially been protected since 1929, when owner Dr. Ernest G. Stillman established it as a research forest. Stillman left the land to Harvard University in 1949. Now the forest is maintained by the Black Rock Forest Consortium, comprising two dozen educational and cultural institutions, including Columbia University.

“The idea was to make this as permanent as possible, to set this aside and make sure the public would always have access to trails, and that the land would never be developed,” said Kevin Griffin, president of the consortium and chairman of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia. Griffin focuses his own research on plant respiration, the global carbon cycle and forest ecology.

Black Rock map jpgThe agreement helps preserve a network of nearly 60 miles of trails and 8,000 acres of public land in the Hudson Highlands that also encompass Storm King and Schunnemunk State Parks. It guarantees there will always be at least 23 miles of trail maintained at Black Rock Forest itself, Griffin said. The trails are maintained by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.

The agreement also perpetuates a huge outdoor laboratory where generations of researchers and schoolchildren have explored the area’s diverse landscape and biologically rich habitats – home to 160 bird species and dozens of types of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Black Rock Forest
Professor Matt Palmer, left, takes graduate and undergraduate students in a forest ecology class through Black Rock Forest in 2012. Among the students are Greg Garnant, Adam Formica, Greg Garnant, Julia Monk, Anna Castillo and Alica Liu. Photo: Kevin Griffin

“This has been a long and fruitful collaboration, with many Columbia University students completing PhD, masters and undergraduate theses there, and many class field trips,” said Griffin, who conducts research at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 34 miles south of the forest. Griffin said the consortium is fundraising now to endow a Black Rock/Lamont postdoctoral position.

More than 500 scientific papers have been produced by consortium researchers, according to the Black Rock Forest website. “As a consequence of this research, we know a good deal more about the strengths of our region’s forests, including the effects on, and mechanisms of, carbon storage, water filtration, and ecosystem regulation by dominant species like oaks. We also know significantly more about the challenges faced in our region, including rising temperatures, more severe drought regimes, and other environmental conditions that increase native tree species’ vulnerability to pathogens or negatively affect their regeneration,” the site says.

Thirteen public and private schools and districts belong to the Black Rock Consortium (which also is affiliated with The Earth Institute). Thousands of young students visit the forest annually for programs in environmental science and conservation biology, including a Summer Science Camp, and the preserve offers training programs for teachers.

Columbia has provided significant funding for the construction of two of the green buildings on the property, a science center and forest lodge. The new agreement allows for possible expansion of facilities on 5 acres of the property, Griffin added.

While the Black Rock Forest Preserve still owns the land, under the agreement announced Oct. 23, the Open Space Institute purchased the conservation easement from the preserve, which will convey the easement to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

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