While the biggest draws for both Southampton and East Hampton towns are undoubtedly their long stretches of sandy ocean beaches, members of trails organizations in both towns say their miles of walking paths winding through preserved woodlands are also highly valuable environmental assets — assets that don’t always get the attention they deserve from town government.
With the East End crowded with COVID-19 refugees from the city, trails are seeing increased use. And what better time to lobby for their needs, advocates say.
“So many more people are using the trails — I’ve never seen so many people on them,” said Dai Dayton, president of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt and secretary of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society.
“A lot of people are only here in the summer, so they go to the beach,” added Mike Bottini, a member of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society, the East Hampton Town Nature Preserve Committee, and a nature columnist for the Express News Group. “And now that they are here year-round, they are discovering our trail systems. They are a hidden secret.”
Members of the various trails organizations met virtually in November and December to prioritize their concerns and listed damage caused by all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles, illegal dumping, invasive plants, and the need for better parking and signs as the most pressing.
Off-road vehicles are illegal on public land anywhere in Suffolk County, but they are a major concern for Ms. Dayton, who says they tear up trails, kill turtles, snakes, and other wildlife and uproot native plants. Some riders are aggressive and have gone so far to menace her and other hikers, she said.
Although Southampton Town Police have stepped up enforcement and even used drones to follow illegal riders back to their homes, where their vehicles can be confiscated, Ms. Dayton said she would like to see the town dedicate an officer to patrol the trails, much as officers patrol the beaches, or at the minimum hire a full-time ranger to provide an enforcement presence on the trails.
Mark Potter, the president of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, agreed that dirt bikes and ATVs pose a problem and suggested that police may want to augment their enforcement efforts with trail cameras and microphones to see if they would make motorcyclists “think twice” about riding on the trails.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki was not available for comment this week, although in the past, he has said police take complaints about motorcycles on the trails seriously and allot manpower there whenever possible
Southampton Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad said as the liaison to the trails groups, she was sympathetic to their concerns and said the Town Board would listen to any proposals they bring forward for improving the trail system. But, as to hiring an additional officer, “it does have budget impacts that have to be taken into account,” she said.
East Hampton Councilman David Lys said motorbikes also pose problems in East Hampton Town, especially in the network of trails south of Route 114 and west of Stephen Hands Path that connect with Southampton’s trails. Debris that is dumped on trails is also a problem. “It’s like whack-a-mole,” he said of trying to catch dumpers in the act.
Mr. Bottini said over the years, and thanks to the Community Preservation Fund, which has allowed the town to preserve hundreds of acres of woodlands, the trail system has grown. As a result, many trails are poorly marked or not marked at all. He said the town’s Nature Preserve Committee as well as the trails society would like to see the town provide markers where trails cross the road, historic markers at key trails heads, and clearly marked roadside parking.
“We’re not thinking of anything in your face or Coney Island,” he said. “We just want to do something so if you drive by it, you know it is a trail head.” He said a model already exists with the way the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation marks trails in the Catskill and Adirondack mountains.
Mr. Lys said he saw no reason why those concerns could not be addressed, saying the matter has been discussed at the committee level and now a plan of action needs to be developed. “We’ve been slowly marshaling our forces,” he said. “Now it’s about developing a narrative for the need.”
“We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on open space, and thousands of dollars designing and creating trail linkages,” Mr. Bottini said, “so we should be able to make them visible.”