By Todd Bittner

Video: Jay Potter

Cornell Botanic Gardens’ Purvis Road Wetlands Natural Area offers a textbook place to view the workings of an old—and almost lost—charismatic species.

The North American beaver, Castor canadensis, were nearly driven to extinction in New York through trapping and the fur trade. By the 1900’s, only one or two families were thought to remain statewide, living around Saranac Lake. Since that time, these ecosystem engineers have made a tremendous comeback, and are again reshaping the landscapes that so many other species rely on.

At Purvis Road Wetlands, you can view this dynamic process in action, thanks to a former railroad bed converted to pedestrian and bike pathway. The Dryden Rail Trail offers easy access to this natural area and other conservation lands. The development of such trails is a tangible result of the synergy between the public’s interest in outdoor recreation and support for natural resource conservation.

As you explore the trail through the Purvis Road Wetlands Natural Area, a series of beaver dams are visible. Each delineates wetland habitat types of varying successional stages, including open water ponds, marsh, shrub swamp, forested swamps and successional forest. A keen eye can spot the dome-shaped lodges constructed of wood, reeds, and mud with submerged entrances.

A number of natural areas, conservation lands, and beautiful landscapes are accessible via the Dryden Rail Trail, and soon those will be increasing. The trail is undergoing an expansion that will create a continuous 16-mile, ADA-accessible trail from East Lake Road at the eastern edge of Tompkins County all the way to Ithaca and the 3.5 mile long East Ithaca Recreation Way. The Dryden Rail Trail will interconnect five population centers and several conserved lands, including the Botanic Gardens’ Purvis Road Wetlands, Monkey Run, and Upper Cascadilla Natural Areas.

The trail will provide new commuting alternatives to help reduce carbon emissions and enhance access to residential areas to support affordable housing goals. Trails will further bolster the green economy through increased tourism, while enhancing conserved lands that provide additional migratory corridors for wildlife.

The most challenging phase, a three-mile extension east from Ithaca that includes a pedestrian bridge over Route 13 is now underway. Cornell University is among the entities that donated land easements and provided funding toward the $2.2 million in grants, gifts, and municipal funds now secured toward the bridge’s construction. This section is scheduled for completion in late 2022.

Projects like the Dryden Rail Trail are one example of how we can collectively address the complex conservation and sustainability challenges of the 21st century. It takes creativity, cooperation, and community involvement to envision what can be, and make it possible. By expanding access to the natural world, we can elevate our understanding of the interconnectedness of people and nature, and ultimately, help conserve our shared natural heritage.

Todd Bittner is director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens, lecturer, in the School of Integrated Plant Science, and a member of the Dryden Rail Trail Taskforce