Dedicated to the Preservation and Stewardship of Historic
Blackstone Park Conservation District and Boulevard.
Down on River Road by the Seekonk River, children’s voices filled the air at Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) Saturday events. Above on weekdays, workmen operating heavy machinery and wielding shovels finished the long-awaited repair and upgrade of trails in record time. BPC volunteers overseeing the events below and the project above worked long hours. And that was just June in the Blackstone Park Conservation District.
In July the ever-popular Trolley Shelter concert series began. Work on the overgrown South Garden at the foot of the Boulevard started with a grant from state Senator Donna Nesselbush. It is the latest of many years of enhancements by the Boulevard Committee led by Gale Aronson.
Stewardship and Children
As co-stewards with the Providence Parks Department of both the semi-wild park overlooking the Seekonk and the groomed Blackstone Boulevard Park, for years the BPC has focused mainly on physical care of these historic places. Maintenance of the two parks is both challenging and absorbing because of their fragile soils and heavy use by thousands of visitors.
Winning major grants from state environmental agencies made it possible this year not only to gain a meaningful foothold in the erosion-prone Conservation District, but also to finally bring education into this volunteer organization’s mission. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a natural fit.
The transformation began several years ago with Rhode Island Audubon Society- Providence After School Alliance classes in Blackstone Park with Nathan Bishop Middle School students taught by April Alix. The love these 12-14-year-olds showed for the park and their desire to protect it clearly demonstrated the Conservation District’s suitability as a place for children both to escape city pressures and to learn about nature–a place to play and learn at the same time.
Fortunately for the Conservancy, an early childhood specialist, Rick Richards, stepped forward in 2012 to chair the BPC’s new Education Committee and others experienced in early child development quickly joined him. They spent months mining the rich history and biology of the Park, organizing a trove of information for trail walks and for signs that could be accessed by smart phones, ever mindful of the need to train future stewards of this precious land. They reached out to people in spheres ranging from Indian lore to music to bird banding.
The committee’s months of work led to events last summer and this one that drew numbers of excited children and parents not seen in the Park for many years. The enthusiasm of the committee members is contagious.
Trail Upgrades and a New Entrance
While the Education Committee was establishing the Conservation District as the “GO TO place for kids,” the Park Committee and the Parks Department were shepherding to completion trail improvement plans that had been years in the making. Generous grants from Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and its Coastal Resources Management Council along with assistance from dedicated staff members in both agencies have now produced safer and more enjoyable center-section trails and a much enhanced entrance at Parkside and Angell streets.
Judging from the comments of many visitors, some of whom had been anxious over the prospect of change, most people have enjoyed the improved trails and the native plants installed in eroded areas to help keep soil in place. It all fits our vision of Healthy Urban Green Space for All.
Like many frequent visitors to Blackstone Park, Edie marvels at the expanse of nature at the edge of the city and overlooking the Seekonk River.
As reported in this column in March, “To Spray or Not To Spray,” winter moths were expected to expand along the Seekonk River and in Blackstone Park this year, but no one knew how serious the infestation would be. Now we know—it’s serious.
In early May tiny bright green caterpillars softly plopping onto the heads and shoulders of volunteers working in the Blackstone Park Conservation District signaled a major attack on Providence trees by the winter moth. Barely a centimeter long though they can reach an inch, and no thicker than thin string, the caterpillars appeared harmless, but they were not. Perforated spring leaves in the trees above testified to their appetites.
First eating buds from the inside out, then swinging from tree to tree on long silken threads to take more bites, the caterpillars made short work of many leaves before they vanished into the next phase of their cycle as pupae in the ground. In Providence the woodlands of Blackstone Park and Neutaconkanut Hill and nearby street trees were hit hardest, probably tempting the moths with “all that food” in one place, said City Forester Doug Still. A neighbor on Paterson Street found his oak trees stripped bare. The pest was an equal opportunity destroyer, going after the normally untouchable Norway maples, the invasive trees that cause so much harm to other flora.
With few exceptions, the Boulevard was spared this year but for a weeping cherry that was defoliated. Trees in this predicament will normally send out a second set of leaves.
Nothing can be done about the moths this season, says Still, but next winter it will be possible for homeowners to spray individual trees though even the most harmless known sprays can kill bees. Spraying the woodlands however, will not be possible.
The eventual hope for woodland trees, aside from birds or the arrival of another natural predator, may be the parasitic fly cyzenis albicans, which wasfirst introduced to Rhode Island at Goddard Park in 2011 by the University of Rhode Island (URI). More flies were released in Bristol and Jamestown in 2013, and in Cumberland, Kingstown and Jamestown in 2014.
Botanist Heather Faubert, research assistant in the Department of Plant Sciences at URI, who is managing winter moth bio-control in Rhode Island, speculates that the fly, which is present in Seekonk, may eventually spread to Providence. The success of this method of control in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts without unwanted collateral damage is encouraging, but takes time.
Many people spotted snapping turtles in early June lumbering across Irving Avenue, River Road, and Angell Street enroute to the Blackstone Park Conservation District to lay their eggs. It seemed inconceivable that these awkward-looking creatures could manage to get to their destinations without human assistance. But they did.
And now the reptiles have gone back to the ponds and river whence they came. Just as the Blackstone Parks Conservancy had asked a project manager to raise the newly installed temporary snow fencing in spots for the turtles to pass easily, the surge was over. They had not only crossed roads and climbed the steep bluffs as well as the split rail fencing atop the eastern bluff, but they had also managed to get around or under the snow fencing.
The turtles’ nesting aligned with the lunar cycle and coincided with the installation of temporary fencing designed to protect planting along badly worn trails. Current work in the woods is part of the Trail Upgrade Project sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to slow the rapid erosion of the Conservation District and enhance the experience of walkers. Work done so far has dramatically upgraded the trails. And the plants, if they are allowed to flourish, will help keep the trails in decent shape. Visitors are urged to stay on the trails.
By next spring the Conservancy will have learned much more about the snapping turtles living in York and Hockey ponds and the Seekonk River. Even in a short time we found some tantalizing facts and obtained guidance from a reptile expert at DEM on how to protect them. Snapping turtles have a ferocious bite and should not be touched unless they are in imminent danger of being run over. They have a marvelous ability to look after themselves and multiply.
Learning about the natural treasures and mysteries of the Conservation District and passing it on to the public is part of the job for which people volunteer at the Conservancy. By next nesting season, we will have assembled definitive guidance from more reptile experts on how best to facilitate (or at least not interfere with) the turtles’ plans. Perhaps by then we’ll even understand how they manage to time their egg laying with the full moon.
The first Earth Day went perfectly. A team from Eastside Marketplace joined with two Conservancy volunteers on April 22, Earth Day. On a sunny morning, the group cleaned the riverbank and roadside from the Narragansett Boat Club nearly to the Henderson Bridge. The team also swept through the south section of Blackstone Park collecting scattered litter. Almost 20 trash bags were loaded with debris, including broken glass, dozens of plastic bottles and a half-filled jug of motor oil. During a break ducks and swans floated by as the store mamager, Ray Lorenzo, shared water and delicious cookies from their bakery. Even better, the Eastside Marketplace team shared their plans to make this cleanup an annual event! Volunteer events such as this accomplish an enormous amount; we truly appreciate and need them.
Then there was the second Earth Day a few days later. Timed for the weekend as part of the city-wide Earth Day Spring Cleaning (seehttp://providenceparks.org/earth-day-spring-cleaning-2014-details/ for more details), this April 26 event coincided with a cold steady rain. Fun events aimed at teaching children about recycling and impacts of littering were cancelled. But the River Road Clean-up was the silver lining to this stormy cloud. Several regulars and a few brave newcomers combed the riverside north of River Field and cleared choking debris from York Pond. Plastic bottles, fishing line, cigarette butts and packages, and much more were removed from the waterside. Many thanks to these adults and children who were not deterred by a little New England weather!
We have several other family-oriented events scheduled in Blackstone Park and hope to run another concert series on Blackstone Boulevard. There are many more chances to enjoy your East Side parks in 2014 and beyond – check our events calendar for dates and updates.
As many had long feared, winter moths finally arrived in Providence this spring, attacking the woodlands in Blackstone Park Conservation District and Neutaconkanut Hill with voracious appetites and leaving countless leaves perforated. City Forester Doug Still says it’s too late to do anything about the infestation this year, but next winter he will be advising homeowners on how to protect street and yard trees. Street and yard trees on properties close to the parks were also hard hit.
Here is a description by URI’s Heather Faubert of efforts to control winter moth in Rhode Island:
Amateur photographer John Balletto recently spotted this Northern Flicker in the Blackstone Park Conservation District. A type of woodpecker, the flicker hunts for food on the ground. If you hear a drumming sound, it may be him communicating with others of his kind.
The catastrophic mudslide in Washington State in March brought to mind the far smaller one that slumped into the Seekonk River behind Butler Hospital a few decades ago. The fanned out sand you can see in aerial photographs fortunately killed no one. But it demonstrated the vulnerability to collapse of the bluffs in the coastal greenway that stretches from Blackstone Park Conservation District (BPCD) through Butler Hospital and Swan Point Cemetery.
Can it happen here? Some fear it will. The major erosion control project the Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) is starting this spring in the popular center section with state funding seems especially timely. The steady trickle of topsoil and sand down from the glacial outwash bluffs onto the River Road sidewalk is disquieting. Many widening gullies and heavily leaning trees with increasingly exposed roots suggest growing instability.
Rhode Island citizens have voted to support outdoor space that people can safely enjoy. When the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) recently awarded grants to Blackstone Parks Conservancy to work with the Providence Parks Department to upgrade the eroding trails in the BPCD, they threw meaningful support to this rare urban woodland. Perhaps not a minute too soon.
BPC has long worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the Parks Department, and lately with Friends of Blackstone Woods to stem the loss of stabilizing plants and soil by hauling chips onto trails and installing waterbars to keep chips in place. Considerable effort by volunteers slowed the runoff somewhat–but not enough to get ahead of the storms. Now the DEM and CRMC grants and our volunteers can enable a foothold by upgrading more trails in the center section, with partial restoration of native vegetation beside the trails keeping them viable for a time.
No one wants to hear that a place where they love to walk is fragile. But high-intensity storms and heavy foot traffic are undeniably making Blackstone woodland prone to more erosion.
Solutions may not be easy–even the parts of the plateau that appear level actually slope downhill–but they are feasible.
When people walk and run outside the log trail edges, they extend the compaction problem, destroying the plants that help keep leaf litter and topsoil in place. If people want the park to be healthy and welcoming for years go come, more protection is needed.
Visitors need to stay on trails in order to protect the woodland floor. At the same time, the trails need to become more absorbent. That’s where more woodchips, waterbars and brakes can make a difference.
Fences can seem alien in a beautiful semi-wild place like the Conservation District. But according to foresters, botanists, engineers, trail specialists, and park managers who care about the Blackstone Park Conservation District, some temporary fencing is necessary.
The split rail fence built by AMC and BPC volunteers with DEM-funded materials a few years ago above the vulnerable east bluff in the central section seemed raw and out of place at first. But with weathering it came to look as if it belonged. And the space between fence and bluff that had been trampled bare soon filled with grasses and wildflowers as well as tiny saplings.
The story of the eastern bluff shows what can happen when people give Nature a chance to regenerate.
The trail project will inconvenience visitors to the park for a few weeks this spring. Some trails in the center section will be temporarily closed while contractors operate heavy machinery. Please support our vision: healthy urban green space for all.