Caring for over 63,000 acres of county parkland is a formidable task, but Suffolk officials are hopeful to soon get need assistance through a newly launched volunteer-led parks stewardship program. In a continuing effort to protect Suffolk County’s vast passive parklands and open spaces, County Executive Steve Bellone and Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn, today unveiled details of the new Park Stewardship Program that enlists local community members for assistance with trash pickup, trail maintenance and monitoring.
Standing at the entrance of the Arthur Kunz County Park in Smithtown, park advocates highlighted the difficulty of protecting this remote 93-acre forested property and many thousands of parcels like it throughout Suffolk County.
“With more than 60,000 acres of parkland throughout Suffolk, the task of ensuring these lands are safeguarded in accordance with our rules and regulations is a constant challenge,” said County Executive Bellone. “Under this Stewardship Program, volunteers will carefully monitor selected parkland and report any issues that need to be addressed such as trail maintenance, illegal dumping and littering.”
Legislator Hahn, Chairwoman of the Environment, Parks and Agriculture Committee and sponsor of legislation creating a parks stewardship pilot program, said the stewards will be able to “adopt” a local park near their home and provide monitoring that meets their schedules. “By these volunteers providing additional ‘eyes and ears’ whenever possible, our Parks staff will be able to respond in a timely manner to rectify a dangerous condition or address an issue before it gets worse,” Legislator Hahn said.
The program is limited to county parks deemed passive and not staffed on a daily basis by full-time employees. Program volunteers are asked to report issues of concern directly to the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation upon discovery and are directed not to serve as a Park Ranger. “We ask our stewards to refrain from confronting the public on adverse activities such as littering or walking pets without a leash,” the Legislator said. “They are asked to leave these types of warnings to our enforcement professionals.”
Those wishing to serve as a Park Steward are asked to fill out an application on-line and submit it to the Parks Department. Parks staff will follow-up with those seeking to volunteer by providing details on responsibilities and tasks that are permitted such as picking up litter and conducting minor trimming of overgrown brush on established trails. Stewards are also asked to fill out reports of what they find during their monitoring. Once reviewed by the Parks administration, the reports are forwarded to area supervisors to address any raised concerns.
Initially approved by the Suffolk Legislature in 2019 as a pilot program, this full implementation of the Parks Stewarship program was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown. Legislator Hahn said the initial response has exceeded expectations with several parks already being monitored by stewards, including Arthur Kunz Park in Smithtown.
Amanda Ferrante, a Smithtown resident and student at St. Anthony’s High School, reached out to Legislator Hahn once hearing about the program. “This place has always been very special to me,” said Ferrante who now volunteers as a steward for Arthur Kunz County Park. “Our parks breathe so much life into all of us and by serving as a steward, here at Kunz County Park, I can protect, preserve and help breathe life into it.”
According to Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference President David Reisfield, “Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference volunteers have been maintaining trails for over 40 years with the support of the Suffolk County Parks Department. We welcome the continuing support of Legislator Hahn and the county and look forward to the efforts of the volunteers this program will encourage.”
Legislator Hahn gave credit for the initial idea to East Setauket resident Jake Butkevich. “Jake approached me two years ago as a student at Ward Melville High School and asked if he could volunteer to keep an eye on Forsythe Meadow County Park in Stony Brook,” Legislator Hahn said. “I thank Jake for taking the initiative and help launch this great volunteer program.”