A walk on the wild side with Paul Zofnass and Renee Ring

Renee Ring and Paul Zofnass, the couple behind the Westchester Wilderness Walk, at the 2016 Westchester Land Trust gala.

Paul Zofnass and Renee Ring live deliberately.

It’s a necessary trait for a couple who went wandering around their backyard one day, then spent 10 years cobbling together 150 acres of greenway and 8 miles of hiking trails in order to save them.

The road that got them there was winding.

It’s the story of how Pound Ridge’s Westchester Wilderness Walk (the largest of Westchester Land Trust’s preserves) came to be. In 1982, Zofnass and Ring bought their wooded farmhouse 45 miles from New York City. Their “backyard” then was an initial 6 acres of wild, rugged terrain that ran into an unbounded amount of land. They spent weekends hiking aimlessly or cross-country skiing, wondering where it all ended. 

“The reason we bought the place was because we were surrounded by woods,” Zofnass says.

Eventually, they stumbled upon the unwelcome sight of orange surveyor stakes, an ominous sign that plans were brewing for subdividing and developing the land that abutted their beloved woods. This unleashed in them a spirit of revolt. “If the land wasn’t conserved,” Ring says, “it would be gone forever.” 

THE PATH FORWARD

Zofnass went in search of a tax map of the area to determine who owned what, then knocked on doors to persuade neighboring families to join him and his wife. Next came years of imagining, rethinking, enticing and persuading each neighbor. “Everyone has his or her own issues, problems and goals,” he says.

As Ring put it in a tribute to her husband, Zofnass had embarked on a labor of love. “He tracked down absent landowners and convinced them to part with huge swaths of their property. He studied the intricacies of land conservation easements and figured out how to use the tax laws to leverage acquisitions. He met with developers and educated them about the benefit of clustering their planned lots to preserve wetlands and vistas.” 

The family teamed with the Westchester Land Trust, a nonprofit that uses conservation easements as a tool to help protect specific land areas. 

A conservation easement amounts to a promise never to build — presumably in perpetuity — allowing owners to keep their land but donate its development rights.

The Westchester Land Trust (Ring and Zofnass serve on its board) has helped protect nearly 8,000 acres of land in the county and proved invaluable, Zofnass says, in helping him and Ring develop their concept as well as plan the best routes for tightly wound trails that loop and switch back through points of interest for hikers. 

With problems addressed, neighboring families came aboard. They sold or gave away their parcels until a viable plan took shape. 

“Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau and his wife, “CBS Sunday Morning” host Jane Pauley, gave their land outright. It was a pivotal move that helped pave the way forward. The preserve is now a tapestry comprised of six parts, spreading to add wetlands, steep cliffs and easy access from the road. From a practical standpoint, the effort they’ve made also preserves a significant amount of indirect acreage in terms of effect on the land and environment. 

THE WILDERNESS WALK 

The topography of the preserve, which officially opened in 2001, is typical of Westchester and includes upland forests, wetlands, edge habitats and rocky outcroppings. Zofnass is the chief steward.

“We all worked on it,” Ring says. “But it was Paul’s vision. He was dragging us out there every weekend.” 

With names like Crotchedy Old Oak and Layer Cake Rock there was fun to be had in designating favorite sites.

There is Paul’s Falls (“Because I kept falling there”) and Trudeau’s Point of View, an homage to his contributing neighbor. “Because he always had a point of view,” quips Zofnass before he turns serious. “I wanted him to know just how much we appreciated what he did.”

Hikers can look out for the fancifully named rose-breasted grosbeak or the yellow-throated vireo as they wander the trail system, the entirety of which could take anywhere from two and half to five hours. 

The Northern Loop includes Quartz Quarry and Awesome Oak. But the southern and central loops “are the most popular because they are the most accessible,” Ring says. Among her favorites are the Central Roundabout and the Eastern Loop that has the Grand Stone Staircase. “The eastern loop is exciting,” Zofnass agrees. 

Uncrowded, well-maintained and marked trails — often edged with branches carefully placed by Zofnass and other family members — are tightly packed and nonetheless challenging due to mud, tree roots, uneven rocks, streams and wetlands. “It’s a fun trail,” Ring says. “Kids really enjoy it.”   

There are maps, self-guided tours, educational plaques and humorous signs posted by Zofnass. Hikers love the humor, he says. Ring, not so much. “Not all spouses think their husbands are funny,” he adds with a laugh. 

Neighbors clear trails and report damage, tending the land. A trust has been set up to help with maintenance into the future.

This adds credence to the idea that we take care of the things we love.

For more, visit westchesterlandtrust.org.

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