The words “state parks” in Western New York often conjure visions of warm, sunny and carefree days spent picnicking against the backdrop of lush greenery.
You don’t always think of visiting the parks in winter, but if you don’t leave the warmth of your hearth and venture out, you’ll be missing a chance to witness nature cloaked in crystals, where you can skate, sled, ski and even snowshoe. Or you might want to learn about the ice bridges of Niagara or the birds that winter along the shores of the Niagara River.
Barry J. Virgilio is in his 34th year as an environmental educator for the New York State Parks and he oversees the regional park interpretive programs for 16 parks.
He recently talked about the rewarding educational and recreational opportunities that await us at our local state parks if we will just leave the comfort of our cozy homes for a couple of hours.
What is there to do in the winter in the parks?
The parks are year-round. There are ice rinks at DeVeaux Woods and at Reservoir State Parks, at the bottom of the sled hill. There are sledding hills, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing this time of year. And, just get out and walk – that’s all you need to do.
We also have outreach programs, where we take snowshoes out to the schools and get the kids out to enjoy some recreation. And we have nature in winter programs and history shows. We have a program on the ice bridges, for example, and people may see it and want to take hikes to explore it more.
After more than three decades with state parks, what do you like best about the job?
Talking to different people – you meet people from all around the world. I like the variety of parks we have, from the lighthouse at Golden Hill State Park to hiking in the Niagara Gorge to being able to camp at the parks (Golden Hill, Four-Mile Creek, Evangola and Lake Erie State Park). I enjoy talking to all of the park managers about the different things going on at their parks. I also love the historical part. I also oversee all of the regional archives; the old papers, books and things we receive from different people that we use for displays.
What does the Niagara Region encompass?
I oversee the entire education program for the Niagara Region, which is 14 state parks, from Golden Hill to the north in Somerset to Evangola to the south in Erie County and we also picked up two in Chautauqua County – Lake Erie and Long Point State Park, where we offer programs. We also have three nature centers – at Fort Niagara, Beaver Island and Evangola; and the Niagara Gorge Trailhead Center next to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and a Niagara Gorge Natural History Room at Whirlpool State Park. I also inspect the Niagara Gorge trails and make sure that they are all well marked.
In what parks are you the busiest educating visitors?
Niagara Falls State Park and the Niagara Gorge (which also encompasses Devil’s Hole, Whirlpool, and Artpark) have the most activity, because we get a lot of school groups and organizations like Scouts. They might be looking for general hikes, local history or some geology. We get a lot of fourth-graders, because local history is part of their curriculum. We might also teach them about identifying plants, trees and the animals. They come in the fall and mainly in the spring. Teachers are starting to get in touch with us now about it.
But we also do a lot of outreach, where we visit schools and organizations and we participate in events outside of the parks, promoting the parks and stewardship.
How did you begin working for state parks?
In 1978, I was selected for the Young Adult Conservation Corps, a federal program, and lived in the old barracks at Fort Niagara State Park for a year. (He is a Monroe County native). Then in 1979, I started with the state when I got a job in the old Schoellkopf Geological Museum.
Over the past 20 years that you’ve headed the educational programs for this region, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
We’ve changed direction a little with the electronic age. We’re trying to keep up. We used to give slide shows, now we give PowerPoint presentations. We’ve had our staff on a QR (Quick Response) Code project for the past year, and we’ve placed the codes on these bendable posts throughout the park and people can use their smartphones to get the history or geology of the site, for example.
And we can add information to them. We have them in Niagara Falls State Park and we’re starting to put them in along the gorge heading towards Artpark. People like that.
What other changes are coming?
People don’t like static things anymore, so we’re trying to work on our exhibits. And our state parks commissioner, Rose Harvey, has directed us to do more recreational educational programming, especially with kids. We need to get them back outside again and back into the woods.
We do bike hikes and we might have offered them once a season, but maybe we’ll start offering them more often. A lot of people like to get out and do things in groups.
We have a staff member here who got her level one kayaking certification last year and started to give programs for beginner kayakers. We’re looking at a new type of educational recreation to get people more involved.
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