$170K grant will protect world’s oldest fossil forest

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

The town of Cairo was awarded a state grant to fence in the world’s oldest fossil forest, located in an abandoned quarry off state Route 145. File photo

CAIRO — A group working to preserve a Cairo property that has been deemed the world’s oldest fossil forest was awarded a $170,000 grant to fence in and protect the site.

The fossilized forest, located off state Route 145 in the town, is at an abandoned sandstone quarry and is estimated to be about 385 million years old. It features a fossilized root system of trees that were in the area millions of years ago.

Joseph Hasenkopf, who has been working with the nonprofit group Friends of the Cairo Fossil Forest to preserve the site, applied for the state grant.

“I have been working with the town for a few years now trying to get grants to protect the fossil forest the town has,” Hasenkopf told the town board at its July 11 meeting. “The first time I was unsuccessful, but fortunately I found out Friday that we were granted a grant from New York state called a SAM grant… we got $170,000 to fence it in.”

SAM grants, or State And Municipal grants, are awarded through the New York State Senate. Cairo’s grant was awarded through the office of state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-46.

The grant will cover the cost of fencing in the property to protect it.

“I talked to the different scientists and the type of fencing that we are going with will have jersey barriers around the entire thing and the fence would be attached to that, so we are not drilling into the ground and potentially causing some additional erosion or destruction to the forest itself,” Hasenkopf told the board.

It is not clear when the grant money will be awarded to the town, but Hasenkopf hopes installing the fence can begin this year.

“Hopefully that will get done before the snow flies, but it all depends on when the town gets the money,” he said.

Hasenkopf is working with Town Supervisor Jason Watts to try to reduce the most expensive part of the fencing project — acquiring the jersey barriers.

“The most expensive part is buying the jersey barriers, which I think we should be able to get,” Hasenkopf said. “The town has a lot of them that we may be able to use, depending on the highway department’s needs, and we should be able to get a bunch from the county, versus having to go and purchase brand new ones.”

The entire site will be fenced in to prevent people from accessing the site without permission. Presently, the site is easily accessible.

“All the scientists have told me that until you have it fenced in, you really don’t want people going there,” Hasenkopf said. “There are articles out there about it, but you don’t want to add too much fuel to the fire because they are worried that people are going to go there and take things. Personally, I’m not worried about you or I or a tourist, I’m more worried about the scientific community going up there because right now if someone wants to go there, they just go and it is not locked.”

Researchers from the scientific community have already been to the site and taken samples, and the fencing would aim to better control access to the site.

“There was someone who went up there and took core samples which are in Cork, Ireland, and in England right now as part of a Ph.D. project for the last seven years,” Hasenkopf said. “There’s pieces in the New York State Museum, which is fine, but there are other pieces throughout the SUNY system just sitting in classrooms, which is educational, but I feel like the town of Cairo should have at least had this information.”

Hasenkopf is also looking to establish a committee that would serve as a point of contact for anyone who wants to visit the site so the town has some control over the process.

Now that the grant to install fencing has been acquired, the town will look to how to best utilize the site.

“Next steps that have been told to me is that the best thing to do is to go out and get a feasibility study done to see what would be prudent to build there — whether you want an educational center, how big of an educational center, is it better to leave it the way it is and turn it into a federal or state park?” Hasenkopf said. “A study like that costs about $200,000, so that’s my next goal after we get the fencing up — to try to undertake that and see if we can move things forward.”

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