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'It's Harriet Tubman!': National park in Auburn hires first permanent ranger

AUBURN — The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park didn't need to look far for its first full-time employee. 

More than two years after the formal establishment of the park in Cayuga County, Kim Szewczyk has been hired as a permanent park ranger. Her first day on the job was Monday, March 3. 

Szewczyk previously served as the chief of interpretation and education at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. For nearly two years, she has assisted at the Tubman park and represented the National Park Service at events in the Auburn area. 

When the National Park Service created the full-time position at the Tubman park, Szewczyk was eager to apply. 

"It's Harriet Tubman!" she said during an interview at the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center Friday. "Being able to tell the story of a woman who did so many different things in her life and made such an impact on society. Her legacy continues to this day. It's just an amazing opportunity to be honored with caring for that legacy and carrying it forward." 

'Dream team' pairing concludes stint as rangers at Harriet Tubman park in Auburn

AUBURN — On a recent Friday afternoon at the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, a group of nearly 100 people from Brooklyn visited the grounds of the South Street landmark. They were greeted by a trio of National Park Service rangers, including two — Jessica Bowes and Rufai Shardow — who were assigned to the fledgling park over the summer.

A 17-year veteran of the National Park Service, Szewczyk began as a seasonal ranger at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. She's held other positions throughout her career, including stints as a business management specialist at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and the chief of interpretation at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome. 

Szewczyk also worked in the National Park Service's land resources division, which determines the physical property needed for a unit of the national park system. In that role, she was part of the team that traveled to the Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The visit was the first phase of the process to establish a national memorial. 

When she first visited the crash site, it was still a crime scene and a coroner was present. She made several return trips, visiting the site each month for nearly three years. To determine how to transform the site into a memorial, they consulted with the families of the Flight 93 passengers and community residents. The goal was to ensure there wasn't a negative impact on the surrounding area. 

After years of planning, the Flight 93 National Memorial opened in 2011. 

Szewczyk's prior experience with the land resources division will be an asset as she begins her new role at the Tubman park. The Cayuga County landmark is still a work-in-progress. While the National Park Service acquired the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church and parsonage on Parker Street, the agency and Harriet Tubman Home, Inc, are finalizing an agreement to jointly manage the South Street property. 

The South Street site consists of Tubman's former brick residence, the Home for the Aged she established and a visitor center. In 2018, nearly 6,000 people visited the property in July and August — two of the busiest months for the park. 

Szewczyk has ideas for programming and is working with Frank Barrows, the Tubman park's project lead, to develop plans. Her main objective, though, will be building capacity for the Harriet Tubman Home. 

"As soon as it became a national park, then there's a lot more people seeing it," she said. "It's right on the website, so there's certain expectations of what visitors are going to expect when they come to the national park." 

Karen Hill, president and CEO of Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., is pleased Szewczyk has been hired as the park's first permanent ranger. But she highlighted the need for more resources, especially funding, to support the Harriet Tubman Home. 

One of the challenges, she explained, is that when park rangers are present at the site there is no admission fee. When non-National Park Service staff lead tours, admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for seniors (ages 65 and up) and $2 for children ages 6 to 17. 

"We lose operational support money by providing the public a park ranger," Hill said, adding that revenue for the nonprofit decreased despite an increase in visitation last year. 

The revenue matter likely won't be resolved until Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., and the National Park Service finalize the cooperation agreement and conservation and preservation easements to jointly manage the property. Other national parks charge an entrance fee for visitors. According to the National Park Service's website, visitors must pay to enter 112 parks, national monuments and other sites in the system. 

For now, though, the focus is on how to best utilize Szewczyk's expertise. 

"She brings a lot of experience into the position and, of course, her most relevant experience has been over the last almost two years helping with the startup at the park," Barrows said. 

Szewczyk wants to share Tubman's Auburn story with visitors. What she has found is that many who come to the park know of the American icon's early years as a slave, her role in the Underground Railroad and her Civil War service. However, they know little, if anything, about Tubman's life in New York. 

While Szewczyk has a familiarity with Tubman's life, her education continues. Her studies include reading books about slavery and Reconstruction. 

"To understand Harriet Tubman, we do have to understand all of this history," she said. "We have to understand lynching, how the media portrayed black Americans, what was Jim Crow, the civil rights movement. It doesn't stop in 1913 when Harriet Tubman passes. She's part of that continuum of history we need to understand." 

An important part of Tubman's life in Auburn is her relationship with the Sewards, who sold her the land where she built a house and the Home for the Aged. Szewczyk said she's working closely with the Seward House Museum because "you cannot separate the Seward-Tubman story." 

The collaboration with the Seward House Museum is one component of Szewczyk's community outreach. She has led the Reading Ranger program at Auburn elementary schools and the Booker T. Washington Community Center. The National Park Service is working with the Auburn Historic and Cultural Sites Commission on its Passport to History program. Fourth-graders who complete the program will receive an Every Kid in a Park certificate. The document, provided by the National Park Service, grants the student and their family free admission to national parks for one year. 

The National Park Service also created an archaeological program that allows students to conduct their own miniature dig. The program was introduced at the Booker T. Washington Community Center's camp last year and was inspired by the archaeological findings at the Tubman property. 

Until the busy tourism season begins, Szewczyk will lead tours at 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the Harriet Tubman Home. Over the summer, the National Park Service plans to have two temporary rangers assigned to the park to assist Szewczyk. 

The agency brought in two rangers from other parks last year for a temporary assignment at the Tubman property. 

The Tubman park will continue to receive support from nearby parks. Barrows said Jessica Bowes, a ranger at Fort Stanwix who was part of the temporary detail in 2018, provides assistance occasionally. Staff from other parks help with maintenance and other tasks. 

After the Tubman park's formal establishment in 2017, help from other parks was the extent of the National Park Service's presence in Auburn. Now, with Szewczyk's hiring, the park has its own ranger. 

"She will continue to build relationships and represent the National Park Service as we work with community partners to bring the story of Harriet Tubman to life for thousands of visitors that we're seeing every year," Barrows said. 

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Ranger Kimberly Szewczyk gives a history lesson in September 2018 to visitors on a bus tour about the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn.

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Students compete in Odyssey of the Mind regional round in Cayuga County

AURELIUS — The Odyssey of the Mind team for Auburn High School said their journey to the competition Saturday involved some last-minute work, a lot of laughs, and a snake named Frederick.

The group was one of multiple teams that competed at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES building, performing various scenes each team wrote that solved a problem based on a particular theme, such as something related to science or STEM and another related to the work of internationally known inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci. 

For a problem that was meant to involve comedic performances revolving around a disagreement, the Auburn team performed a sketch about two groups in a school being pitted against each other, capping off with a stuffed snake popping out of a large green hat.

The group admits two of the students, Ailish Cuthbert and Raizel Demaria, wrote all of the group's sketches. Some elements came together Saturday morning, such as memorizing lines, but the students said they enjoyed the experience immensely.

"I actually think we pulled it together very well," Ivana Pierce said.

Tony Abbatiello, director of instructional support services for BOCES, said teams with elementary, middle and high school students from Cayuga County-area schools were involved in the proceedings. Groups have to gather and create their own costumes, sets and props.

Teams that won Saturday advance to the state tournament in Binghamton on March 23. The world finals will be held in Michigan in May. Another part of the competition involved situations students are told about shortly before they have to perform it.

A Cato-Meridian team with middle school and high students performed a scene involving da Vinci's creation of the coffee grinder, with Owen McGetrick playing da Vinci's famous drawing the Vitruvian Man in a costume covered with tape, complete with multiple arms. The sketch's dialogue contained rhymes from beginning to end.

Maggie McGetrick, one of the group members and Owen's sister, said she enjoyed the experience. She talked about she has learned through Odyssey.

"Listen to other people, because chances are they actually know what they're talking about," Maggie said.

Laura McGetrick, the team's coach and mother to Owen and Maggie, said she was impressed with how the students handled their tasks. She said she believes the process has improved the students' confidence.

Deb Daloia, coordinator for the event, said the students make the majority of the choices involved in the scenes themselves, while coaches are there to guide the groups along without directly instructing them on what to do. She said the competition requires the students to listen to each other. 

"They're not just seven kids on a team," she said. "They're a whole team."

Gallery: 2019 Odyssey of the Mind competition in Aurelius

Kelly Rocheleau / Kelly Rocheleau, The Citizen 

Cato-Meridian student Owen McGetrick performs at the Odyssey of the Mind competition at the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES building in Aurelius Saturday.

Experts weigh in on harmful algae at Owasco Lake Symposium in Auburn

AUBURN — More than a hundred people packed the seats at the Auburn Public Theater Saturday morning to hear from a variety of experts on harmful algal blooms in Owasco and the other Finger Lakes.

Hosted by the Owasco Watershed Lake Association, experts at the HABs in Owasco Lake Symposium discussed their latest research and work on HABs including contributions of nitrogen or invasive mussel species to HABs, and what future work will look like.

The event began with a proclamation from Auburn Mayor Mike Quill dedicating the symposium to former OWLA president Bob Brower.

Dr. John Halfman, with the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has been studying Owasco Lake since 2005, and presented the latest results from his work in 2018 that included a review of HAB mitigation technology for the first time.

Most of Halfman's presentation focused on the role phosphorous, the primary nutrient source for the cyanobacteria that forms HABs, plays in Owasco.

Based on his findings, Halfman said it's evident that more than 95 percent of phosphorous loads comes from non-point source pollution sources — meaning it doesn't come from a specific source such as a wastewater treatment plant — that flush into the lake following torrential rain events that have likely become more common due to climate change.

"If you want to start controlling things in the watershed, start by controlling those events," Halfman said.

Measures to protect the lake from dramatic flow events include collecting fluid from drainage tiles, planting riparian buffers — strips of vegetation next to streams or waterbodies that act as a barrier — or cover crops that stop farm soil erosion during off seasons.

Thanks to funding from an OWLS-administered state grant, Halfman was also able to test several HAB mitigation technologies for the first time in 2018.

Somewhat unfortunately, Halfman said, 2018 saw comparatively few blooms. Additionally, data seems to suggest the blooms may be short lived and only farm in calm, sunny conditions, so there were almost never blooms when Halfman went to collect data, making drawing conclusions difficult.

"They're sporadic, maybe neurotic, who knows," Halfman joked.

One aspect of HABs on Owasco Lake that seems at odds with previous research is the role of nitrogen in encouraging HABs, according to Dr. Bob Howarth, professor ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University.

"I'm here to suggest there is a nitrogen issue we should be paying attention to, or at least, perhaps, should be on our minds," Howarth said.

Established research holds that cyanobacteria only thrives in areas where rich in phosphorous but where nitrogen is scarce.

"That is not what's going on in Owasco Lake, that's not what's going on in Skaneateles Lake at all," Howarth said.

Increasing evidence suggests, Howarth said, that very high levels of nitrogen might allow cyanobacteria to produce more toxins, keeping them safe from predators and encouraging their growth.

That's supported by Howarth's findings that toxin levels in blooms were rising in 2017 and 2018, suggesting an "evolutionary arms race" between cyanobacteria and the zooplankton that preys on it.

To manage the amount of nitrogen entering the lakes, Howarth suggested management practices need to be updated, as nitrogen behaves differently than the phosphorous normally targeted by such techniques.

Another possible factor in what makes the recent HABs different is the presence of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, according to SUNY ESF's Dr. Kim Schulz, who led a dive team in surveying the bottom of Owasco Lake.

"This is not your father's eutrophication," Schulz said, referring to the excess of nutrients in the lake.

According to Schulz, both types of the mussels digest their food in a way that deposits both nitrogen and phosphorous into the sediment. Combined with a deprivation of oxygen the mussels create, this makes the nutrients more readily available for the types of cyanobacteria that can move between the lake bottom and surface.

The mussels aren't only extremely dense on the surface of the lake floor — early analysis showed as many as 30,000 quagga mussels per meters squared at certain depths — but they extend below into the muck as well, Schulz said.

The presence of so many mussels and the potentially large contribution they may offer to HABs makes it unlikely a one-size-fits-all approach to solving the issue will work, Schulz said.

"We maybe need to think we aren't going to have one solution to harmful algal blooms," Schulz said.

Lastly, state Department of Environmental Conservation Research Scientist Tony Prestigiacomo summarized the variety of existing programs conducted throughout the Finger Lakes, as well as next steps for the future.

Prestigiacomo touted in particular the expansion of the DEC's Citizens' Statewide Lake Assessment Program, in which volunteers gather lake samples to provide data to the DEC.

"This is an amazing program, it gives the state kind of a lot more boots on the ground," Prestigiacomo said.

With data gathered from such programs, the state can then make scientifically-informed decisions on how best to address the issues, Prestigiacomo said.

In collaboration with the United States Geological Survey and state Department of Health, the DEC hopes to soon offer a user-friendly website allowing the public easy access to data from its advanced monitoring programs.

OWLA Board of Director Rick Nelson, who emceed the event, said the full presentations from all the experts would be available on the official website at

Early in race, most of Cayuga County Legislature seats uncontested

A little over a week into the election petitioning process, incumbents on the Cayuga County Legislature are currently unchallenged in the race for re-election.

Of the Legislature's 15 districts, seven are up for an election this year, and the incumbents that hold five of those seats are presently running without any challengers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month signed an elections reform package passed by the state Legislature in January that moves state and local primary elections up to June from September.

As a result, a shortened petitioning process began Feb. 26, and candidates must submit gathered petitions by April 4. The law also lowered the required number of petition signatures candidates need to submit.

On the Cayuga County Legislature, Districts 2,4,6,8 and 14 are all held by incumbents, and no candidates have yet been endorsed by any opposing local political party to run against them.

District 14 Legislator Mike Didio, R-Auburn, briefly had a challenger before they dropped out.

Districts 2 and 4 are represented by Andy Dennison, R-Ira, and Chris Petrus, R-Brutus, while Districts 6 and 8 are held by Aileen McNabb-Coleman, D-Auburn and Joe DeForest, D-Venice.

This early into the process, it's still possible for that to change. Cayuga County Democratic Committee Chair Ian Phillips said the committee continues to look for potential candidates.

"We're going to keep looking, keep talking to people, keep our email open and our phone open," Phillips said. "It's always our goal to contest every election."

Cayuga County Republican Committee Chair Cherl Heary could not be reached for comment.

As for the shortened petition process, Phillips said it was too early to say whether the reduced timeline had an impact on potential candidates decision to run, but that he was confident collecting enough signatures wouldn't be a problem.

Districts 10 and 12, however, already have competition. In District 10, incumbent Joe Bennett, R-Auburn, is leaving after completing his term, and Ed Darrow, a Republican, and Heidi Nightengale, an independent with the Democratic Endorsement, are seeking to succeed him,

In District 12, which former Legislature Chair Patrick Mahunik, I-Auburn, is vacating after completing his three-term limit, is contested between Republican Tom Adessa and Democrat-endorsed independent Trish Kerr.