You’re on the shore of a large pond surrounded by mature trees on a beautiful, crisp morning. There are no sounds except for birdsongs and the rustling of branches in the wind. Suddenly an osprey dives into view, breaks the water’s surface, and rises up again with a silver fish in its talons. You could be in a national park, but this is the Finger Lakes. You’re hiking in the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve just south of Ithaca, in a nature preserve owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust.
The Finger Lakes Land Trust works to protect the natural integrity of the Finger Lakes region by conserving those lands that define the character of our region. Since its founding in 1989, this membership-supported, nonprofit organization has protected more than 7,400 acres, and the total keeps rising. The land trust owns 24 nature preserves that span an incredible diversity of habitats and range in size from one acre to nearly 800 acres. They are a great alternative to the region’s state parks and forests when planning a fall outing.
There are over 1,200 land trusts in the United States, and all of them work to permanently protect lands that are important to their local communities. But the Finger Lakes Land Trust is unusually ambitious. It protects acreage over 7,000 square miles, which is as much land as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. In addition to its nature preserves, the Land Trust also holds conservation easements that permanently limit development on 45 parcels of privately owned land. The group also has an active program to educate residents and visitors alike about the natural resources of our region.
The organization’s broad focus reflects its mission, says Andrew Zepp, the land trust’s executive director. Protecting natural integrity means preserving clean air and water, plant and animal diversity, productive farms and forests, and scenic vistas. It also means giving the public opportunities to learn about and enjoy the natural world, since legal protections won’t last long unless the public supports them. “When the goal is to protect something permanently, you need two things – an organization that will be there for the long haul and constant education,” he says.
Nature preserves owned by the land trust are open to the public for quiet, low-impact recreation and nature study. They range from relatively small parcels such as a 25-acre parcel bordering the largest tributary to Skaneateles Lake to a sprawling 800-acre forested hillside west of Elmira. The land trust preserves are spread throughout the Finger Lakes region, and each preserve exists for a different reason.
The land trust’s Bahar preserve shelters steep wooded slopes above Bear Swamp Creek, on the west side of Skaneateles Lake. Steege Hill preserve protects spectacular views of undeveloped hillsides in the Chemung River Valley that also provide habitat for locally uncommon species like porcupine, bear, and coal skinks. In rural Cayuga County, the 157-acre Dorothy McIlroy Bird Sanctuary encompasses a globally rare wetland called a fen. The McIlroy Sanctuary and its wetlands harbor rare plants as well as bird species typically found much further north.
Land Trust preserves provide scientists with safe places to conduct their research. The Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve is the world’s first temperate-zone preserve for research in chemical ecology and bioprospecting. The preserve was established through a unique partnership between the Finger Lakes Land Trust, Cornell University, and a pharmaceutical company. Today, the preserve spans nearly 500 acres, and its diversity is reflected by the more than 90 bird species that nest there.
Hikers on the Finger Lakes Trail pass through several land trust preserves. One is the Sweedler Preserve just south of Ithaca, which includes a spectacular 165-foot waterfall and gorge of Lick Brook. The land trust purchased this 128-acre parcel to ensure access to this dramatic gorge for future generations.
In Ontario County, the land trust’s 360-acre Wesley Hill Preserve features a portion of Briggs Gully as well as remnant old growth forest and an extensive trail system. Just as important, the preserve is part of a growing corridor of protected lands on the slopes above Honeoye Lake. The land trust’s Great Hill Preserve at the south end of Canandaigua Lake is another tract that provides hiking trails in a pristine forest setting.
The land trust’s nature preserves are its crown jewels, with exceptional assets that justify a substantial cost to the organization. But outright acquisition is not the only way to conserve lands that are vital to our region. The land trust also seeks to reinforce exemplary stewardship of private lands that merit protection for strategic reasons – they buffer public water supplies, or they include prime farmland soils, or are part of a scenic view.
For properties like these, the land trust offers conservation easements. These voluntary legal agreements allow a landowner to protect permanently the natural qualities of his or her land by limiting future development. They usually don’t allow public access. Their goal is to allow a landowner to continue to own his or her land privately, while permanently protecting its conservation values. The easement becomes a permanent part of the title, recorded with the county clerk, and future owners of the land must comply with its terms.
The terms of an easement are negotiated between a landowner and the easement holder. Most of the land trust’s easements delineate environmentally sensitive portions of a property while at the same time permitting active uses such as forestry and agriculture on other parts of the land subject to a management plan.
Taking this step benefits a landowner in several ways. First and most important, it gives the owner assurance that a cherished piece of land will be properly managed for generations to come. Also, the donation of an easement to a not-for-profit organization like the land trust counts as a charitable donation. The difference between the fair market value of the property before and after the easement’s restrictions are in effect determines the value of the gift. Easement donors could see reductions in their estate taxes, too. So if you own a valuable piece of land and you decide that you don’t ever want it to be developed further, an easement could meet your needs.
“Easements are one of the best ways to help communities retain their character and plan for the future,” says Zepp. “Part of the charm of the Finger Lakes is its patchwork of forests, farms, and small villages. Easements can be used to protect those resources that define the character of a place while also helping the community plan for the future costs of providing roads, water, and other services. And it does this at a fraction of the cost of buying the land outright.”
Easement donor and land trust volunteer Sara Kersting adds that she and her husband Jim were very pleased with their decision to place an easement on their land in the Ontario County town of Canadice. “When we purchased our land with our partners Mark and Kathy Malmendier, we knew that we would never destroy the beauty or integrity of the forestland. But we needed to find a way to extend this protection past our lifetimes, so future generations could enjoy what we have now. The best thing about an easement is the security of knowing that the land will live on much the same as it is now, as owners come and go. This time the land ‘wins.’ ”
In addition to its easement programs, the land trust also educates for the responsible stewardship of land through activities such as nature hikes and talks, workshops, school programs. Members and friends are regularly invited to guided tours of preserves and other special areas – in fact, the spectacle of the osprey catching the fish happened in front of a crowd at a nature walk in 2002. In local schools, another long-standing outreach program has taught school children about the landscape and encouraged teachers to use nearby nature preserves as an outdoor classroom. Stewardship education has been greatly enhanced by the land trust’s popular Talks & Treks programs, which are summer lectures and hikes aimed at acquainting residents of different watersheds with their natural and cultural history.
The Finger Lakes Land Trust is as varied and vital as the landscape it protects. You’re invited to learn more at the organization’s website, www.fingerlakeslandtrust.org, or by calling the office at 607-275-9487.
by Brad Edmondson
Brad Edmondson is a freelance writer and senior fellow for the Center for the New West. He is also a founder of the website ePodunk.com and serves on the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s board of directors.