Fossils and Forest

Above: Staghorn Cliffs and FLLT’s Cora Kampfe Dickinson Conservation Area. photo by John Sutton
04/22/2019
by Kelly Makosch

The Finger Lakes Land Trust Protects 2,200 feet of Skaneateles Lake Shoreline

Some of the most pristine shoreline in the Finger Lakes Region is found along the south end of Skaneateles Lake. There, the land rises abruptly from the water to form steep cliffs widely regarded for their fossilized coral reef and wild scenic beauty. Densely forested hillsides directly above the cliffs stabilize erodible soils and provide critical habitat for a variety of wildlife, including bald eagles and migratory songbirds.

Once considered too remote and rugged for development, property sales in the southern Skaneateles Lake watershed are on the rise and new homes now dot the landscape. Associated water quality impacts to the lake, which experienced its second summer with harmful algal blooms (HABs), highlight the need for strategic, preemptive action. Protecting the cliffs, forested hillsides, and water quality of Skaneateles Lake is a priority for the Finger Lakes Land Trust.

The Land Trust recently acquired 900 feet of shoreline along with 90 adjacent acres near the southern end of the lake. Together with its existing Cora Kampfe Dickinson Conservation Area, the organization now protects 2,200 feet of continuous shoreline and 110 acres of adjacent, upland forest. These properties feature a middle-aged hardwood forest that feels deeply remote. Several ravines wind their way through the woods to the cliff’s edge, where ice forms on its sheer face in winter. Among them, Barber Gulf forms the most prominent gully on what will become another Finger Lakes Land Trust nature preserve.  Protecting the property helps buffer over 4,600 feet of streambank, benefiting lake water quality.

Along this protected stretch of lakeshore is exposed bedrock with abundant staghorn coral fossils, which lend their name to the popularized title of this special place: Staghorn Cliffs. The cliffs, which rise as much as 100 feet directly from the water’s edge, are prized by geologists for their fossil layers, which also include brachiopods (clams), trilobites and cephalopods (early worms). Together they are the fossilized remains of 300 to 400 million-year-old sea creatures from the Devonian Period, when the area was covered by a shallow ocean. Today, curious adventurers can visit the cliffs and see these fossils for themselves by paddling from the Town of Scott boat launch (learn more at gofingerlakes.org/staghorn).

The ecological value of this area is widely recognized as well. It is identified as a priority project within New York State’s Open Space Plan and is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. A diversity of neotropical songbirds utilize the lakeshore woodlands for nesting, including the Cerulean warbler – a species of conservation concern.  Resident bald eagles also populate this stretch of shoreline.

The Land Trust intends to work in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance wildlife habitat on the property while also taking deliberate steps to reduce nutrient runoff to the lake. An initial assessment suggests the former agricultural fields on the property present an ideal opportunity to create at least one wetland. The organizations are also exploring the potential to reduce storm runoff from a roadside ditch adjacent to the property by constructing a detention basis. The plans have dual benefit for wildlife and water quality, the latter by reducing silt and nutrient runoff that feed habitats – an increasing concern in Skaneateles Lake and elsewhere across the region. 

The latest acquisition along the Staghorn Cliffs is part of a larger effort led by the Land Trust and its partners to create a greenbelt of protected lands surrounding the southern end of Skaneateles Lake. The property is located less than one mile from the northern edge of the Land Trust’s Hinchcliff Family Preserve. In the long run, the organization intends to secure an unbroken band of conservation land extending southward from the cliffs to the end of the lake, and then westward into Bear Swamp State Forest.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust acquired this latest property in January through partial grant funding from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Water Quality Improvement Project, individual donations, and an internal loan. The organization is currently in the midst of a campaign to raise the remaining funds. Learn more about the Land Trust’s work to protect land and water by visiting fllt.org or calling 607-275-9487.