New York’s National Forest

by Richard Figiel

There are 154 national forests spread throughout the 50 states. Michigan and Florida each have three, North Carolina has five, Colorado 11 and California 18. New York has one. The Finger Lakes National Forest drapes over the low ridge separating Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. It’s an easy day-trip from Rochester, Syracuse and Ithaca, but on any given day hardly anybody comes, even locals. Last fall I spent hours walking the trails on a glorious weekend without encountering a soul – social distancing at its best.

Virtually all the land around the Finger Lakes was cleared for farming by the mid-1800s, but the upland soil on this ridge proved to be thin and poorly drained, steadily eroding and degrading through the decades, leaving farms already failing when the Depression hit. The federal government bought more than 100 moribund farms – about 16,000 acres – between 1938 and 1941.

Today, 30 miles of trails thread through some still-open fields and the forest that reclaimed most of this land. Here and there the trails pass by hundreds of cellar holes left from long-gone houses and barns, sometimes flagged by an ancient apple tree or lilac bush, or even a cluster of daffodils. These are places to contemplate how generations of families ran through an arc of hope, toil and eventual despair.

About a third of the Finger Lakes “Forest” is almost treeless – farm fields preserved as pastureland by an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a group of local livestock farmers, the Hector Cooperative Grazing Association, one of the oldest public grazing operations in the country. For the last 80 years, they’ve been pasturing sheep, horses and cattle in these fields. Paths run through them, sometimes through a herd of curious animals (remember to close the gate behind you). 

One of my favorite things to do on a carefree day is sit on a rock or a log beside one of the isolated trees that dot the pastures, trees that are typically stunted and gnarled from years buffeted by cattle jostling into a patch of shade. Cow pies are all around, baking in the sun. You can easily imagine yourself on a high-plains Nebraska prairie.

In the fall, if your timing is lucky, while daydreaming at one of these little oases you might watch local cowboys rounding up a herd (forest regulations require the animals to be out of pasture by November 1). In the spring, if you’re lucky again – and very still – you may witness the cheeky mating strategy of the Henslow’s Sparrow, a threatened species that requires exactly this kind of sparsely-browsed grassland habitat. Henslow stuffs his mouth with grass, leads his fiancée to a choice nesting spot, drops the mouthful, steps back and watches her build the nest. If he’d just pitch in, maybe he could give the species a little boost.

I live a mile from the edge of the national forest. Walking my road recently alongside a bog, I came upon a sleek, glistening, dark-brown animal lying dead in the ditch. The bog borders a creek originating on forest land where beavers look after dozens of ponds. But this wasn’t a beaver, it was an otter. I hadn’t seen otters outside the Adirondacks, so I asked the district ranger, Jodie Vanselow, if otters have joined the other animals repopulating the forest – black bears, bobcats, fishers, beavers, coyotes. Apparently not. This individual must have been a wandering pioneer in search of a mate.

There is nothing quite like encountering a little cemetery in the middle of the woods, or a stone wall running through stands of mature trees, to give you a jolt of your own evanescence. The walls once separated crop fields and pastures; now they often separate different populations of trees that tell us something about abandonment and regeneration. On one side of a wall, slow-growing hardwoods like oak, beech and hickory may dominate where fields were given up early when farms first began to struggle and shrink. Across the wall, a colonizing stand of pine and spruce recall fields let go at the bitter end, when old couples sat in houses falling down around them, their kids moved away, unable to sell the land. If it couldn’t be farmed, it had no value – no one wanted it until the government stepped in..

The Reagan administration tried to sell off national forests in the 1980s, targets for budget cuts and privatization. Enough locals rallied the area’s Republican congressman to save the Finger Lakes National Forest. 

National forests play a different role from national parks. They function something like ecological workshops, places of interaction and intervention between people and natural ecosystems. In the Finger Lakes National Forest, this can mean removing a swath of trees to create a patch of early successional aspen habitat for woodcocks and grouse (hunting is not just permitted, it’s nurtured). In one corner of the forest a small, fenced area has been planted with grafts taken from individual butternut trees showing resistance to a canker disease blighting that species. Seeds from the mini-plantation may someday rescue the butternut.

Interventions sometimes do a bit of a somersault. Years ago, a wetland at the top of the ridge was dammed to create what is now the forest’s biggest, 20-acre pond. Recently – with financial aid from Ducks Unlimited, the Great Lakes Restoration Project and others – baffles were installed at the pond’s outlet to manipulate water levels and mimic the old wetland, promoting sources of food for wading birds and migratory wildfowl. 

“Multi-use” is a catchword for the national forest. Permits are issued for cutting firewood. Fields of blueberries only need you to bring your own bucket. While there are designated trails for horseback riding and snowmobiling, most are restricted to walking and skiing. Ponds are stocked with rainbow and brook trout for late-spring angling before the water warms up. You can pitch a tent and build a campfire almost anywhere in the forest for free, though not many do.

Spectacular state parks are close by all around the Finger Lakes National Forest – Watkins Glen, Taughannock Falls, Enfield Glen – amazing places with sometimes amazing crowds of visitors. The national forest is spectacular in its solitude. 

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