Partnering to Protect the Finger Lakes Trail

by Kelly Makosch

The Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) system stretches from Allegheny State Park on the Pennsylvania border to the Catskill Forest Preserve, with branch trails to Niagara Falls, the Genesee River Valley, the Finger Lakes, and beyond. The trails are built and maintained by the Finger Lakes Trails Conference, a non-profit run almost exclusively by volunteers.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust has been working to protect the trail and the scenic landscape that surrounds it for nearly all of its 30-year history. Focusing on the section extending from the Bristol Hills branch trail near Canandaigua to Cortland County in the east, the Land Trust has already protected more than 15 different sections of the FLT across the region. The first was Sweedler Preserve along Lick Brook Gorge, south of Ithaca.

Betsy Darlington, one of the Land Trust’s founding board members and former Director of Stewardship, helped secure this special stretch of trail in 1993. “Lick Brook, both the gorge itself and the magnificent forest adjoining Buttermilk Falls State Park, is as spectacular as anything in our region, and needed permanent protection,” she explains. Although the FLT went through it, permission to access the trail was hinged on a handshake agreement with the landowner, Moss Sweedler.

“What would happen if he sold it to someone else? After some work, Moss agreed to sell the 127-acre parcel to the Land Trust at a bargain price,” she adds, noting that this was the Land Trust's first preserve purchase; all those prior had been donated.

The Lick Brook Gorge project was the catalyst for what has become a strong partnership between the Land Trust and the Finger Lakes Trails Conference. The Land Trust, in partnership with the Trail Conference, has secured additional parcels to protect the FLT around Ithaca, including the adjacent Thayer Preserve and the nearby Cayuga Inlet Conservation Area. This network of protected lands now hosts one of the most popular sections of the FLT in Tompkins County, connecting Buttermilk Falls State Park to Robert H. Treman State Park, which together recorded over 580,000 visits last year.

The collaboration between the Land Trust and the Trail Conference continues to expand across the region. The Bock-Harvey Forest Preserve provides further evidence of the effectiveness of the partnership. This wooded 48-acre preserve is owned by the Trail Conference and subject to a conservation easement held by the Land Trust. Here, the trail winds past some of our region’s oldest, most majestic sugar maple trees.

Nearby, the Land Trust owns and manages the Stevenson Forest Preserve, which is linked to Bock-Harvey by the FLT. Expanding further east, the Land Trust and the Trails Conference added a third partner, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), to protect the trail and expand a state forest. With an interest-free loan from the Trail Conference, the Land Trust secured two adjacent properties that together protect a mile of the FLT and 200 acres of forest. This project provides permanent protection for a significant stretch of trail and expands Danby State Forest.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust has also worked with private landowners and municipal partners to protect parts of the FLT in Texas Hollow State Forest, on the Bristol Hill spur trail in Ontario County, and in Sugar Hill State Forest near Watkins Glen.

There is still much to be done. The 950-mile Finger Lakes Trail system is located almost equally on private and public land. There are currently approximately 700 private landowners who permit the trail to be on their land. These handshake agreements are nonbinding and the trail is susceptible to reroutes and temporary closure. Further concerns revolve around the effects of development on the long-term viability of the trail due to increasing fragmentation of land ownership. In addition, encroachment into the natural areas surrounding the trail threatens to impair water quality and degrade habitat for fish and wildlife. 

For all of these reasons, the Land Trust is intensifying efforts to permanently protect more of this amazing recreational resource. Near-term, the organization is focusing on the protection of another mile of trail and associated fields and forest in Tompkins County.
The late Tom Reimers, past president of both the Land Trust and the Trail Conference, said it best: “The Finger Lakes Land Trust is doing great things for the FLT to protect it and the environment around it."

To learn more about the Finger Lakes Land Trust’s conservation work, please visit where you can sign up to volunteer. Learn more about Lick Brook and other outdoor opportunities at

For additional information on the Finger Lakes Trail Conference, please visit

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