Preserving Open Space


The Finger Lakes Land Trust has been saving lands and waters for 30 years

by Kelly Makosch

The Finger Lakes Land Trust was born in a Cornell University classroom in 1988, the brainchild of a graduate student with a keen interest in land conservation. The passionate volunteers who attended the evening gathering formed the nucleus of what has grown into a regional conservation organization – a nationally accredited nonprofit of impressive scope and scale.

Founding board member Betsy Darlington was among those in attendance from the beginning. She remembers it like this: “I got a call from Andrew Zepp, asking if I’d be interested in going to a meeting to hear about land trusts. He was pursuing his master’s degree at Cornell and establishing a land trust was his focus. I accepted, and the 21 of us who signed up became the first board of directors, including Carl Leopold, our first president. The board decided very early on that we wanted to protect the entire region, not just Ithaca or the Cayuga Lake basin.”

Since that fateful meeting, the Finger Lakes Land Trust has protected more than 21,000 acres across a 12-county region, ensuring scenic vistas, local foods, clean water, and wild places for everyone. The organization owns and manages 34 public nature preserves that range in size from a small, Canandaigua lakeshore park to an 800-acre forest overlooking the Chemung River valley. The preserves feature an incredible diversity of waterfalls, wildlife habitats, rare plants, and opportunities for outdoor recreation and education.

In addition to owning nature preserves, the organization protects open space by holding conservation easements on privately owned properties. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement that allows a landowner to own and use his or her land while also permanently protecting its natural integrity by limiting future development. The easement becomes a permanent part of the title and future owners of the land must comply with its terms; the Land Trust is responsible for its defense in perpetuity. A highly visible example is Great Gully Farm – a scenic property on Cayuga Lake, just north of the village of Aurora. The Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway bisects the farm and the easement protects sweeping views on both sides of the road, thousands of feet of lakeshore, and part of a gorge.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust also collaborates with state and federal agencies, local municipalities, and other nonprofit organizations to expand public parks and conservation areas. South of Canandaigua Lake, for example, the Land Trust and Ontario County worked together to create Grimes Glen County Park – an area with significant historical and recreational importance. Other work in the southern Canandaigua Highlands includes additions to the NYDEC’s Bare Hill Unique Area and High Tor Wildlife Management Area. Near Seneca Lake, the Land Trust partnered with the town of Geneva to create Kashong Conservation Area, and also developed convenient access to the Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail at its own Bishop Nature Preserve.

Naturally, the Land Trust is committed to providing opportunities for outdoor recreation and education. Hikers on the Finger Lakes Trail pass through Land Trust preserves and miles of additional lands it helped secure. The Land Trust’s Lick Brook Gorge preserves in Tompkins County are a prime example. In addition to protecting five miles of streambank, the preserves secure a spectacular 1,650 foot waterfall and provide connectivity between Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk Falls state parks. Farther west, the Land Trust recently helped Finger Lakes Community College increase their East Hill Field Station by protecting adjacent lands that will enhance opportunities for students to engage in nature exploration.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Land Trust boasts a staff of 15 and is supported by thousands of dedicated members, supporters, and volunteers. Andy Zepp, the enterprising graduate student who originally conceived the organization and later returned as executive director, currently leads the charge.

“I knew this idea would take off in the Finger Lakes,” he admits. And has it ever! Under his guidance, the organization’s approach continues to reflect its core vision, drafted by that first group of volunteers, to protect water, habitat diversity, productive fields and forests, and scenic vistas.

As time and environmental conditions change, the organization’s protection work has become more imperative than ever. Toxic algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is the latest threat to the Finger Lakes – causing beach closures and polluting drinking water in each of the 11 Finger Lakes. To address these harmful blooms, the Land Trust is proactively protecting lands that are vital to maintaining water quality. Now, the organization is incorporating water quality commitments from landowners into its easements and implementing wetland and stream buffer restoration projects on its properties that filter nutrients and runoff on the land before they enter the lakes.

Please learn more about the Finger Lakes Land Trust by visiting their web site at, emailing, or calling the office at 607-275-9487. If you are seeking an outdoor adventure, the organization created a web resource to link adventurers to the best places to hike, bike, and ski at

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