The Making of an Emerald Necklace

Wetlands, such as these at the Land Trust’s Goetchius Wetland Preserve in Tompkins County, provide excellent wildlife habitat. Photo by Marie Read

The City of Ithaca is ringed, in part, by tracts of public forest highlands, stretching from the Finger Lakes National Forest in the northwest to Hammond Hill State Forest in the east. These ancient highlands once were cleared for farming, but gradual retirement of much of the area’s marginal farmland over the last 50 years has now returned the landscape to forest.

The highlands are the source of clean headwaters feeding Cayuga Lake and a portion of the Susquehanna River watershed and, as such, are vital to the quality of life of area residents. They offer unique habitats for an extraordinary variety of wildlife, including wide-roaming species such as black bear and coyote. The National Audubon Society has designated areas within the highlands as important habitat for threatened migratory songbirds.

The area also provides exciting recreational opportunities for Finger Lakes residents and visitors. Hunters have long been familiar with these forested hills. For hikers, the Finger Lakes Trail meanders through much of this hilly, “gorges” terrain. Camping, fishing, biking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are increasingly popular.

As part of its conservation mission throughout the Finger Lakes, the Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) has begun a multiyear project known as the Emerald Necklace. The plan is to identify, preserve and manage lands that, when strung together and added to the existing public properties, will protect a chain of pristine forest arcing below the south end of Cayuga Lake. Working with a variety of public and private partners, the FLLT hopes to establish the Emerald Necklace as a model for similar land-protection efforts in the Northeast.

Securing a high quality of life
The FLLT works cooperatively with landowners and local communities to conserve the landscapes that make the Finger Lakes distinctive. Since it was established in 1989, the group has protected more than 8,800 acres of the region’s open space by establishing nature preserves, protecting private land from future development and providing technical assistance and educational programs to area communities.

“With the Emerald Necklace, we’re launching an ambitious project that could go on for many years,” said FLLT executive director Andrew Zepp. “Securing these lands is not just a wonderful thing for our quality of life – the quality of our water, for example – but also a boon to local economies through increased awareness of the area as a recreational resource.”

Fifty thousand acres of public land are already secure from future development in the Emerald Necklace. The largest emeralds are the Finger Lakes National Forest and the state-owned forests of Texas Hollow, Connecticut Hill, Danby, Shindagin Hollow, Hammond Hill and Yellow Barn. Smaller, but no less significant, gems include Robert H. Treman and Buttermilk Falls State Parks, several Tompkins County Reforestation Lands and six FLLT nature preserves. In all, the necklace spans portions of four counties: Schuyler, Seneca, Tompkins and Tioga.

A quick look at a map (see page 86) makes it clear just how close these protected public lands are to each other and how realistic a prospect it would be to link them. The FLLT aims to strengthen the necklace by securing lands between the larger tracts of forest, effectively creating a green corridor across these hills. Conservation corridors linking patches of fragmented habitat allow greater movement of plants and animals, which in turn leads to generally healthier populations.

The FLLT can point to its Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve, in west Danby, and several other established preserves scattered throughout the highlands as examples of its own contributions to the necklace. All the properties are remarkable for their beauty and their unique possibilities for ecological education as well as limited recreational use.

Carrying out the plan
The first step in the long-term process of completing the necklace involves working with landowners, recreational groups and government offices to forge a consensus as to which lands are the highest priorities for conservation. Ecological sensitivity, importance to the connectivity of the necklace and scenic beauty are three of the main factors weighed in determining key pieces of land to protect.

The New York State Open Space Conservation Plan identifies the Emerald Necklace as a conservation priority, noting the increasing pressures of housing development in the area on forest habitat and recreational opportunities. The plan boldly envisions  “a world-class ecological, recreational and educational resource.”

Tompkins County and several town planning boards within the Emerald Necklace have expressed interest in achieving similar goals.

The next step for the FLLT is to coordinate efforts with the three counties, the eight towns within the Emerald Necklace and other concerned partners, such as local sporting and community groups, the Finger Lakes Trail Conference, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University, among many others. This phase will involve the FLLT in energetic outreach efforts to explain the project goals, establish a dialogue to further identify priority lands and determine areas of mutual interest.

Since announcing the Emerald Necklace initiative in 2006, the FLLT quickly moved to purchase a 115-acre property bordering Robert Treman State Park as well as other protected open space. A high priority for protection, this property hosts a portion of the Finger Lakes Trail and includes more than a mile of frontage on the Cayuga Inlet. The FLLT also recently secured a 200-acre parcel of forest in Schuyler County through the use of a conservation easement agreement with the property owners.

Although the FLLT plans to continue land conservation within the Emerald Necklace through limited property purchases, the scope of the project requires a greater role for conservation easements. These easements are legal agreements between conservation organizations and property owners that establish clear restrictions on the future development of their land, protecting it from development while keeping it in private ownership.

Involving the Public
Part of the challenge in embarking on this project is fostering broader awareness of the public value of these highlands. Most Finger Lakes residents have little idea of the potential recreational resources of the Emerald Necklace. To draw attention to the need to conserve this resource, the FLLT, Finger Lakes Trail Conference and Cayuga Trails Club will hold a five-day “Emerald Necklace Hike” in September 2007, traversing more than 70 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail within the Emerald Necklace.

The Finger Lakes National Forest has the highest profile of any of the public lands within the Emerald Necklace. It is well-known both within and without the region as a recreational and educational resource. Interpretive sites scattered throughout the national forest make it easy for visitors to find their way around and take full advantage of what the land offers.

State parks within the Emerald Necklace are also relatively user-friendly. But large blocks of state forest land are virtually unknown to most people and lack even basic interpretive sites. A vital long-range strategy of the Emerald Necklace project will be working with state and local government agencies, along with volunteer community groups, to make those lands that can tolerate greater recreational use more accessible to the public. Increasing the number and quality of interpretive sites, as well as other amenities such as parking, would go a long way in providing greater enjoyment and wiser use of these forests.

The Emerald Necklace will be years in the making, requiring an unprecedented web of cooperation and partnership between conservationists, private and public landowners, government agencies and communities. As each link in the chain is forged, Finger Lakes residents will benefit as they gain greater access to open space.

by Eban McLane

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