In April 1941, to prepare for our country’s engagement in World War II, the federal government used eminent domain to seize 10,600 acres of mostly productive farmland from 105 landowners atop the hill that separates Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. The War Department approved the munitions project in June, and by July construction of the Seneca Ordinance Depot was well underway. By the end of that year, 8,000 workers had built nearly 500 concrete storage bunkers, called igloos, six aboveground magazines and 70 miles of roads. Although some phases of work took two more years, the depot was ready to begin its primary mission of “receipt, storage, maintenance, and supply” of military ammunition by the end of 1941.
To secure the area – nearly 4 miles wide and 8 miles long – the Army erected 24 miles of 12-foot-high chain link fence. It not only served to keep intruders out but also to keep unintended captives in. Among those captives was a small group of whitetail deer, one or more of which carried a rare recessive gene for all-white coats. By 1950, that gene became dominant and began to propagate a herd of snow-white deer that numbers around 300 animals today, the largest herd of white deer in the world. The Army, realizing that something unique was taking place, issued orders protecting the white deer. They have since become the unofficial symbol of what was later called the Seneca Army Depot.
The captive deer population began to expand dramatically after the base was fenced, but hunting was not permitted until the fall of 1956. During the previous winter, more than 1,000 weak and sickened deer succumbed to the combined effects of an over-browsed range and severe winter weather conditions. In an effort to maintain a healthy and stable population level, the Army developed a deer management plan in collaboration with Cornell University and the New York State Conservation Department, forerunner of today’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Recommendations included an annual deer hunt by servicemen to keep the population below 900 animals, which was determined to be the maximum carrying capacity of the range. Initially, only brown deer were hunted, but more recently some white deer were being harvested as well. A population census is taken by helicopter twice each year, counting brown deer during winter and white deer after the snow melts.
According to John Cleary, base transition coordinator and chief of security, “The Seneca Depot herd is the most-studied group of deer in the world.” Because they are captive yet still wild, the animals have provided unique opportunities for scientific experiments ranging from genetic studies and population dynamics to contraceptive testing. In the latter study, fertility control was determined to be too costly and impractical to be an effective method of managing the population; regulated hunting has proven to be the best option.
A lesson in munitions storage
The depot supported military operations during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. But following a recommendation by the Department of Defense in 1995, the installation was decommissioned in 1999 and finally closed in 2001. At that time, plans for reuse projected that “most of the property will be transferred to the state for a wildlife refuge; some parts of the base will be transferred to various prison and correctional authorities.”
Aside from endless rows of Quonset-shaped storage igloos and their surrounding buffer area, which together occupy three-quarters of the installation, the Army’s major development impact had been concentrated in the southeast quadrant of the base along NYS Route 96. Each of the 519 aboveground igloos, built of reinforced concrete 4 feet thick, is buried under an additional 3 feet of soil to help contain any accidental explosion from within. These bunkers – 26 feet wide, 60 feet long, and 13 feet high at the center – were originally used to store munitions, small arms and anti-tank mines; and more recently, rockets and missiles. By design, vegetation, brush, and trees freely grow wild on top of the earthen mounds, enabling them to blend into the landscape in an eerie sort of way. The buffer area is even more heavily wooded. Deer, turkeys, coyotes, foxes, beavers, and other wildlife, even bald eagles, have free range in this 7,500-acre enclosure, known as the Conservation Area. Deer, both brown and white, can be seen bedding on top of an igloo from time to time.
Since 2001, a 750-cell maximum-security prison has been built and is operational, but the wildlife refuge part of that plan has yet to happen. Cleary said both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York DEC looked at the property but stepped aside for different reasons. Except for the “Q” Area, a 700-acre section contaminated by over 40 years of munitions demilitarization, the Army has given title of the depot property to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (SCIDA). The “Q” Area is currently being decontaminated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and will be handed over when those operations are completed.
The mission of the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (SCIDA) is to attract and encourage economic development that results in the creation of employment opportunities and enhances the quality of life and general prosperity for Seneca County residents. With a variety of financing and funding options at hand, the agency can assist in developing both public and private sector projects that fulfill the needs of the local business community. Right now, an economic shot-in-the-arm is precisely what Seneca County needs. According to Glenn Cooke, SCIDA’s executive director, “When the base closed, one-third of the county’s workforce opportunity was lost, creating a major economic challenge.” The depot, once the county’s largest employer, provided 1,200 civilian jobs. Cooke plans to reverse those job losses by encouraging industrial developers to make maximum use of the immense site, according to SCIDA’s master plan.
Complicating SCIDA’s master plan is the military infrastructure left behind by the Army. The agency intends to demolish the Army’s complex of warehouses, which are in disrepair, to make room for new industrial projects. But removal of 519 igloos at an estimated cost of $50,000 each is not in the cards, which is why the state walked away. Any developer considering the site would have to somehow deal with the igloos, disregard them, or put them to use. Another issue is the deterioration of the 66-year-old perimeter security fence and internal road system.
Saving the white deer
Dennis Money, chairman of the board of directors and one of the six founders of the non-profit group Seneca White Deer Inc. (SWD), envisions a different plan, one that would more closely match the original projection to turn most of the base into a conservation area. Best known for his success stories with the Rochester Peregrine Falcon Project and the New York State River Otter Project, Money has undertaken a challenge that is monumentally larger and logistically more complex than both of those combined. Together with another SWD group member, conservationist, wildlife photographer, and former DEC staffer Lee Brun, Money is spearheading a movement to turn the base into the Cold War Museum and Conservation Park. The park would showcase both the military installation and white deer herd as an eco-tourist attraction. Their theory is that tourist dollars generated by their plan would equal or even exceed the industrial revenue sought by Cooke’s plan. The park would provide local jobs, too. Bus tours of the depot that the two men guided as a tourism experiment over two weekends last October were sold out.
Money and Brun are passionate enough about their proposal to have personally invested thousands of dollars to make it happen. So has the rest of the group.
Empire Green Biofuels, a Newark-based firm whose parent company is in Goshen, California, reached an agreement with SCIDA to purchase 362 acres to build an ethanol plant. That agreement includes an option to buy another 4,500 acres, more than half of the Conservation Area, after the company fulfills an initial investment condition of $75 million. Corn, willows, switch grass, and other organic materials needed to fuel the facility would be grown on land between the igloos. Empire Board Chairman Edward Primrose plans to begin construction of the plant later this year.
Responding to the concerns of SWD, Cooke says that SCIDA is equally concerned with the welfare of the white deer. He says that final agreements will include a wildlife management plan, which Empire Green Biofuels would be bound to maintain, along with 75 percent of the perimeter fence. Cornell and Syracuse Universities are each contributing to the preparation of that plan. Cooke sees this as “a terrific opportunity, providing a significant investment for Seneca County while preserving the white deer herd.” The company’s investors said that they would be willing to consider allowing wildlife tours.
In fact in April, Empire entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with SWD to conduct public wildlife tours on the premises. The tours, which will run mostly on weekdays and holidays, will begin after the construction of the ethanol facility is nearly completed, sometime in 2008 or 2009. The tours will be coordinated between Empire and SWD.
“It is important to develop this project as one of the ‘greenest’ ethanol plants in the country, while also maintaining the ecosystem and wildlife habitat within the depot,” said Ejnar Knudsen, executive vice president of Cilion, Empire’s parent corporation. In the press release announcing the Memorandum, Knudsen said that Empire has been in negotiations with SCIDA to develop a viable plan to maintain the wildlife habitat and to conduct research on various types of grasses and trees that serve as feedstock for the ethanol plant.
Dennis Money noted that the plans do, indeed, include SWD. The organization will be a coalition partner when Empire builds its proposed visitors center, and will assist in providing educational and wildlife programs. “We are pleased to be selected to partner with Empire Biofuels on eco-touring within the depot,” he said “We believe that opening up this unique habitat to the public will create a renewed interest in wildlife and green area conservation, with the added bonus of viewing one of America’s treasures, the Seneca white deer herd.
The coalition agreement between Empire and SWD is conditioned upon Empire’s successful receipt of all necessary permits to undertake construction in 2008 or 2009 of the ethanol plant, biomass steam production and biomass plantings.
by John Adamski
John Adamski is a freelance writer who has been following the story of the white deer for many years. He has been published numerous times in Life in the Finger Lakes magazine.