Valley of Dreams

Recently hatched walleye fry absorbing yolk sac. Photo by Bill Banaszewski

Generous gifts of preserved land in picturesque Honeoye Valley have made dreams come true for conservators and environmental educators. Here’s the story behind the Finger Lakes Community College Muller Conservation Field Station and the Honeoye Inlet Wildlife Management Area.

Emil Muller was just 22 when he immigrated to the United States from his native Switzerland in 1926. He came alone, with little more than the clothes on his back, a few dollars in his pocket and the dream of seeking his fortune in the land of opportunity.

Success did not elude Emil for long. After working his way through Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology) and graduating in 1932, he pursued an aggressive entrepreneurial career, first as a homebuilder, and later as a commercial developer. He built over 1,000 houses in the Rochester area and served two terms as president of the Rochester Home Builders’ Association in 1937 and 1938.

Emil was a pioneer in the construction of shopping centers. By the 1960s, he had become a major player in the commercial development of suburban Rochester, Atlanta, Chicago and Cincinnati. He was also worth millions and made generous contributions to Rochester’s Highland Hospital, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Rochester Rotary Club’s Camp Haccamo, a summer camp for kids with special needs.

Next, a conservator
In 1967, Emil had another dream. He and his wife, Florence, began to purchase large tracts of land in the picturesque valley at the south end of Honeoye Lake. The Honeoye Valley, with its almost mountainous forested bluffs and ridges, reminded Emil of the dramatic Swiss landscape of his youth.

Altogether, the Mullers assembled over 2,500 acres that included more than two miles of frontage on both sides of Honeoye Inlet and extended nearly a mile up each mountainside. In 1968, the couple built an authentic Swiss chalet there and made the Honeoye Valley their permanent home. They knew that they had acquired an area unique in its biodiversity, and it became Emil’s dream to preserve that natural heritage.

The lifeline of Honeoye Valley is Honeoye Inlet, which meanders northward into Honeoye Lake through an immense filtering wetland that is biologically classified as a silver maple-ash swamp. These swamps are mostly wooded and provide little in the way of open water. Although silver maple-ash swamps are not very common in New York, a similar but smaller example straddles Canadice Inlet at the south end of neighboring Canadice Lake.

The surrounding uplands of the Honeoye Valley are forested with hardwood trees such as beech, cherry, hickory, maple, and red and white oaks. Towering white pines penetrate their canopy. The valley’s 28 natural communities are home to over 1,200 species of plants, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. They include brook trout, walleye, coal skink, the spiny soft-shelled turtle, timber rattlesnakes, river otters and black bear. Nearly 160 species of birds range from marsh wrens to bald eagles.

Emil’s idea of preserving natural heritage did not always coincide with the ideas of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He sometimes found himself at odds with the agency, especially when he rerouted Honeoye Inlet to provide boat access from his home to the lake. He also cleared several hundred acres of brush and woods to pasture the ranch’s herd of beef cattle, and he bulldozed switchback roads up the mountainsides to access the vast stands of timber. Despite these exploitive tactics, Emil was sensitive to the frailties of his acreage. He knew where he could tread hard and where he had to tiptoe.

Emil lived at the estate, which he and Florence named Wild Rose Ranch, until his death in 1989 at the age of 85. His dream, however, had not yet been fulfilled.

Finger Lakes Community College recognizes the possibilities
After Emil’s passing, Florence took up the torch and began to search for ways to guarantee the permanent preservation of their lands, and prevent future subdivision and development. She knew the property’s biodiversity had tremendous educational value and, as a trustee of Keuka College, she sought the college’s support. Since environmental science programs did not match the college’s curricula, she continued with her search.

In 1999, Canadice resident and Muller neighbor Annette Collins approached Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) to fund a scholarship in her own late husband’s memory. During those discussions, she met with Professor William Banaszewski, founder of the college’s Environmental Conservation Department and its chair for 26 years. When she mentioned that Florence Muller was looking for someone to purchase her property, Banaszewski called Florence immediately. She was already in talks with other institutions, but she agreed to listen to a proposal presented by Banaszewski and then-current department chair Frank Smith. It was the start of a long-term process of negotiations and the beginning of yet another dream.

FLCC, with its 250-acre campus in Hopewell, near the north end of Canandaigua Lake, was founded in 1965. It offers more than 40 two-year academic degree programs and one-year certificate programs. Among them are Fisheries Technology, Natural Resources Conservation, Conservation Law Enforcement and a number of other environmental and horticultural studies.

After a cursory biological appraisal, it became clear to Banaszewski and Smith that the Muller property could provide an incomparable natural classroom, a perfect hands-on setting for environmental conservation students. Their dream was to make that happen.

Their presentation impressed Florence and she discussed it at length with James Howe at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and David Woodruff at the DEC. They collectively began to devise a plan that would eventually dovetail the uses of the property to benefit the college, the community and the public in general. John Hicks, DEC’s Region 8 director and former chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors, was instrumental in persuading county officials that there was much to gain by releasing the Muller property from the tax rolls. Once that was accomplished, things fell into place.

What happened next is best described in this excerpt from the premier issue of Wild Roses, the college department’s quarterly newsletter: “In January of 2000, a dream came true for FLCC’s Environmental Conservation Department. Florence Muller of Pittsford donated her home and nearly 50 acres of land at the south end of Honeoye Lake to FLCC. The college will use both the home and land as a field station where conservation faculty will teach courses and conduct fish and wildlife research. FLCC’s Field Station is immediately adjacent to the DEC’s newly acquired 2,000-acre Honeoye Lake Wildlife Management Area, which has been identified by The Nature Conservancy as one of the most unique natural areas in New York State.”

Florence’s gift is the largest ever received by the Finger Lakes Community College Foundation. The facility was named Muller Conservation Field Station in the couple’s honor.

That same year, Florence donated her 700 acres of wetlands at the south end of the lake to TNC, making it the largest donation of land to the Conservancy in western New York. TNC had previously purchased 430 acres from the estate of Emil Muller in 1998, and helped the DEC to purchase the remaining 900 acres in 2003.

Postscript
With the exception of the field station and a former 164-acre scout camp purchased by TNC in 2004, the remaining 2,100 acres are now held and managed by the DEC as the Honeoye Inlet Wildlife Management Area, and are open for public use. Sean Hanna, who succeeded Hicks as the DEC’s regional director in 2003, stated how “very proud he is of a terrific model on how government and private interests can work together without the need for public funding.”

Courses are now offered at the field station for conservation majors and members of the community alike. The lower level of the chalet has been converted into a classroom and natural resource laboratory; the upper floor contains a small conference area that is available for forums related to environmental conservation. The facility provides FLCC students with hands-on field experience in a wetlands setting, and a destination for elementary and high school classes from the Rochester/Genesee/Finger Lakes region to further their environmental education experiences.

FLCC, under the direction of current department chair John Van Niel, assisted by wildlife technician John Foust, has partnered with the DEC in wildlife management projects that allow students to monitor black bears, river otters and even walleyes using both VHF-radio and GPS telemetry tracking technology. FLCC assisted in releasing seven “telemetric” otters into Honeoye Inlet in 2000 as part of a cooperative restoration project. They are still there.

“In the immediate future, we plan to increase our outreach to high school students throughout the Finger Lakes by offering more opportunities for hands-on field experience at the station,” said Van Niel. “As for our own students, we are using the station in big ways for our new Fisheries Technology degree.” (See page 45.)

According to a grateful Florence Muller, “After extensive study and thought, I decided that the most appropriate group to own our home and nearly 50 acres of the Honeoye Valley was the Environmental Conservation Department at FLCC. Based on everything that has happened to date and all that they have planned for the future, I am both excited and convinced that I have chosen the right group to further our dream. Thank you, FLCC, for helping Emil and me secure our dream for the future of the Wild Rose Ranch.”


by John Adamski
John Adamski is a freelance writer who specializes in wildlife and outdoor subjects.