Finger Lakes Land Trust: 25 Years of Keeping Things Green

16,000 acres of nature preserves grew from Finger Lakes Land Trust 25-year effort...

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By David Hill, via the Ithaca Journal, 06/16/14

A view in the Berntsson-Millier property acquired in 2014 by the Finger Lakes Land Trust along Irish Settlement Road in the Town of Dryden. Marie Read / Finger Lakes Land Trust
A view in the Berntsson-Millier property acquired in 2014 by the Finger Lakes Land Trust along Irish Settlement Road in the Town of Dryden. Marie Read / Finger Lakes Land Trust

Bob Beck needed a pond.

Beck was the first staff member of a group formed among conservation-minded people in and around Ithaca with the idea of preserving pieces of land and keeping them natural. A prime target from even before the group formed was Lick Brook, a largely hidden but spectacular hanging waterfall just south of town. The owner of land around the gorge, Cornell University math professor Moss Sweedler. If Beck could find the right piece of land elsewhere, he’d consider a trade.

But it had to have a swimming pond, and it had to be relatively secluded yet only a few minutes’ drive from town.

So Beck scoured maps and asked around and every so often would meet Moss in Moss’s van, with his two big dogs, Boo and Tigger, who’d fetch sticks thrown into the prospective pond of the day. Some were quite nice and seemed suitable, but Moss would set his odometer and stopwatch and if the drive took too long, he’d say no.

Finally, though, someone suggested a pond west of town. Beck thought Moss would reject it because getting there required crossing Ithaca’s infamous Octopus intersection between downtown and West Hill. To his surprise, though, Moss liked it. It wasn’t a straight trade, but the deal worked out and his group, the Finger Lakes Land Trust, had one of its first big preserved places, what came to be known as the Sweedler Preserve at Lick Brook.

Later, it would be combined with land subject to a conservation easement granted by Trust member Ree Thayer. Today, the Lick Brook area also includes land preserved by New York State Parks and property controlled by Cornell Plantations.

Now, as the Finger Lakes Land Trust prepares to mark the silver anniversary of its 1989 founding, Beck, its first executive director, and present Executive Director Andrew Zepp look back at the Lick Brook acquisition as a major milestone that set the organization on its successful way.

“Lick Brook is kind of a microcosm of our work,” Zepp said. “It takes place literally over 25 years and there’s no one tool in the tool box. That is the the way to go, and it’s not just the Land Trust. It’s everybody pitching in.”

The Land Trust would grow to protect about 16,000 acres on 32 sites in a 17-county region, from Livingston County in the west to Tioga and western Cortland County in the east, from the outskirts of Syracuse to Steuben County along the Pennsylvania line. Based in Ithaca, it has board members from Rochester, Elmira, Skaneateles, Corning and throughout the region.

At the rate of about one project a month, the Land Trust works through a combination of donations of land, purchases and preservation agreements. A key tool is a conservation easement, which allows the land to remain in owners’ control and on the local tax rolls but protected from development.

Lick Brook inspired Zepp to form a local land trust as his master’s degree project in natural resources at Cornell in 1989. He’d earned a degree in industrial labor relations from Cornell and, after working shortly in marketing, had taken leave from a job with the national Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. Back in Ithaca, he wrote to people who he thought might be interested. Beck, for instance, was on the county’s conservation advisory council, looking for places to be designated as unique natural areas. There were birders, farmers, trail enthusiasts.

One woman gathered that night in Fernow Hall at Cornell was Betsy Darlington, who had helped convince Cornell to alter plans for its computing theory center to stay out of Ithaca’s Cascadilla Gorge. She was reluctant but Zepp convinced her to join in, and she was a full-time volunteer for about 20 years. Now, Darlington is on three Land Trust committees. She credits Zepp for bringing a combination of skills, persuasiveness and charisma to direct volunteers and staff and maintain enthusiasm.

Later, she and husband would donate a conservation easement on property they’d bought as a retreat along Catatonk Creek in Candor, Tioga County. It has phenomenal bird life, and some rare-for-the-region trees like sour gum or tupelo, and sassafrass. It was the first land project for the new trust.

“I think it works because people who own land typically really love it,” Darlington said. “I can speak personally about that since we own this property in Candor. The more you know it the better you love it.”

Also invited to that meeting in late 1988 was Lois Levitan, a systems ecologist and senior extension associate at Cornell who has led numerous projects, most recently one concerned with recycling agricultural plastics. Then in graduate school, she was skeptical.

“I said we have the Cornell Plantations. What do you need something else for?”

But there was a buzz in the room. Levitan credited Carl Leopold, a Cornell plant physiologist and son of renowned forester and environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold, for steering the organization and giving it direction. He would serve as its first board president. Levitan became treasurer, parceling out one of the group’s first major cash donations over three years to cover early operating expenses.

Levitan credited the Land Trust’s success to being open to a range of people, rather than just wealthy landowners, and with steering clear of other poentially polarizing environmental issues, she said.

It’s also led to spin-off organizations, Levitan noted, including Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, where Leopold and an early major supporter, entomologist Thomas Eisner, are buried.

Levitan credits the land itself. She did her dissertation in the Catskills, which is pockmarked with development. “Our distance from the New York City metropolitan area gives the Finger Lakes a breather to think about land use and protection,” she said.

Zepp didn’t want to form a chapter of a national organization focusing on national-scale preservation. He had in mind an Ithaca-area organization only, but board members immediately sought a regional scope.

“There was a consensus that at the time there was no land trust serving the Finger Laks and everyone’s vision was beyond just Ithaca,” he said. “The boundaries are somewhat arbitrary. It’s really the 12 counties that are defined as the Finger Lakes region.”

The largest preserve in the Land Trust’s portfolio is Steege Hill in Big Flats, nearly 800 acres saved from over-cutting for timber, and with five ravines and habitat for the Eastern timber rattlesnake.

Sometimes land owners approach the Land Trust seeking a preservation arrangement of some kind. But lately the Land Trust more often seeks out particular locations, usually tied to linking swathes of protected land. The prime example is an arc south of Ithaca from Dryden in the east to Hector in the west, which the Land Trust calls the Emerald Necklace.

“There’s more resiliency with a connected landscape than isolated landscape, and this is particularly becoming pressing with climate change and the possibility of these plants and animals needing to move and if they’re isolated they cannot,” Zepp said.

Another major challenge is the rising value of land in much of the organization’s territory. Like Moss, some landowners would like to hold onto their property for its value. There are pressures to divide large pieces of property, which can make them more developable but also more complicated to acquire.

“If you have 100 acres with significant road frontage and all you need to do is get a surveyor to chop it into to five 20- acre parcels that’s typically what happens because there are buyers and you can frequently net more money,” Zepp said.

To cope, the Land Trust seeks to keep building awareness of land preservation. Zepp terms it grass-roots.

“The reason we continue to grow and thrive is that so many people — and this isn’t a surprise people — really agree that conserving these lands is important. And our approach is not to dictate to the land owners what they should do but come up with a consensus-based solution. There’s just a tremendous amount of support of that from people from all walks of life.”

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.