Critical habitat is protected thanks to a team effort

protecting critical habitat

An unexpected special place helps save threatened and endangered bats

If you were driving down Route 11, you might be hard-pressed to know that you were almost within walking distance of a rare, and special, conservation area.

Tucked behind Walmart, Candlewood Suites, and Taco Bell, and not far from Fort Drum, in Jefferson County, there lies over a hundred acres of woodlands — home to a variety of wildlife, including the threatened Indiana and northern long-eared bats.

Now, 101 acres of at-risk lands have been conserved thanks to a partnership between the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust and Fort Drum — through the Army Compatible Use Buffer program (ACUB) — as well as Ducks Unlimited. The land is connected to an additional 15 acres of important bat habitat, owned and protected by the Ontario Bays Initiative.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that these bats typically roost under the bark or in crevasses of trees three inches or more in diameter. The area currently has little in the way of public conservation lands.

With Fort Drum housing not far away, this new conservation area will provide a place for families to go to enjoy the sounds and sights of birds like turkey, owls, and hawks, like the northern harrier.

map of bat habitat
The new conservation area will be managed for endangered bats (shown above with yellow dots) and other pollinators like the fritillary butterfly.

 

butterfly on milkweed
Fritillary Butterfly by Laurie Frykholm

Bats play an important role in the overall health of the ecosystem, including eating hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes every year. Yet bats, as a species, have had a challenging time of late.

Due to habitat loss, increased stress from white-nose disease and a changing climate, all bats have plummeted in population. Studies have reported over a 90% decline of the Indiana and northern long-eared bat species in the northeast. The protection of this area will help provide a secure place for bats to find food and roost, while also protecting habitat for other wildlife, like the pileated woodpecker.

Conservation of these lands also provides for important water absorption areas. Northern New York is experiencing greater intensity of rainfall, with that pattern expected to increase over the next several decades.

This is particularly true in this area near Ft. Drum, where development and paved surfaces are expanding.

Yet for some, it’s the proximity of having a nice place to visit nature that has the strongest allure. “So many people are scared of bats,” commented Leslie DiStefano, who lives near Fort Drum. “But I know they eat thousands of mosquitoes, and they won’t hurt you. Personally, I love seeing the bats. I can’t wait to bring my family out here.”

Bats are also pollinators for local farms and are important to overall success in agriculture. There are a number of protected farms within five miles of this new conservation area, creating a block of conservation lands that provide habitat to a variety of wildlife, produce local food, and support a network of agriculture-related businesses.

Over the coming year, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust will be working with project partners to secure approximately $35,000 in funding needed to establish the first phase of trails in the new conservation area. Improvements will include a parking area and the design and installation of educational and  related signage. If you’d like to donate to this project, please contact Emily Males at emales@tughilltomorrow.org.

 


David S. Smith Public Conservation Area

A tribute to NYS DEC Region 6, Regional Forester

hiking by Pleasant Bay David Smith spent his 40-year career at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation helping others care for the forestlands and waters they loved.

He had a gift for listening to local landowners, industry leaders, and community officials — and helping make decisions that benefited land and people. David was an inspiration to many throughout Tug Hill. Sadly, he passed away last December after battling pancreatic cancer.

This new conservation area is now dedicated in his honor.

On April 22, 2022, a small gathering of family, friends, and colleagues celebrated his life and all he has done for conservation with the dedication of the nature area. It was a perfect way to commemorate his talent for looking out for both the lands and people of the North Country. He is dearly missed, but his legacy will carry on.

“We want to leave a peaceful place for generations to come”

moose walking through the property

Julia Rubenstein’s dad, Stan Wiater, loved wildlife. Growing up in the 1940’s, he learned about hard work and respecting nature during the long days at camp in the town of Forestport, Oneida County.

As a young boy, Stan learned much from his mentor, Larry Frey, who had purchased their original 100 acres through the government veteran’s program when he returned from WWII.

Larry took Stan under his wing, and on weekends they would drive up from Utica together to visit the camp in Forestport. Stan learned the arts of forestry, trapping, hunting, and taxidermy, which he then shared with his younger brother Ed.

When Stan returned from the Army, and became a skilled mason, Larry and Stan purchased abutting land. Over the next 20 years they planted thousands of trees and built a spillway on Gulf Creek to create a pond for fishing and wildlife.

protecting the land he loves
“I come up here as much as I can and find that time in the woods renews me.” – Ed Sajdzikowski

Ed (Julie’s uncle), still owns and enjoys the abutting parcel of land Larry and Stan gave him as a wedding gift in 1974. “I come up here as much as I can and find that time in the woods renews me,” explains Ed, who, until Stan’s passing in 2019, had seldom missed a weekend on the property since 1957.

A tribute to family and nature

Julie and her husband Jeff, are now conserving this land as a tribute to the men in her life who toiled to care for it, learned from it, and loved it. “My dad would be so pleased that we have protected this place that he loved so much, and was such a large part of the wonderful, generous, strong man he became.”

The Rubenstein’s will continue to own the property, pay property taxes, and manage it subject to the long-term conservation agreement.

Both critical and timely

This region is a central part of the Wildlife Connectivity project area; a partnership between local, state and national conservation groups to create a conservation corridor extending from the southern Appalachians up into Canada.

At stake are numerous wildlife like moose and black bear who find the changing climate necessitates increased movement for food, cover, and raising their young.

For the Rubenstein’s, conserving their land is important to protect significant habitat—and share the healing powers of nature. “We want to pass this love of nature on to others, too,” said Julie. “We hope to partner with area nonprofits to provide a place for young people from disadvantaged situations to find themselves, like my dad and I did, to find inner peace, and hopefully find a lifelong love of nature.”

Restoring the American Chestnut

restoring the American chestnut

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, nearly four billion American chestnut trees once flourished in
the eastern U.S. Sadly, in the early part of the 1900’s, a fungus was unknowingly imported, wiping out the majority of these magnificent trees and destroying a central part of North America’s ecology.

But there’s good news.

A team of researchers at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the American Chestnut Foundation have developed a disease-tolerant and genetically diverse American chestnut tree.

This summer, our land trust in partnership with the Zoo NY, based in Watertown, will be planting the new variety of chestnut trees as part of an educational program to demonstrate how devastated species, like the Chestnut, and their ecosystems, can be restored using genetic engineering.

It’s our hope that someday you too may be able to plant them on your property.

Tug Hill’s forests identified as critical

critical forests to protect

It’s not truly wilderness, though the term “Lesser Wilderness” is sometimes used to compare the Heart of Tug Hill to the vaster wilderness of the nearby Adirondacks. The area consists of “core forest” with over 170,000 acres of unbroken forest land, wetlands, ponds, and headwater streams. Not only is this landscape vital to a multi-state wildlife corridor, but it also supports our regional traditions of forestry, hunting and hunt camps, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and snowmobiling.

trail map
See an enlarger version of the above map. The proposed trail, including the portion that is roughed-in, runs through a mix of lands owned by NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (tan, light pink and dark green), Timber Investment Management organization (brown and light green), and The Nature Conservancy (dark pink and olive green). Find out more >>

Numerous rivers, whose headwaters are located in the Heart of Tug Hill rely on the forest’s health and resilience to sustain their flows throughout the summer, as well as absorbing heavy rainfalls. Much of Tug Hill revolves around these amazing landscapes and include the Salmon, Mad, and Deer Rivers, as well as the Sandy Creeks and the East and West Branches of Fish Creek.

Recent research has once again documented the importance of forestlands and their associated wildlife habitat. In 2019, the Tug Hill Chapter of Trout Unlimited found unique strains of brook trout in portions of some Tug Hill headwaters streams. These brook trout are genetically distinct, showing little evidence of introduction of non-native or hatchery-raised stock.

During the same period, research by The Nature Conservancy concluded that the Heart of Tug Hill faces development pressure that could fragment and disrupt the ecological health of the region. In short, it’s an area with an urgent need for thoughtful, accelerated and long-term conservation efforts.

There’s reason for guarded optimism, however. Landowners are asking for our assistance and funding may become available thanks to ongoing discussions at the state and federal levels to voluntarily conserve 30% of the U.S. land base and waters by 2030 (termed 30 x 30).

The 30 x 30 initiative recognizes that land conservation is not keeping pace with growing threats to our lands, waters, wildlife, and ways of life across the country. The Land Trust Alliance (the national conservation organization that provides technical assistance to local land trusts) has stressed the critical nature of this voluntary effort.

National Audubon notes its importance, too. North America has lost three billion birds due to climate change and habitat loss—29% of its bird population—since 1970.

Perfect Timing

The majority of landowners in the Heart of Tug Hill are elderly and many face the choice of selling their land, ideally protected, or passing it on to the next generation. Because of this, when combined with development pressure, the next ten years will define what Tug Hill looks and feels like.

Our task, therefore, is to make sure we have the capacity to seize opportunities presented like the 30 x 30 initiative and assist these families when they ask for help. That’s one of the reasons we launched the Tug Hill FOR Tomorrow Campaign. A huge thanks to so many of you who have already contributed.

Together, we can support our region’s desire to balance future development with the protection of the farms, forests, waters, and wildlife habitats that define us.

“It’s so peaceful out there. I love that we are working together to create a trail that is unique to Tug Hill.”

— Nancy Grisham


WANT TO HELP MAKE HISTORY?

Come join us and create the Tug Hill Traverse Trail

fall view of a Tug Hill region riverThis summer and fall, we have a number of community trail workdays planned to continue work on the 20-mile long Traverse Trail, in forested portions of the towns of Osceola, West Turin, and Montague (lands we call the Heart of Tug Hill).

They’re a fun way to spend some time with family, friends, and co-workers; get outside; hear some birds; and get your hands dirty. Trail work consists of pruning branches and shrubs, building stream crossings, and putting up trail markers.

You’ll want to wear sturdy shoes and appropriate clothing for working in the woods, and bring pruners if you have them. We will provide snacks and water and recommend you bring a sack lunch.

List of trail workdays and register >>

Community jump-starts French Settlement Road Public Conservation Area

Public Conservation Area

The importance of accessible open space for recreation, physical and mental health, and connecting and learning about nature has become very apparent during the pandemic.

Providing a variety of places to explore and enjoy nature “close to home”—meaning within a 15 to 20-minute drive—is now recognized by social scientists as central to inspiring a lasting connection to wildlife, as well as improving public health. Because of this, one of our strategic initiatives is to establish at least one new conservation area per county over the next five years in Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego, and Oneida Counties.

Late last year, Dr. Marvin Reimer generously donated 121 acres to establish our newest public conservation area on French Settlement Road, in the town of Lorraine, in southernmost Jefferson County, NY.

The conservation area is comprised of a mix of northern hardwood forests with several large beaver ponds, wetland areas, and important habitat to resident and migrating birds. It also contains foundations from two historic farmstead sites.

Getting the place ready for the community took a giant step forward recently, thanks to a gift from Pure Water for Life (PWfL). This lead gift of $30,000 will help create a parking area, trails, signage, and educational programming.

“We thought it would be years before we could improve the public access—and then came this amazing gift from PWfL,” explained Linda Garrett, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust’s Executive Director.

The vision includes creating a parking area large enough for a school bus and several cars; non-motorized trails that meander throughout the property; and benches and resting areas. Funding permitting, we hope to create wildlife viewing areas and an accessible trail.

Additional grants and community donations will supplement the grant from PWfL. Once the parking area and trail improvements are complete, we will host guided nature walks and other educational programs for the public, youth groups, and schools.

Linda notes that the timing couldn’t be better. “It’s our hope that the next $15,000 needed for phase two of the trail and habitat improvements will be contributed by members of our community over the summer to keep progress going. This is such a special place. We can’t wait for people to see it.”

“It’s a win for our community”

family farm

When Harold and Anna Sullivan purchased their dairy farm in 1947 on Roberts Road in the Town of Denmark, in Lewis County, they carried with them a dream to raise their family as part of a vibrant farming community.

With fertile soils, ample water, a mix of woodlands abutting the Deer River, and extraordinary hard work, the “home farm” grew to more than 700 acres over two generations.

Their son, Charles, and his wife Shirley purchased the farm from his parents in the 1980s where they raised five sons: Mike, Jeffery, Kevin, Gary, and Scott.

out on the farm in the winter
Mike and Joyce Sullivan and their family.

Mike and Joyce Sullivan, as third generation dairy farmers on the family land, have decided to conserve their 494 acres of farmland. Known as Flat Rock Farms, and a “Dairy of Distinction” due to the family’s commitment to excellence, the farm is currently home to 135 milking cows, young cattle, and a mix of fields growing alfalfa, corn, and grain.

Their recently awarded NYS farmland protection grant, written and submitted by Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust on behalf of the Sullivan’s, will help them continue to diversify the farm to allow for greater economic resiliency. Mike’s brothers, Gary and Kevin, have already protected their farms, and Jeffery hopes to conserve his farm, too.

Farmland conservation is a priority

According to the USDA 2017 census data, New York lost over 2,100 dairy farms between 2012 and 2017. Joyce notes “Dairy farmers are increasingly looking to diversify their operations to withstand the dismal milk prices. We plan on diversifying more into grains.”

New York State is responding by investing in farmland protection, with $50 million in funding statewide committed to purchase development rights via farmland protection grants over the next year.

“It’s no secret that the dairy industry is stressed by erratic milk prices as part of a national pricing structure,” explained Mike Sullivan. “This grant is a win for our community. It would be tragic to see the farm get developed. We have so much of our family history in this farm. My grandparents would be proud of all we are doing to keep it as a farm. It’s part of their legacy.”

The farmland protection program allows farmers to diversify operations, including establishing home-based businesses and ‘value-added’ products like cheese and cider. Given the commitment to farm viability, the farmland conservation agreement also allows the installation of solar panels on barns and a portion of the land in a manner that is compatible with farming and healthy soils.

The demand for these farmland protection grants is high. Nearly 40 farm families in and around the Tug Hill region have asked for our help. After extensive evaluation based on the state’s grant criteria, this year we will submit nine projects to NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets for funding consideration.

It takes over 50 hours to prepare one of these grant applications, including working with the relevant county, town(s), and farm families. If a farmland protection grant is awarded, a project can take two to four years to complete, necessitating well over 250 hours of staff time.

We couldn’t undertake this effort without the support of people like you. Thank you.

“This grant is a win for our community. It would be tragic to see the farm get developed. We have so much of our family history in this farm. My grandparents would be proud of all we are doing to keep it as a farm. It’s part of their legacy.”

— Mike Sullivan, Flat Rock Farms

Is conservation right for you, or someone you know?

Song Sparrow up close

Would you like to protect your land? Do you know someone who might be interested in protecting their farm, woodlands or wetlands? 

People protect their land for a variety of reasons. Many times, it’s a way to ensure that their love of the land will remain intact after they leave. For others, it’s a way to honor their parents and grandparents. Sometimes it helps with estate planning or financial management plans.

If you would like to explore whether conservation is right for you and your family, give JJ Schell, Associate Director, a call at 315-779-8240 or email him at jschell@tughilltomorrow.org.

All conversations are confidential to provide your family the privacy it needs to make a decision that is right for you.

Local school connects with nature to enhance learning

Classroom Outside

When was the last time you visited a school with an outdoor, nature-based, classroom?

Nationwide, educators and conservation organizations are partnering up to create natural areas and trails that are on or near school grounds.

Whether nature-based playgrounds, walking trails, or relaxation and inquiry spaces, these efforts have increasingly proven effective in improving students’ learning, engagement, and social interaction.

Additional research notes that hands-on educational activities help foster greater understanding and learning retention.

A good example is Black River Elementary School, in Jefferson County. They are creating their own outdoor learning trail with a special grant from the Army’s Federally Impacted Schools Education Foundation as part of their Learning Coming to Life initiative.

“Hands-on nature activities have kept my students engaged and learning, even with just two in-person classroom days a week,” explained Tricia Pierce, a second-grade teacher helping to lead the effort.

“With current limits on time and expenses, creating a trail right on school property helps us incorporate outdoor learning more regularly at all grade levels, and community members have opportunities to join in and benefit from it as well.”

Lewis County takes steps to become a Climate Smart Community

map of new york state

This past winter, the Lewis County Board of Legislators took the first step necessary to become certified as a Climate Smart Community, by adopting a 10-point pledge and appointing the newest county Planning Department member to lead the charge toward certification.

To date, 329 communities and counties across New York State have registered to become “climate smart”—working towards a variety of actions including climate-smart land use, decreased energy use, and innovations towards green economies.

We are standing by to assist local communities as they implement their land conservation goals related to climate-smart plans. Examples include supporting local farming and farmland protection, dual-use solar and farming, and
regenerative agriculture.

To find out more, check out the Climate Smart Communities website at climatesmart.ny.gov.

Birds give kids a boost

group of children with bird feeds and books

When Sam* looks out the window, he’s not thinking about math, biology, or history.

“Some days are bad days for him, but coming here to watch the birds for a while quickly calms him down so he can relax a little before going back to the classroom,” explains Susan Jeffers, a second-grade teacher at the Mount Markam Elementary School, who participated in this year’s Bird Quest. “It’s been particularly relevant this year.”

Many of the over 40 school, homeschool, family, and individual teams have reported the same impact while watching their feeders in 2021.

Birds are everywhere. Combine that with the fact that people were cooped up from Covid and it’s not surprising that there has been a big increase in birdwatching.

Indeed, the online database eBird reported a 37% increase in users documenting their sightings, with more than two million people using the Merlin Bird ID app in 2020. That’s good news for conservation too.

“As kids and adults start to appreciate birds, they also start to consider what birds need to thrive. For some, this is the first time they’ve considered the larger picture” explained Lin Gibbs, our Community Programs Director.

This program is possible because of our donors’ generosity and community support.

If you shop at State Street Hardware, Lowes, Walmart, Home Depot, or Rudd’s Town and Country, please tell them how much you appreciate their support of the Tug Hill Bird Quest.

We couldn’t offer the free bird feeders and bird seed to our Bird Quest teams and schools without them.

*Name changed to ensure privacy.

 

“As kids and adults start to appreciate birds, they also start to consider what birds need to thrive. For some, this is the first time they’ve considered the larger picture.”

– Lin Gibbs, Community Programs Director