In the early 1970s an abandoned farm in Marcellus well known to birders and hikers came up for sale. Fearful that an adjacent gravel operation had designs on the pristine property, local conservationists banded together in a united effort to protect it. The Nature Conservancy, which concentrates on preserving larger parcels like the Montezuma wetlands, agreed to buy the parcel for the bargain basement price of $25,000, which is now known as Baltimore Woods. When the organization did so, it imposed two conditions: The conservancy wanted to be repaid, and did not want to retain ownership of the property.
“A coalition formed,” says Jeff Devine, the part-time executive director of the recently renamed Save The County. “They held a walkathon which was wildly successful. ‘Save the County’ grew out of that effort.” Many walkathons, 2,503 protected acres and nearly 40 years later, Save the County has a new name: the Central New York Land Trust. And on April 26, the group unveiled its newest planned acquisition of more than 100 acres of woodland and wetland at Riverwalk, along Guy Young Road in Brewerton.
Into the woods: A trail at Old Fly Marsh in Fabius leads to a 45-acre marsh and pond, as highlighted by signage (below).
“We changed the name to avoid confusion,” says Devine. “People thought we were part of county government. Also, ‘Save the County’ was kind of a slogan and a cliche, like Save the Whales, and it didn't really say what we did. We have a broader geographical scope than just Onondaga County.”
The CNY Land Trust currently owns 2,503 acres comprising 46 separate natural areas within 17 municipalities in Onondaga County and two municipalities in Oswego County. Baltimore Woods, 4007 Bishop Hill Road, Marcellus, is the marquee property for the preservation group. Its 182 acres host a summer camp, educational programs and the John A. Weeks Interpretive Center, named after the longtime naturalist whose weekly radio spots on WRVO-FM 90.3 taught a generation of Central New Yorkers to cherish nature.
The Land Trust describes itself as a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization whose mission is to “protect vital natural areas in Central New York for the health of the environment and the enjoyment of the public.” Because of their work, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to drive the back roads of Central New York without passing some area that is never going to fall under the developer's shovel.
On a recent spring day Devine took The New Times for a hike through the Trust’s Woodchuck Hill Field and Forest Preserve. This 95-acre parcel just minutes from Interstate 481 in Jamesville was donated by Beryl R. Digney and the Nature Conservancy. The now-deceased Digney, widow of Oberdorfer Foundry CEO Kenneth Digney, donated the parcel.
Its winding mulched trails lead through a mixed-hardwood forest to an overlook with a pretty view of Snooks Pond to the south. It was so tranquil and compelling that it made us wonder why sane people fortunate enough to enjoy ownership of such a place would hand over their land to anyone, even the trust. Devine obliges with a response.
“Our donor is usually someone who has land that they care for deeply and want it to stay natural,” he says as we saunter down the trail. “Typically these are people who are planning retirement. Anytime someone donates they experience a tax write-off and they reduce their property taxes. They can still enjoy the land. They can still use it for passive recreation—for hiking, birding or photography. Some people want to leave a legacy, to know that the land they donate will be natural forever.”
No trespassing: A sign posted at Whiskey Hollow in Van Buren says it all.
And just what does “natural” mean to the Land Trust? Tough question to answer, says Devine, who also serves as land manager at Baltimore Woods, another part-time job which appears to take nearly full-time attention.
Clearly the parcel we are walking on is not just allowed to grow wild. “We do some maintenance, we fix hazard situations. On some properties we do rotational mowing, we remove trees when they block roadways.” Pointing to a crop of garlic mustard by the entrance, he notes that the Land Trust also tries to stem the growth of exotic invasive species when feasible.
In these days of trimming budgets, it would be harder to find an organization any leaner than the Land Trust. They have no central office, members of the board of directors are all active volunteers and Devine is their only staffer. “The office is pretty much wherever I am,” he says, standing in the woods and pointing to his cell phone. “We have about 200 paying members. Our biggest fund-raiser each year is the Sycamore Garden Tour and Plant Sale.” (See end of article.)
Devine, 40, grew up in Milton, Mass., across the street from the Blue Hills Reservation, a 5,000-acre nature preserve. “Blue Hills was the first municipally preserved land in the country,” he boasts. “That was my back yard growing up.”
Preservation runs in his family. His sister can imitate 200 bird calls and his brother works as a nature educator at Yosemite National Park. His late father worked at a summer camp as a young man, serving as the successor to the fabled birder Roger Torey Peterson. His wife Sharon Moran teaches environmental policy at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “It’s in the blood, I guess,” he says.
As Devine leads us across the grounds of Woodchuck Hill, we can hear the sounds of water making its way to Snooks Pond, wind rustling the cattails at the pond’s edge and mosquitoes humming as they swarm nearby. Red-winged blackbirds dart across the pond chirping, bullfrogs punctuate the afternoon with deep-throated croaking, and the rumble of construction equipment can be heard not far away.
Devine says this mix of the natural world with developed human habitats is all to the good. “All the studies show that the chance of someone getting out into nature has a great deal to do with proximity.”
The same mixture of sounds of nature and humankind’s creation are at the Old Fly Marsh in Fabius, on County Route 5, just a few miles south of Route 20. This parcel, maintained by Cub Scout Troop 115, features well-mulched trails and several sets of simple benches, each of which afford a lovely view of the 45-acre marsh and the pond at its center. It is an idyllic place to contemplate the beauty of nature and it’s just 15 minutes from the heart of Manlius.
As waterfowl lift off from the surface of the pond into the lazy afternoon sky, a pickup truck carrying teenagers apparently in search of a place to go “mudding” roars by, its nonexistent or ineffective muffler doing little to mitigate the sound that breaks the tentative quiet of the preserve.
If you would like to take a hike on any one of the properties, wander over to the Web site, www.cnylandtrust.org, where the parcels are categorized by the difficulty of access. Most of them are within a short drive of the city. “All our properties are open to the public,” says Devine, “but not all are easy to get to. Some are mostly wetlands; you’re welcome to go in, but you’re gonna need hip waders.”
If you are unwilling or unable to get out to experience the beauty of nature firsthand, the Land Trust can bring their preserved properties to you in the quiet of your own home—digitally. On the Web site you can download software to set up a Google Earth virtual tour of the preserves. But Devine doesn’t recommend limiting yourself to the digital version of nature. His list of the benefits of communing with nature is long and compelling.
“The disconnect with nature that we have in our lives has physical and mental health consequences,” he says. “We are losing natural habitat around the world at an incredible rate. We protect plants and wildlife, and preserve ecosystems. Even if you don’t get out into nature, we are still protecting a viewshed that you may enjoy—and the bird you see in your back yard may be nesting in protected properties.”
The Land Trust welcomes new members. Annual membership begins at $35. Anyone interested in donating land to the Trust can contact Devine at 575-8839. Their most recent acquisition is a 66-acre forest and wetlands parcel in Cicero donated by Jerry and Marie Blackman. “Marie’s Woods,” as the preserve is named, is bordered by Lakeshore Road and Cicero Center Road. At the time of acquisition it was valued at $190,000.
With a new name and a renewed focus, the land trust expects to keep on keeping it natural for a long time to come. “We are the local neighborhood land trust,” says Devine, “and we are also the best-kept secret in Central New York.”
Learning curve: A road leading to Whiskey Hollow shows how accessible to the public the natural area is.
Camillus country club: The Camillus Valley Natural Area includes about 2.5 miles of Nine Mile Creek, a popular trout fishing spot.
For funding, the Central New York Land Trust relies heavily on its annual Summer Solstice Garden Tour and Plant Sale, its biggest moneymaking venture of the year. This year it will be held on Saturday, June 20, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Sycamore Hill Gardens, 2130 Old Seneca Turnpike in Marcellus.
Sycamore Hill Gardens consist of more than 25 acres of landscaped gardens, ponds, paths and outdoor statuary from artists all over the world. Established and maintained by George and Karen Hanford, these private gardens are not usually accessible to the public. The Summer Solstice Garden Tour is a rare opportunity for gardeners or anyone who appreciates gardens to view the grounds.
Sycamore Hill includes an exotic bell garden, several large ponds with fountains and colorful koi (large Japanese goldfish that children may feed), the collection of outdoor statuary and an evergreen maze.
Simultaneously, the CNY Land Trust will hold a plant sale across the street. Admission to the plant sale is free; tickets for the Garden Tour are $5 in advance or $8 at the door for adults; children younger than 12 are free.
The Barrigar Brothers will play music from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Oswego Valley Fiddlers will pick and grin from 2 to 3 p.m. Picnickers are welcome, food will be available for purchase, and all proceeds benefit the work of the Land Trust. For more information visit www.cnylandtrust.org/events.html.