Finger Lakes Land Trust shifts priorities to meet growing conservation needs across its vast region

CANANDAIGUA — Challenges and successes of Finger Lakes Land Trust were the focus of a presentation Tuesday by the land trust’s Director of Land Protection Zachary Odell. Odell, who has been with the land trust for five years, brings experience from a decade working for The Nature Conservancy and before that, in education as an earth science and biology teacher.

Before a nearly full meeting room at Wood Library, Odell ran through a primer on how the land trust operates in working with landowners and communities on preservation efforts. The nonprofit, working with landowners and communities, has protected more than 20,000 acres of the region’s undeveloped lakeshore, gorges, forest, and farmland. The organization preserves more than 1,000 acres a year in the 12-county region. That encompasses 11 Finger Lakes and a significant portion of the Southern Tier.

Preservation goals can vary between communities and sections of the region, posing challenges.

Based on a recent shuffling of priorities after months of research and visiting communities throughout the region, the land trust is putting additional focus on the economy, tourism and “what we consume,” Odell said.

The goal is to be “flexible but focused,” he said.

There are 200 towns in the region covered by the land trust that now has 136 conservation easements on the books. While it sounds like a lot, it is not when you think about the size of the region comparable to the state of Vermont, he said.

“There are many places we haven’t been,” Odell said.

Among the land trust’s biggest challenges is conflicting interests. The needs and concerns of people living in various areas of the region often differ, he said. He gave an example: Generally speaking, those in the northern Finger Lakes are most concerned with preserving farmland and working farms. In the southern part of the region, preservation of forests carries the most weight.

Defining the region means looking at how ecology, culture and use of resources affect various areas. “Our biggest currency is land,” Odell said.

He talked about pressures and tension when it comes to zoning and how people want to live and to use their land.

He also reviewed how the land trust handles conservation easements and the benefits for landowners who enter in easement agreements. There is a landowner Bill of Rights, along with tax credits and charitable tax donations. Odell reviewed some of the land trust’s projects in recent years that have added to the land trust’s protected lakeshore, gorges, forests, and farmlands.

The Land Trust owns and manages a network of nature preserves that are open to the public, and holds conservation easements that protect lands remaining in private ownership. It protects critical habitat and lands important for water quality, connecting conserved lands and keeping prime farmland in agriculture. The organization also provides education programs for local governments, landowners, and residents on conservation and the region’s distinct natural resources.

Odell said a southern part of the land trust’s region is doing well with preservation. That includes the southern end of Canandaigua Lake, the towns of Naples and South Bristol in Ontario County, and the towns of Middlesex and Italy in Yates County. A number of conservation projects have preserved lands around the state’s High Tor Wildlife Management Area. “West River and most of that area is well protected,” Odell said.

Projects in the works now include a tract of some 18 acres recently sold to the land trust for a preserve on Griesa Hill in Naples. In the towns of Canandaigua, Hopewell and Farmington there are also plans, with five projects in the works. Odell said these conservation easements will help preserve key areas from development off Route 332 and surrounding communities. A project in partnership with state Agriculture and Markets will preserve 726 acres on the town of Canandaigua. Projects completed through this partnership include four projects preserving 1,135 acres in Yates County and five projects preserving 819 acres in the town of Canandaigua in Ontario County.

A recently completed report targeting top 10 conservation strategies based on a year of planning — driving around the region and talking with residents in the communities — showed that protecting lakes and streams and drinking water was of utmost concern. Also on the list were saving farms and promoting the region’s wineries and breweries along with the region’s rural character.

People are also looking for stronger land planning, added Odell. They want to preserve natural habitat while also enhancing public access to conservation areas.

The goals can be met, said Odell, as long as citizens, local governments and others with a stake in it are involved.

“We cannot be the only one invested in this vision,” he said.

A number of people who filled the meeting room at the library asked questions about conservation easements and land regulations, and a discussion ensued about whether more could be accomplished through legislation. Odell said certain laws are needed to protect land and water but he believes strongly in what can be done locally.

“I am a strong community-based conservationist,” he said. “Collaboration is the only way to get things done, especially in the Finger Lakes.”

 

Learn more

Finger Lakes Land Trust: fllt.org