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TRAILBLAZER: Finger Lakes Land Trust founder leads mission to protect lakes, streams, fields, and forests

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

On patrol with his red-handled pruning shears, Andy Zepp snips overgrown branches as he walks a trail within Cayuga Cliffs, a 267-acre nature preserve set to open to the public in June.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust‘s new conservation area in Lansing is the latest chapter in Zepp’s life work.

The non-profit organization he founded in 1989 as part of his master’s program at Cornell University is now one of the state’s largest land trusts, protecting over 32,000 acres of the region’s undeveloped shorelines, gorges, ridge top forests and farmland. 

The Cayuga Cliffs in Lansing face Taughannock Falls State Park.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT) now owns and manages 45 public preserves and holds permanent conservation easements on 187 privately-owned properties.

Zepp senses an urgency to his mission. Protecting wildlife habitat and regional water quality in the Finger Lakes is more challenging than ever in the face of haphazard commercial development and increasingly intense nutrient-rich runoff.

“The health of our lakes depends on the health of our watersheds,” says Zepp, FLLT’s executive director since 2006. “The pressures on our land and water are increasing, not decreasing. We’ve got a window of opportunity if we want to secure and restore these lands. We’ve got to up our game, frankly.”

Zepp often partners with local landowners, town officials, watershed associations and the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Parks to identify and secure strategic properties and to “restore streams and wetlands to mitigate nutrient runoff into our lakes.”

A spate of announcements early this year shows that FLLT has been on a roll:

— In January, the land trust secured new conservation easements to protect scenic family lands in Chemung and Ontario counties.

— In February, FLLT acquired 990 acres in Steuben County, the largest project in its 35-year history. It features one mile of frontage on the Canisteo River and miles of hiking trails southwest of Corning.

— In March, the land trust added 26 acres in Tompkins County, including 1,200 feet of frontage on a tributary to Taughannock Creek, and 63 additional acres at Canandaigua Lake’s Bare Hill in Yates County, where it has protected a total of 322 acres. 

Also in March, the state awarded FLLT $4.5 million for conservation projects within the Skaneateles, Owasco, Seneca and Keuka Lake watersheds. 

An FLLT conservation easement protects two tributaries flowing into Skaneateles Lake, which provides drinking water for Syracuse.

That funding through the state’s Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP) earmarked $1.4 million to acquire and restore lands bordering Shotwell Brook, which enters Skaneateles Lake near the intake for Syracuse’s unfiltered drinking water supply.

FLLT has built an endowment of $11 million. Zepp says interest from that nest egg funds the group’s stewardship of properties it maintains.

A separate revolving fund is used to acquire properties. It is maintained or expanded with state grants and reimbursements and with private donations.

“You need to have cash and lines of credit on hand to quickly intervene when property becomes available,” said Gay Nicholson, president of Sustainable Finger Lakes and Zepp’s predecessor as executive director FLLT. 

While the state identifies parcels as conservation targets and lists them on its Open Space plan, it’s not set up to respond quickly to fluid market situations. In such cases, the land trust can step in as the initial owner before eventually selling it back to the state.

“You talk to the owner, and if they’re unwilling to just donate it and take the tax write-off, then you try to negotiate for a bargain sale,” Nicholson said. “Then they can take the write-off for the difference between the sale price and the assessed value. The land trust can step in and get it off the market.”

That’s what FLLT did in 2021 when it secured the Bell Station property in Lansing from New York State Gas & Electric (NYSEG). The 470-acre site with 3,454 feet of frontage on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake was the largest privately-owned shoreline parcel left in the Finger Lakes.

In the 1960s, the utility had planned to build a nuclear power plant on the site. But after local opposition derailed the project, the land remained undeveloped for decades. Zepp had been eyeing the parcel for years when he was crushed to learn that a public auction was planned.

NYSEG was under pressure from its shareholders to obtain the highest possible price for the property. Legally, the land trust and the state can only bid appraised fair market value, so they were unlikely to win against aggressive private bidders who aimed to subdivide and sell expensive waterfront lots. 

But the Lansing and Ithaca communities rose up in opposition to the auction, imagining it would lead to gaudy McMansions along the shoreline. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and state legislators were credited with helping turn the utility around. 

NYSEG agreed to sell to the land trust for the bargain price of $3.3 million, with the understanding that the state would eventually buy it and run it as a wildlife management area open to the public.

The 110-acre Cedar View parcel in the foreground lies immediately north of Bell Station. Photo by Bill Hecht

FLLT raised that sum through a $2 million low-interest loan from the Park Foundation, $500,000 in contributions and roughly $800,000 from its revolving fund.

The adjacent 110-acre Cedar View parcel that includes a former golf course was added to Bell Station last year.

“Andy has been exemplary at putting the pieces together,” said Bill Hecht, a former FLLT board member who was present at Zepp’s original 1989 presentation to “a bunch of environmental enthusiasts like myself” at Cornell. 

“I remember being blown away by the concept that finally here is a tool to use to help protect the Finger Lakes,” said Hecht, who 35 years later regularly provides the land trust with photos from airplanes and drones.

Today FLLT operates from its headquarters in Ithaca with a full-time staff of 19 and a board of 19 chaired by Fred Van Sickle, Cornell’s vice president of alumni affairs and development.

New York State has about 90 land trusts that own nature preserves and hold conservation easements. While the Nature Conservancy, which is based in Virginia, protects by far the most acreage in the state (743,000 acres in 2020), FLLT has grown into one of the largest in-state land trusts.

Andy Zepp worked for the Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust Alliance before returning to the FLLT he founded.

After Cornell, Zepp spent the early years of his career working for The Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based umbrella group for the nation’s non-profit conservation groups.

Those jobs broadened his perspective about what it takes to run an effective land trust in the Finger Lakes 

In February, Zepp testified before state legislative committees about the state’s flagging land acquisition program and suggested ways it could be streamlined and improved.

He noted that the state agencies acquired only 5,056 acres in 2022, down from an historic average of about 70,000 acres a year, and that land trusts were stuck holding a backlog of 100,000 acres valued at $150 million waiting for state buyouts.

Part of the problem, he testified, is that the state still relies on a cumbersome title search process instead of simply buying title insurance, like most other states.

Jake Welch, president of the Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance, followed up in April with a letter to Hochul urging the state to address the acquisition backlog. The FLLT, Welch noted, holds 19 properties valued at more than $6 million awaiting transfer to the state.

Welch called Zepp’s work on behalf of the region “absolutely astounding,” and his group in 2022 gave him its annual award that goes to an individual who has done outstanding work preserving water quality in the Finger Lakes.

Welch said the land trust has recently expanded beyond its traditional focus on lake frontage and forested parcels and started looking for properties that can minimize heavy runoff of phosphorous and nitrogen into tributaries the run into the 11 Finger Lakes.

Zepp underscored that point in comments at a recent Canandaigua Lake water quality forum. “In 2017,” he said, “our region had a bit of a wakeup call when we had region-wide outbreaks of cyanobacteria, or toxic algae, on every lake.”

That ongoing toxic bloom crisis increases the need to “restore streams and wetlands to mitigate nutrient runoff into our lakes.”

In March, FLLT co-sponsored (with the Finger Lakes Institute) a ZOOM event with Dan Egan, author the the book “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorous and a World Out of Balance.” 

More than 800 people listened in as Egan said: “Too often these blue lakes are turning green, and that’s a consequence of us overusing and misusing phosphorus.”

But the land trust’s goals aren’t limited to Finger Lakes protection. They also extend to Finger Lakes enjoyment.

An experienced birder leads an FLLT group on a ridge above the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake.

It’s “Talks and Treks” nature walks, launched by Nicholson two decades ago, are open to the public. Most are fully booked shortly after they are announced, thanks to social media.

Groups of 15-20 are typically led by a naturalist who’s expert in moths, fungi, birds, botany or some other specialty. The Finger Lakes has plenty of people who are eager to learn how to tell a poisonous mushroom from one that’s safe to eat, Zepp says.

All members of the public are free to explore the nature preserves on their own to hike, bike, paddle or ski, and FLLT’s excellent website provides detailed guidance.

For a taste of the region at its most natural, it recommends the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest

“The shores of these gems are free of development and utterly wild,” the website says, noting that the two lakes are the source of Rochester’s drinking water.

Meanwhile, the Sims-Jennings Preserve on the Cayuga Cliffs, which looks out across the lake at Taughannock Falls State Park, is set to open by mid-June, Zepp said.

Below a new parking lot on State Route 34B and vast meadows, FLLT employees and volunteers have been readying miles of trails that wind around deep gorges.