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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Finger Lakes Land Trust Partners with Tompkins County to Preserve Trail

hiker on winter trail
on the Finger Lakes Trail
based on a news article in the Ithaca Journal, "Protecting our woodland walk," by Krisy Gashler, Feb 21, 2009

The Finger Lakes Trail is a model of land use agreements with private property owners. But that is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Many of those agreements are secured with only a handshake.

Andy Zepp, executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust said, “there's a wonderful story about the Finger Lakes Trail and how private property owners and volunteers ... have made this wonderful resource available.” But he also warned that there is risk in the future.

Property once in farmland is being sold and sub-divided. An agreement with one landowner can suddenly need to be negotiated with ten owners. Zepp said that Ithaca (New York) is the largest city close to the trail, thus making it a “proving ground” for growth issues.

The Finger Lakes Trail runs from Allegheny State Park in the western Southern Tier of NY to the Catskill Mountains, a length of 562 miles. There are several side branches. The North Country Trail is concurrent with the FLT for about 300 miles, turning north on the Onondaga Branch and connecting with the Link Trail on its way to the Adirondacks.

In the past few years, three sections of trail near Ithaca have required changes when property owners asked the FLT to leave their land. John Andersson is president of the Cayuga Trails Club that maintains 82 miles of the FLT through Tompkins and part of Schuyler counties.

"We're concerned that it seems to be happening a little more frequently in the past few years and it's getting harder to find additional nearby landowners," Andersson said. "It's not because landowners aren't receptive to us in general, it's really because the parcels are getting smaller. As time goes by, people divvy the land up more."

If an agreement cannot be reached with a different landowner then the trail must move to the road. Andersson cited one case where a landowner died and his children did not want the trail. That resulted in a seven-mile roadwalk. He explained that they have a new route in that area now, near Caroline, NY, but there are four owners to deal with, not just one. “You can’t do that in a weekend,” he added. Most of the people who negotiate for the trail are volunteers.

Sometimes trail users create problems. Intrusion by motorized vehicles, allowing dogs to run off-leash, being rude to landowners and disobeying posted rules can result in a loss of permission. People tend to think that if they are in the woods that it must be public land. Sometimes property owners just decide that they don’t want the hassle.

Recently the Finger Lakes Land Trust and the Tompkins County planning department have joined forces to consider long-range planning for the trail. They have received a state grant for the planning. With the aid of a consultant they are interviewing property owners, assessing the trail, and holding public meetings. They hope to have an initial report in late spring, Zepp said.

One of the conclusions is sure to be to try to secure more permanent easements for the trail. In some cases these legal agreements are already in place. Charlie Elrod of Enfiled purchased his land with a legal easement in place and he has no problem with that. He and his wife even maintain the trail as volunteer trail adopters. "I just think it's so important that people have opportunities to get out and enjoy this beautiful countryside we live in, and if we can facilitate or help that effort along by keeping the trail through here, so much the better," Elrod said.

Zepp said the two key issues in sustaining the trail are better planning for its long-term future and a financial commitment.

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