Finger Lakes National Forest

The Finger Lakes National Forest is made up of 16,259 acres of Seneca and Schuyler counties, located between Seneca Lake and Cayuha Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of New York within the United States of America. The forest has over 30 miles of interconnecting trails that cross ravines, pastures, woodlands, and gorges.

Although roughly 3.2 million acres of New York State is located in State Forest Preserves, Wildlife Management Areas, and Forests, there are few large areas of public land in the region of Finger Lakes. The Finger Lakes National Forest is the only national forest in New York, and the only public land that has had a clear philosophy of multiple uses.

The area around the Finger Lakes National Forest was inhabited originally by the Iroquois Indians. Information of their usage of the area within the current forest boundary is sketchy at best. It is considered that at least some hunting activity took place. This area was a forest hunting territory for the Iroquois people about 250 years ago. Just 100 years ago it was almost tree-less, the result of logging, farming, and grazing practices by Euro-American settlers. Today, it is a mix of second growth woodland, pasture, and lots which are in a transition from pasture-to-woodland. The cellar holes, stone walls, artifacts, and other materials that are evidence of the former residents of this area are an unwritten reminder and historical record of their lives. By Federal Law, they are protected. There are numerous archaeological sites on lands that are managed by the Finger Lakes National Forest, most from the post-Revolutionary period.

Before the European rediscovery of eastern North America, Native Americans resided in this part of New York for more than 10,000 years. The Iroquois are the last in a series of Indian cultures to have lived here, and two of the six Iroquois Nations’ homelands fringe the Forest. The lakes around which much of the Indian life took place now have their names: Cayuga and Seneca. The lack of stable water sources and lime-rich soils prohibited development of large year-round Iroquois villages in the Forest’s present-day boundaries, but the original forest cover of pines and hardwoods would’ve made this a great hunting and nut-gathering territory for these people.

Between 1890 and the Great Depression, more than 1 million acres of farmland was abandoned in south central New York. In the 1930s, it was recognized that farmers in many parts of the country could no long make a living from their tired land. Environmental damage was taking place as they cultivated the land more and more intensively to make ends meet. Several pieces of legislation were approved, including the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, and the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 to address these issues. One result was the creation of a government agency, the Resettlement Administration, to carry out the new laws. This agency directed the relocation of the farmers to better land and other jobs, and the buying of marginal farmland by the Federal Government. Between  1938 and 1941, over 100 farms were bought in the area now in the National Forest. Due to this being done on a willing-seller, willing-buyer bases, the resulting Federal ownership resembled a patchwork quilt. This was particularly true in the Seneca County end of the Forest, where soils were more productive, and some families elected to stay. This ownership pattern still occurs today.

The newly purchased Federal land, named the Hector Land Use Area, was first managed by the Soil Conservation Service. There was emphasis on stabilization of the soil by planting conifers, and the development of a grazing system. Formerly cultivated fields were rehabilitated to improved pastures to demonstrate how less intensive agriculture could still make productive use of the land. In 1943, the Hector Cooperative Grazing Association was created. This organization was issued a long term lease to manage grazing on the Hector LUA. They coordinated usage of the pastures by as many as 120 individual livestock owners within a 100 mile radius of the LUA.

In 1996, the property associated with the former Camp Fossenvue was joined to the forest. On that property is the Queen’s Castle, a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

By the 1950s, many of the original objectives of the LUA had been met. The farmers were resettled, the alternative agriculture uses demonstrated, and the eroding soil was stabilized. Simultaneously, the public was becoming interested in the concept of multiple uses of public land. Management and suitable ownership of the LUA was reevaluated. The decision was made in 1954 to transfer the administrative responsibilities to the U.S. Forest Service, which already had a rather long history of multiple use management. Initially, this was carried out by the Regional Office in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. When this region was later consolidated in the Forest Service’s Northeast Region, Hector became an administrative unit of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont.

Today, the national forest is a public use resource in both Schuyler County and Seneca County, lying between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake. The Finger Lakes National Forest remains an administrative unit of the Green Mountain National Forest. Both are managed by the Forest Service from their offices in Rutland, Vermont. The Forest has continued this management mix of forest, pasture, recreation, and wildlife and includes the preservation of archaeological and historical sites. It’s the second smallest National Forest within the United States, only larger than the Tuskegee National Forest in Alabama.

Image Caption: Trail through federal pastureland in Finger Lakes National Forest. Credit: Ebedgert/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)