More Than Lakes: Tucked among Western New York's Finger Lakes Is a National Forest Haven for Hikers, Horseback Riders and More

By Bailey, Steve | American Forests, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

More Than Lakes: Tucked among Western New York's Finger Lakes Is a National Forest Haven for Hikers, Horseback Riders and More


Bailey, Steve, American Forests


"HIKING TAKES ME BACK IN TIME, TO MY ANCESTORS and then the distant past," says Lynda Rummel, a retired university professor. "Not so long ago, there was only hiking. Walking is the most basic form of human travel."

Rummel, who lives near Branchport, N.Y., is among the many regular visitors to Finger Lakes National Forest (FLNF). She and others use this unusual national forest as a place to reflect, to connect with nature and for glorious hikes, horseback rides, wildlife observation and more.

Finger Lakes National Forest - 16,212 acres mostly on a ridge between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in western New York - is the only national forest in New York and the second-smallest national forest in the country.

Tiny communities like Searsburg, Townsendville, Reynoldsville and Bennettsburg surround FLNF, which is crisscrossed by two-lane roads. These roads, leading to campsites and trailheads, often run beside and over gorges cut deep into the earth, but also are often in the shadows of steep hills dense with hardwood trees. This is the glacier-shaped terrain of Finger Lakes, and like much of the region, it has an agricultural function.

FLNF is one of only two national forests east of the Mississippi River that allow cattle grazing. About a fourth of the forest - 4,500 acres with 35 pastures requiring 80 miles of fencing -- is used by the Hector Cooperative Grazing Association as the summer range for about 1,500 head of cattle. From May 15 to October 31 each year, forest visitors are likely to encounter beef cattle.

Those visitors come mostly from surrounding communities, like Watkins Glen and Ithaca, as well as Syracuse, Binghamton and Rochester - all of which are only a couple of hours away. Thanks to a cross-state trail that passes through the forest, some visitors come on foot. What they find when they reach Finger Lakes National Forest is an environment created almost by accident.

The area was originally known as Hector Hills, which by 1900 was a place of failed farms thanks to soil depletion and competition from other parts of the country. Between 1938 and 1941, when New York was buying thousands of acres for state forest lands, the federal government bought a noncontiguous patchwork of more than 100 farms in the region, which the U.S. Soil Conservation Service used to demonstrate soil stabilization and the conversion of crop fields to livestock pastures. In the 1950s, this land was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service, and in 1985, it became Finger Lakes National Forest, operated as an administrative unit of Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Cattle grazing is a remnant of a multiple-use program that began when the Forest Service got the land in the 50s. Over the years, the area has been used for hunting, timber, environmental-practices demonstrations and, of course, recreation.

The forest attracts visitors year round. Autumn offers trees and pastures ablaze with colorful trees and wildflowers like asters and golden rod. It's also a time when hunters scour FLNF in search of deer, turkey and other game. In winter, snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers move through denuded forests that are punctuated occasionally by the dark green of pine, fir or holly. Spring brings pastures of wildflowers and a short mud season, after which horses and mountain bikes are welcome on some trails, which often lead to primitive campsites filled with campers much of the summer.

STEPS IN TIME

The farms that dotted Hector Hills a century ago are largely unrecognizable today. Pastures are surrounded by mature forests of red and sugar maples, ash, black walnut, oaks and pines. Throughout the pastures, woods and up and down gorges are about 30 miles of trails - some restricted to foot travel, while others allow horses, skiers and even mountain bikes and snowmobiles.

The Burnt Hill Trail curves and dips through a shady hardwood forest and shrubland before coming to a gated fence. …

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