Ithaca College Natural Lands
Paul Corsi, an Ithaca College student in environmental studies, first experienced the IC Natural Lands through courses in his department that used the lands for classwork and research. Now, even though he is a paid intern working for Natural Lands, he still likes going out on his own. He particularly likes a large loop in the South Hill Natural Area East, which weaves through patches of habitat that were once farmland.
In 2004, IC designated the 560 acres of the natural lands on property they already owned. Two parcels, South Hill Natural Area East (67 acres) and South Hill Natural Area West (365 acres), are adjacent to IC while the other two, the IC Natural Resource Reserve (46 acres) and the Bob Robinson Family Preserve (82 acres), are located southwest of campus in the town of Newfield.
Jake Brenner, faculty manager of the Natural Lands, said there are some regionally significant plant assemblages within the Natural Lands, including oak heath and swamp-white-oak communities. There are also a few rare and unique plants, three mitigation wetlands, groves of trees over 200 years old and more. Old fields and young forests found at South Hill West offer opportunities to study habitat regeneration.
IC restricts access to the two reserves located away from campus, which have no marked trails and are used mainly for research and teaching. Students and members of the public are welcome to hike the reserves adjacent to IC, a total of 435 acres. Brenner said he would like to see more people using the land in diverse ways, but the biggest barrier to general visitors is a scarcity of on-campus parking.
He is currently working on securing more parking spots. To increase accessibility for those with mobility issues, the Civil Engineering Society Chapter at Cornell University is helping design wheelchair-accessible trails, although Brenner said the ridge trail on South Hill East would continue to be a rugged experience.
Along with recreation, education, preservation and research, the land is also intended for production, including some limited logging in the IC Natural Resource Reserve. Other activities are focused on non-timber resources. The student-run South Hill Forest Products, which Corsi was involved with last semester, produces maple syrup, honey and edible mushrooms. Corsi particularly enjoyed boiling maple sap into syrup, a 48-hour or longer process that required round-the-clock shifts of students hanging around a campfire. “It really makes you feel like part of the community, chopping wood at three in the morning,” Corsi said.
The IC Natural Lands employ two interns year-round, usually juniors or seniors, and these interns mentor 15 or more volunteers during the school year. “The interns are kind of the voice of wisdom and knowledge,” Corsi said. He volunteered under previous paid interns before entering his current leadership position. The paid interns also participate in day-to-day operations along with longer-term projects.
For example, this summer Corsi and Tori Chamberlin, his fellow intern, helped with outreach and trail usability by designing a new website for the natural lands, connecting related social media, and rearranging the main kiosk. They planted 200 American chestnut for a reintroduction program and controlled Japanese stiltgrass, an invasive plant that grows in dense thickets, as part of wetland mitigation efforts. Chamberlin has been organizing the annual Fall Fest and seasonal photography contests.
Students are always heavily involved in the natural areas, and Brenner is happy to hear from individuals or groups with ideas or just the desire to join in.
While some students only experience the Natural Lands during a guided nature tour in their first year, others, like Corsi, experience the Natural Lands several times during their coursework. A few wilderness-themed classes have no designated classroom and meet regularly in the Natural Lands. In 2012, students collaborated with the faculty to create interpretive literature for a self-guided nature trail in South Hill East. That same year, students in a land management class with Brenner developed the long-term management plan which guides use of the Natural Lands.
Cornell Natural Areas
Most of the Cornell Natural Areas are part of Cornell Plantations, which manages over 40 natural area preserves covering 3,400 acres and including about 50 miles of trails. A handful of the Natural Areas are located on campus, including those surrounding the spectacular Cascadilla and Fall Creek gorges. Cornell acquired the preserves at various times with the aim of providing high quality natural systems for research and teaching.
Todd Bittner, Director of Natural Areas at Plantations, explained that the collection contains all the different types of natural communities found in the Finger Lakes region, including human-influenced communities such as old fields and evergreen plantations. Descriptions and directions to the Natural Areas can be found on the Plantations website along with an interactive map showing select trails which hikers can access using mobile devices.
While there is plenty to see on campus, including some remnants of old-growth forests in the Fall Creek South Natural Area, Bittner also recommended three off-campus Natural Areas, starting with Monkey Run, a 500-acre preserve on Fall Creek linked to campus by the orange-blazed Cayuga Trail that starts at Stewart Avenue. The trail passes through Natural Area trails along Fall Creek. Monkey Run itself is a birding hotspot popular for hiking, skiing and canoeing.
Edwards Lake Cliff Natural Area in Lansing has a newly re-marked trail and can be seen on the Plantation’s searchable map (cornellplantations.org/our-gardens). There’s a gorge and waterfall in the southern end, but the really unique feature is one of the few undeveloped lakefronts on Cayuga Lake. For the botanically minded, the site has what the Plantations website calls “state and local rarities” in the gorge and on the cliffs, including rare ferns clinging to the rock faces.
Bittner called the Fisher Old Growth Forest Natural Area “one of our most important places that hardly anybody visits.” This may be because directions to the site include looking for clumps of trees and parking on a specific side of the road, but Bittner thought it was easy to find despite this. Out of 41.8 acres in the preserve, almost 30 are covered by the largest old growth forest in Tompkins County and contain a staggering diversity of tree species.
Students looking for deeper involvement with the Natural Areas can join several organizations, from the Cornell Herpetological Society to Cornell Outdoor Education. The Friends of the Gorge is a student group that promotes safe access to the gorges. They lead hikes and tours, including five orientation tours they are offering in the fourth weekend of August for new students and their families. They also collaborate with Plantations and other groups to help maintain gorge trails.
The Cornell Sustainable Design, an interdisciplinary project team, has been developing a plan for improving and maintaining the Beebe Lake and Woods Natural Area, with its popular one-mile loop trail. Their concept plan will include redeveloping public spaces and possibly dredging the lake. Bittner said the dredged sediment might be used to strengthen a nearby segment of the trail, which is prone to damage from spring floods. Currently the group is assessing sediment build-up in the lake, a side effect of the dam that created Beebe Lake in 1898.
Invasive species management is a big part of the natural areas program, with opportunities for students to help. Last fall, students involved in the Biological Service Leaders program developed and implemented a study investigating the continued effectiveness of the insecticide used to protect eastern hemlocks trees from the hemlock woolly adelgid, a devastating insect pest.
Over 50 Cornell students volunteered to survey hemlock trees for adelgid damage, mostly on Beebe Lake, Fall Creek Gorge and Cascadilla Gorge, according to Tori Riccelli, a biological science student closely involved with the project. The health of the trees’ canopies showed that re-treatment could be delayed another year. The students presented their results first to Plantations and then to the larger community.
Even at Cornell, with its network of natural areas on campus, some students have no idea of the resources available. “They might be in their senior year and never have seen Cascadilla,” said Marianne Krasny, faculty advisor of the Friends of the Gorge. Others, along with faculty and staff, commute up the Cascadilla Gorge Trail every day, or spend their lunch hour running around Beebe Lake. §