Balancing Ecology and Economy Earns Montezuma Wetlands Complex Uncommonly Good Award

Balancing Ecology and Economy Earns Montezuma Wetlands Complex Uncommonly Good Award

by Mary Jeanette Ebenhack, Common Good Planning Center

Millions of visitors annually flock to the easternmost edge of the Genesee/Finger Lakes region. Only about 170,000 of them presently happen to be human; the other visitors include waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds migrating to and from nesting areas in northeastern and east-central Canada.

They are dropping in, of course, at the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, located at the northern end of Cayuga Lake in Seneca, Wayne, and Cayuga Counties, where plans are well under way to make this area a major eco-tourist destination for more than the winged throngs.

The plans include expanding the current 7,000-acre wetlands complex to nearly its original size of 50,000 acres over the next 50 years. This involves obtaining land currently being farmed and restoring the wetland habitats and wetland-dependent wildlife. It also means removing much land from the tax rolls in several towns as property is transferred from private ownership to state, federal, or nonprofit corporation ownership.

The innovative and responsive way in which the Montezuma Wetlands Complex is responding to and working with local town officials to compensate for diminishing tax revenues while preserving New York’s premier wetland has earned this effort the Common Good Planning Center’s Uncommonly Good Award.

For centuries, the land north of Cayuga Lake was one of the biggest swamps in North America, rivaling the Everglades in terms of its importance. As swampland, the area was nutrient rich. Settlers moving into the area in the 17th and 18th centuries found that draining the swamps created fertile soils known as “muck.” As the area became more populous, more and more of the swamp was drained and converted to farmland, and the economy of the area became highly tied to agriculture.

However, muck soils are fragile and easily depleted. Farmers in the area are well aware that the nutrient-rich muck is disappearing and that muckland farming will eventually become unfeasible. Current farmers have wondered who would want their land once it is no longer useful for farming. The fact that there is a willing buyer in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex is good news for farmers thinking about retirement. But it is not so good news for the towns whose economies are agriculturally based. What happens to towns when private lands become public lands? And what happens when their primary economic activity – farming — has significantly shrunk? This is the challenge that the Montezuma Wetlands Complex has innovatively begun to tackle.

In their book, Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities, Jim Howe, Ed McMahon, and Luther Propst identify nine secrets of communities successfully balancing concerns for the environment with economic development. They are:

  • Develop a widely shared vision
  • Create an inventory of local resources
  • Build on local assets
  • Minimize the need for regulations
  • Meet the needs of both landowner and community
  • Team up with public land managers
  • Recognize the role of non-governmental organizations
  • Provide opportunities for leaders to step forward
  • Pay attention to aesthetics

The Montezuma Wetlands Project is a fine example of putting each of these principles to work.

Developing a Shared Vision

The visionary currently driving the Montezuma Wetlands Complex transformation is Tom Jasikoff, the manager of the federal refuge at the Complex. An employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), Jasikoff “thinks big” and shares his vision for the Refuge with passion and contagious enthusiasm. As a team player, Jasikoff has reached out to local town officials, farmers, environmentalists, academics, state and federal agencies — in addition to his own—and almost anyone concerned in any way with the future of the area.

Jasikoff will be participating (as a musician in the group Harmonizing with Nature) in various town festivals this summer where he will share his vision for the Refuge with local residents. “Partnership is the 21st century approach to conservation,” says Jasikoff. “It’s the only way we work.” Authentic public involvement in a visioning process takes more than arranging a few meetings. It requires a firm commitment to inform, involve, and educate the public. This is the route being taken by the Wetlands Complex managers.

Part of the vision that is beginning to emerge includes:

  • a new Conservation Center in the Town of Savannah, linked with a charter school
  • a boat factory to build boats to travel the Erie Canal and Barge Canal
  • promoting eco-tourism that connects the Wetlands Complex with the Erie Canal Trail and Winery Trail
  • establishing a research headquarters

The vision also includes agriculture. A high land mass in the center of the Complex known as Crusoe Island will probably remain in agriculture for the foreseeable future. “Farmers need to be given credit for the good things they’ve done,” says Jasikoff. “We’re in this together.”

Building on Assets

One of the assets that was overlooked for many years at the Refuge was the New York State Thruway. Once decried as a man-made intrusion into an otherwise pristine environment, Jasikoff and others are now looking at the Thruway as a key element in turning the area into an eco-tourist attraction. “Millions of people pass through the Refuge every year,” he notes. “We need to find ways to get them to stop and take a look at this major habitat restoration project.” Jasikoff is working with the NYS Thruway Authority to build a scenic turnoff on I-90 and use signage more provocatively.

The Erie Canal is another of the assets of the area. The canal traverses 23 miles of the Refuge. Jasikoff wants to encourage canal boaters to stop at the Refuge and is providing for this by building trails from the Canal to picnic and restroom areas that, in turn, connect with other trails throughout the Complex.

Another of the possibilities that is being explored is turning the Refuge into an outdoor laboratory. The Montezuma Wetlands Complex Research Institute has recently been formed, and includes most of the institutions of higher education within a 150-mile radius of the Complex, including Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Hobart & William Smith College, SUNY Brockport, Finger Lakes Community College, and SUNY Environmental School of Forestry. The Institute has recently been accepted as part of the Great Lakes Research Consortium. Over 20 biologists, chemists, geologists, hydrologists, and soil scientists are currently involved in research projects. Of particular importance is the opportunity to use the Wetlands Complex as a model of cutting-edge restoration and ecosystem management.

Meeting the Needs of the Community

Wetlands Complex managers are sensitive to the fact that extending the limits of the wetlands will place fiscal pressures on local towns. The federal government pays a fee to local municipalities on federally owned land to offset lost property tax revenues. However, the fee is only a portion of what would otherwise be raised. Last year, at the dedication of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex as a state bird conservation area, Governor Pataki promised legislation that would require the State to pay property taxes on state-owned lands.

Since both federal and state government payments will not fully cover the loss of property tax revenues, managers of the Wetlands Complex are actively nurturing environmentally friendly industries to supplant agriculture as the economic driver in the area. Recently, a business that sells wine and honey has purchased land near the Refuge. Plans include donating a percentage of sales to conservation groups.

Jasikoff also actively promotes the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, where federal officials consult with private landowners on how best to restore wetlands and grasslands. Through these 10-year agreements, landowners receive expert consultation at no cost.

Partnering with Non-Profits

Federal and state land managers recognize that the long-term success of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex will take more than inter-municipal government cooperation. A Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex group has recently been organized with the full endorsement of the wetland managers. In fact, the nonprofit organization now runs a gift shop at the Visitors Center. Currently, there are 150 members involved in bird-banding and restoration projects throughout the Complex.

Recreational and educational opportunities abound at Montezuma throughout the year. The Refuge is open daily during daylight hours. In addition to wildlife observation, the Complex also offers cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, hunting, canoeing, fishing, and hiking.

Leaders Stepping Forward

Last year the Refuge received $2.5-million from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase land as buffer areas. These funds were secured with the help of U.S. Representatives Tom Reynolds and Jim Walsh, who have been very supportive of the direction the Complex is taking. And last year Governor Pataki promised $700,000 in state funds to build the Crusoe Conservation Center.

Will it Work?

Perhaps the most important contribution a national park or wildlife refuge can make is to achieve its mission of managing wildlife habitat and ensuring long-term ecological integrity while strengthening the local economy and benefiting society in general. Can eco-tourism, education, research, and environmentally-friendly industries generate enough economic activity to supplant agriculture? That has yet to be fully determined, but it is a goal the Common Good Planning Center thinks is worth pursuing and is perhaps the best hope for the towns being impacted by the decline of farming.


“Montezuma” Facts

The federal government established the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in 1938 as a refuge and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife. It is located in one of the most active flight lanes in the eastern half of the North American continent. It is one of over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge system but one of only two in upstate New York.

Adjacent to the federal lands, the State of New York established (also in 1938) what has now become Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area.

The Montezuma Wetlands Complex is a cooperative venture of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy, and private landowners. The Complex is included in the Waterfowl Management Plan, an international agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico that seeks to restore, conserve, and enhance wetland habitats and waterfowl populations throughout North America.

Water levels are carefully manipulated throughout the year to provide habitat and food for many bird species. A number of endangered species are finding a safe haven at the Complex. Besides a host of birds, the Complex is home to mammals (beaver, river otters, muskrats, deer, fox), reptiles, amphibians, and insects native to Central New York.

In 1976, federal refuge managers cooperated with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on a bald eagle release program. Over a period of four years, 23 eagles were released in the Refuge through a “hacking” program. Since the program’s inception, bald eagles have returned to Montezuma and have successfully reared young.

For further information, contact the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, 3395 Routes 5 & 20 East, Seneca Falls, NY 13148. Phone: (315) 568-5987. Or, better yet, plan a visit!



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