Nestled in the ‘North Country’ between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks, Tug Hill is a region of unbroken northern hardwood forests and pristine wetlands drained by a vast network of coldwater streams. As one of the three largest, intact forests in New York State, Tug Hill harbors seven rare plant species, four rare animal species and fourteen different natural communities.
Why We Work Here
This vast 150,000-acre forest protects habitat for wide-ranging mammals (such as bobcat, pine marten and black bear) and woodland birds (such as blackburnian warblers, three-toed woodpeckers and goshawks).
Tug Hill also safeguards the water quality of more than 4,000 miles of rivers and streams that flow from the top of Tug Hill through numerous steep gorges (locally known as “gulfs”). These high-quality streams and their associated wetlands create exceptional aquatic habitats that support eastern pearlshell mussels, native brook trout and other freshwater species.
Tug Hill is famous for its heavy snowfall. As frigid winds blow over Lake Ontario, they pick up moisture and deposit lake-effect snow on Tug Hill’s 2,000-foot plateau. Over 200 inches of snow falls each year, and it is not uncommon to see second-floor entries on the area's oldest cabins.
Threats to Tug Hill include:
- Past timber harvesting practices have altered forest composition in places and reduced the amount of mature forest habitat
- Increased recreational use pressure
- Conversion of forests and wetlands for residential, recreational and commercial development
- Atmospheric deposition
- Climate change
- Invasive species
- Wind farm development within the core forest
The following goals will be accomplished through land acquisition, conservation easements, education and outreach:
- Work with conservation partners and private landowners to maintain the 150,000-acre Tug Hill Central Forest as an intact forest, while assuring continuance of traditional uses such as hunting, fishing and timber management
- Protect an extensive forest core of at least 15,000 acres that will be allowed to grow into a mature forest
- Continue to support research on the effects of atmospheric deposition and climate change on the Tug Hill Plateau
The Nature Conservancy recently began an extensive inventory of invasive species and will produce a set of best management practices for landowners and highway departments.
The Conservancy and SUNY-ESF (State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) examined the impacts of atmospheric deposition (acid rain) on the forests and streams in Tug Hill and will soon release findings.
We are also studying the movements of mammals, including black bear, moose, and river otter that roam over wide-ranging areas from Tug Hill to the Adirondacks so that we may better understand their habitat and connectivity requirements.
The Nature Conservancy began focusing on Tug Hill in 1998. Four years later the Conservancy purchased a 45,000-acre property that comprises fully one-third of Tug Hill’s core forest; at the time, this was the Conservancy’s largest-ever acquisition in New York. The acquisition of this tract also was groundbreaking in that it was supported by the local community. The Conservancy, the Tug Hill Commission and the East Branch of Fish Creek Working Group, a local group of stakeholders, worked together to ensure that conservation priorities were integrated with local desires.
Our 45,000-acre acquisition permanently protected important natural areas, provided new public access opportunities while continuing traditional recreational activities, and required sustainable forestry practices that safeguard Tug Hill’s natural resources and guarantee a steady flow of timber products off the majority of the property. The 45,000-acre transaction had three components:
- First, The Nature Conservancy retained 13,000 acres of the most ecologically valuable portions of the property as our new Tug Hill Conservation Area. Our goal for this core reserve is to see it restored to mature forest, a successional stage that is virtually absent on Tug Hill. We also have ensured that this reserve is off-limits to motorized vehicles. New acquisitions have expanded this reserve to 15,000 acres, making it the largest privately owned conservation area in the state.
- Second, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation assumed ownership of an eight-mile-long by quarter-mile-wide corridor of land centered on the East Branch of Fish Creek. This 1,350-acre corridor protects the water quality, fish and wildlife, and scenic values of one of Tug Hill’s largest rivers. This river provides drinking water for the City of Rome and other upstate communities.
- Third, the remaining 30,300 acres of the property were protected by a permanent conservation easement and sold to a private timber company. The conservation easement, which is now held by the NYS DEC, prevents subdivision and development, requires sustainable forestry, and provides access for compatible public recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and canoeing and kayaking.
Tug Hill communities are some of the least populous in the state, and tax-exempt ownership could mean cuts in municipal services or large increases in property taxes for other landowners. The Nature Conservancy has worked closely with local taxing jurisdictions and the Tug Hill Commission to develop a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement in order to provide funding to local communities. We’ve also taken steps to target the Conservancy’s PILOT payments towards those taxing jurisdictions that feel the greatest fiscal impact of our ownership.
Our partners in conservation include: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Tug Hill Commission, Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, Northern Forest Protection Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tug Hill Resources Investment for Tomorrow, St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management, NYS Department of State, John Ben Snow Foundation, East Branch of Fish Creek Working Group, Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Foundation, NYS Department of Transportation, NY Rivers United, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, SUNY ESF, Land Trust Alliance, Cornell University, Adirondack Land Trust and Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, local town supervisors and highway departments.