Trudging through Tug Hill Preserve with Snowshoes
Tug Hill snow shoes Trudging through Tug Hill Preserve with Snowshoes © Mathew Levine/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in New York

Creating a Climate-Resilient Forest on Tug Hill

In recent years, the Tug Hill Plateau, New York’s third largest forest, has had a few curve balls thrown its way. Beech bark disease arrived, and invasive pests like hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer moved closer to the region. While the forests of Tug Hill are large, well-connected and relatively un-fragmented, decades of heavy selective cutting have weakened them. This is a deadly combination, leaving forests vulnerable to climate change impacts and threatening the region’s future economic security.

Healthy lands and forests provide clean water, clean air, carbon storage, wildlife habitat and opportunities that sustain local economies. Tug Hill is a mosaic of public and private lands and a critical link between the Adirondacks to the northeast and the Appalachian Mountains to the south. Black bears, fishers, American martens and forest birds like the three-toed woodpecker roam freely here, and the forest filters streams that pour clean water into the Mohawk River and Lake Ontario. The forest is also important to local recreation and timber industries. Recognizing its value to nature and people, The Nature Conservancy is using our scientific expertise to keep Tug Hill strong in the face of these changes.

“The Tug Hill region is expected to warm by as much as four to six degrees Fahrenheit by the 2050s,” says Jim Howe, The Nature Conservancy’s Central & Western New York Chapter Director. To address these impacts, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a $166,925 grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to make Tug Hill a stronghold of climate resiliency. The grant was awarded through WSC’s Climate Adaptation Fund—a fund established by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The project goals are to re-establish a strong and diverse forest able to weather a changing climate, maintain corridors for wildlife movement and migration, and ensure that ecosystem services like clean air, water and timber are generated for people.

“The first phase of the project is a science-driven, on-the-ground experiment to create optimal conditions for a forest to stand strong in the face of a changing climate,” says Gregg Sargis, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Ecological Management in Central & Western New York. “In 2015, we purchased a 400-acre clear-cut property that we’ll replant to encourage regeneration of native species. We’ll also apply traditional silviculture techniques to build other characteristics, such as leaving snags and large woody debris on the forest floor, which help a forest adapt to change. What we learn about managing a forest for climate resiliency can then be shared and scaled up across the entire Tug Hill landscape.” 

  • The vast 150,000-acre Tug Hill 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.
  • Tug Hill is also 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.

The Nature Conservancy began to recognize Tug Hill's immense importance in 1998. Four years later, the Conservancy purchased a 45,000-acre property that comprises one-third of Tug Hill’s core forest. At the time, this was the Conservancy’s largest-ever acquisition in New York. Our 45,000-acre acquisition provided new public access opportunities and safeguarded Tug Hill’s natural resources by requiring sustainable forestry practices, which guarantees a steady flow of timber products.


Our conservation goals here today include protecting a forest core that will be allowed to grow into a mature forest; allowing continued hunting, fishing and forestry; and researching the effects of atmospheric deposition and climate change.

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.