New York

Eastern Lake Ontario

Delicate sand dunes stretch 17 miles along the coast of Lake Ontario, cradling a fragile mosaic of lakeshore beach, flats and wetlands. The Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes and Wetlands system is the only freshwater barrier-beach formation in New York and is an important staging area for migratory birds and other unique species.

In December of 2016, the International Joint Commission of the U.S. and Canada unanimously approved Plan 2014 — a bold effort to change the management of the Moses Saunders Dam to work with the power of nature rather than against it.

Why We Work Here

This ecosystem attracts large concentrations of long-distance migratory birds and supports breeding populations of many other birds including the New York-endangered black tern, common tern, American bittern, least bittern and sedge wren.

The bays, coves and wetlands along Eastern Lake Ontario are an important nursery for spawning fish and unusual reptiles and amphibians.

The area also supports rare plants such as the dune willow. Along with Champlain beach grass and cottonwood trees, this rare shrub traps sand to form and protect dunes.


Regulation of Lake Ontario's water levels has impacted dune formation and the composition of vegetation in the wetlands behind the dune system.

Residential development has impacted some stretches of the dunes and increased nutrient levels in wetlands and waterways.

Conservation Strategies
  • Acquiring critical lands and waters
  • Conducting research to understand the impacts that water level regulation in Lake Ontario has had on wetlands and dune systems
  • Educating beachgoers about how they can enjoy the area’s spectacular beaches without disturbing wildlife or eroding dune systems
Conservation Actions

Our work here began in 1967 with the acquisition of a three-quarter-mile stretch of dunes and limestone flats—now our El Dorado Preserve. Since then, we've acquired thousands of acres of wetlands, dunes and beaches. 

In 1995, we acquired a one-mile reach of sandy beach on the dune barrier that shelters North Sandy Pond from the lake. With support from the U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy built a dune walkover structure that enables beachgoers to access the beach without impacting the fragile dunes. The Conservancy has now transferred this property to the state, which manages it for conservation and compatible public access.

In 1999, we acquired a degraded portion of the dune system and worked to restore it in partnership with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and Oswego County. This property, Sandy Island Beach, is now a popular Oswego County park.

In 2006, we teamed up with the NYS Department of State, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and Cornell University to release 50,000 purple loosestrife beetles into the extensive wetlands along the Eastern Lake Ontario shoreline. Within a few years, these beetles should eliminate the threats posed by the invasive purple loosestrife plant.

Since the mid 1990s, we have worked with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NYS Office of Parks, and NY Sea Grant to operate a dune steward program that teaches beachgoers how to enjoy their visit without harming dunes or sensitive birds.


Our partners in conservation include: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NYS Office of Parks & Recreation, NYS Department of State, U.S. EPA, Cornell University, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Oswego County, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, NY Sea Grant, Ontario Dune Coalition, Friends of Sandy Pond Beach, John Ben Snow Foundation, Great Lakes Protection Fund, Rothenberg Family Foundation, towns of Sandy Creek, Richland and Ellisburg.

Learn More

New York Sea Grant Program