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Barrier Dune Protection - Eastern Lake Ontario Conservation Initiative

A Work Element of Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Grant - Final Report
Federal Grant No. GL995810-02 - January 1998

Sandra E. Bonanno, Project Manager
The Nature Conservancy
Central and Western New York Chapter
315 Alexander Street
Rochester, NY 14604
(716) 546-8030
(716) 546-7825



PROJECT DESCRIPTION                   

Introduction:  The eastern shore of Lake Ontario supports two distinct ecosystems of high integrity and outstanding biological significance: a freshwater coastal barrier dune/wetland complex and a limestone barrens complex. Prior to this project, The Nature Conservancy had land protection efforts underway in both systems, with two preserves established in each system. The Conservancy had developed strong working relationships with a variety of other public and private interests within the barrier system through eight years of participation in The Ontario Dune Coalition, a forum for exchange of information and cooperative action on behalf of the Eastern Lake Ontario dune system. Support from GLNPO enabled The Conservancy to undertake the Eastern Lake Ontario Conservation Initiative, staring in 1993. For both the coastal barrier and limestone barrens systems, we developed and improved our understanding of underlying natural processes and conducted full-scale conservation planning. GLNPO support has also allowed us to broaden and deepen working relationships with public and private partners.

To achieve long-term conservation of both of these unique systems, The Conservancy undertook the Eastern Lake Ontario Conservation Initiative in 1993, with GLNPO support.

Project Objectives: To begin an initiative that could achieve long-term conservation of both the dune/wetland system (now called the Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite) and limestone barrens (now called the Jefferson County Alvar Megasite), careful planning and targeted conservation action would be required. The Conservancy hired a Project Manager and established the following objectives:

Natural Resources Inventory  -Working with the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP), we will complete inventory of plants, animals, and natural communities that occur within both systems.

Mapping  -Working with St. Lawrence Eastern Ontario Commission, we will prepare GIS maps of both ecosystem areas, use them for conservation planning, and share them with local municipalities.

Identification of Key Ecological Processes and Threats  -In collaboration with university and agency partners and the NYNHP, we will coordinate research on ecological processes that maintain the natural system. We will use that information, together with maps and a growing understanding of the human community, to identify threats and potential conservation strategies for each system.

Planning and Management  -Having defined the System, its Stresses, and Sources of those stresses, we will evaluate the human Situation, and develop Strategies for implementation of longterm conservation. The resulting Site Conservation Plans will form the basis of the Conservancy's continuing conservation action within these systems. We will use these plans to guide management of our own land and work with other public and private landowners and managers to effect sound ecological management throughout the systems.

Land Protection  -We will acquire key tracts identified by the Site Conservation Plans, and work with public and private partners to effect protection of additional tracts, using the full range of land protection tools available to the Conservancy.

Public Outreach  -Recognizing that conservation fundamentally depends upon the commitment of the community that lives with and uses the natural system, we will collaborate with education professionals and volunteers to reach out to targeted audiences within the communities to foster development of a conservation ethic for the dune/wetland and limestone barrens systems.

PROJECT RESULTS     back to top
General Summary

As a result of this project, conservation within both the Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite and the Jefferson County Alvar Megasite has expanded greatly, both in quantity and quality. We quickly learned that, while the barrens and the sandy shore are close to one another in distance, they are worlds apart in ecology, climate, and human context. In effect, they are two similar but separate conservation efforts.

A brief summary follows with initial conditions and results of the grant. Specific products under each objective are described in the next section and attached as appendices where appropriate. The conclusion presents the major ongoing thrust of this long-term project.

The Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite
The dune/wetland complex on eastern Lake Ontario was well-recognized as an ecological jewel by the Conservancy and the regional conservation community. We had a 25 year history of commitment to our El Dorado Preserve. We started with a strong background in dune ecology and management, and strong partnerships with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), NY Sea Grant, Oswego County, and the Town of Sandy Creek. We had long known that the critical threat to the dunes was sand loss - The Ontario Dune Coalition was formed to address the erosion caused by overuse and abuse of the barrier.

Our planning quickly led to a major cooperative land acquisition together with public/private joint planning and management of Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area, supported by a later GLNPO grant. A major intangible product of this grant is improved land management activities by all players, which has resulted in a major reduction in abusive vehicular and foot traffic in the dunes and revegetation of foredunes on most properties, both public and private.

GLNPO support has been leveraged by expenditure of $475,000 in state and federal money for land protection, research, and interpretive materials, plus over $175,000 in private funding for land protection, education, and management during the life of this grant.

The Jefferson County Alvar Megasite
Alvar is a recently recognized ecological rarity. First described in North America in 1966 by the Swedish ecologist Beschel, alvar is a unique mosaic of pavement, grassland, and savanna communities that have developed on very thin soils over level, glaciated limestone or dolostone bedrock. The New York complex lies at the southeastern edge of the North American range. First discovered by New York State botanists and ecologists in the mid-1980s, the Jefferson County alvars were a vast unknown. The Conservancy began land protection activities less than five years before inception of the project. We had very little real understanding of the processes that support this globally imperiled ecosystem. The word 'alvar' was virtually unknown to the scientific and conservation communities, much less to the general public. There was no partnership for alvar conservation.

A major tangible result of this grant is a 1.7 mile interpretive trail with kiosk and self-guiding brochure at our Chaumont Barrens Preserve. We have used this interpretation to raise the awareness of both professionals and local residents to the ecological uniqueness of alvar. The trail, kiosk, and brochure have become a model that has been adapted for use on public and private conservation sites in the dunes and at two western New York preserves. We have also shared the model with several other Conservancy units in New York and the Great Lakes Basin.

A major intangible product is a rising recognition of the rarity and value of alvar. Our visitor register attests to local, regional, and long distance interest. Municipalities are developing pride in their local ecological treasure. An International Alvar Working Group has formed around the need for a common classification, research on natural processes, conservation planning, and education. We have leveraged GLNPO support through our participation in the Working Group with over 30 scientists and conservation practitioners from the U.S. and Canada. Inventory and research on hydrology, exotic species, fire, and effects of browsing and grazing have all been conducted in collaboration with, and partially funded by, the Working Group.

Specific Objectives  

Natural Resources Inventory back to top

Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite
- Conservancy staff updated inventory of six coastal fen sites, documenting several occurrences of rare plants and significant natural communities. NYNHP documented natural communities and rare plants at one additional coastal fen site.

- Conservancy staff and NYSDEC biologists, university partners, and volunteers conducted population monitoring of the globally imperiled bog buckmoth (Hemileuca sp.1) during the larval and adult stages each year for four years.

Jefferson County Alvar Megasite
- In collaboration with the International Alvar Working Group, NYNHP documented occurrences of 29 rare plants, four significant natural communities, two rare birds, and one rare butterfly at seven alvar sites and two sites with alvar affinities. In addition numerous rare moths and land snails were documented. Taxonomy and rarity status of many of these invertebrates is still under study.

Products: NYNHP has incorporated records of rare plants, animals, and natural communities into its Biological and Conservation Database, where the information is available to all for various types of planning activities.

- In collaboration with the St. Lawrence Eastern Ontario Commission, The Tug Hill Commission, Tug Hill Tomorrow, and the State University of NY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNYESF), the project area for each Megasite was delineated and GIS coverages digitized within portions of three dune towns and four alvar towns. ArcInfo data layers included physical features, roads, water bodies, regulated wetlands, tax parcels, conservation lands, rare plants and animals, and significant natural communities. Base maps of each individual town were presented to town boards, together with a slide presentation about ecological communities and rarities located within the town. In addition, site maps were prepared depicting each entire megasite, and individual conservation sites within each megasite: three for the alvar and five for the dune barrier.

- Maps were broadly shared with conservation partners, including NYSDEC, the Oswego and Jefferson County planning departments, large landowners, and Dune Coalition partners. Maps were also a critical tool for conservation planning.

- Data layers for significant alvar communities were used by NY Natural Heritage Program to update official occurrence records.

Products: Two Megasite maps, seven town maps, eight conservation site maps, digital coverages on disk and on file at Tug Hill Commission.

Identification of Key Ecological Processes and Threats  back to top

Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite
- Conceptual ecological models, describing states, processes, and disturbances, were prepared for the dune system and the rarest barrier species, the bog buckmoth. These expressed our current understanding and uncertainty about the processes that support and threaten continued success of target elements of biodiversity.

- An existing theoretical model for the coastal fens was tested and refined by a Cornell University investigator, who examined the hydrology of one cell of the Deer Creek Marsh Complex within the barrier system. GLNPO support was leveraged with private funding to undertake this work. This project is nearing completion at the close of the grant. A masters thesis and a peer reviewed paper are expected. These will be forwarded to GLNPO when available.

- Research was begun to elucidate the life history, population dynamics, and habitat needs of the bog buckmoth. To date we have data from three field seasons, completed by a SUNY Oswego investigator and a SUNYESF investigator. GLNPO support was leveraged with additional support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct this work. To date this work has produced three internal reports and a peer reviewed paper in press.

- While we understood sand loss caused by abuse of the contemporary dune barrier, we knew very little about larger lakewide sediment transport dynamics that may be contributing to barrier change. A contractor assembled a list of existing sources of information and knowledgeable people who could help us address this information need. A second contractor used that report to gather and assess the current state of knowledge on eastern Lake Ontario sediment dynamics. He prepared a synthesis report with recommendations for further study,

Jefferson County Alvar Megasite
GLNPO support was highly leveraged with internal TNC funding and Great Lakes Protection Fund support to the International Alvar Working Group to accomplish the following work:

- Alvar communities are supported by hydrological processes that include annual cycles of flood and drought. Well-planned conservation activity depended on a better understanding of sources of water and patterns of movement within alvar sites. NYHP, SUNY Geneseo, and University of Georgia investigators undertook studies to identify the sources of flood waters and movement patterns of water within the system. Flooded areas were found to be mostly groundwater discharge zones, and water movement is mostly sheet flow across a very subtle NE by SW landscape gradient. Three internal reports describe their results.

- NYNHP, in collaboration with the International Alvar Working Group, assembled uniform inventory and research methods to be used at alvar sites in New York, Michigan, and Ontario for a two year investigation project. A report describes the methods developed.

- Previously, ecologists in New York, Michigan, and Ontario used separate classification schemes to describe the alvar mosaic. NYNHP and contractors contributed New York alvar community data to the Working Group task of defining a common classification. That work will be summarized over the next several months. The report will be provided to GLNPO when available.

- Contractors assembled historical information about fire, grazing, logging, and agriculture in the New York alvars. A contractor also compared original land survey records to current alvar landscape vegetation patterns.

- Staff and volunteers collaborated with NYSDEC and York University to establish a study of impacts of deer browse on alvar communities. In New York, pairs of fenced and unfenced plots were established at Chaumont Barrens and a NYSDEC site, Henderson Shores Unique Area. This work is ongoing. Results will be forwarded when available.

- A SUNYESF investigator studied the pattern of invasion by European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) at Chaumont Barrens. This work will result in a masters thesis, expected soon. It will be forwarded when available.

Products: Four bog buckmoth documents, two sand transport documents, two internal reports and a published paper on alvar hydrology, two reports on original alvar land survey, a report on historical alvar wild fire, and a report on research and inventory methods for the International Alvar Project.

Land Protection  back to top     

Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite
- El Dorado Preserve - 6 acre land-locked inholding purchased in 1994 to complete the preserve design.

- Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area - 77 acres of dune barrier, purchased in 1994, transferred to NYSDEC in 1997.

- Jones tract - 330 feet of barrier shoreline at Sandy Pond, purchased in 1996 to protect undeveloped dunes.

- Deer Creek Marsh - 116 acre wetland/upland buffer tract purchased 1997, to be transferred to NYSDEC.

- Deer Creek Marsh - two tracts, totaling 217 acres of coastal fen, with wetland and upland buffer, purchased in 1997 to anchor the Conservancy's new Rainbow Shores Preserve.

Jefferson County Alvar Megasite
- Limerick Cedars - 5 acre land-locked tract purchased in 1996 within the preserve design.

Products: One new coastal fen preserve (Rainbow Shores Preserve), and a highly visible cooperative land management project (Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area) added to TNC's portfolio. Negotiations continue with several landowners and public partners for key tracts within both systems.

Planning and Management   back to top

-  A major product of the grant is an analysis of each system, and conservation plans that can truly guide all aspect of the Conservancy's work. To that end, once basic site analysis information was assembled for each system, we engaged the entire staff and selected partners in a facilitated workshop to consider the system, its threats, and strategies to combat the threats. We thought together about possible strategies to alleviate various threats, and evaluated the feasibility and potential for success of each strategy. The resulting plans are based on our best understanding of existing scientific information, creative group problem-solving, and staff consensus. We are using them to guide our work and we allow them to evolve as the work matures.

Additional major planning and management results include:

- We initiated a joint management planning process with NYSDEC and recruited volunteers to form The Friends of Sandy Pond Beach for development and management of Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area.

- We fielded the first Sandy Pond Dune Steward, secured and berthed a donated boat, installed initial signage and string fencing, and began management of Sandy Pond Beach, where we welcome nearly 30,000 recreational visitors each year.

- Staff participated in The Ontario Dune Coalition for three years, attending three general meeting per year and chairing two standing committees. Contributions included editing and mailing the yearly newsletter to over 600 private landowners and Coalition members, coordinating barrier-wide public education programs each year, disseminating educational materials and technical reports among nearly 30 Coalition members, and encouraging participation and membership by newly-identified interests.

- We held three annual coordination meetings with NYSDEC staff in two Regions to evaluate the previous year's collaborative work and plan for the next.

- We met with county planning department staff in Jefferson and Oswego Counties periodically to share information and develop mutual support.

- We met with Town Boards in the seven project area towns on several occasions to share maps and ecological understanding, to listen to local concerns, and to explore common interests.

- Staff conducted regular site management at El Dorado, Selkirk Fen, Chaumont Barrens, and Limerick Cedars Preserves for three years, with assistance of seasonal interns and volunteers. Work included posting, patrol, trash removal, maintenance of parking lots and structures, restoration, and outreach described below.

Products: Site Conservation Plans for both systems. Dune Coalition Newsletters.

Public Outreach  back to top

Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite
- Staff collaborated with NYSDEC officials to conduct five public meetings to develop public support for a conservation project at Sandy Pond Beach.

- Staff conducted initial site visits and discussions to plan for redesign of trails and development of interpretive materials at El Dorado Preserve.

- Staff and a volunteer presented a dune education program to five fifth grade classes each year as part of three annual Oswego County Conservation Field Days.

- Staff, interns, and volunteers conducted at least 10 field trips per year to project sites for TNC members, local residents, school groups, community groups, scientists, agency staff, and local officials.

- Staff made two or three slide presentations per year on dune/wetland ecology for community groups.

- With volunteers and agency staff, we hosted a production crew from TV Ontario, who produced a segment on conservation at Sandy Pond Beach as part of their Great Lakes Alive series.

- Staff provided input and review to New York Sea Grant and Oswego County Environmental Management Council for development and production of a set of barrier-wide interpretive materials to be used on public and private dune properties. These included a full-color interpretive panel, a set of small interpretive signs, a brochure, and an interpretive booklet.

Jefferson County Alvar Megasite
- Staff and a contractor sited a 1.7 mile trail at Chaumont Barrens Preserve. We designed, developed, and produced three large interpretive panels and a self-guiding brochure to go with the trail. With the help of contractors and 67 volunteers who contributed over 450 hours of service, we built the trail, a three-panel kiosk, a parking lot, and entrance sign to ready Chaumont Barrens for visitors.

- In June 1995, we dedicated the Chaumont Barrens Preserve with the enthusiastic support of local, state, and federal officials and 270 local and regional participants.

- Volunteer interns conducted landowner outreach in the vicinity of Chaumont Barrens and Limerick Cedars Preserves each of three years.

- Staff and volunteers conducted at least 10 field trips per year to Chaumont Barrens and Limerick Cedars, for TNC members, local residents, school groups, community groups, scientists, agency staff, and local officials.

- Staff made two or three slide presentations per year on alvar ecology for community groups.

Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite: Interpretive materials resulted from work begun under this grant, but these were actually produced under a second GLNPO grant. The major product of outreach in the dune area is increased interest in and appreciation for dune conservation. The Friends of Sandy Pond Beach group, begun under this grant, has flowered and begun to establish an identity separate from the Conservancy. Coverage in the local press has attracted support from sources previously unavailable. Suspicion of conservation has softened, and previous detractors have become staunch supporters.

Jefferson County Alvar Megasite: While still far from a household word, 'alvar' has become more widely recognized, in both professional and local communities. We have been welcomed to sit on countywide conservation committees. Local officials have embraced the occurrence of a globally imperiled ecosystem in their towns as an item of local pride and a source of economic benefit through nature tourism. Tangible products include:

- A trail, three-panel kiosk, and self-guiding brochure at Chaumont Barrens Preserve.

Conclusion   back to top

In the Eastern Lake Ontario Megasite, it has become conventional wisdom that dunes should be protected. Abuse still occurs, but the trend is toward restoration rather than destruction. That the barrier is still threatened by lakewide stresses like sand loss and inappropriate land development demands that we work in a broader arena to alleviate that stress. A new Sand Transport Advisory Committee, supported by a separate GLNPO grant, has drawn together federal, state, county, and university partners to work on lakewide issues. Conservancy staff have also begun to interact with the International Joint Commission in their work to balance interests for optimal water level regulation in Lake Ontario, a process which influences sand transport dynamics.

Moreover, recognizing that permanent conservation will be achieved only by the commitment of local residents, and that such a commitment depends on a stable economy, we have begun to collaborate with those interested in planning for economic development and improved quality of life in the dune towns. We are about to establish a satellite office within the project area, which will increase our local credibility and make more efficient use of human resources.

At the same time, we are broadening our approach to education. Current projects include an Internet-based, interactive dune education program for middle school children and a volunteer-conducted school visitation project. Through these projects we hope to help form a conservation ethic in the next generation of local citizens.

In the Jefferson County Alvar Megasite, we still have much basic conservation work to do. Land protection will continue to be a major focus for the immediate future. We need to manage our own properties for weed control and share lessons learned with other landowners. We have made a start on developing a constituency for alvar conservation, but much remains to be done. We will be participating with the International Alvar Working Group in conducting an Alvar Symposium at Tobermory, Ontario in June 1998. We hope to bring several NY participants, and continue to exchange knowledge and ideas for alvar conservation with our partners across the Basin.

We are still trying to understand the essential connections between the Megasite landscape matrix and the alvar conservation sites. We believe that the agricultural matrix complements alvar, protects the hydrology, helps maintain the grassland birds, and helps deter certain exotic plant species. We will be exploring how we might support agriculture in ways that are consistent with our mission and goals.

Finally, we thank GLNPO for its vision and leadership in supporting the establishment of this grassroots, landscape-level conservation project that has unleashed the energy, goodwill, and generosity of a great many people above and beyond the scope of TNC's direct activity on this one grant project.

References  back to top  

Bonanno, S.E. 1997. Status of studies on the bog buckmoth (Hemileuca sp. 1: Saturniidae). Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 7p.

Cutter and Associates, Ltd. 1996. Review of existing pertinent information: sand transport dynamics operating along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in New York State. Report to The Nature Conservancy. Watertown, NY. 18 pp + appendices.

Feeney, T.P. In press, 1996. The role of grikes in limestone pavement formation in northern New York, USA. International Geographical Union's Karren Symposium Proceedings. Mallorca, Spain. 9 pp.

Gilman, B.A. 1996. Summary of original land survey data for northern New York alvar sites. Report to The Nature Conservancy. Canandaigua, NY. 46 pp.

_____. 1997a. Recent fire history data for the Perch River Barrens alvar site. Report to The Nature Conservancy. Canandaigua, NY. 20 pp.

_____. 1997b. An Addendum to: Summary of original land survey d ata for northern New York alvar sites. Report to The Nature Conservancy. Canandaigua, NY. 26 pp.

Lougeay, R. 1996. Hydroclimatic reconnaissance of the Chaumont Barrens. Abstract. Report to the Nature Conservancy. Geneseo, NY. 4 pp.

Pryor, G.S. 1995. Life history of the Oswego County, New York populations of the bog buckmoth (Hemileuca sp.). Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Nature Conservancy. 24 pp.

______. In press 1997. Life history of the bog buckmoth (Saturniidae: Hemileuca) in New York State. Journal of the Lepidopterists Society. 22 pp. + figures and tables.

Reschke, C. 1995a. Development of Research Methodologies for the International Alvar Conservation Initiative. Report to The Nature Conservancy. New York Natural Heritage Program. Latham, NY. 53 p. plus appendices.

_____. 1995b. Biological and Hydrological Monitoring at the Chaumont Barrens Preserve. Report to The Nature Conservancy. New York Natural Heritage Program. Latham, NY. 21 p. plus appendices.

Stanton, E.J. 1997. Life history of bog buckmoth (Hemileuca sp.) in Oswego County, New York. Report to The Nature Conservancy and New York State Biological Survey. Syracuse, NY 32 pp. + appendices.

Steadman, G. 1997. Eastern Lake Ontario littoral processes: review of information and management implications. Report to The Nature Conservancy. Westport, CN. 40 pp. + appendices.


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