Escape the Urban: The Nature Conservancy – Counterfeiter’s Ledge

17 Oct

This past Monday, on a foggy and drizzly Columbus Day, I took several of my sons on a working hike to tend a little patch of Western New York wilderness. It is not a large place. It is not particularly beautiful, nor equipped with a spectacular view. In truth, it is no more special than many other tucked away places in the Great Lakes basin. But if we’re going to environmentally turn the tide, if habitat retention and restoration is to take hold, if rare species are to be protected, and if native ecology is to be maintained, then it will happen in these normal, non-special places like Counterfeiter’s Ledge.

Just east of Akron, along the dwindling Niagara Escarpment, Counterfeiter’s Ledge lies unknown and nondescript. A sanctuary of The Nature Conservancy, there is no special entrance or welcome sign other than the orange markers nailed to trees, demarking the outer boundary. A mix of wooded uplands, grasslands, and limestone cliffs (thus the “ledge” in the name – the source of the criminality of the natural feature remains unknown), Counterfeiter’s Ledge is a perfectly ordinary example of the temperate forest that once stretched nearly unbroken from Illinois to Maine. Which is why it is protected. It turns out that ordinary forest can contain extraordinary species, and in this case, the exposed limestone shelters several plants native but rare in this area.

Protecting places like this small corner of ridge, tree and grass is important, though unheralded. It turns out environmentalists can be a sucker for a nice view as much as anyone else. Blame it on John Muir or Ansel Adams, but dramatic mountains, valleys and canyons are often well protected and conserved, for visual, not ecological, reasons. Meanwhile, unremarkable forests and (even more so) monotonous grasslands are forgotten.

The Nature Conservancy is one of several groups trying to change that. I volunteered to assist their local efforts (they own a significant piece of Zoar Valley, which is open to the public – more on that in a future article) not just because I have enjoyed their wilderness before, though I have very fond memories of a kayak trip I undertook in Lake Superior along a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Keweenaw Peninsula. No, what drew me to the Nature Conservancy is their commitment to science-based stewardship, conducting research on the parcels they own, choosing land to purchase that has genuine ecological value, and pragmatic partnerships with private landowners. After all, this is the organization that is working with the US Army at Fort Carson, Colorado, to protect threatened short grass prairie, hardly the sexiest of ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy takes realistic actual victories over the ideological moral kind.  

As a Volunteer Preserve Steward with The Nature Conservancy, I don’t do groundbreaking earth saving work every trip. This summer we checked on the health of several trees planted a couple years ago as part of a grant. In the fall, as the ground covers opens and travel is easier cross country, I walk the perimeter and make sure those orange “nature sanctuary” signs are in place. Come winter, I’ll strap on my snow shoes and gaiters and gather deer scat, to count and gauge how big the herd is wintering on the site, and what they are eating. And in the spring its time to pull invasive weeds. All little things that hopefully add up to a big thing eventually.

If you would like to volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, go to their Central/Western New York webpage, or shoot me an email (see my profile in the upper right).

3 Responses to “Escape the Urban: The Nature Conservancy – Counterfeiter’s Ledge”

  1. Chris in EA October 17, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Thanks for this series. So far you’ve covered a couple of “old friends” who I haven’t visited in a while and introduced me to some great new ones. I think you’re spot on, too, with your assessment of the importance of protecting significant but aesthetically unimpressive places, and the important work that the Conservancy does in protecting them.

  2. Ethan October 17, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    I love the Conservancy, too… While we lived in Arizona, we made use of their land for a spectacular Thanksgiving, here.  In S. Arizona, the opportunity to hike up a river in a pristine riparian area is a real treat.  I think my hands are a little full right now, but I would like to volunteer for them sometime down the road myself- we’d make an interesting team, no?  PS: I have snowshoes… maybe you’d allow me to accompany you sometime this winter?

  3. Brian Castner October 17, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    @ Chris – Glad you enjoy the series – it gives me a good excuse to get out each week too. Any ideas on places to go, please let let me, and I’d be happy to try them out and write about it.

    @ Ethan: Please do come out. The great thing about TNC is that they are appreciative for any little bit you can do. The ecologist I “work for” doesn’t make it out to each site as often as he would wish, so any extra is useful. So it doesn’t have to eat up a lot of time – its very occasional and low pressure. I’ll be back out before the snow again, but snowshoe time in January-February. BTW – on the last post – the simply is definitely under attack – each Twitter post, cable channel, smart phone, etc etc only adds to the clutter. Such technology is insidious because there is an expectation that it is “required” somehow. But I was expecting a comment from you that I got Gardner and the “Naturalist” intelligence wrong.

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