Linda Garrett, the executive director of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust at their office in Zoo New York in Watertown's Thompson Park. Kara Dry/NNY Business

As executive director of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, Linda Garrett is working to ensure that the third largest continuous forest area in the state is protected, that the public has access to beautiful places for recreation and relaxation now and in the future, and to tease the minds and whet the appetites of future conservationists for the uniqueness that is the Tug Hill Plateau.

Mrs. Garrett was instrumental in the formation of the Land Trust early in her career with the Tug Hill Commission and was and became the “common staff” member between the two agencies. After a stint working on conservation in Alaska, Mrs. Garett returned to the Tug Hill Commission in 2000 and volunteered with the Land Trust until she was appointed the first executive director of the organization in 2002 when the organization became completely independent of the commission.

Because they were part of the Tug Hill Commission at the beginning, Mrs. Garrett says many people believe the organization is still funded by the state; however, funding for Tug Hill Tomorrow comes from private donors. In New York state, Mrs. Garret said there are about 90 land trusts with more than 800 nationwide each with their own unique approach to conserving and protecting their areas of focus. In the north country, she said there are four land trusts: Tug Hill Tomorrow, the Thousand Islands Land Trust, Ontario Bays Initiative [now OBI Land Trust], the Indian River Lakes Conservancy and the St. Lawrence Land Trust.

NNYB: What is a land trust?

GARRETT: It’s a not-for-profit organization. There’s a parent organization called the Land Trust Alliance. They have... standards and practices that most land trusts adopt and follow. It’s kind of the best practices for land trusts. Built on that, there’s an independent accreditation organization — we are actually accredited — that kind of ensures that you are operating in an ethical manner and that you are sustainable, because the neat thing about land trusts is that we’re protecting land forever so we need to make sure we have systems in place – procedures, policies and funding – to make sure that we can function forever. We work with private landowners using a tool called a conservation easement. It’s filed with the deed to the property and it basically is a contract between the land trust and the landowner and any future landowners on how that property will be developed in the future. It doesn’t necessarily say there can be no development. It just says it‘s limited to the kinds of development and the amount of development… [but] the cool thing about the conservation easements is that they’re tailored to the landowner and the natural resources that we’re protecting on the property. So, there’s the conservation easement and then a lot of land trusts actually own property outright to have as nature preserves or public conservation areas. We have a little bit of both, or a lot of conservation easements and a little bit of land we own outright.

NNYB: It appears from the Tug Hill Tomorrow website that the work goes beyond easements.

GARRETT: Yes... we’ve always had a two-pronged mission where we do land protection and we also do environmental education. We’ve always been all about helping people understand the importance and beauty and uniqueness of the Tug Hill region so they appreciate it more and want to protect it and want to value it. I think a lot of times when you’re living in a place you might take it for granted. We have a lot of people who come from out of the region that buy seasonal camps and second homes up here because it’s so awesome. They come from places like Pennsylvania and Rochester and New Jersey where it’s really developed so they really appreciate the fact that there’s all this space for all kinds of recreational things. I think when it’s right in your back yard it’s not always valued, in general, so we’ve been spending a lot of time on programs for kids and families to try and instill in the them the love of the outdoors because they’re going to be our next generation of conservationists. If they don’t care about it, then we’re pretty much out of business, so we try to put a face on why it’s important to be outdoors.

NNYB: Is there a minimum amount of acreage a landowner must have to participate in the land trust?

GARRETT: I want to say yes, but there really isn’t a minimum; it just depends on what we’re trying to protect. I’ll give you an example. We are protecting, down in Oneida County… we have protected about two miles of either side of the West Canada Creek. Some of those properties are hundreds of acres and some of those properties are 10 acres, but they all have river frontage so they’re all important to protect because they kind of fit together as pieces of the puzzle. So, if you can consolidate properties together, you have more conservation impact. We wouldn’t do just one 10-acre property in the middle of nowhere, but when it fits into the puzzle, then we’d consider that.

NNYB: What are your boundaries? Is it strictly the Tug Hill Plateau?

GARRETT: Originally when we were formed, we were working specifically in the legislatively designated Tug Hill Region which is 41 towns in the counties of Lewis, Jefferson, Oswego and Oneida. There are holes around the region where there are no land trusts that serve those areas so now we say we work “in and around” the Tug Hill Region. It’s pretty much the entirety of [the counties]. Some of our West Canada Creek stuff is in Herkimer County and we work with Fort Drum to protect a buffer around the base in a partnership with them and Ducks Unlimited. That brings us all the way into St. Lawrence County, so we’ve kind of crept a little bit outside of our original boundaries, but again, there are no other land trusts in those areas that are doing the kinds of things that we’re doing, so we decided we would help fill that niche if a landowner wanted to do it and we had the capacity; so that’s where we are now. Natural resources don’t know political boundaries. The Black River is the boundary of the Tug Hill Region so if we protected one side of the river and not the other, that doesn’t really get you far.

NNYB: You mentioned you are doing things no other land trusts in the area do. What are some of those things?

GARRETT: For example, there’s no other land trust in the four-county area or in St. Lawrence County that does farmland protection. The state has a grant program for farmland protection. They just did a request for applications about a [few months] ago and we have probably 45 farmers that asked to work with us. There were more, but we only have so much capacity and [the applications] are very complicated. We’re actually applying for nine grants in the next couple of months so we’ll be putting those applications in. We’re already working on seven farmland protection projects right now. Each county has a farmland protection plan and they only have us to work with, so we work with our counties, towns, the landowners, the farmers. We are working on a regional farmland protection plan that helps us kind of analyze how competitive those farms would be.

NNYB: Some people may say that agriculture can be at odds with environmental conservation when considering the use of pesticides, carbon emissions, over-farming soil that starts as “prime” soil among other reasons. How do the two reconcile with each other enough to merit the Land Trust’s involvement with protecting land for agriculture as an act of bigger picture conservation?

GARRETT: The farmers that we work with, their land has been in their families for generations. It’s how they make their living and they care for it. They want to be responsible. There’s certain regulations that they have to follow, but a lot of them go above and beyond because it makes sense for them to be environmentally conscience and conservationally aware. If they don’t put back into the land, then they’re not going to be able to farm it any more… I think more farmers are adopting practices that are more environmentally aware, keeping buffers. A lot of them do have a wood lot that is associated with their farm. A lot of them might do maple sugaring or timber management on that lot as a supplemental income because they’ve got to be thinking outside of the box if they’re going to be viable and sustainable into the future because, as you know, milk prices are fluctuating the wrong direction and it’s really hard for farmers to make a living… When you’re looking in the big picture and you’re looking at climate change and impacts to our environment, if we can have local food that’s really important to our community. I think that protecting farmland so that we can have [that], it’s really protecting the land, it’s not protecting farming. We do stuff with other groups to connect farmers to farmland, but we’re protecting the land so it’s going to be farmland forever. It doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be farmed and we can’t guarantee what kind of farming is going to be happening, but we can guarantee that it’s going to be available to be farmed. We all eat. We’ve got to grow it somewhere.

NNYB: But up here it’s more dairy. There isn’t much other food production.

GARRETT: I think that’s a policy that needs to happen on a different level to support those farmers that are doing other things, growing and value-added. It’s growing, and you’re right, we don’t produce everything that we need up here. There are things that are being trucked in, but I also think it’s part of our culture. A lot of people don’t realize where their food comes from. They think it comes from Walmart or Price Chopper or whatever, so there’s another big [need for] educating people about the importance of locally farmed foods and food security. I think we saw when COVID hit last year, when the shelves were bare of a lot of things, so there was a lot of panic-shopping, the importance of food security and how fragile that system is. That’s not a problem the land trust is going to solve.

NNYB: How did the recreational side of the Land Trust’s operations come into being?

GARRETT: The Land Trust, pretty much from the beginning, had a recreational focus. I was working for the Tug Hill Commission when I first came up here in 1988. My first job was to do a Tug Hill Recreation Guide to map all of the hiking and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing areas put into a recreation guide for the Tug Hill. I can’t even remember the first year we put that out; 1999, I think. We just put out the 7th edition to the Recreation Guide. We always worked with the four counties’ tourism promotion agencies on this and they really stepped up on this last edition. It’s become even more than just trails. It’s talking about communities and places people can visit. It’s become more of a tourist piece than just a recreation guide. It has all of our maps that we had in the original recreation guide enhanced for GPS, so if you download it from a certain app, you can actually, when you’re walking, see where you are on the trail, so it’s really neat. There’s a lot of information about the communities and other things that you can do besides just walking or hiking or snowshoeing. We focus on non-motorized recreation. This is a great way to get people outside and get people to know the region and appreciate it.

NNYB: What kind of recreational programs do you have?

GARRETT: We host guided outings and we usually do one a month. COVID kind of put a halt on a lot of things, as you can imagine. Depending on the season, we’ll do a ski, we’ll do a snowshoe. We try to move it around the region so that we can make it convenient for people to get out and join us, but we have people driving hours to come on one of our guided outings. Sometimes it’s staff leading them and sometimes we’ll get a person who is an expert in a certain area. We had hikes in some of the gulfs like Indian Gulf or Whetstone Gulf and we had a person that knows what’s going on who explains geology and what’s happening. We’ve had wild flower hikes and mushroom hikes. They’re great outings for a lot of reasons, but they really build community. Like-minded people get together and it’s amazing to see [how] so many times people will come out on one of our hikes and they’re walking along and talking to whoever is next to them and they strike up this friendship with this person and now, the next thing you know, they are going off to do the things they like to do on their own. It’s really great community building. [Also,] Tug Hill is not user-friendly, I don’t think. There’s a lot of old logging roads and town roads that aren’t signed and seasonal roads. There’s no mountain and… not a lot of good land marks so you can easily get turned around and lost on Tug Hill, and there’s not good cell coverage, so a lot of people aren’t comfortable exploring. If you go on a guided hike, you don’t have to worry about that because you’ve got somebody who knows where they’re going, what they’re doing and a little bit about the woods and the area you’re exploring, so they’ve been really well received. We do [tours with] kayaks, we do canoes. We ask people for suggestions about what they would like to do. One of the really cool things we can do is ask [for access from] some of our land owners that we have conservation easements on whose land isn’t usually open to the public, but they’re happy to open up their property for us to host a hike [there.] That’s an opportunity for people to go someplace they wouldn’t normally be able to go.

NNYB: Is there some sort of membership required to participate in these activities?

GARRETT: No, they’re open to the public and we advertise them through our social media. We usually do a press release. Like I said, people have come from as far away as Rochester and Syracuse, and then we have a lot of local people who come. Some of the ones that we do [the local people] say ‘We didn’t even know this place existed.” We just did our Soggy Sneaker Run at our sanctuary in Rutland. We had like 80 runners and probably three-quarters of the people had never been there before. It’s just kind of exposing people to different things and different activities.

NNYB: Do you have some guides who are focused on the flora and fauna in the places you hike?

GARRETT: Yes, we do a lot of guided birding hikes in the spring to different places. We have a lot of public land around us, but not all of it is accessible; it doesn’t have trails and parking areas and that kind of stuff. It’s just forest. So we have different people who know those areas and are happy to lead a hike or an outing. We have one board member who is phenomenal. He’s like an environmental encyclopedia: he knows plants, flowers, birds, he knows signs and stuff like that. He leads a lot of hikes and outings for us. We try to have knowledgeable people on the hikes, but sometimes it’s just chance that someone is there who knows stuff.

NNYB: Is there a schedule for these events or kind of a rolling calendar?

GARRETT: It’s more of a rolling calendar and right now, because we weren’t really sure with COVID what the restrictions were going to be, we don’t have a whole lot of outings planned right now but we’re starting to ramp that up. We’ll probably get back to our one-a-month outing. [All of the outings we are doing] will be on our social media and our website.

NNYB: What’s the goal with these programs. You mentioned before about getting people connected. Is that what it’s all about?

GARRETT: We try to emphasize family-friendly events with our youth events, so that we’re getting kids and their families out because our goal really is, like I said, to try to instill a love of Tug Hill, especially for the younger generation so they support conservation when they grow up in all different kinds of ways, in policy and financially and all different kinds of things. My experience as a youth outdoors is what gave me my love of nature and being outside. I think that connecting people to the land and showing them all these really cool places on Tug Hill and showing them all these really cool things if you just stop, listen and look, people are going to be better stewards of the land. People are going to think twice before they do something that’s not environmentally good, like simple things like littering. Instead of going outside of the region to connect, you’ve got all of these great resources in your back yard.

NNYB: In addition to the hikes, you also have the Tug Hill 10 challenge. What’s that?

GARRETT: We’re challenging people to go out and visit 10 places listed in the Tug Hill Recreation Guide. Once they’ve completed that, they can log onto our website, we have a form they can fill out where they can share the 10 places they’ve been to and they can share pictures and stories and we send them either a patch or a decal, their choice, to reward them for doing the challenge. We’re actually getting ready to step it up a bit so if people do 20 we’ll give them a Natural History Guide.

NNYB: So you said you have a conservation area in Rutland?

GARRETT: That one we call a Wildlife Sanctuary. It was previously owned by the North Country Bird Club. They lost their non-profit status and had to divest themselves of all of their assets. That was their only asset so we took it over and worked in partnership with them. Their membership was aging and they couldn’t keep up with all the trail work. That was actually the first property we owned.

NNYB: How many properties do you own now?

GARRETT: We own two now. We just acquired a piece of property somebody donated to us in the town of Lorraine. We’re calling them Public Conservation Areas. We will develop it just like we did the Joseph Black Wildlife Sanctuary [in Rutland] with a parking area, signs, hiking trails and interpretive signs and we’ll do a program out there. The town of Lorraine is really excited to have something like that for their residents, as well as trying to get some tourism and recreation. They don’t have a lot of assets... for public recreation so they’re excited about [the project]. We’re working in partnership with them to see what makes the most sense as far as recreational use, what’s the niche we can help them fill. We’re still working that out. We just got the piece of property back in the fall. We’re calling it the French Settlement Road Conservation Area… donated to us by Dr. Marvin Reimer. It’s 120 acres.

NNYB: And what is Pure Water for Life’s involvement?

GARRETT: Pure Water for Life had some extra money they hadn’t expended. They were watchdogs for the solid waste facility in Rodman and their job was done because it was built, so they had approached one of our board members they knew and asked, ‘Do you guys have a project you’d like to pitch to us? We like what you’re doing, is there anything in our area?’ So we pitched a couple of things and they really liked this project, so they gave us a $30,000 grant to help develop the parking area, the trails and some interpretive signage. So, we’re well on our way to opening that to the public.

NNYB: Do you have any idea when that will be?

GARRETT: The parking area will probably be developed in the fall. The town of Lorraine is really excited about the prospect, so they’ve offered to build the parking area if we pay for the materials; so we’re going to have a partnership with them on that, so we’ll be on their timeline for when they can help us build that, but we’re hoping that by the end of fall, we’ll have that all done.

NNYB: That’s great.

GARRETT: It’s exciting. It’s a neat property. It’s really beautiful. There are beaver ponds and woods, a waterfall and all kinds of neat things out there, so we’re excited to be able to start opening it up. One of the things we’re going to do is that some of the interpretive materials there will be based on a piece we’ve done recently talking about the core forest of Tug Hill in recreation… called “The Heart of Tug Hill”… because it’s right at the edge of the core forest. [Tug Hill is] the third largest continuous forest in New York state and there’s a lot of different organizations with a focus on that, so that’s what we focus on in “The Heart of Tug Hill,” and also the fact that a heritage strain of trout was found in one of the streams up there, which was pretty exciting news.

NNYB: Are there any events scheduled, educational or otherwise?

GARRETT: Our education person is doing a virtual birding thing on the first Wednesday of every month. It’s a Facebook live thing and she’s been doing all kinds of different bird fun facts going with the season, like “all of the migrants are coming back and what are they doing now and how are their songs different?” She also talks about how you identify certain birds. She’s doing a bird of the day and talking about where you would see it, how you would identify it. We’re also working on a sort of cool, different thing, too. It’s an organization that’s out west called Sustained Music and Nature. They combine a musical concert, usually local musicians, with a hike to connect people with local music and the land. We’re planning that for August 14, that’s a Saturday, starting at the Old Tyme Fiddler’s Hall of Fame in Osceola. We’re going to do the concert first, at noon, and then we’re going to go to the Tug Hill Traverse Trail, which is the first 20-mile, long distance hiking trail that’s going to go through the middle of Tug Hill that we’ve been working on. So we’re going to go to the southern end which has some old growth forested area, coming off the West Leyden-Osceola Road. There’s a parking area... and we’ll go hiking around there after the concert. That one is not for free. We’re charging people $5 per person, $10 a family and we’re still fleshing out exactly [who will be performing.] We have two local artists that are going to be coming, two young male fiddlers who will be performing and we’re looking for the group that will anchor the music.

NNYB: And if people would like to use the Wildlife Sanctuary, do they have to register or can they just go to Rutland and enjoy?

GARRETT: It’s open to the public. There’s a little sign-in kiosk where we ask people to sign in so we know how much it’s being used. As you can imagine, there’s been a lot more people using it since COVID, so I think the importance of local trails and getting outside has really come to the forefront. The benefits to your mental health and connecting to nature – all of the benefits of that, health benefits and mental health benefits – have really been showcased with all of the quarantining and COVID restrictions. We’ve seen probably a 100% increase in use and we’ve had probably 30 people who have completed the Tug Hill 10 challenge [so far].

NNYB: So what’s the message for people at this point about conservation, with preventing “paving paradise to put up a parking lot”? What can people who don’t have 100 acres to preserve do to help?

GARRETT: [laugh] I think there’s a lot of things people can do to support conservation. They can volunteer for a local conservation organization in their area. If they have a certain expertise, they can offer their talent. We’re always looking for volunteers to do specific things, from just stuffing envelopes to going out to visit a property and make sure everything is okay. We do training for volunteer monitoring. Or become one of our trail stewards and walk the trail once a month to make sure everything is okay or let us know if there’s an issue. They could [also] come on one of our hikes or tell their friends about us. Sometimes I feel like we’re the best kept secret in the north country. [People say,] “Oh, we’ve never heard of you,” and it’s like, “Well, we’ve been around for 30 years.” We try really hard to change that, but what we do is a complicated thing and so people like to pigeon hole us because they don’t understand fully what our organization is about. They just see pieces of us... We’ve been trying to get the word out and dispel misconceptions like that we take land off the tax roll or that we dictate what landowners can and can’t do or their land is going to be open to the public if they work with us. All of those things come up during civic presentations I’ve made [which are] like Conservation 101 – this is what it is and this is what it’s not – and people walk away and go, “Oh, I really didn’t know that. I thought blah, blah, blah…” because people have preconceived notions of easements, so they don’t really know what it is.

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