Groups work to preserve Great Lakes watershed

AMORRISON_5_mediumWhen the weather is mild, it’s not unusual to find nature lovers and hikers exploring the trails along the Jackson Falls, in the western New York town of Aurora.

The land in the Lake Erie watershed is an example of a headwater forest. Such forests are important in keeping the Great Lakes clean — and some land conservancies in the region are trying to preserve them.

The Western New York Land Conservancy is raising money to purchase the land around Jackson Falls and turn it into a nature preserve.

“A headwater forest acts kind of like a sponge soaking up water and then releasing it gradually, cleaning it as it does that, controlling the quantity and quality that we all need,” says Nancy Smith, executive director of the conservancy. “This is our drinking water, this is the water we swim in, it’s important for fishing when it makes its way to the Great Lakes.”

The land conservancy hopes to raise $600,000 to purchase the 57-acre property. It received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of the sweeping Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

After figuring in additional donations, Smith said the conservancy now has to raise about $250,000 to complete the purchase by October.

“It’s a very aggressive timetable,” she said. “But I think one of the things that’s kind of firing us all up is the opportunity we know this will be a nature preserve open to everyone or it will be a string of houses and the community will be cut off.”

The land is owned by former area resident Steven Searl and his family. Searl’s grandfather, Cecil Jackson, bought it in the 1920s . Prior to that purchase, Jackson would visit the property across the street with his friend Elbert Hubbard the second. He was the son of Elbert Hubbard, who founded the well-known arts and crafts community called Roycroft.

“During the 1920’s and 1930’s my grandfather was in charge of the Roycroft Bank and he and Elbert Hubbard did many things together. … My grandfather visited there several times with other Roycrofters ,” said Searl. W hen the property across from Hubbard’s was up for sale, Jackson jumped at the chance to buy it.

Searl said the property has been in his family for nearly a century, and he doesn’t want to see it developed.

“My two brothers and I have basically spent our whole lives going up and walking around and enjoying the forest, the waterfall and the ravine,” said Searl , who now lives in Rochester. “We’re not in a position where we could just donate the land, but we think this is a win-win situation where we can make the land available for the rest of the public to enjoy rather than turn it into a private property where nobody can walk on it.”

There are several land preserves in watershed areas along the Great Lakes corridor. In Wisconsin, the Bayfield Regional Conservancy works with the local government to protect the Houghton Falls Nature Preserve. The 76-acre property near Lake Superior features pines, hemlocks, sandstone cliffs and waterfalls.

The land is owned by the local government, but the Bayfield Regional Conservancy holds an easement restricting development.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in development over the years. What we’re really trying to prevent is too much development,” says Erika Lang, conservation director for the group. “That’s what land trusts are all about. Protecting the fish and wildlife habitat.”