In the debate between preservation and development at the former Army depot, a notable herd of white deer is caught in the middle
Ghost deer. Nuclear weapons storage. The nearly 11,000 acres of Finger Lakes wilderness that was impounded in 1941, fenced off and tightly guarded for some five decades as a military readiness compound is now the center of a controversy over its future.
On one side of the debate over the former Seneca Army Depot: A campaign for the site’s transformation into a wildlife and education center. On the other side: A push for economic development.
The Army closed the former depot in 2002 and kept a skeletal staff to oversee environmental cleanup of sections of the property in the Seneca County towns of Romulus and Varick. Now, with cleanup nearly done, the Army plans to vacate the site by January 2016. Unless the property is bought in the meantime, it will lie in the hands of the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency.
The case for conservation
Before citizens with the nonprofit Seneca White Deer Inc. and like-minded folks approached the state in hopes it would buy the property as part of the state’s Open Space Plan, to preserve and perhaps pave the way for a state park, they tested public interest. Their goal is to preserve the world’s largest herd of all-white deer and capitalize on the site’s rich American history. This concept got a trial run over three different years when Seneca White Deer conducted tours in the depot’s conservation area.
Dennis Money, president of Seneca White Deer Inc., said the response to those tours — conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2012 — was explosive.
“We are a small group of volunteers who had no experience and once we got the green light in 2006 to be able to give tours, we sold every seat on the buses in one month,” said Money.
The 11 weekends of tours during the three years drew more than 6,300 people — “and we turned away hundreds more,” added Money, who lives in Canandaigua. Follow-up surveys of visitors’ experience got 98 percent excellent ratings, he said. People had a good time and came from all over, from places including Texas and Alaska, to see the white deer and the ground’s features, Money said.
“People are attracted to the depot with the magnetism and magical quality of the ghost deer… and seeing the igloos,’” he added, referring to the name given the large, concrete munitions storage bunkers. As an Army depot, the bunkers warehoused weaponry used in World War II and the Korean conflict. During the Cold War, the Seneca Army Depot became a major East Coast nuclear weapons storage site.
The white deer were first spotted in 1941 when the Army built the depot. The population thrived inside the 24 miles of fence. The Army allowed hunting to reduce the size of the deer herd and prevent starvation, but protected the white deer from hunters.
The herd today numbers about 200 in a population of about 800 deer at the depot.
Emma Taylor of Canandaigua, a Seneca White Deer member, recently joined the group’s board of directors. Saving the depot is a cause worth fighting for, said Taylor, who works in landscaping and property management and volunteers with other organizations including Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association.
“I really enjoy conservation and have been interested in endangered species since I was little,” she said.
“The genetics of the white deer have not been studied extensively, but a recessive gene for lack of pigmentation apparently prevents normal (i.e. brown) coloration of the hair,” according to Seneca White Deer Inc. “Management of the white deer within the former depot increases the proportion of deer exhibiting the trait. In an unprotected environment, white deer are usually easy prey for predators or hunters. The limited predators and controlled hunting on the former Depot have allowed the white deer to interbreed and increase in numbers for more than 60 years. Other white deer herds exist in protected environments, including white fallow deer in Ireland, but none of those herds are as large as the white, whitetail deer of the Depot.”
Last year, the state heard from folks on all side of the debate on whether the state should include the site in its Open Space Plan.
The proposal remains in the draft plan, and as of Friday no decision had been made.
“We have a great opportunity to turn this into a world class place,” said Money. He and others in the campaign to save the depot hope the state will buy it.
As a state park, it could draw visitors and complement nearby Sampson State Park, a former Navy and Air Force training center, say Money and other proponents. As the largest contiguous land parcel within the Finger Lakes, it could provide hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and similar recreation. A 60-acre pond there could provide fishing and camping. The former depot is also designated a major birding area by the DEC and Audubon Society, with more than 100 species of birds known to live and migrate there.
“The plan would fit so perfectly with what we have here,” said Taylor, referring to the entire Finger Lakes region. “Everyone would find something there to enjoy.”
In her role doing social media for Seneca White Deer, Taylor said she hears from many people who want to see the site preserved and open for public use, as a draw for visitors as well as the enjoyment of locals.
“I hear so many memories,” she said. “It would be so sad for that to be lost.”
Back on the tax rolls?
In Seneca County, where the IDA is poised to take responsibility for the depot short of a purchase by the state or someone with deep pockets, IDA Executive Director Bob Aronson said the IDA must act in concert with its mission: Economic development.
“While tourism is consistent with our mission,” said Aronson, no one has ever come up with a plan and the financial wherewithal. “Our board has been quite open to it but it has never happened,” Aronson said.
Neither the IDA, nor Seneca County, nor other local governments can afford to maintain the site, he said, let alone turn it into a park.
According to a conservative estimate, it would cost $500,000 for the land management services now provided by the Army, Aronson said. That includes maintaining the fence, storm drainage, roads, wildlife management and so forth.
A number of businesses and other entities are currently situated on the property. They include Five Points state prison, Hillside Children’s Center and Finger Lakes Technologies Group, Inc., one of the region’s largest telecommunications providers.
Aronson said the IDA promotes business development at the property and needs to see more.
Government leaders in the towns of Romulus and Verick are of the same mind.
“The Town of Romulus is opposed to the state taking the land,” said Romulus Town Supervisor Dave Kaiser. Nearly one-third of his town is off the tax rolls due to the former depot, Sampson State Park and other properties, Kaiser said.
“We need jobs. We need living wage jobs,” he said, arguing that 7,000 acres off the tax rolls is not the best use of the land. He added he sees efforts to preserve the site “well-intentioned,” but not realistic.
The Town of Varick has about 1,000 acres of the depot property zoned for conservation,
“We have land available if the right person shows up with some money to maintain and operate it forever.” Town Supervisor Bob Hayssen said
But that is a tall order. The town does have a proposal to outlaw the killing of the white deer, which Hayssen says he believes would be drawn to staying in the former depot area even if the fence was not maintained.
“There is a lot of talk going on,” said Hayssen. Ideas being floated include auctioning off parcels of land, and the conservation zone is fit for agriculture, he said.
“We will hire an expert to analyze how best to use the land and put it on the tax roll,” said Hayssen. “Something has got to happen.”
The towns also want the reopening of a road that runs through the former depot along town lines. The immensity of the former depot makes it hard for citizens, emergency vehicles and businesses because they have to the circle the property, Kaiser said.
Deer not DEC priority
In a Jan. 7, 2015, letter by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to state Senator John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, regarding the future of the former depot, Martens indicated the DEC does not have the will or resources to sustain the white deer herd.
“While the acquisition of the Depot would be a significant accomplishment for open space conservation and recreation in central New York, managing the white deer herd would be very challenging,” Martens wrote. “In the event that DEC works to acquire a portion of the Depot as part of the new Open Space Plan, we are unable to commit to sustaining the white deer herd as we do not have the capacity of maintain the 24 miles of fencing that appears integral to the white herd’s continuation ...
“As DEC and our conservation partners consider how to best invest the limited funds available to implement the Open Space Plan, all stakeholders, including local community leaders, should appreciate that a commitment to sustain the white deer herd is not an essential component or justification for conservation of this valuable open space area,” Martens continued.
State Senator Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, said in a statement for the Messenger he values both economic development and conservation.
“I have worked long and hard to help bring jobs to the over 10,000 acre abandoned Army base,” Nozzolio wrote. “The Hillside Children's Center, Five Points Correctional Facility, Finger Lakes Technologies and the Seneca County Law Enforcement Center are just a few of the job producing enterprises now located at the Depot. Since its closure, we have been successful in recruiting over 1,100 new jobs, and I have helped to transform the Depot into an economic engine for Seneca County and the entire Central Finger Lakes region.
“While still in school, I worked two summers at the Depot in the Road and Grounds Department, and as a result, I know every inch of the property,” Nozzolio added. “The Depot is home to hundreds of species of birds and wildlife, including the extremely unique white deer herd. I believe it is important to preserve and protect the conservation area that exists at the Depot.
“The ultimate determination of the future uses of the property rests with Seneca County and the local governments of Romulus and Varick where the land is located.”
By the numbers
10,587 Total acres of the former Seneca Army Depot
7,000 Acres of conservation area
200 Estimated deer in all-white deer herd
— Seneca White Deer, Inc.: http://senecawhitedeer.org/
— “The Seneca Army Depot, ” book by Walter Gable and and Carolyn Zogg