Throughout her life, Lorna Wright could never quite remove herself from the concept of wildlife preservation and protection.
“Growing up near Lake Michigan, I remember how I benefited from outside places. I remember working on recycling ideas with my parents. Isn’t that where it always starts?” quips Wright.
Years removed from those efforts at recycling as a child, studying abroad in Australia, Wright found herself thinking, “Oh yes, this is my happy place,” while doing conservation and biology field work.
After completing degrees in biology, forestry, environmental management, and conservation science and policy at the University of Rochester and Duke University, Wright came to work full time at Genesee Land Trust, where she was once a volunteer, as director of conservation programs a decade ago.
Earlier this year, Wright was named executive director.
“One of the reasons I wanted to make that move is to keep my feet on the ground as a conservation professional,” Wright says. “(In larger organizations), as you move up, you lose that direct connection to the work you’re doing. You can be doing really great science work, but not be able to see how it’s implemented on the ground. That’s something that I found I really wanted in my conservation work, is to be able to see that direct impact.”
Land trusts as organizations accept donations of land, purchase land or negotiate private voluntary agreements on land. They are responsible for caring for and managing the land for future generations, including keeping areas accessible when appropriate to the environment.
As Elliotte Bowerman, director of communications for Genesee Land Trust, puts it: “Keep wild places wild, but make it possible for people to enjoy those places without disturbing what’s there.”
Genesee Land Trust began in 1989 and currently reaches parts of nine counties in the Genesee River region. The organization continues to operate as a nonprofit that works to protect natural land and waterways by creating nature preserves, establishing conservation easements and facilitating programs for the public.
Currently, there are 25 sites listed by Genesee Land Trust as nature preserves intended for the public to explore. Locations span areas as small as a few acres to the 275 acres of the Brookdale Preserve in Chili.
The work in creating these preserves can be steeped in the language of real estate transactions through purchasing or donations. However, the real value for Genesee Land Trust is in what the areas represent to the natural world.
“The number of times I’ve been to the Thousand Acre Swamp (owned by the Nature Conservancy), and they have a sign-in book where I’ll read people wrote down ‘Too many bugs,’ I’m just like, ‘It’s called a swamp!’” Wright chuckles.
“Our wetlands, which we have a lot of, whether it’s on the surface or subsurface, are all connected to our streams and therefore Lake Ontario,” she continues. “They’re very critical as a wildlife habitat for salamanders and frogs. Wetlands also work to clean our water that goes into the lake that we then drink.”
In addition, that area is key for the hundreds of species whose migration patterns take them through the Great Lakes region. Due to its many migration stopovers, breeding territories and overwintering sites, the Finger Lakes has over 20 “Important Bird Areas.”
Monarch butterflies, which have recently undergone devastating declines in population, similarly pass through the local area, stopping before going across Lake Ontario. These stopover visits are integral to the ecosystem for both migrating and indigenous plant and animal life.
Counter to prior strategies, those sites are not always pristine areas before land trusts acquire them. For example, Wright mentions a land trust in Buffalo currently working to reverse the harmful effects of a brownfield site in the area.
“That’s something we’re seeing land trusts do more now, versus historically where it was: ‘Take the pristine things, set them aside, and don’t let anyone touch them.’ We’ve come a long way from that attitude,” she adds.
Genesee Land Trust works to keep areas safe for wildlife, but also accessible to humans when possible. Wright is a believer in the power of green spaces to not only affect the environment’s health, but also peoples’ emotional wellbeing.
“(During the COVID pandemic), I think we saw how important connecting to nature was for kids especially,” says Wright, recalling using observations in nature as a calming technique for her own children.
Green spaces could even have the potential to improve educational outcomes. Wright mentions a 2016 study which found that students with a window view looking out over greenery performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery compared to other students who had no windows or a window looking out over a barren landscape. For Rochester, which still strives to create an urban tree canopy, that study is particularly relevant.
The land trust’s involvement in the El Camino Trail is a prime example of expanding accessibility to nature in urban spaces. Located in the north central area of Rochester, El Camino cuts through more than 2 miles of the 14621 neighborhood along what used to be old railroad tracks.
Rural areas also can have accessibility issues to natural land and waterways, a fact that can be masked by their proximity to nature. Those areas are often the places where Genesee Land Trust uses conservation easements to preserve land.
Conservation easements are voluntary and perpetual agreements with landowners that restrict development of the property and work to protect the unique character of the land. They can be used to preserve natural features, preserve the space for recreation, or ensure that agricultural land is passed down from farmer to another farmer.
Most recently, Genesee Land Trust helped local farmer Bill Chase and his neighbors preserve 558 acres in Rush, through a conservation easement. For an area experiencing a growth of population that still has some of the best farmland in the country, agricultural preservation is an underrated concern, Chase, Wright and the others at Genesee Land Trust believe. Competition with developers makes it difficult for farmers early in their career to purchase land.
“I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to live the kind of farm life I lived, and at least experience some of the way I was brought up,” Chase said in Genesee Land Trust’s Fall/Winter 2022 newsletter.
With an eye toward the future, Wright says actions related to the Genesee River Alliance will increase as development around the Roc the Riverway projects also progresses. The alliance itself was a collaborative effort that began in 2019 as a way to bring stakeholders and neighborhoods around the Genesee River together. Since then, Wright says, the alliance has helped the city’s outreach efforts.
“The Genesee River is itself a wildlife corridor for fish, turtles, beavers,” says Wright. “But it’s also about engagement with the community. We want every stakeholder in the river to be connected for future enjoyment.”
Similarly, Genesee Land Trust is hoping a community survey will help shape the proposed park at High Falls, a concept it has been supporting for years. The draft concept includes over 40 acres of land complete with vehicular access, a new pedestrian river crossing, trails, an amphitheater and open space.
At an even higher level, Wright believes tapping into regional, state and federal funding is the next step for Genesee Land Trust to push conservation efforts even further. She also is excited to introduce herself and answer questions from the public at a virtual Q & A later this month.
“I get to work with so many other dedicated and passionate people, a lot of them volunteers who care, like all of us, about the environment. I love the natural areas we have here and I’m grateful to work in preserving them for generations to come,” Wright concludes.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].