The Indian Creek Woods and Wetlands on West Hill

The issue

Tompkins County owns 25.5 acres of land on West Hill situated along the intersection of Indian Creek Road and Dubois Road. Also known as the “Biggs property,” the land is called the “Indian Creek woods” by local residents because of the creek and its tributaries that run through it. In 2013, the county legislature voted that there is “no public use” for the property and attempted to sell it to an out-of-state developer for a large housing development. The developer pulled out of the project in 2014, stating that wetlands on the site were extensive and prevented the development from going forward as planned.

West Hill residents strenuously opposed the large-scale development of the woods and wetlands. A lawsuit supported and won by the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA) in 2014 delayed the project from going forward. Residents continue to be concerned about the environmental impacts of developing that property.

Recently, on Oct. 27, 2015, after hearing from concerned residents on West Hill, the legislature’s Government Operations Committee tabled a proposal to list the property for sale on the open market. Community members were offered the opportunity to come up with proposals for what should be done with the property. The committee will meet on Nov. 24.

ICNA is soliciting comments and ideas from the community to present to the legislature as it determines the ultimate fate of this publicly-owned land.

Rich diversity of flora and fauna

Local naturalist Akiva Silver toured the Indian Creek property and describes it as “a wonderful combination of mature trees and thickets” that provide a rich ecosystem to support a diverse wildlife population. The land was timbered in the nineteenth century but has never been developed. The woodland is about 100 years old.

The woods surrounding the dense wetlands in the middle of the site contain many trees more than 50 years old, including many “high-value wildlife trees” that provide nuts and berries. Nearby residents report ongoing sightings of foxes, wild turkeys, racoons, possums, rabbits, woodchucks, coyotes, salamanders, hawks, owls, deer, squirrels and chipmunks.

Among the mature trees at Indian Creek, Akiva Silver identified white oaks, red oaks, white pines, maples, basswood, pin oaks, black walnut trees, white ash, black cherry, Norway spruce, shag-bark hickory, butternut hickory, and eastern red cedar. There are random decorative trees mixed in, like little-leaf linden, and native shrubs like honeysuckle and northern catalpa, which grows wild on the edges of streams and trees.

Historical significance

The intersection of Indian Creek and Dubois roads was once a major Native American crossing along the “Taughannock Trail” which went from the south end of Cayuga Lake to Taughannock Falls. This trail is documented in a pamphlet, “Old Indian Trails in Tompkins County,” published by the Historical Society of Tompkins County.

ICNA has consulted with Prof. Sherene Baugher of Cornell University, who concurs that this site may have historic and archaeological significance and should be surveyed. Also supporting a complete archaeological review are Prof. Jack Rossen of Ithaca College, Prof. Kurt Jordan of Cornell and Prof. Kathleen Allen of the University of Pittsburgh.

Environmental significance

The Indian Creek property lies uphill of and close to the Indian Creek Unique Natural Area established by Tompkins County.

In the past year, the Ithaca area experienced several major flooding events. The effects of rapid climate change are impacting the sensitive ecosystem of the Cayuga Lake watershed. The extensive wetlands on the site help to mitigate flooding and protect the integrity of the hill slope. If the 25.5 acres of natural habitat are destroyed, the deer problem will be greatly exacerbated and wild turkeys may disappear.

The undeveloped land helps to meet the county’s stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The county’s own “Energy Roadmap” states, “… emissions can be reduced by enhancing resources that naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere. The natural process of carbon sequestration absorbs and stores atmospheric carbon in carbon sinks – local land, forests, wetlands, and waters. Protecting and sustainably managing these natural resources is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Preserving these acres of woods and wetlands supports the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Any development of the woods will increase greenhouse gas emissions. More energy will be used, especially to pump water up the hill, green space will be paved over and more cars will add to the traffic flow into the city.


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