NEW YORK (WETM) – New York is chock full of the natural world. From the mountainous Adirondacks to the forests of the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes, and the Great Lakes shorelines, Upstate New York has no shortage of greenery.

More than 4.5 million acres of New York State is public land, and much of this is split into State Forests, State Parks, Forest Preserves, and Wildlife Management Areas. Upstate New York even has federal natural lands, including the Finger Lakes National Forest, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, and the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

But if the intent of all of these public lands is to preserve, respect, and celebrate the natural world, what are their differences?

New York’s State Parks are operated by NYS Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. There are more than 250 of these, and over 78 million people visited them in 2021, according to the department. Local state parks include Watkins Glen, Newtown Battlefield, Robert S. Treman, Buttermilk Falls, Taughannock Falls, Stony Brook, Two Rivers, and Keuka Lake, among others.

The Parks Department says its mission is to “provide safe and enjoyable recreational and interpretive opportunities for all New York State residents and visitors and to be responsible stewards of our valuable natural, historic and cultural resources.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation is the body in charge of other public lands, like forests. These types of lands are broken down into four classifications: Forest Preserves, State Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, and Conservation Easements.

New York’s Forest Preserve consists of nearly three million acres in the Adirondack Park and the Catskill Park. The DEC says the giant swaths of land are further broken down by the level of use they can withstand. This use includes canoeing, biking, pure wilderness, campgrounds and other “intensive use” recreation, and travel corridors like roads or railroads.

Hundreds of State Forests make up over 800,000 acres of woodland across the Empire State. A quick glance at Google Maps will show dozens of the State Forest green patches right in the Southern Tier.

The DEC says there are four types of State Forest:

  1. Reforestation areas: “Forever devoted” to planting trees; can only be divided by highway, railroad, pipeline, or phone line.
  2. Multiple Use Areas: For other recreational opportunities, like fishing, hunting, camping, boating, winter sports, or trapping.
  3. Unique Areas: Owned by the State for its special natural beauty or geological/ecological/historical significance.
  4. State Nature and Historic Preserves: “Natural communities” for plants and animals; “resevoirs” of natural resources to protect NY’s biodiversity; field laboratories for scientific research; provide “passive” recreation for the public.

There are over 100 Wildlife Management Areas operated by the DEC. These are generally open to the public to explore forests, open fields, streams, ponds, and other views. The DEC explains that main purpose of WMA’s is the “production and use of wildlife”, especially the protection of fish and other wildlife resources.

Local WMA’s include Big Flats, West Cameron, Catherine Creek, and Connecticut Hill.

The fourth classification of public land is Conservation Easements. These lands—created from a legal agreement between the government and a landowner—are limited for the use of preservation of “the scenic, open, historic, archaeological, architectural, or natural condition, character, significance or amenities” of the land. According to the DEC, there are no Conservation Easements open to the public in the Southern Tier.

As mentioned above, Western New York and the Finger Lakes are also home to federally protected lands. The Finger Lakes National Forest is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. National Wildlife Refuges (including Iroquois and Montezuma) are operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.