7.11.2006

The Ghost Deer of Romulus, Part II

The story of the herd of strange white deer in Romulus, NY, has a new, post-Cold War chapter that will determine their future survival.
In 1995, as the Cold War wound down, the ownership of the Depot was transferred from the military to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (IDA). The IDA brought in an outside consultant to chart the proper "development" of their windfall. The consultant created a complex plan to subdivide the land into several uses: resort development, power generation (in particular wind power), training facilities for law enforcement and (for the majority of the land) residential development. 1,500 acres would be reserved for future industrial development and 1,445 acres were set aside for conservation (AKA the white deer herd).
An alternative plan, created by Seneca White Deer (local a non-profit organization), wants to have the majority (if not all) of the land turned into a conservation area oriented towards eco-tourism. They believe that horseback tours of the complex, discussing both the natural environment and the Cold War history, are a more stable form of job creation than possible future factories and suburban sprawl over wetlands. Already horse clubs have expressed interest in building trails and the Finger Lakes railroad desires to open the line into the Depot (which formerly served the base) as a destination for day trips.
The Finger Lakes region certainly gets enough tourism to support their idea, especially if they follow up with their plan for an environmentally friendly lodge for overnight stays. Local hunters have been lining up to support this second plan, as the right to hunt a single white buck that are raffled of yearly is highly coveted. SWD believes that the yearly raffle would be enough to maintain the perimeter fence. They also have no problem with wind power generation and law enforcement training on the land and as the editor of the Canandaigua Daily Messenger points out, neither the real-estate, industrial nor resort-development markets in Seneca county are doing well without the interference of the County throwing a few thousand more acres on the market. Likewise, no-one is jumping on the chance to build their factories on all of the other, more accessible, former military tracts around the state (talk to Plattsburgh).
This debate raises fascinating questions about ecology (should we preserve a fragile genetic fluke of our own creation?) and development (homes vs. tours, outside consultants vs. local residents). Do the deer deserve our continued protection from the ravages of nature? It seems that the answer would be, for what purpose?
One oft-neglected benefit of the second proposal is the maintenance of animal habitat and open space in the region- 7,500 open acres, including 600 acres of wetland, is not a common find in the Finger Lakes. An organization dedicated to preserving the land and interpreting the ruins of the base would be uniquely situated to tell the story of humanity’s effect upon the land, and its unintended side effects. The deer could be turned from a mere curiosity into a metaphor for the horror of war and the insanity of our attempts to fence-in and dominate the land and the animals. Perhaps maintaining a herd of white deer makes sense if it’s the only way your can convince a County development board to protect 7,500 acres of wildlife habitat, interpretation or no.
In the end, I believe the best hope for the Depot would be for the care of the land (if not the title) were transferred to a small local non-profit dedicated to preservation and interpretation. Sections of the preserve could be utilized for other, non-contradictory, uses (like the aforementioned wind power generation and training). An environmentally-friendly lodge housing visitors (hunters and tourists alike) and tours of the grounds would create stable jobs and give a demonstration of sustainable living and development that we could all admire. To turn the land into 5-6,000 acres of home development would be wasteful (who would buy them?) and destructive to the fabric of both the natural and human community. We have enough soulless suburbs of endless McMansions, let’s instead protect our own bizarre little artifact of the Cold War- the Ghost Deer of Romulus and the fantastic 7,500 acres in which they live.
-by Jesse
PS: For those who desire to help Seneca White deer, they have a list of "What You Can Do," including letter-writing and donating. They’ve also got a flyer you can print out made by a Girl Scout seeking her Bronze award who’s made protecting the deer her project; it’s quite cute. This certainly isn’t a slick production of the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy.

Read Part I of this article

Update: The Syracuse Post Standard has written an article on 9.23.06 about the potential for development on the Seneca Army Depot site, and that Seneca White Deer, Inc. is offering "mini-safaris" in the last two weeks of October as a fundraiser. - Natalie

4 comments:

wild turkey desire! said...

Thanks for writing this piece, I enjoyed the read, and also enjoy reading about upstate NY on York Staters. Upstate is pretty special place, as this the mainters of this website may also atest.

Now I'm not an expert on the actual environmental status of the Seneca Army Depot, but it doesn't seem like the most pristine place on the planet. I'm sure the State and Federal authorities had to drastically clean up the place before they sold it, so it is probably a lot safer than it used to be, but still, I would never want to build a factory, let alone house on land that is probably pretty badly contaminated. (note: I don't know this, but I'm assuming this due to its history as one of the greatest Soviet targets during the Cold War). I think there were things there no government would ever want its citizens to know, especially folks looking into building a house or factory on the property. There are certain things that can never be cleaned up.

As for the deer, it seems that it would be a good idea to keep them around, if not only to give some deer hunter hefty bragging rights, but more so for the simple fact of reminding people of the many affects that war has on our environment.

Natalie, to answer your question from Part 1 of the Ghost Deer surrounding my nom de guerre - Wild Turkey Desire is for the liberation of desire, and not about losing oneself in an expensive bottle of whiskey, although, sometimes expensive bottles of whiskey can be nice, especially when they are from Scotland and shared with friends.

"Now the ocean an't whiskey, and I an't a duck" - old tyme memory

Jesse said...

Wild Turkey Desire- I haven't heard of pollution on the army depot... but I would be willing to put money down that it's pretty dirty land, certainly not the spot that I would want to raise my children. I hadn't even thought of that possibility, funny how the obvious can slip your mind when you're thinking hard on a subject. As far as the deer being a product of the pollution, I'm not sure about that, but once again it's worth a bet.

Regarding the flood, like Natalie said, neither I nor her live in a flooded area. However, my mother does and she has been working on flood relief with the Red Cross. She's promised to write something up about it for us, which I'm looking forward to.

Romulan said...

Belated joke already shared between joe and jesse:

Hey, don't forget about the ebony devil deer of Rimis, New York.

Ovidian said...

I live in the community near the Depot and went on the first Seneca White Deer tour bus this weekend (Oct 21, 2006). I thought I'd fill in some of the blanks in the discussion above.

The white gene is naturally occurring in white-tailed deer all over. It accumulated in this population because they were not hunted--plain old selection. They were first seen on the Depot before there were nukes. They have been seen in other places with similar management. You could probably recreate a white population if you had the use of 10,000 fenced acres for a couple decades. Deer populations naturally increase by 50 to 100% per year in this region. To keep a stable population, that means the annual mortality needs to be 30 to 50%. Even among the white deer. If the habitat is maintained, they are a rather renewable resource!

The pollution on the depot now is mainly on two types. First, solvents from machine shops. They did a lot of preparation and restoration on conventional weapons. The current EPA requirements for solvents didn't exist then, and there are a lot of spills and inappropriate disposals. The second is from the disposal of outdated conventional weapons. UXO--unexploded ordnance--is the stuff that didn't burn or blow up. The sites are all mapped, fenced, and monitored. The Army is cleaning up, but it has another pressing expense elsewhere right now.

Nuclear contamination is not a problem. The nukes were fully assembled warheads before they were brought to be stored at the depot. They did attach fuses here, but that didn't involve step that lead to leakage. I have been in the area where the nukes were. All the doors are open; there are no hazard barriers. BTW, there are "igloos" where the warheads were stored, but no silos where missles were deployed.

The Conservation area is not terribly attractive for most kinds of development. This was a storage and warehousing area. There are over 500 reinforced ammunition storage igloos spaced about 500 feet apart. There are lots of (decrepit) roads connecting them with the many loading docks, rail tracks and warehouses. It's all in bad enough shape not to be useful, but solid enough to be ugly for a long time. All this infrastructure creates massive amounts of edge habitat between the open developed areas and the scrubby forest in between. That is great for deer.

The IDA folks are not evil, they are just trying really hard to get a decent set of tenants who can pay the bills. It's not easy. As you mention, there are better industrial sites going undeveloped in the state. Unfortunately, SWD isn't regarded as being a tenant that can pay the bills. Their goal with the weekend tours this week and next is to change that image. Selling out 1800 seats should help.

There have been several consultant plans over the last 12 years. Each has something to offer, but none can be considered likely to happen as written. A couple years ago, one did have the land chunked up in smallish bits, but there was another plan a few months later that altered those recommendations. The reality that there are thousands of acres that are not going to attract another tenant (except in consultants' imaginations) favors the SWD plan.