Phantoms of the Finger Lakes
by Gino Fanelli | published May. 6th, 2015
In the outskirts of Romulus, NY, located about an hour outside of Rochester, a massive, 26-mile long circuit of chain-link fencing, marked with foreboding signs labeling directions for vehicles carrying explosives and notices of restricted access exists. This is the Seneca Army Depot, a defunct munitions storage and destruction facility covering 10,587 sq. acres in Seneca County. Abandoned in 2000, the lingering military presence here can still be sensed. Cropping up across the landscape are grass-topped concrete bunkers, once home to the largest U.S. Army nuclear stockpile in the United States. Concrete structures lay festering in the Finger Lakes' sun, with moss creeping up the walls. And then there is the elusive glimpse of the living remnants of this base. Ghostly figures strutting across the landscape, isolated from the outside world.
These are the Seneca White Deer, often referred to as "ghost deer", an extremely rare breed of white-tail deer. Contrary to popular belief, these deer are not albino or the product of nuclear radiation, but rather the result of years of selective hunting by military personnel within the Depot, creating an environment where the White Deer were able to flourish and reproduce unhindered. However, with plans for the annual military hunt to cease in early 2016 alongside all other military activities within the base, the fence will inevitably fall and future of the Seneca White Deer is, at best, uncertain.
Dennis Money is the president of the Seneca White Deer Organization, a conservation group located in Canandaigua, NY.
"The only thing they have is an annual hunt, which has been going on since 1957," Money said. "And that keeps the deer within their winter food supply. That hunt is a very important management tool. Other than that, I can tell you that when the Depot was announced to be officially closed, a lot of the mowing that was happening ceased, and that mowing was really important for providing plants that the deer needed to eat. A lot of that has gone away because of budget cuts and without involvement by the EPA or the DEC, we really don't know what's happening inside the Depot."
Money, alongside five colleagues, organized Seneca White Deer in 1999 following a career ripe with conservation efforts for varying species, including a successful plan to raise peregrine falcons atop the Rochester Gas & Electric Building and an equally successful involvement in reintroduction of river otters to Western New York. Despite these accomplishments, the ecotourism master plan Money proposes for the Seneca Army Depot has made little strides in providing ensured conservation of the Seneca White Deer population through funding by New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
"I've been working on this for over 17 years and why don't they see the value of what we've been trying to do to promote the Depot as an ecotourism facility?" Money said. "Despite all of our successes in our guided tours, they completely ignore the potential the Depot has for ecotourism."
Money went on to place blame on the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), the current owners of the land.
"They keep pounding along hoping that someone is going to want to build an auto repair factor or open a manufacturing plant, but what they can't get through their thick skulls is there's no infrastructure here to attract people to come. They don't have electric, don't have gas, don't have sewers and don't have water. And you have 519 empty ammunition bunkers. What do you do with them? We look at them as a real asset, as they're part of the history of the Depot."
"Their mission is one-sided, its commercial-industrial development. They have no interest in conservation and they have no interest in tourism," Money said. "They keep pounding along hoping that someone is going to want to build an auto repair factor or open a manufacturing plant, but what they can't get through their thick skulls is there's no infrastructure here to attract people to come. They don't have electric, don't have gas, don't have sewers and don't have water. And you have 519 empty ammunition bunkers. What do you do with them? We look at them as a real asset, as they're part of the history of the Depot."
This sentiment is reflected by the marketing of the land offered by the IDA. While the offered land does include ecotourism and conservation as a proposed purpose, the area this is attributed to is a small chunk located in the northeast corner of the Depot. Even in this area, a suggested use is for coexistence of conservation with renewable energy facilities. Much larger dedications are offered up to proposed uses in everything from food manufacturing to warehouse storage. While some companies have taken up the offer, the largest being the Finger Lakes Technology Group (located in the north segment directly east of the proposed conservation area), the vast majority of the land remains unused. While ecotourism may seem like a not particularly profitable endeavor, Money argued that overlooking this industry is a massive mistake on the part of the IDA.
"Tourism is either the number one or number two industry in Seneca County, but that's not their not their mission, they're not interested in that. They're only interested in commercial-manufacturing industries," Money said. "From my experience with river otters and peregrine falcons, people really love wildlife, and they will pay good money to come see them."
Money's statement is contested by ACT Rochester, which measured the different economic factors present in Seneca County. In 2012, tourism accounted for a profit of $1,293 per resident, below the NYS standard by more than 10 percent. However, tourism is also on an upward trend, and there is no reason to believe that this trend would be hindered by a massive ecotourism site featuring both an entirely unique military history as well as entirely unique wildlife. Despite this, conservation continues to be an increasingly uphill battle.
"We had about a hundred responders reach out to the DEC to convince them to purchase a significant portion of the land with environmental protection fund money" Money said. "But we've heard nothing. We have received letters from the DEC commissioner and the New York Parks Commissioner saying they were not interested in purchasing the Depot, citing lack of man power and lack of budget. And yet every single day, in fact just last week, the DEC acquired 6,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks, with environmental protection fund money."
What becomes apparent when following the plight of the White Deer is an impending sense of doom. With lack of concern by government agencies and the date of reckoning growing ever closer, the bleak future of the meager 200 deer herd becomes a tangible reality.
"When the Army leaves, and that is projected right now to be early 2016, any commitment the federal government had made will go away. And those commitments are to maintain the roads, maintain the fence and maintain the deer herd," Money said. "When the Army leaves there will be no more hunting, the fence could come down and the deer could escape. And the IDA doesn't care. Something has to happen in 2016 or this White Deer herd that was developed by the Army, developed by conservation efforts, will not survive."
As of 2014, the Seneca Army Depot has become the home of Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security male prison. With the days numbered for the Seneca White Deer, perhaps this is a fitting contribution. For the prisoners and these creatures, locked away behind the chain link fence, hold the common bond of being forgotten, of being abandoned by the system. However while that fence may mark the edge of freedom for those locked away, that very same fence crumbling to the earth marks a death sentence for the ghost deer.
Dennis Money encourages those interested in conservation of the Seneca White Deer to reach out to NY State Senators and assemblymen in regards to the future of the Depot.