Category Archives: Cool Science

A View from the Treetops: life as a forest health specialist

My name is Abigail Pierson and I am a Forest Health Specialist for NYS Parks. The scope of my work covers almost all the state parks in the western half of New York state, making each week always something new and exciting.

My week begins with the usual desk work of contacting park managers and anything else to ensure a smooth work week. However, by 10 a.m. my coworker and I are hopping in the work van and traveling to a state park. Once we’ve arrived, my partner and I begin setting up our tents and going over our schedule for the week. When the work day comes to end, it’s time for arguably the most intricate task of the day, dinner.

Abby and her current NYS Parks staffer and climbing partner, James Boyd.

Our meals are cooked on a two-burner camp stove, so chaos usually ensues when we are both starving and trying to prepare full course meals. Trying to make a full meal on one burner each serves as a microcosm of the balance of respect, teamwork, trust, and cooperation needed for the success of our team.  We spend every morning, afternoon, and night together for five days of the week. This job requires a lot of trust. We are climbing tall trees for research purposes, so our safety depends on each other. It is amazing to have a job/life experience like this where your co-worker becomes such an integral part of your life.

It’s always interesting climbing out of our dew-covered tents each morning; seeing everything in nature slowly coming to life all around us. Our days move by very fast. I eat a quick breakfast, after which I grab my climbing gear and data collection tools and begin the hike into a hemlock stand.

We are monitoring for hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) an invasive insect species native to Japan that can kill entire hemlock stands in 4 to 10 years. Our hikes to these hemlock stands can range from a half mile to three miles, and this is where the real fun begins. We put on our helmets and safety glasses and begin sending our rope up and over one of the branches in the middle canopy of the tree. Once we have our single rope set up and secured on the tree, one of us straps on our climbing harness and begins the ascent, which can be a hundred feet or more up into the air.

Abby gears up with NYS Parks staffer Jake Sidey during a 2016 climb.
Abby having fun a phone app with NYS Parks staffer and 2017/18 climbing partner Ben Jablonski.

A beautiful thing about our climbing setup is we cause no damage to the tree. Our goal is to save these majestic giants, not injure them. Once I reach the top section of the rope, I attach myself directly to the tree using a flip line. A flip line is a short adjustable section of rope that goes around the trunk of the tree and attaches to both sides of my harness.

It’s a good thing I’m a tree hugger because I must hug the tree as I use flip lines to ascend to the top canopy of the tree. It is a very intense experience being on flip lines because it is up to myself and this tree to keep me safe. In many ways, we are trusting the trees with our lives just as much as the trees are trusting us with theirs.

Climbing to the very top canopy of a tree that usually towers over the rest of the forest canopy is an indescribable experience. It feels as if, for a moment, you are larger than the forest itself. After all that hard work of getting to the top canopy I always take a moment to take in the beauty of nature that is surrounding me.

The View from the Top.

Once I’ve taken in the view it is right back to work. I take a small sample of a branch from the top canopy and put it into a labeled Baggie. As I descend back down the tree, I take samples from the middle and lower canopies. These samples allow us to identify if the tree is healthy or its level of infestation by HWA, a tiny aphid-like insect that gradually kills hemlocks by feeding on the juices in their needles.

The information that we gather helps show how widespread HWA is in the state and which hemlocks might still have the potential to be saved.

Here, and below, A close up of the telltale fluffy white insect egg masses that indicate HWA infestation.

If left unchecked, HWA could wipe out the majority of eastern hemlocks in New York, a species that is the third most common tree in the state. Hence the importance of slowing or even stopping its spread as quickly as possible. Widespread hemlock mortality would have a lasting impact on ecosystems, streams, flora and fauna, and even the look of the landscape.

Hemlock mortality in parks especially is a scary thing for me to imagine as patrons would no longer be able to enjoy the parks the same way that they can now. Some of our most well-known parks, including Letchworth, Allegany, Watkins Glen, and others like Stonybrook and Thacher, feature hemlocks along most major trails and vista points. Campgrounds and picnic areas of many parks enjoy cooling shade courtesy of hemlocks. If those hemlock stands were to die back the park would look barren, be unsafe due to erosion and dead limbs, and the internal ecosystems would be negatively impacted as well.

On the left, hemlock trees killed by HWA. On the right, a healthy, uninfested hemlock.

Click here for a map showing how HWA has spread in New York State.

What can you do to help? According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, if you believe you have found HWA:

  • Take pictures of the infestation signs (include something for scale such as a coin or ruler).
  • Note the location (intersecting roads, landmarks or GPS coordinates).
  • Fill out the hemlock woolly adelgid survey form.
  • Email report and photos to DEC Forest Health foresthealth@dec.ny.gov or call the Forest Health Information Line at 1-866-640-0652.
  • Contact your local Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) by visiting http://www.nyis.info/.
  • Report the infestation at iMapInvasives.
  • Slow the spread of HWA in our forests by cleaning equipment or gear after it has been near an infestation, and by leaving infested material where it was found.

Overall, tree climbing is a phenomenal experience that allows us to experience the sheer beauty of the hemlock tree and surrounding forest, while also allowing us make the in-depth assessment needed to ensure that the natural beauty is preserved.

Helping to save the amazing environment we live in, educating the public on invasive species, and being up close and personal with nature every day is an amazing gift. This job allows me to fulfill all my strongest passions simultaneously and I could not be luckier to have this opportunity.

Born to climb: A young Abby is geared up for tree climbing up by her father, Dr. Timothy G. Pierson, during Penn State Agricultural Progress Days. Abby later got her bachelor’s degree in environmental science/biology from Penn State, where her father worked as a forester.

Post by Abigail Pierson, Forest Health Specialist

Efforts to Control Invasive Species in Parks Gain a Four-Footed Team Member

One sniff at a time, an energetic Labrador retriever named Dia is changing the way we combat invasive species in New York State Parks.

Along with her handler Joshua Beese, this invasives-fighting team from the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is on the hunt for Scotch broom, a threat to the native ecosystems in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Dia uses her powerful sense of smell to help find small and sparsely distributed invasive species that might be missed by human searchers. Since November 2018, her incredible nose has been specially trained to sniff out the invasive plant Scotch broom.

Joshua Beese with Dia. Photo by nynjtc.org

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius)is one of the most destructive invasives on the Pacific Coast, where it has had costly implications for agricultural industries. When it began showing up in New York’s parks, land managers became concerned. Scotch broom forms dense clusters that can displace native plant species and reduce biodiversity that is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

The Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (LHPRISM), which works to minimize the harm caused by invasives, ranks Scotch broom as a tier 2 priority invasive species. That means it is present in such low numbers in the Lower Hudson Valley that with proper action it could be completely eradicated from the area before the population becomes established.

Scotch broom plant in flower on May 2015 at Harriman State Park. Photo by Shelby Timm, nynjtc.org.

The New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team and the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force (ISF) Crew of AmeriCorps members, volunteers, and interns have collaborated over the past several years in a bid to eradicate Scotch broom in the region. The ISF Crew has been finding and removing Scotch broom in state parks since 2014, when 37 separate populations were recorded at Bear Mountain and Harriman.

A Scotch broom infestation at Harriman State Park in 2014. Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org
After the Scotch broom removal . Photo by Jennifer Breen, nynjtc.org

While a few locations no longer have any plants, other locations are harder to manage. It becomes challenging to find the few remaining individuals among all the other vegetation, which means this destructive plant could still propagate. That’s where Dia comes in!

“Dia first comes into the field with her nose up, smelling what’s in the air, working to detect the Scotch broom scent,” explains handler Beese. “She’s using what are called scent cones; she works her way into a cone and uses that cone to help her narrow down the source.”

Once in a cone, she will search until she gets to the source and put her nose to the ground to sniff out smaller plants that may be tiny and low to the ground. She alerts Beese that she’s found the species by standing or sitting. “The most important thing is that she’s committed to an area where she’s detected the plant until I come and reward her,” Beese says. “Then we can mark it and remove it.”

Dia’s reward: Her ball on a rope with a game of tug and fetch. See Dia in action by following her on Instagram @diasavestheforest.

Dia on the hunt for invasives. Photo by Arden Blumenthal, nynjtc.org

Utilizing their exceptional sense of smell, dogs have been commonly used for search and rescue, as well as weapons and narcotics detection. These tracking and detection skills are now being used to protect our wild spaces. In 2010, the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management published a study that concluded trained dogs could smell and detect twice the number of invasive plants that humans could observe with their eyes.

Although other groups have used dogs for short projects to detect of invasive species, the Trail Conference’s Conservation Dog Program is the first permanent program of its kind in the Northeast.

This is Dia’s first season in the field; she has already been on more than 20 surveying trips. In several instances, the Trail Conference’s Invasives Strike Force Crew had been to a site and completely removed every plant they were able to find—and then Dia found a few more.

Trail Conference Conservation Corps members removing Scotch broom plants in 2016. The flags indicate where plants have been removed. Photo by Matt Simonelli, nynjtc.org

Dia came to the Trail Conference from a farm in Wisconsin that breeds dogs for hunting competitions. She was selected for the program by Beese, an experienced search and rescue dog handler, who is assisted by volunteer Arden Blumenthal. He has trained Dia with the mentorship of Aimee Hurt from Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, an organization that has been working with dogs on conservation projects for more than 20 years.

In a metropolitan region highly prone to invasive infestations, early detection when populations are small is a key component of successful invasive species management. Not only does Dia make search-and-destroy efforts more thorough within infestations, she is also able to find stray plants outside the known boundaries where people had focused their searches. Dia helps make sure the area is really cleared to reduce the potential for reinfestation or further spread. With better search efficiency, it should be possible to declare New York State parks Scotch broom-free in the near future. 

Crew from New York State Parks Invasive Species Strike Team removing a Scotch broom plant. Phot by Linda Rohleder, nynjtc.org

Up next for Dia is slender false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), an invasive grass that can outcompete existing vegetation, including threatened and endangered species, and harm wildlife populations by altering food sources. Slender false brome has recently been found in Letchworth State Park, and this location will serve as a training ground for Dia.

***UPDATE: Dia and her team recently went to Letchworth State Park, where they did find the invasive slender false brome in areas where surveyors had missed it.

Conservation dogs can learn to detect up to three new species each year, meaning Dia’s incredible talents will continue to develop. “In three or four years,” Beese says, “we’ll be pushing forward the science on what can be done with invasive species detection using dogs.”

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dog team, from left, Arden Blumenthal, Dia, and Joshua Beese. Photo by Heather Darley, nynjtc.org

Post by Linda Rohleder, Director of Land Stewardship, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference and Coordinator, Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM)

Pausing to Ponder Pollinators

It is Pollinator Week, the week we celebrate pollinators small and tiny.  Our native pollinators, including bumble bees, mining bees, bee flies, longhorn beetles, and flower moths, play an important role in supporting the diversity of plant life in New York. Since 2016, State Parks staff has been working hard to help protect our native pollinators by cultivating native plant gardens and meadows.

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Pollinator gardens are a great way to attract a variety of pollinators and provide a place for people to see and learn about plants and pollinators up close. Unlike natural areas, these areas often contain a familiar garden plants like daffodils, marigolds, petunias, snapdragons, Stella Dora lilies, garden iris, cosmos, and many other non-native plants that provide color and variety and attract pollinators. However, by adding in plants that are native to New York State, you boost the value to the insects. Native pollinators evolved with the native flora, so they do better on these plants.  Some examples of native flora that are good for gardens are violets, blue flag iris, wood lily, butterfly weed (not to be confused with the non-native butterfly bush see below), asters, goldenrods, native sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, azalea, and many others. Using a variety plants helps to support both the insect “generalists” who use many kinds of flowers, as well as the “specialists” that go to only one or a few types of flowers. Pollinator gardens in State Parks offer a good way for you to learn about some plants that occur in the park or region too.

Pollinator meadows are larger areas from a quarter acre to many acres, typically where old fields containing a mix of native and pasture grasses are supplemented with native plant species that attract pollinators. This is the type of area that works well for planting milkweed, goldenrods, native grasses (like little bluestem, panic grass, big bluestem), and other species that don’t need a lot of care and that tend to spread. To maintain the meadow habitat, these sites are best managed by occasional mowing to keep woody plants from moving in. Targeted weeding is also needed to keep any non-native invasives from getting a foothold. But managing a meadow close to a woodland is a plus as a number of pollinators make their home their and visit the meadows for food.

GanondaganMeadow
The grassland at Ganondagan State Historic Site is a great place to find our native pollinators.

There are many lists of plants recommended for pollinator gardens or meadows but be wary as some contain plants that are not native to New York state. They also sometimes include non-native invasives which you really don’t want!

Fritilary aug 2017
Fritillary butterfly enjoys some milkweed at Caleb Smith State Park.

And beware that some common names can be confusing. For example, butterfly bush vs butterfly weed are not remotely related! Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a purple flowered shrub that is popular but not native and can be invasive. Best to avoid that one.  In contrast, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is an orange flowered milkweed native to NY and a great choice for attracting pollinators to your garden or meadow. To determine if a plant species is native to NY go to NY Flora Atlas.

NY State Parks staff have created more areas that make it easy for you to learn about native flora and fauna. The following places offer excellent spots for you to see native pollinators and learn about the plants they depend on. Take time this week to ponder pollinators at one of State Parks’ pollinator gardens or meadows.

Some of the parks will also have special pollinator programs during both Pollinator Week and over the summer, where you can search for and identify native pollinators.

cassie-meadow Allegany
Pollinator program at Allegany State Park.

Learn more about our native pollinators and other insects:

Hohm, Heather, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, Pollination Press LLC; 2014.

NY Natural Heritage Program and the Empire State Native Pollinator Survey

Wilson, Joseph S, The Bees In Your Backyard, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Xerces Pollinator Conservation

More information on insects and flowers:

Websites

BugGuide

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Books

McKenny, Margaret and Roger Tory Peterson, A Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America

Newcomb, Lawrence, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

Tallamy, Douglas and Rick Darke, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Evangola State Park: Lake Erie’s Winter Playground!

Along the shores of Lake Erie, Evangola State Park becomes a winter sports mecca as the lake’s famous lake-effect snowstorms blanket the park! Lake-effect snow occurs when cold, Canadian air moves across Lake Erie evaporating its open waters and causing intense, local snow bands which can drop one to two inches of snow per hour.

Burning calories while relieving stress, cross-country skiing is a popular activity on the parks peaceful and tranquil trails.

ForestTrail
An unbroken forested ski trail at Evangola.

DistantSkier
The only sound while skiing is the soft crunching of the snow as you glide through the woods.

Cross-country skiing is a wonderful way to connect to nature!

SnowyScene
Fresh snow clings onto the branches, enhancing the beauty of trees and shrubs.

Three major trail systems are avaliable at Evangola State Park. The Evangola Snowmobile Trail is located on the east side of the park and snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails are on the west side.

Many snowshoers and skiers utilize the 3.5 mile snowmobile trail since it is lightly used by snowmobilers. The trail is fairly flat and easy for beginners.

SnowmobileTrail
Evangola Snowmobile Trail.

The Evangola Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe trail is an easy two mile loop trail through forest and shrubby wetlands.The trail starts at the baseball field located on the west side of the park and goes right into the woods.

Skiers
Snowshoers head out on the trail.

With a variety of tracks along the way…….

Tracks
A skier discovers eastern coyote tracks.

A fun activity while skiing or snowshoeing is to investigate fresh animal tracks. The tracks left behind are a magical record of a nocturnal creature’s travel, allowing a glimpse into their secret lives.

DECTracks
Four toed animals include the fox, coyote and dogs. Raccoon prints have 5 clear toes. Deer tracks resemble a divided heart. Image from NYS Dept. of Conservation

Deer
White-tailed Deer are often seen crossing the trail, photo by Ed Conboy Jr.

PorchNC
A skier checks out the Evangola Nature Center. The nature center is open Memorial Day to Columbus Day and is sometimes used as a resting spot during winter sports programs.

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When the snow gets deeper and the world turns quiet…

The Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office has free snowshoes to loan to adults and children and many people bring their own snowshoes. It is easy to learn snowshoeing and participants become proficient on their first winter snowshoe hike.

ForestToLake1
The “Forest to Lake” snowshoe hike traverses Evangola’ s forested trails……

ForestToLake2
….and ends with a majestic look at the ice formations of Lake Erie!

Stunning Ice Formations

A spectacular winter trail at Evangola is the “Rim Trail” along towering cliffs over Lake Erie, where you can see all the way to Canada on a clear day! But clear skies or cloudy, check out some of nature’s ice sculptures all along the shore.

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Even the rim trail fence can bow with the weight of wind driven ice waves!

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The “Rim Trail’s” chain link fence with ice.

RimTrail
A lone skier checks out the “Rim Trail” view. During winter, arctic waterfowl and even an occasional Snowy Owl can be seen. Some of the biggest Red Oak in the park also occur along this trail.

SunnyLake
A winter icescape along the rim trail.

IceVolcano
Lake Erie ice volcano vents can be seen from above along Evangola’ s “Rim Trail”.

CoveredBridge
Throughout Evangola’s winter trails there is plenty to see including the iconic “Scotty’s Covered Bridge”!

Sunset
Evangola Sunsets during winter can be spectacular too!

Winter is a great time to get outside and explore Evangola State Park. So, come join our outdoor snowshoe hikes and cross-country ski programs or get out on your own to enjoy the park’s “lake-effect” snow trails.

Post by Dave McQuay, Evangola State Park environmental educator

The Untold Origin Story of the Falls

AuntSarahsFalls
Aunt Sarah’s Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park

Over the last 12,000 years, the landscape of the Finger Lakes region has undergone colossal change. Hidden in cracks and valleys throughout the region are wondrous geologic remnants of that change. So abundant is the splendor of these wonders that many locals have become numb to the consistent gurgling of waterfalls on their daily commute through, for example, the Village of Montour Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park, where residents often pass Aunt Sarah’s Falls on Route 14. Yet no two of the over 2,000 gorges that call the Finger Lakes home are the same; each has a different fingerprint with a different number of curves, caverns, and cascades.

The Finger Lakes themselves are a unique natural phenomenon. There are no other lakes quite like them in the world. Eleven north flowing lakes, varying in length and depth, span over 120 miles of the western section of New York. They range from Canadice Lake, at a mere 3 miles long, to Cayuga Lake, which stretches for 38.2 miles; and from the relatively shallow Honeoye Lake, at 30 feet deep to Seneca Lake, which plunges steeply for 634 feet.

FingerLakesMapWikimedia
Map of the Finger Lakes, accessed from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_New_York

About 2.5 million years ago dawned the age of ice. In this region, glaciers are thought to have been over 3,000 feet high, or about the size of two Empire State buildings stacked on top of each other! It is a result of these glaciers growing that we now have “finger lakes”; before we had “finger rivers.” All our U shaped lake basins were originally V shaped river valleys. As the glaciers bulldozed their way through the valleys, the unrelenting force gouged out the walls. About 12,000 years ago, a change in climate warmed the earth, ending the reign of the Ice Age.

WatkinsGlen

As the glaciers started to recede, their melting ice filled the lakes and exposed steep U shaped valley walls. All around would have been hanging valleys comprised of massive waterfalls dropping straight into the lakes. Today, every gorge near the lakes, including those south of the lakes, began its story as one of those waterfalls and has since eroded back into the rock.

“Ithaca is Gorges” is an iconic phrase in Ithaca, referring to the numerous gorgeous gorges around this city at the base of Cayuga Lake. This clever pun, however, has a forgotten key third part. As the massive waterfalls started to erode back into the rock, the eroded sediment built up at the base of the lake. This erosion was so rapid that our lakes are miles shorter than they were originally. “Ithaca is Gorges” because it was formed by the gorges and would not exist without them!

Devonian
Devonian Sea was found in western and central New York

The extremely fast rate of erosion in our gorges alludes to its rich ancient natural history dating back long before the Ice Age. The 380-million-year-old layers of rock in the gorge were each once the bottom of an expansive inland ocean that covered much of the eastern states. The earth, as we know it, was unrecognizable; life was just beginning to take a foothold on land. In the little town of Gilboa, NY, proof of this timeframe can be found in the oldest fossilized trees worldwide. The early roots of these Gilboa trees were pioneering the rocky, unforgiving earth on the edge of the Devonian sea.

This tropical inland sea – which was at that time located below the equator – was the result of a collision between the North American and European continents. When they collided, North America subducted, or went under Europe, and Europe crinkled up creating the Acadian Mountain range just off the coast of New York. These impressive mountains were estimated to have been as big, if not bigger, than the Himalayas are today!

WatkinsGlen1
Evidence of the Devonian Sea can be seen at Watkins Glen State Park

Much of the sediment found in the inland sea would have come from the erosion of these mountains, but the depth of this water would have, over time, also affected the type of sediment found on this ocean bottom. Gradually, the buildup of layers would have caused enough pressure to solidify the underlying sediment into rock. This is known as compaction. This means that every layer of rock in our gorges, be it the more brittle rocks, such as shale, or the denser rocks, such as sandstone and limestone, were once at the bottom of an ocean!

SandstoneShale

The layers however are only half of the puzzle influencing the speed of erosion in the gorge. Breaking up the layers, in a stunning display of natural masonry, are countless straight line fractures. There are fractures or joints that follow the gorges east to west and those that span across the gorge north to south, intersecting at almost perfect right angles. Notice the unnatural looking straight lines and right angles in the photo of Robert H. Treman State Park.

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Looking up the creek at Robert Treman State Park

These joints date back about 300 million years. At this time, all the continents were joining together to form one enormous supercontinent.  Pangea, which translates directly to “all earth,” stretched from pole to pole. If you study a map of the world’s continents, you may notice that the western edge of Africa matches up with the eastern edge of the United States like a jig saw puzzle. The stress of this collision alone, however, was not the force required to create the fractures.

Instead, it caused straight line weak points in the rock perpendicular to the pressure. Meanwhile, a batch of methane gas had matured under pressure and heat and took advantage of the weak points to escape from the depths of earth. After this event, 30 million years quietly passed while Africa unassumingly rotated around North America. This quiet rotation was disturbed 270 million years ago when another batch of methane gas matured under heat and pressure, again utilizing the weakened rock to escape. The timing of this second release just so happened to occur when Africa was at about a 90 degree angle from where the first batch of methane gas escaped, forming joints that meet up at almost perfect right angles. Next time you find yourself in the Finger Lakes, keep an eye out for these natural right angles, they’re everywhere!

TaughannockBoth
Taughannock Falls amphitheater has thousands of joints that contributed to the bowl shape
The top of the falls has two joints intersecting at a right angle.

Considering all 380 million years of the gorges’ rich natural history;

  • the glaciers that created the U-shaped lakes and the hanging valleys
  • the joints that resulted from the release of methane gas through the weakened rock
  • and the layers of rock – shale, sandstone, and limestone, remnants of an ancient inland sea
  • an ingenious combination of forces all working together to form the gorges in only 12,000 years comes to light. In short, as the water easily erodes away the brittle shale and undercuts itself, the joints or fractures that break up the creek bed speed up the erosion process by causing chunks of the denser rocks – sandstone and limestone to fall at a time. The water, therefore, never has to take the time to erode away the denser types of rock. In consequence, we can affectionately say that “Although our gorges are 12,000 years old, their story can be told in no less than 380 million years.”

Post by Tamara Beal, Finger Lakes 2018 Student Conservation Association Intern