I’ve often felt like the Finger Lakes region has the uniqueness and significance that a national park might have. The system of eleven long lakes born of the Ice Age finds few if any parallels in the world. There are: state and municipal parks, and state forests; there are two national historic parks, a national wildlife refuge, and a national forest; we have nature preserves, museums, nature centers, and visitor centers; and we have hiking trails, biking trails, three state-designated scenic byways, and several wine trails. And defining it all are the lakes, surrounded by their many enchanting gorges and waterfalls, many of them open to the public as parks and preserves. And like a national park, tourists visit our area from around the world.
Of course, there are ways the Finger Lakes area is not like a national park: there are towns, cities, colleges, industry, and farms, and most land within the region is privately owned. So it can‚t really be considered to resemble a national park. Or can it?
It turns out that both Cayuga and Seneca Lakes are part of something like a national park: a national heritage area. They are part of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, because the lakes were connected (and still are) to the Erie Canal and are part of its larger story.
So, we are like a national park, but not a traditional national park. There are 49 national heritage areas, mostly in the eastern United States. But we are more than that. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is structured around the Erie Canal story. That story is part of our story, but we have many more stories to tell, of the land, the people, the wildlife, and the water.
It turns out that there is a bill in Congress right now, sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gellibrand and others, to create the 50th National Heritage Area in the Finger Lakes. The effort has been spearheaded by the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. The first step will be for Congress to approve and fund a feasibility study to be conducted by the National Park Service. We may know soon whether this will happen. But there is no doubt that this singular region, with its rich natural and cultural history, deserves that designation and consequent organization.
I will be writing more on this later. Updated Nov. 1, 2017