October 23, 2021

Land trust founder’s work took root in grad school

Photo provided by Finger Lakes Land Trust

Finger Lakes Land Trust Executive Director Andrew Zepp leades a tour last year at the organization’s Sweedler Preserve in Ithaca to mark the 30th anniversary of the land trust.

After falling in love with the beauty of the Finger Lakes region while attending Cornell University in the early 1980s, Andrew Zepp, a suburban New York City native, planted the seed for an organization that would come to protect the area’s environment.

As an academic assignment in graduate school, Zepp created the Finger Lakes Land Trust, recruiting the founding board members, setting up the taxexempt status and other structures needed to preserve land for public recreation and to protect the environment.

Today, Zepp is the executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, a job he has held since 2003. And today, the Finger Lakes Land Trust is working toward a five-year reaccreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.

The trust has grown from four employees to a staff of 16, assisted by many volunteers, even as it has grown the area it protects through a series of purchases, easements and collaborations with local, state and federal governments: nearly 25,000 acres with 43 miles of trails in the Finger Lakes region.

Photos provided by Finger Lakes Land Trust

Finger Lakes Land Trust Executive Director Andrew Zepp.

Zepp first came to Cornell uncertain of his career path.

“I grew up in the suburbs of New York City,” he said. “I was an industrial relations major. Seeking lower cost state tuition and being unsure of what I wanted to do, the program seemed like a reasonable start.”

But he came to love the area’s beauty.

“I was coming to appreciate the landscapes of the Finger Lakes,” said Zepp.

After graduating in 1985, he took his first job working as an assistant buyer for the department store chain Sibley’s in Rochester for a year.

He moved on to work for the Nature Conservancy as a volunteer in Albany, then an employee in Connecticut. Zepp formed a land trust there that is still in operation.

Realizing he would need additional education to advance in his career, he returned to Cornell.
Zepp said he realized he could bring together his undergraduate education’s emphasis on business principles with his newfound interests.

“I wanted to apply the skills that I had toward land preservation,” he said.

While the first land trust in the country was decades old, the concept of land trusts was only becoming commonplace in the mid-1980s, Zepp said. “It existed in some places, but not many.”

After graduating with a master’s degree from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he went on to jobs with the Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., before returning in 2003 to lead the Finger Lakes Land Trust.

The trust has focused on preserving land for environmental and recreational purposes in several areas, including the south end of Skaneateles Lake and along Fall and Six Mile creeks. In more recent years, it has expanded its focus to include greater efforts to protect water resources, in part to deal with algae.

“Our projects reflect the community’s goals for what it wants to protect for scenic views, water quality, farmland or connected forests and landscape,” Zepp said.

On the south end of Skaneateles Lake, the land trust is working on projects in three counties, including Cortland.

“We are trying to maintain the character of the south end of the lake,” Zepp said.

The land trust plans to expand its role further to restore wetlands and create stormwater retention basins to help prevent silt and phosphorus from reaching and polluting significant bodies of water, such as Skaneateles Lake, Zepp said. “I call them plumbing projects.”

In Dryden, the land trust has preserved land in the Roy H. Park Preserve and in the Ellis Hollow area.

Town Supervisor Jason Leifer said Monday that Zepp has been instrumental in those projects.

“He’s usually the point person,” Leifer said. “He’s the one who coordinates things and makes them happen.”

The Finger Lakes Land Trust has arranged the funding and easements, while the town Highway Department has cleared parking areas to make land accessible to the public, Leifer said.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust works on about 14 projects each year, Zepp said.

Dave Birchenough, a Skaneateles resident who is in the second year of a two-year term as Land Trust board president, said Zepp has extensive knowledge of the Finger Lakes.

“He’s a very impressive guy,” Birchenough said. “He is more knowledgeable about the Finger Lakes than anyone I know. He’s an ardent environmentalist.”