Yisu Zheng / Sun Staff Photographer

Cayuga Lake in 2018.

February 19, 2019

Finger Lakes Region Inches Closer to Federally Recognized Status With N.Y. Senator’s Legislation

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The Finger Lakes region — named for its thin, glacial lakes that can stretch up to 40 miles long — has long been famous for the waterfalls and vineyards that serve as Cornell’s backyard.

Following a recent legislative push by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), much of that land may soon be designated as a National Heritage Area.

New York’s junior senator successfully added a provision to the Natural Resources Management Act, which was approved Feb. 12 by the Senate. Gillibrand’s new amendment calls on the National Park Service to investigate if parts of the Finger Lakes region should receive the recognition.

The National Resources Management Act, which offers a series of sweeping new protections for public land, overwhelmingly passed the Senate 92-8. If a version of the legislation including Gillibrand’s provision were signed by the President, the Finger Lakes region would be on the fast track to becoming the country’s 50th National Heritage Area.

The proposed area would extend across much of central New York and would include 400 registered historic sites, 135 museums, 80 art galleries, 100 wineries, 300 bed and breakfast inns and 650 miles of shoreline, the provision said.

The NPS, which administers the program, describes heritage areas as a “new kind of National Park,” designed to “to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes,” according to the agency’s website.  Benefits of official recognition can include matching federal funds, improved amenities and restoration projects.

The prospect of more government resources and a higher regional profile could be a major boon for the region’s increasingly important tourism industry, insiders said.

“Given our rich background, national resources and historical connection to the nation’s growth, we are hopeful that the next step will be the designation of the Finger Lakes as a National Heritage Area,” Cynthia Kimble, President of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, said in a statement. “This will give the region the National recognition that it so deserves.”

Tourism in the Finger Lakes region accounted for nearly $3 billion in economic activity and the employment of 6 percent of its workforce, according to a 2017 Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance report. The same study found that tourism alone generates an additional $200 million for Tompkins County each year.

“I believe it will benefit all of us that call this nation’s treasure home, with a chance to get the word out about the natural beauty, the craft of local food and beverages and the contributions made in history that helped build this country,” said Joseph S. Gober, owner of Cayuga Lake’s Americana Vineyards.

A feasibility study will set the initial process into motion, during which the NPS would evaluate whether or not the proposed area has the resources required to earn official designation. If the criteria are met, the Finger Lakes would become New York’s fourth Heritage Area, joining the Erie Canalway, Hudson Valley and Champlain Valley.

“The Finger Lakes Region is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in our state, and it is one of our country’s great historical and cultural treasures,” Gillibrand said in a statement issued last week. “A National Heritage Area designation would help further conserve and protect the region’s natural resources and attract even more people from all over the world to the Finger Lakes.”