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Natural Heritage Area Designation for Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex

Site Name: Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex

State Agency: Department of Environmental Conservation

Location: Jefferson County, Town of Ellisburg; Oswego County, Towns of Sandy Creek and Richland

Size of Area: 5,800 acres

DEC Region: 6, 7

Date Designated: 12 October 2007

Site Description: The Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex is situated between the outlets of Stony Creek and the Salmon River. It is an approximately 17-mile long area that encompasses the Black Pond Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Southwick Beach State Park (SP), Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area, Lakeview Marsh WMA and the Deer Creek WMA. The complex is made up of multiple barrier beaches, embayments, dunes and wetlands. The area represents the remains of one of the largest inland dune systems in the eastern Great Lakes and contains some of the highest quality freshwater marshes in New York State.

Its designations include:

  • Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat (by the Department of State).
  • Audubon "Important Bird Area" New York State
  • Bird Conservation Area
  • National Natural Landmark

Bird Species

The Eastern Lake Ontario Beach and Wetland Complex exhibits a diverse array of species and natural communities that contribute to its potential qualifications as a Natural Heritage Area. It supports a diversity of rare or at-risk breeding bird species such as the least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), common tern (Sterna hirundo) and the black tern (Chlidonias niger). Avian species that use the area for staging and foraging are the common tern, Caspian tern (Sterna caspia), various shorebirds and numerous species of waterfowl including the American black duck (Anas rubripes), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and the common merganser (Mergus merganser). The federally endangered piping plover (Charadrius melodius) nested in the complex as recently as 1984. It remains the most viable potential nesting area for this species in the eastern Lake Ontario region. The complex serves as an important concentration site for waterfowl, shorebirds and many other migrating bird species.

Significant Ecological Communities

Significant ecological communities in the complex are Great Lakes dunes, medium fens, shallow emergent marshes, pristine silver maple-ash swamps, red maple-hardwood swamps, red maple-tamarack peatlands, calcareous pavement barrens and calcareous shoreline outcrops. Endangered plant species found there include the Champlain beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata), rough avens (Geum laciniatum), woodland bluegrass (Poa sylvestris), marsh horsetail (Equisetum palustre), large twayblade (Liparis liliifolia), livid sedge (Carex livida), giant pine drops (Pterospora andromedea) and sand dune willow (Salix cordata). The state threatened Houghton's sedge (Carex houghtoniana) and sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis) have been observed in the complex, as has the state endangered bogbean buckmoth (Hemileuca sp.). In addition, Abagrotis barnesi, a noctuid moth and Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), as designated in the New York State Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, occurs in the complex.

Below is a list of rare species associated with the complex, that are especially important with regard to justifying this complex as a Natural Heritage Area, as they are found in only a few locations in New York.

Noteworthy Species and Communities for Natural Heritage Area Designation
Common Name Scientific Name Comments
Pirate Perch Aphredoderus sayanus Rare fish fairly uncommon in NY inland of the coast. This occurrence represents one of three occurrences in inland waters of NYTD
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis A state-threatened bird whose breeding occurrences are uncommon and whose non-breeding occurrences are critically imperiled.
Black Tern Chlidonias niger A state-endangered species whose range is restricted to less than 15 sites and 150 pairs of breeding pairs.
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia A species whose only breeding population occurs on Little Galloo Island in eastern Lake Ontario. It is susceptible to death by exposure to Botulism-E toxin.
Noctuid moth Abagrotis barnesi

The only recorded occurrence of this species in NY.

Bogbean Buckmoth Hemileuca sp.

One of three known occurrences in NY. All occurrences in Oswego County.

Champlain Beachgrass Ammophila breviligulata One of two known locations for this species in NY.
Rough Avens Geum laciniatum One of three known locations for this species in NY.
Sand Dune Willow Salix cordata Only known area for this species in NY.
Dunes Largest and most extensive freshwater dunes in NY.
Silver Maple-Ash Swamps Excellent examples of this community type. Pristine and high quality swamps.

Management Needs

Natural Resources

The continuation of stewardship is vital to maintaining the integrity and ecological function of the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex's natural resources. The ultimate management goal is to perpetuate the existence of flora, fauna and their habitats within the complex. This allows for the persistence of both common and rare species, and significant ecological communities that occur therein.

Persistence of species may be achieved by:

  • protection and monitoring of endangered, threatened, special concern and other SGCN;
  • protection of rare and significant ecological communities;
  • management of invasive species;
  • collection of improved species and ecological community distribution information;
  • protection of dunes and significant communities from human disturbance.

Eastern Lake Ontario Dune Stewardship Program

The protection of dunes and other significant ecological communities and habitats has been enhanced substantially by the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune Stewardship Program. This program was developed by partners such as the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation and NY Sea Grant. The program employs a number of dune stewards who educate the public about the area's natural communities and sensitive habitats and encourage public appreciation and environmentally sound recreational enjoyment of the area. The program provides public walks and programs as well as other interaction with visitors who tour the area.

Lands adjacent to the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex are also protected and therefore may serve as a buffer to the sensitive habitats present within the complex. The El Dorado Preserve is located adjacent to and north of the complex and is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Selkirk Shores State Park is at the southern end of the complex and is owned by New York State.

Invasive Plant Species

Invasive plant species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), pale swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum rossicum), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), water chestnut (Trapa natans), Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) and Phragmites sp. occur in the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex. Their presence is beginning to affect the health and function of the ecosystems present. If these species are allowed to remain and expand their ranges in the complex, native biota are likely to be displaced and the ecosystems present may suffer. Invasive species expansions may eventually cause local extinctions of native flora and fauna, especially those that are rare and have limited ranges. Control of invasives should be undertaken by biological, mechanical and chemical means as appropriate. In addition, monitoring should be conducted after control efforts to determine effectiveness of methods.

Distribution Information

More current information on the distributions of rare species and significant ecological communities is needed to adequately protect the natural resources of the complex. Much of the distribution information available dates back as far as 1991. Increasing the suite of species recorded beyond that currently tracked by the NY Natural Heritage Program might be helpful if future management efforts are to be more proactive. For example, a more common species may undergo a decline that will go unnoticed if its status is not tracked through time. By increasing the suite of species tracked, biologists will be provided with more information on distributions. Therefore, there will be a better basis for comparison to help determine species' status within the complex.

Recreation Resources

The Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex supports an abundance of recreational resources.

The complex boasts over 5,000 acres of Wildlife Management Area lands that are open to the public for a wide variety of compatible uses:

  • over 10 miles of hiking trails, which includes a 0.4 mile accessible trail with a fishing pier and an observation deck at Black Pond WMA;
  • 1 mile accessible trail at Southwick Beach State Park that connects to the Lakeview Marsh WMA trail system;
  • observation deck at Deer Creek WMA;
  • three other observation towers;
  • numerous parking areas;
  • dune walkover structures;
  • numerous boat launches, which include both canoe launches and motorized boat launches.

Southwick Beach State Park is a multi-use recreational area where there are public beaches and tent and recreational vehicle camping is allowed.

Ongoing Management

Within the Wildlife Management Areas of the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex, protection of sensitive barrier beach environment has included:

  • beachgrass plantings and snow fence erection to reduce wind erosion;
  • raising interpretive signage to educate people on the sensitivity of the rare habitats and communities;
  • building dune crossover structures to allow the public to traverse the area without damaging the dunes.

In addition, dune stewards have been employed to educate the public about the complex's rare habitats and their sensitivity. All of these protection measures must continue if we are to conserve the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex's rare habitats and sensitive natural communities.

The Wildlife Management Areas of the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex are currently managed for a range of early successional and climax habitats and communities. Open habitats are mowed once every two to three years and some are in the process of being rejuvenated with lime application and controlled burns. Early successional shrub habitats are currently managed to maintain shrubby habitat to benefit species that are dependent upon that successional stage. Forest habitats may be managed in the future to achieve a balanced forest age distribution that promotes both early successional wildlife habitat and climax forest systems. Wetland habitats are generally unmanaged and left to their natural states, with the exception of the potential for development, maintenance and operation a few small ponds and potholes. Negative impacts on the complex's larger estuaraian wetlands have been associated with Lake Ontario water level fluctuations. It is currently under the control of the International Joint Commission, who manage water levels for the entire Great Lakes system.

Compatible Uses

Wildlife Management Areas:

Compatible uses of the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) within the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex are governed by Environmental Conservation Law §§ 11-0539 and Title 6 of the New York State Conservation Rules and Regulations Parts 51 and 79. The WMAs protected under this law are the Lakeview Marsh WMA, Black Pond WMA and Deer Creek WMA. Compatible uses include, but are not limited to, the following: fishing, hunting, trapping, scientific research, wildlife viewing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, canoeing, kayaking, motorized boating and environmental education.

Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation:

Compatible uses of the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) lands within the Eastern Lake Ontario Barrier Beach and Wetland Complex are governed by New York State Parks Rules and Regulations as found in the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York (9NYCRR 370-378). The OPRHP lands protected under this law are the Southwick Beach State Park and the Sandy Pond Beach Natural Area. Compatible uses include, but are not limited to the following: camping, picnicking, life-guarded swimming, wildlife viewing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fishing, limited hunting, canoeing, kayaking, motorized boat access, environmental education and scientific research.


Angelena M. Ross, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, 317 Washington St. Watertown, NY 13601 (315) 785-2261.