Trumansburg Connection: Smith Woods: clearing the assumptions


Smith woods is a magical old growth forest located on the South end of Trumansburg, just outside of the village, between Grove Cemetery and the Trumansburg Fairgrounds. The woods were originally gifted in a trust to the residents of Trumansburg in 1909 for education, recreation, and preservation by the sons of Henry Atterbury Smith, a “businessman from New York City who had purchased this parcel of land as a summer residence and although he visited the property sparingly, he was a well-known member of the Trumansburg community,” according to the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI)/Cayuga Nature Center (CNC) website. CNC and PRI have been overseeing the health of the woods since ownership was transferred approximately 10 years ago. Since then, CNC has created trails in order to prevent visitors trampling undergrowth, removed invasive species, and added some directional signage.

They also have added a 6-foot gated fence around the perimeter of the woods. This controversial move was intended to protect the new growth of the woods, which were being devastated by the increasing deer population. Although studied extensively by both Cornell University and the University of Vermont, and compared with other similar problems both locally and regionally, it was perplexing too, and opposed by many residents who are accustomed to seeing the message on the Smith Woods sign that reads, “To be preserved in its natural state.” The question became, why a fence? Why not let nature take its course? In talking with CNC board member Marvin Pritts, the answer seems to be on par with issues many municipalities and neighborhoods face as they develop and grow. Pritts says, “If nature were prevailing, we wouldn’t need a fence. The deer problem is a human created problem, as we have created an environment for a high deer population.” It should be noted that Pritts doesn’t oppose the growth and development of Trumansburg, but wants to face the problem pragmatically and save the woods, which are a rare treasure, for future generations.

Not only did residents feel the fence infringed on keeping the woods natural, both by excluding wildlife and because of the materials used for the fence, they also felt that the fence would not be tall enough to keep deer out. In accordance with residents hunches, the deer have been able to enter the woods in spite of the 6-foot fence. Pritts notes this is especially true since the leaves have fallen and the sight line is more clear. He stresses that the CNC folks also anticipated this. The Town of Ulysses only allows a 6-foot height for fencing and requires a variance for anything higher. The fence posts were left at 8 feet after installation, and CNC plans to apply for the required variance and increase the height. In the meantime, they have relied on chasing out the couple of deer who have managed to get in the woods.

While opponents of the fence initially thought the fence would be unwelcoming and keep people out, it seems to the casual observer and CNC alike that there are more visitors to the woods since the fence was erected. In fact, parking has become a problem, with people parking on Falls Road, dangerously close to the corner of Cemetery and Falls roads. In order to address this issue, rather than putting up no parking signs on Falls Road, “Smith Woods Parking” signs were installed on the fence on Cemetery Road, where there is enough shoulder to pull completely off the road. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, those signs have been vandalized repeatedly. Visitors to the woods are encouraged to park along Cemetery Road, or at the Fairgrounds. Entrances are located on the southwest corner at Falls and Cemetery Roads, and at the northeast corner near the ShurSave driveway. Visitors can also park on the gravel at the GrassRoots Festival Across the Way campsite on Falls Road and follow the path through their section of the woods to the entrance located near the ShurSave.

I feel compelled to note that I was initially opposed to the fence project. I grew up across the street from the woods, and my family still lives there, and while I still do believe the fence is a bit of an eyesore, and I am concerned about rogue wildlife who used to call the woods their home, at least now I have the information as to why it was an important measure to take. It feels pertinent to me during the holiday season especially to issue a reminder that electronic communication - email, Facebook, and other social media, while generally helpful in disseminating important information, is more often than not an ineffective forum for clear conversation. For me, the woods fence project is only one of the issues where face-to-face conversation has cleared the lines and helped me see beyond my own borders and assumptions. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to sit with Marvin Pritts for a conversation, and he and I also encourage visitors or those interested in the woods to reach out to him or CNC for any conversation or clarification. It is also worth noting that the book “Smith Woods: The Environmental History of an Old Growth Forest Remnant in Central New York State,” co-authored by Pritts, is available locally and online.

Smith Woods is open and free to the public during the daylight hours every day of the year.


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