Should Old Weapons Depot Be Refuge for Rare White Deer or Site of Ethanol Plant?

In a ghostlike performance, the small cluster of white deer slip in and out of sight, peacefully weaving among the hummock-shaped bunkers that once held America's war weapons. The striking image is one Dennis Money wants others to see.

ROMULUS, N.Y. -- In a ghostlike performance, the small cluster of white deer slip in and out of sight, peacefully weaving among the hummock-shaped bunkers that once held America's war weapons.

The striking image is one Dennis Money wants others to see.

"It's a classic moment to see one of these deer on top of an ammunition bunker. You go back to that old saying about beating your swords into plowshares. You put a military base to bed and turn it into a conservation park," he said.

Money is a member of Seneca White Deer, a group fighting to save the habitat of the world's largest herd of rare white deer, which live within the fenced-in former Seneca Army Depot.

Developers are also interested in planting up to 4,500 acres of willow trees on the decommissioned military site and building an ethanol facility and biomass power plant.

It is an unlikely showdown that pits green idea against green idea.

But Glenn Cooke, the executive director of the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency, which now holds title to the land, said he thinks the two plans are compatible and that protection and preservation of the white deer have always been a priority.

"The issue is whether one group should be given rights to the entire 7,500 acres. We believe several uses can coexist," Cooke said.

Empire Green Biofuels, a farmer-based initiative, hopes to begin construction this spring on the $85 million ethanol project and $30 million biomass plant, said Edward Primrose, a local farmer and president of the company's board of directors. The company promises the two plants will create about 50 jobs initially, and up to as many as 150.

Seneca White Deer is ready to go to court to stop the ethanol plant. The group contends the IDA pushed the project through without following proper permitting procedures, including rezoning 4,700 acres of land without performing an environmental impact statement.

Snuggled between Cayuga and Seneca lakes in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region, the 10,587-acre army depot opened in 1941 on what had been productive farmland. For more than 50 years, the depot was used to store and dispose of military explosives, including nuclear bomb materials. It ceased most operations in 1993 and officially closed in 2000.

When the depot was built, the Army erected 24 miles of 7-foot-high fence. It kept intruders out -- and deer in. Initially, there were just a few white-tail deer, with typical brown coloration. But as the herd grew, the "ghost" deer began to appear. The white deer are not albinos -- animals with pink eyes and born without pigmentation. They simply carry a recessive gene for white hair. They have brown or gray eyes.

The Army noticed, and gave the white deer protection while managing the brown deer herd.

The white deer have prospered and today number between 250 and 300 -- about a third of the depot herd.

White deer will occasionally show up in herds of brown deer but never in such numbers in the wild. There are two privately owned herds of white deer in Europe, each with about 50 animals.

Since the Army departed, the depot has become home to a state prison, a soon-to-open county jail, a state police training center and a residential camp for children with emotional problems and a history of delinquency. But those facilities are on the periphery, away from the deer's habitat.

Primrose doesn't believe the deer would be adversely affected by Empire's plans. He said only about 1,500 acres would likely be planted, leaving much of the herd's habitat untouched. The board is working with Cornell University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to develop a management plan.

Before the Army pulled out, it recommended turning the core of the property into a conservation park featuring the white deer and using it for outdoor recreation. It's the largest remaining piece of open space in the Finger Lakes.

For nearly eight years, Money's organization has been seeking to protect the herd and develop the land as a conservation park. The group recently launched a letter-writing campaign and Internet petition drive to build support for relocating the plants.

More than 23 million people visit the region yearly for its wineries and outdoor recreation, according to the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. After agriculture, tourism is New York's next largest industry, and ecotourism is a booming segment of that business.

Four days of mini-safaris last fall were proof that such a park would be a success, Money said. The hastily arranged tours drew 1,800 visitors -- and organizers turned away another 500 people -- and grossed $28,000.

"If you marketed it properly, you could have busloads and busloads of ecotourists," said Money, who has previously helped with river otter and peregrine falcon restoration projects in upstate New York.

"We could be home to the world's largest herd of white deer," Money said. "Instead of the home of prisons and a landfill. It's a more positive public image. It's a natural fit."

The park would feature hunting, hiking and horse trails, camping areas and eventually an educational center and Cold War museum. A limited number of white deer could be hunted to manage the herd, he said.

Source: Associated Press

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