The Underappreciated State Forests of New York

Contrary to what many people in other states think, New York State is not totally covered with cities and suburbs. In fact, New York is one of the most heavily forested states in the country. Nearly 62% of the state, about 18.6 million acres, is now forested. 

If you like to enjoy nature away from the crowds in state parks, try visiting some of New York’s many beautiful state forests!

This is quite an improvement over the 19th century when our forests were being rapidly cut for use as timber. Timber companies, unrestrained by state environmental regulations, were cutting trees at an alarming rate, leaving bare hillsides, which were then stripped of soil by erosion. And what the timber industry didn’t take was often clear cut to make way for agriculture. By the 1880s, less than 25% of the state was still forested.

In the early 20th century the state government, recognizing the dire condition of our forests, implemented laws and regulations to protect the remaining forests and add additional forest cover. Specifically, lands denuded by poorly regulated timber-harvesting and farming practices were planted with red pine, Norway spruce, and Scotch pine to provide a sustainable source of timber for the state, reduce horrific levels of erosion on abandoned farmland, and improve watershed protection. Later, in the early 1930s, much more work to restore our forests was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was established by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide employment for millions of young men during the Depression. The remains of some of their facilities are still evident in some forest parcels.

Today, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) manages nearly 5 million acres of land, much of which is forested, including New York’s numerous state forests, which comprise approximately 600,000 acres, as well as the Adirondack and Catskill preserves, which are themselves heavily forested. These forested tracts provide ecological services that benefit everyone in the state, including those who don’t actually visit the forests. These benefits include clean air and water, fish and wildlife habitat, flood protection, erosion control, open space habitat for many plants essential to insects, and reduction of greenhouse gases.

Within New York’s 10 westernmost counties are 53 state forests covering 105,529 acres, which is substantially more than the combined areas of Allegany State Park and Letchworth State Park (79,227 acres). These forests are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including beaver, deer, racoon, black bear, bobcat, porcupine, coyote, fox, snowshoe hare, fisher, mink, skunk, wild turkey, grouse, several species of hawks and owls, and an abundance of songbirds. They also serve as important ecological refugia for numerous species of snakes, frogs, toads, and salamanders, many of which have declining populations.

New York’s state forests are open to the public for many recreational activities, including hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling, birding, camping, fishing, hunting, trapping, and outdoor photography. Most of these properties provide only limited amenities (e.g., marked trails and parking areas), but some offer lean-tos, fire pits, grills, picnic tables, and privies. Several also provide facilities for horseback riding.

I have hiked in nearly all of the state forests in western New York, and while I enjoy being in all of them, several stand out as being exceptional places to commune with nature. In no particular order, these include the following:

Sonyea State Forest is located in Livingston County about 3.5 miles southwest of Mount Morris. This state forest is known for its exceptional display of wildflowers in late April and early May. It also has a scenic, mostly level trail that ends near a low but beautiful waterfall.

Red Trilliums and Dutchman’s Breeches are often found together in Sonyea State Forest.

North Harmony State Forest is located in Chautauqua County immediately northwest of the village of Panama. The largest pond on this property, known as Wiltsie Pond or Wiltsie Marsh, provides good fishing for largemouth bass, and nearby South Pond also likely holds largemouth bass.

Wiltsie Pond in North Harmony State Forest is an artificial impoundment of Little Brokenstraw Creek. This pond is shallow and very weedy, but it offers some good fishing for largemouth bass, bluegill, and bullhead.

Bucktooth State Forest is located in Cattaraugus County about 2.5 miles northwest of Salamanca. I’m drawn to this forest parcel by its water. The West Branch of Bucktooth Run flows through the property, providing opportunities to catch wild brook trout and brown trout. It also has numerous spring seeps, which are home to some remarkably interesting plant communities.

At-large primitive camping is allowed in most state forests, but sites must be at least 150 feet away from the nearest road, trail, or body of water. The state and its trail partners occasionally provide a well-maintained campsite such as this one in Bucktooth State Forest.

Boyce Hill State Forest is located in Cattaraugus County between Machias and Ellicottville. It has one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked on (see photo) and one of the best camp sites you can expect to find in a state forest. It also has a pond, which is a good place for spotting birds and insects.

This beautiful fern-lined trail in Boyce Hill State Forest is part of the North Country Trail.

Mount Pleasant State Forest is located in Chautauqua County about 3 miles southwest of Mayville. This property has it all—well-appointed campsites with lean-tos, well water, and privies; several streams and ponds; well-maintained trails; and open areas that attract many species of birds.

This one of several Dark-eyed juncos I spotted on a pile of fallen timber. Normally a species that feeds on the ground scrounging for seeds, these birds were likely looking for insects in or on the tree bark.

In future posts, I will focus on individual state forests and provide a more detailed description of each property along with many more photos.