Our humble roots were planted in 1998 with a 28-acre donation. Today, IRLC maintains over 2,750 acres and 28 miles of trails on several preserves.

Elliott Hillback

A man with a vision—a beginning

In 1998 Henry Carse, a long-time summer resident on Butterfield Lake, approached Louise “Sissy” Danforth, Director of the Thousand Islands Land Trust, to see if they were interested in conserving other waterfront property he owned in the area. Feeling the property was outside TILT’s early focus on the river, she suggested he talk with Shirley Carpenter, a conservation-minded friend with a cottage on Butterfield who she felt might be able to garner support for a land trust to serve the area.

Enticed by Mr. Carse, Shirley gathered a group of lake residents at her cottage to begin the process of forming what was to become The Indian River Lakes Conservancy (IRLC). At their first official meeting on March 30, 1999 the founding board of directors was elected, with Shirley Carpenter to serve as Executive Director; Elliott Hillback as President; Ed Robertson, Secretary Treasurer; Mike Chetwin, Vice-President; and Jack Douglas, an attorney and fellow cottage owner.

That same year, as a vote of confidence in the new board, Henry Carse donated a 27.6 acre parcel on Butterfield Lake in the Town of Alexandria to be named Osprey Marsh after a long-time breeding pair of Osprey on the property.

Four years later, given time for the fledgling land trust to demonstrate its ability to manage the property and attract an active and growing membership, Mr. Carse donated the 826 acre parcel that would become the core of the Grand Lake Reserve. The deed for the property stipulated that it would be preserved in perpetuity. In 2006 Mr. Carse added an additional 57 acres and in 2011 a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant brought the Reserve to its current size of 1116 acres.

heron stalking prey from behind greenery
a crew of volunteers with chainsaws and loppers

Volunteers enable public access

With the first gift of over 800 acres spanning two lakes and miles of shoreline between them, the Board was eager to share the benefits of Henry Carse’s generosity with the community. The development of parking lots and trails for public access were the first order of business, helped at the outset with a grant in 2004 from the Northern New York Community Foundation for the cost of the parking lot on Burns Road at the head of the mining road leading to Butterfield Lake.

In discussing the Board’s plan for public access to the Reserve with the Director of the Community Foundation, Alex Velto suggested that Ed Robertson contact Mark Scarlett, who lived just down Butler Road from the new parking lot.

Indeed, Mark was familiar with the property, having enjoyed exploring it with his family as part of his “backyard” for years. In short order, Ed enlisted him to flag the more than eight miles of hiking trails that we all now enjoy. The original trail clearing crew included Rick Lopez, Walter Dutcher, David Belding, David Duff, and Louise, Mark and John Scarlett. Bob Wakefield also helped with trail clearing and with flagging a connector trail from the second, upper parking lot.

Land and water quality protection expands

In 2001 Mike Chetwin donated Sweet Point Marsh on Butterfield Lake’s south shore consisting of 17 wetland acres. Butterfield Lake’s Turtle Island was donated in 2007. In 2008, IRLC acquired the 77 acre Marc A.F. Baker Island on Grass Lake and a nearby 5.5 acres of Grass Lake shoreline through a combination of gifts from Dani Baker and Elliott and Margarie Hillback and a subsequent GLRI grant that helped retire a remaining mortgage.

In 2012 IRLC purchased the 54 acre Boyd Pond parcel which contains a 25 acre pond that feeds Lake of the Woods as the lake’s main water source. In the same year, a GLRI grant funded the purchase of 162 acres on Oswegatchie River in the Town of Oxbow and the 343 acre Indian River Preserve on the Indian River in the Town of Theresa. The Indian River Preserve would eventually grow to 526 acres thanks to a North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant which added 153 acres on Red Lake and 30 acres on the Indian River in 2015. Margaret McArthur Bonney Island in Moon Lake was donated in 2013.

Over the course of its first fifteen years IRLC had grown from a core of motivated volunteers who learned as they went what the obligations of property conservation required, developing management plans, establishing boundary lines, designing and building trails, writing and administering grants, and mobilizing others who shared their dedication to conserving and protecting the places that they and their neighbors love.

In 2014, with sufficient donor and grant support, IRLC hired April Frederick, a trained environmental educator, as its first staff member to begin cultivating the next generation of conservationists and to assist the board with the conservancy’s growing membership.

Aerial photo of Indian River and a few lakes

Growning future generations of conservationists

That same year Elliott and Marjorie Hillback donated a 52 acre parcel in the hamlet of Redwood in the Town of Alexandria now known as the Redwood Hill Preserve. Shortly after the donation, Mark Scarlett laid out trails on the Preserve with grades in mind for them to be developed as all-access trails as soon as funding might be secured. The trails were cleared in short order by a crew that included Steve Goobic, and Gerry Cole. Most significantly, IRLC board member and volunteer Dick Edgar designed and over the next year, with the full-time help of Ron Tibbles, built the Trailside Learning Center that would become the central hub of IRLC’s adult and children’s environmental programs.

In 2019, IRLC received a New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation grant to upgrade to all access the Beatrice Rosamond trail on the Redwood Hill Preserve and provide a wheelchair ramp for the Trailside Learning Center and the Butterfield Lake Overlook deck. The Redwood Hill Preserve would eventually include the IRLC office building donated by Elliott and Marjorie Hillback in 2022.

In 2015, Doris Nagel Baker donated Baker Woods Preserve, consisting of 354 acres on the headwaters of the Indian River above the town of Natural Bridge. In 2018 the preserve grew to 585 acres by leveraging a NAWCA grant funding to purchase additional acres on the south bank of the Indian River. Matt and Linda Carney, close friends and neighbors of the Bakers, were instrumental in developing the acquisition, growth and continuing stewardship of the Baker Woods Preserve.

After years of groundwork laid by Board members Ed and Denise Robertson, IRLC was accredited by the Land Trust Alliance in 2017. IRLC hired James “Wylie” Huffman, a recently retired Army Lieutenant Colonel from Fort Drum as its first Executive Director later that same year. Under his leadership IRLC has continued its commitment to land conservation while greatly expanding its environmental education initiatives and its engagement with the next generation of conservationists through the promotion of family and youth programs.

In November 2017 IRLC formed its first Education Committee consisting of Elizabeth May Duvall, Denise Haddock, Pam Nelson, and Kim Sell. The committee held IRLC's first Kids Camp in July 2018.  With committee members’ early ties to Alexandria Bay's Hearts for Youth and the LaFargeville, Indian River, and Alexandria Bay school districts, IRLC’s Kids Camp's has grown to include additional school district partners in Carthage, Hammond, and Thousand Islands. The Education Committee’s family programs have also grown from its first Fall Family Fun Day in 2018 to now include a Night Tree Lighting event and book reading in December, and a Fairy Book Walk in April.

four WHIRL participants

Protectors of water and habitat

In July 2018, IRLC's WHIRL (Protectors of Water and Habitat on the Indian River Lakes) Committee met for the first time, consisting of Mat Webber from the Izaak Walton League of Northern New York, and Tom Hughes from New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation's Friends of Recreation, Conservation, and Environmental Science (FORCES) program.

IRLC’s project WHIRL for teenagers was initiated the following year with students from Indian River High School. Project WHIRL has now connected scores of students from several North Country school districts with local universities and environmental science professionals who teach and mentor teenagers each summer through hands-on and experiential learning about the Indian River Lakes to include the topics of land use and its relationship to affecting water quality, fisheries and aquatic resources education, and invasive species management. Along with the Izaak Walton League of Northern New York, the New York State FORCES program, NYS Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, WHIRL Partners now include St. Lawrence and Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (SLELO PRISM), SUNY Environmental School of Science and Forestry (ESF), Paul Smiths Adirondack Watershed Institute, Clarkson University and St. Lawrence University.

In 2018 IRLC hosted its first annual Water Quality Conference and children’s nature camp. The first Lake Leaders Summit in partnership with Indian River Lake associations was held in 2020.

In 2022 the IRLC was reaccredited by the Land Trust Alliance and in that same year leveraged an NAWCA grant to acquire the Red Lake Preserve consisting of 116 acres of woodland and 2,500 feet of shoreline on Red Lake in the town of Theresa. In early 2023 IRLC acquired the 100 acre Ferrone Woods Preserve overlooking Black Lake in the town of Macomb donated by Pat and Joe Ferrone.

Two youth kayaking the lake
Megan Pistolese-Shaw

Today and moving forward

Currently, the IRLC conserves land on 12 preserves consisting of over 2,750 acres of pristine wetlands, forests, and shorelines. The foundation laid by so many incredibly generous people in IRLC’s early history has provided the momentum for the conservancy’s impact in preserving more wild places and making our community a better place.

Today over 160 volunteers are involved and committed to the values of those who came before us as demonstrated by their passion for protecting new lands, forging new trials, and connecting with future generations of conservationists through our environmental programs.

Today IRLC has become a cornerstone of conservation not only here in the Indian River Lakes region but throughout northern New York, thanks to so many people who choose to make a difference for the betterment of both wildlife and humanity.

four volunteers working on trails

“Year after year, I stand with the Indian River Lakes Conservancy (IRLC), for within these lands, I’ve found a profound connection. It's a place where I've forged unforgettable memories through my family's long history on Butterfield Lake. This land holds generations of history and beauty, and it should be protected for all time.”

 Joe Pasquini, long-time IRLC supporter