In what could be viewed as a blow for tourism in the Finger Lakes region, the Board of Directors of Seneca White Deer, Inc. (SWD) reluctantly voted last week to end the White Deer Tour program at the former Seneca Army Depot at the end of 2019, citing that tour program revenues and supporter donations were unable to meet the operating expenses of the program.
In a statement released on the organization’s website and social media channels, the organization’s President and lead conservationist, Dennis Money, relays the Board’s agonizing decision.
“It is with the deepest sadness that I must make this following announcement. Seneca White Deer, Inc. has decided to end our White Deer Tour program at the former Seneca Army Depot at the end of 2019.
“Our efforts to build a tour program sustained by revenues from tours and donations from our supporters was ultimately unsuccessful. We simply are unable to continue a program that cannot meet its expenses.”
Money and five other passionate, conservation-minded people started the organization in 1998 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to conserving the wildlife – especially the unique white deer. With the closing of the Depot pending, there was fear that the abundant and unique wildlife found on the Depot‘s grounds would lose the protection it had enjoyed for almost 60 years, since the white deer were first spotted there in 1949.
Over the next two decades, SWD spent thousands of volunteer hours and thousands of its own dollars to keep this important issue in the public eye. SWD became known for its professional activism, and became a respected conservation entity.
As part of its efforts, education and outreach played an important role in its advocacy. Over the years, SWD presented to many groups and organizations, teaching them about the wildlife at the depot. And its military history.
When the base was formally shut down, and property transferred to Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), SWD hosted its first autumn weekend tours in 2006. The guides quickly noticed how interested the visitors were in the military installments – beyond them being a backdrop – and went on to learn and incorporate the military history into their preservation efforts.
When SWD next hosted their weekend tours in the Fall of 2009 and then again in 2012, the military history was an integral part of the experience, providing the public access to not only the wildlife, but also the military sites and facts that had been off limits for over 60 years.
In 2015, the IDA put 7,000 acres of the land up for sale. SWD was front and center then too, trying to find a way to get a portion of the property dedicated as a preserve. When those efforts didn’t materialize, they began conversations with a private businessman who had submitted a bid that included a plan for the deer’s conservation as a major component. That bid went on to win in 2016, and SWD worked out an agreement to use part of the property to conduct a year-round tour program that would continue to allow public access to the lands, the sites and the wildlife.
Seneca White Deer Tours ran its first official tour on November 16, 2017. Over the course of the next two years, over 15,000 local residents, tourists, conservationists, photographers and special interest groups from around the country and around the world, along with active and retired military, have taken the tours – supporting not only SWD’s efforts, but also pouring money into the local economy. The program, and the former Depot’s residents, has received national coverage and acclaim, garnering even more support and awareness.
Yet sadly, it has not been enough to consistently sustain the tour program. While the Board has looked at many other options and business models, none have worked out favorably.
“We looked at so many ways to solve this problem, but raising the tour prices was never a consideration,” Money explains. “Since the beginning, it’s been very important to us to keep the tour prices reasonable, and almost everyone who’s taken the tour says it was worth every penny. In fact, we’ve had many people return and take the tour again and again, because each time it’s a different experience. You never know what you’ll see – which one of our ‘residents’ will be making an appearance.”
Dennis continues, “We’ve always felt raising the tour price could potentially put that experience out of reach of many visitors. And one of our key objectives has always been making this place and the wildlife accessible.”
The most recent round of fundraising, which included a grant from the Seneca County Board of Supervisors and an annual year-end appeal couldn’t make up for the ongoing deficit either.
“We are heartbroken that all of our hard and ongoing efforts to raise the monies needed to keep this program afloat weren’t enough,” confided SWD Vice President Carl Patrick. “The generosity of the community and its leadership has been overwhelming and so very appreciated. We feel we would be doing them a disservice if we tried to continue on.” Patrick went on to say that SWD would be spending the next few months reaching out to those donors individually regarding their contributions, along with refunding any 2020 tour deposits.
The organization will also work to find new homes for their displays from the John and Josephine Ingle Welcome Center, after which Seneca White Deer, Inc. will continue on as a conservation advocacy organization.
The final day of tour operations will be Sunday, December 29, 2019 with tours at 10:00am, 12:00pm and 2:00pm, and can be booked online at senecawhitedeer.org or by calling the Welcome Center at (315) 759-8220 Wednesday through Sunday.
“Please don’t miss what may be your last chance to see these majestic animals in their magnificent surroundings,” Money implores. “Listen to the stories. Tour the sites. At this point, we just don’t know what the future holds, and this opportunity may not come again.”