PEKIN – The Western New York Land Conservancy set four goals for the future of the Niagara Escarpment this week, as it presented its report on conditions there to an audience of about 50 in the Pekin Fire Company hall.
The Wednesday evening gathering went along with the posting of a 200-page report on the conservancy’s website, based on surveys taken on 10 escarpment properties last year.
Jajean Rose-Burney, development director for the conservancy, said the group’s goals are to conserve land along the escarpment; restore ecologically significant areas; use the results to strengthen the local economy; and provide more opportunities for public access.
The escarpment is a rocky ridge that bisects Niagara County from west to east. It originally provided the drop for the cataracts at Niagara Falls, although the falls have eroded their way seven miles south from their original Lewiston location over the last 12,000 years.
Three years ago, the conservancy bought a 36-acre site on Leete Road in the Town of Lockport as its first escarpment preserve.
It would like to acquire more, but there are other strategies besides simple purchase.
“I was hoping to hear more about conservation easements and development rights,” said Jody Gray of Cambria. “Conservation easements cost us a lot of money. We have a lot of legal fees. Selling development rights gets us money.”
Both strategies are voluntary on the part of the landowner, but both protect the land from further development. A conservation easement permanently limits the use of the land while the owner continues to hold title and can leave it to heirs. When development rights are sold, the result is much the same, but the landowner is paid.
Rose-Burney said stronger protections for the undeveloped land are needed, but so far, of the municipalities along the escarpment, only Cambria has placed land use protections in its zoning ordinance.
“The view needs to be protected from the houses that have a view, because they’re the ones that cut down the trees,” Gray said.
The escarpment survey uncovered several threatened plant and animal species along the cliff, even though only 10 percent of its length in Niagara County was studied.
Also found were some examples of ancient marine fossils. Geologists say that about 12,000 years ago, an ancient lake drained down the escarpment into another lake, which was an extension of Lake Ontario before it receded into its current basin. The Alabama Swamps in Genesee County are the only remnants of the lake above the escarpment, which was dubbed Lake Tonawanda.
Margaret Wooster of Buffalo, a conservancy board member, said the escarpment’s water springs and occasional falls are the sources of all the creeks in Niagara County.
The conservancy considers 30,000 acres in the county to be escarpment land, and 31 percent of it is used for some form of agriculture.
“The conservancy would like to create a Friends of the Escarpment group. Veronica Young of Orchard Park envisioned citizen volunteers giving ecological tours.