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For more than 12,000 years, the international Niagara River has flowed its 35 descending miles from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It’s ecological, cultural, historic and economic significance is world class.

This river, the Great Lakes and the biodiversity that they mutually sustain are important to the whole earth’s ecological life-support system. This includes habitats supporting healthy wildlife and plant populations, and the generation of ecosystem services that clean our water and air, and provide climate stability. These services are fundamental to the health and well-being of the human species.

We have long known that the Great Lakes and Niagara ecosystems are in serious trouble. Since the dawning of the Industrial Age, human dependence on these waters has grown exponentially. Economic growth has relied on the exploitation and wholesale destruction of our local natural resources. This includes the world’s first great clear-cut forest on Grand Island/Tonawanda in the 1840s, subsequent regional urban and industrial sprawl, and the creation of massive power plants on both sides of the lower river.

Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said, “The entire ecosystem of the river has been permanently altered, with 90 percent of historical wetlands decimated, and dozens of miles of shoreline hardened or inaccessible.”

Exploitation of our resources has created great wealth, but the harm to our ecology has created economic harm. Funding strategies to remediate our natural assets are big-picture issues. Nothing less than the sustainability of our region is at stake.

The good news is that while restoration is a work in progress, we are moving forward. Government agencies, often working in concert with citizen-based groups and businesses, have engaged in cleanups, fixed infrastructure problems such as sewer and storm water discharges, addressed agricultural and industrial contamination and re-engineered growth strategies.

In 1996, an important initiative emerged when the Niagara River Corridor was named a “globally significant” Important Bird Area by a consortium of government agencies, citizen groups and nature organizations. Niagara habitats support hundreds of species of breeding and migrating birds, some of which come from as far away as the boreal forests of coastal Alaska and/or travel to the Amazon rainforest. These animals depend upon and support uncounted species that in turn generate ecosystems and ecological services that connect vast reaches of the globe. The Niagara is an epicenter of ecological stability. The IBA designation has brought worldwide and local attention to our stewardship of these resources.

History of greenway

By the late 1990s, the New York Power Authority was in the process of relicensing the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, due to expire in 2005. Negotiations began to focus on the environmental and economic harm that had been done to the river, including ecosystem-disrupting problems related to the raising and lowering of water levels by power plant infrastructure.

Stakeholders in those negotiations included government, business, the Tuscarora Nation, Niagara University and an 11-seat Niagara Relicensing Environmental Coalition that included groups such as Riverkeeper, Adirondack Mountain Club, Niagara Frontier Wildlife Heritage Council, Sierra, Audubon and Western New York Land Conservancy.

In September 2004, as part of the relicensing discussions, then New York Gov. George E. Pataki created the Niagara Greenway Commission. Its purpose was “to undertake all necessary actions to facilitate the creation of a Niagara River Greenway.” This was defined as a linear system of state and local parks and conservation areas linked by a network of multiuse trails connecting lakes Erie and Ontario. In April 2007, a Greenway Plan and Final Environmental Impact statement were published.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper’s engagement and policy development has driven the conservation playbook for the river, and champions the greenway.

“The greenway is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bolster our blue economy,” Jedlicka said. “Investments in the greenway and water-based restoration projects can be leveraged for a multiplier effect of investment in natural capital, economic development and community health and well-being.”

On Sept. 1, 2007, a relicensing settlement was initiated in which the Power Authority committed more than $1 billion in financial support and benefits to stakeholders related to the greenway during the 50-year term (2005-2055) of the new license. This includes direct greenway money of $9 million a year – for a total of $450 million over the term of the license – to be spent by four greenway standing committees: Host Community, $3 million; State Parks, $3 million; Buffalo/Erie County/Olmsted, $2 million; and Ecological, $1 million.

The relationships between the standing committees, other funding related to the settlement and the Greenway Commission is complicated. Basically, most of the settlement money is intended to support the greenway concept with the four standing committees’ funding directly tied to the greenway.

“Critical language within the NYPA settlement is dedicated to the mitigation and revitalization of the health of Niagara’s ecosystem. An important component in building the greenway is the identification and funding of strategic places for restoration or conservation,” Jedlicka said.

However, the Greenway Commission has no spending authority other than limited staff and facilities money. It reviews projects that are brought before it to determine whether they are “consistent” with the purpose of the greenway. The “consistency” findings are advisory, and the standing committees are not required to follow the recommendations of the commission.

As a result, some projects that are “not consistent” with the greenway have been funded. This has led to criticism.

In March, the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based advocacy organization, published “The Niagara River Greenway: Fulfilling the Promise,” which analyzed settlement money funding and found that only about half of the projects have advanced the greenway as originally envisioned. Sam Magavern, co-director of the partnership and principal author of the report, said the original greenway legislation and the adopted greenway plan are inconsistent.

“The plan defines the greenway much more broadly, which gives flexibility to fund projects such as Lew-Port athletic fields, which are not consistent with the greenway,” Magavern said. “One solution is to introduce legislation that reconciles the two.”

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan agrees. He plans to introduce legislation this session that will resolve the disparity.

“Funds should be only used to support the primary mission of the greenway,” Ryan said. “My legislation will guarantee that Western New Yorkers will get what they were promised.”

New chairman lauded

Many stakeholders and leaders have driven the greenway process. Gregory D. Stevens, former board chairman of Riverkeeper and an experienced businessman, was recently appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as chairman of the Greenway Commission. Stevens knows he is walking in big footsteps. He said he is honored that Cuomo has given him the opportunity to lead this effort.

“Growing up in Buffalo, I was horrified at what we had done to our waterways,” Stevens said. “I believe the greenway is the opportunity of our lifetimes to undo this damage, and restore ecological health and public access to water across our region.”

Stevens’ appointment has been widely praised.

“He understands that the greenway not only affects New York, but also the Tuscarora Nation and Canada. This is an important perspective,” said David Hahn-Baker, a greenway commissioner.

Another commissioner, Paul G. Leuchner, said, “Greg is doing a great job and he can take us to the next level.”

Stevens is generating confidence by enacting a strategic game plan that involves meeting with and helping to coordinate stakeholders, including the standing committees, state agencies, businesses, organizations and others in order to develop the understanding of consistency, and to promote synergy.

One of his first acts occurred in October, when Stevens hosted a bicycle tour of the greenway, from Buffalo’s outer harbor to Niagara Falls. The purpose was to evaluate the gaps in the current trail system.

“The linked trails are the spine of the greenway,” he said.

Participants included members of the standing committees, and representatives of state agencies that are linked to greenway funding.

“There are a few remaining gaps, such as portions of Niagara Street in Buffalo, and in the Tonawandas, where there is a great opportunity to link to the Erie Canal Trail,” Stevens said. “We intend to complete the trail, lake to lake, by the summer of 2014.”

He added, “As we build out these trails and make connections, we build a constituency of users. This helps to broaden support and understanding of the greenway. This constituency will help us to move more toward the critical conservation strategies that we need to fulfill.”

When asked about project “consistency” issues, Stevens said he is working to meet with all stakeholders so that the Greenway Commission can coordinate an understanding of what “consistency” means, and how it can advance the plan based on consistency findings.

“The commission is leading by example,” he said. “We take consistency very seriously. We think that we will find more and more projects brought to us that reflect our approach.”

Success and opportunity

Beyond the spine of the trails, there are stunning “habitat” success stories. With the support of the Greenway Commission and funding from the Ecological Standing Committee, the Western New York Land Conservancy is acquiring the Stella Niagara Preserve in the Town of Lewiston this past summer.

The 29-acre property stretches from Lower River Road and the Seaway Trail connector down to the river. This ecologically and historically significant property includes a quarter mile of natural and undeveloped riverfront habitat surrounded by meadows and forests. It is a significant bird and wildlife habitat and a critical conservation area in the greenway.

Nancy Smith, executive director of the Land Conservancy, said, “Stella Niagara is perfect for walking trails and a kayak launch. When complete, this will be the first nature preserve along the river to be owned and operated by a not-for-profit. It will be a model for creating great new public spaces along the greenway without burdening local government with increased costs.”

Margaret Wooster, a Riverkeeper and member of the Ecological Standing Committee, has spent a lifetime working on Niagara River issues. She compares the greenway to an emerald necklace connecting the two lakes.

“The Niagara Gorge is one of those emeralds. It was one of the most botanically diverse areas in North America, and still retains amazing plants like the thousand-year-old white cedars,” she said. “We need to protect the gorge. One strategy is to move the Robert Moses Parkway away from the rim. We funded a study that demonstrates the ecological and economic benefits of doing that, and now we have to act.”

Wooster added, “More emeralds – the wetland-shallows-island habitats near the south end of Grand Island extending over to historic ‘Tonawanda Flats,’ once one of the best birding spots in the Great Lakes, and Buffalo’s outer harbor area down to Smoke Creek Shoals – are important natural areas that need to be preserved and restored. Local waterfront development plans need to respect that the greenway requires an ample living shoreline for it to have any lasting value.”

Greenway stakeholders are looking at the outer harbor and its relationship to the greenway as a valuable opportunity to realize the full vision. It is unclear how the Buffalo/Erie County/Olmsted Standing Committee and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency that seems to have taken over planning for the outer harbor, will engage the full greenway vision.

This past summer, a citizen-based proposal for the expansive 21st Century Olmsted Park, an outer harbor park plan supported by Riverkeeper, received a “consistency” vote by the Greenway Commission but was rejected by the Buffalo/Erie County/Olmsted Standing Committee. It would be a shame to ignore a broadly supported desire by Buffalo stakeholders and the greenway vision to develop open space and public access in favor of the privatized development being pushed by the Harbor Development Corp. Buffalo’s outer harbor could become the crown jewel of the greenway. Or not.

Jay Burney, a naturalist, writer and conservation activist, founded the Learning Sustainability Campaign and is chairman of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.