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Speech made re Parkway Removal at Waterfront Revitalization Public Meeting,

 Earl W. Brydges Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York, February 29, 2000.

Good evening. I'm a lifelong resident of the Niagara Frontier and a member of the Niagara Heritage Partnership. We're a group of people dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the region's natural environment, who encourage socially responsible development.

Of the fifteen miles of Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara County, we advocate removing about five miles of it--that portion along the top of the Niagara Gorge between Niagara Falls and Lewiston, all four lanes, and replacing the concrete with trees, and long-grass wildflower meadows. A hiking and a bicycling trail would run this entire scenic length.

We can think of no greater living legacy that we can create for ourselves and for visitors than this long landscape of natural environment. It would be an extension of the gorge wilderness, an exciting restoration that would attract those who seek the natural world when vacationing. This would not be the quick-stop, buy-a-postcard, back-in-the-car visit, but a days or even weeklong exploration of gorgetop hiking or bicycling trails, and of the trails at gorge bottom. Every few feet the scenery would be new and changing, a different glimpse through the foliage, long grasses swayed by the breeze, the river flowing, native butterflies trading among the wildflowers. The striking autumn foliage of gorge and gorgetop trees would extend the season for visitors.

But since these ideas have been expressed I, along with the rest of the Niagara Heritage Partnership members and others, have been accused:

  1. of being left-wing radicals posing as environmentalists
  2. of being tree huggers
  3. of being people who commit nihilistic acts
  4. of being na´ve children
  5. of being big dreamers
  6. of being idiots

I stand before you this evening to plead guilty as charged--to several of the aforementioned.

I plead us not guilty to the other charges, and I'll be as straightforward and clear as I can about why we want to replace the parkway with the natural landscapes and trails so important to residents and visitors alike. I'll tell you what we support and what we don't, and you can make up your own minds about whether or not we're guilty.

Additional details are provided at the information table and on the Niagara Heritage Partnership pages of the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council website. The Habitat Council fully supports the NHP in its proposal. Also on the table is a petition for those supporting parkway removal.

We start with the falls, and the gorge itself, a spectacular monument of geology, evidence of dramatic climate change that began over 13,000 years ago. When the last Big Ice Age retreated, water plunging from ice over a half-mile thick carved out the gorge. The rock thus exposed at gorge bottom is over 400 million years old.

Imagine the stark grandeur and desolation of that scene thousands of years ago--great jagged mountains of melting ice sparkling in the sunlight, mists rising, wet stone, mammoth chunks of ice the size of the old Oxy Building crashing into the gorge--but no green anywhere, nothing growing.

Then, gradually, over centuries, or even thousands of years, vegetation creeps back from southern latitudes, cautiously moving north. Seeds are also carried by the wind, birds and other animals--the usual methods of dispersal. But as the land surrounding those huge bodies of water that we now call Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie became forested, the same water that flows over the falls and through the gorge today began to carry seeds and bits of roots and, in some cases, whole plants. Waves carried some of these to shore. This continued for thousands of years--and some botanists say that the incredible variety of plant life that grew on Goat Island and in the gorge was a result of this process. Some of their descendants live there today.

But make no mistake. The natural gorge has been compromised, damaged by railroads, bridges, power generating, chemical discharges over the side, mill races, and other constructions. There is enough of it left, however, to be worthy of our protection, our ensuring that no further damage is done to this geological relic of a distant time.

We know that there are endangered and threatened wild plants in the old growth Deveaux forest. In addition, the publication American Scientist reveals small trees in cliff-face communities whose age reaches to at least 400 years. Some of the cedars only 20" in diameter on the Ontario Niagara Escarpment have been growing there since before the Norman Conquest. This makes them about 1,000 years old. They had started growing over 500 years before Columbus was born. Investigation currently in initial stages will examine similar trees in the Niagara Gorge.

In addition to its remarkable plant life, this area is very important to migrating birds because the Niagara Frontier is located in a major flyway. A rich diversity of birds grace the Frontier spring and fall, from Tundra Swans to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Magnolia Warblers, Ovenbirds, American Red Starts, Hooded and Blue-winged Warblers--birds flying to and from the West Indies, Peru, Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivia, and other locations in South and Latin America.

The National Audubon Society reports that 90 species of American songbirds are in serious decline, with some losses up to 50%. A major reason for such decline is loss of habitat. Restoring a natural environment to the gorge-top land now under concrete and medians would provide about 300 acres of additional habitat in this vital area. Much of it would be great for bluebird nesting boxes.

The Niagara River and its shoreline has been designated as a Global Level Important Bird Area by Audubon and a host of other organizations international in breadth, the first international area given this distinction. People interested in birding at Niagara will want to take advantage of spring and fall migrations, extending the visitor season.

The majority of reclaimed gorge top should be long grass meadow, a restoration of the prairie described by Father Hennepin in 1678. We can, with courage, recreate that lost landscape. Such grass grows quickly--and does not require continual mowing.

The successful marketing of this area as an urban wilderness for bird watchers, hikers, photographers, bicyclists and others who appreciate the natural environment dictates what will not be permissible.

The Niagara Heritage Partnership opposes leaving two lanes open for Viewmobile and tour bus traffic. We can't have it both ways. People who seek out a natural environment through which to hike or bicycle will not return to an area where the experience is degraded by the odor and pollution of diesel fuel, the motor and PA system noise of people movers passing them on a parallel track.

We support plans to establish right angle access to Whirlpool State Park for people movers and we support handicapped access to the trails being provided at the Power Vista and other locations. We support inviting bicycling clubs and hiking organizations to hold events here.

We oppose changing the Parkway into a boulevard. Concrete by any other name is still concrete, whether its freeway, expressway, highway, parkway, or promenade. Parkway is a poor name to start with--it steers cars past three parks at 55 mph.

We oppose additional elevators being built into the gorge as suggested by the 1992 Niagara Waterfront Development Plan. We oppose the restaurants, souvenir shops and restroom facilities attendant to these elevators and any other building at gorge top, hotels, casinos, and so on.

We support pursuing the Niagara Gorge being on the Natural Historic Register. We oppose fireworks being exploded out over the gorge. We support the eagle and osprey nesting platforms being proposed by the Occidental Chemical Corporation for the upper river. We support the New York State Parks assuming stewardship of the old growth Deveaux woods to assure its protection.

We oppose boardwalks being built at water's edge at Whirlpool; we oppose blacktop in the gorge; we support keeping the stone steps at Devil's Hole and other locations in repair and clearing rockslides from the lower gorge trail all the way to the falls; we support seeking a World Biosphere designation for the gorge from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), a distinction the Ontario escarpment has earned.

We oppose a monorail in the gorge or along its top; we oppose cable-car people movers into the gorge. We support joining our proposed bicycle trail to the one under construction from Lewiston to Youngstown, with side trails to the 40 acre wildlife refuge to be established on the Spoils Pile by the Village of Lewiston and through the wildlife habitat of Joseph Davis State Park, ending up at Fort Niagara.

We oppose snowmobiles or other motorized recreational vehicles using the trails; we support snowshoeing and cross country skiing to extend the season of nature-compatible trail use.

So that's what we think.

Let me conclude by telling you which of the remarks mentioned earlier bothered me the most.

It was being called a "big dreamer." Actually, what the man said was "Big Dream." He was walking away from me at the time and said it over his shoulder, shaking his head.

"Big Dream," he said. He emphasized the "Big." Much later I realized what troubled me so much about that comment. What he was really saying was that we all live in the land of little dreams--which are the only ones acceptable.

Here we sit our children of a certain age down at the kitchen table--"C'mere, Johnny, Mary. Sit down. I'm going to tell you the secret of this life."

"Dream small. Dream small, Johnny. And you hear me, Mary? Dream small. That way when your dreams don't come true, when your dreams are broken, when they fail, your disappointments are also small."

What we don't tell them is that 100,000 little broken dreams can turn a whole lifetime into disappointment. Maybe we don't know that ourselves.

So, yes, the Niagara Heritage Partnership has a big dream. It involves all the kingdoms along the lower Niagara: the City of Niagara Falls, the New York State Parks, the New York State Power Authority, the New York State Department of Transportation, the Village of Lewiston, the Town of Lewiston, the Town of Porter, and the Village of Youngstown. All the kingdoms gather and take a seat at the roundtable and they decide that the Niagara Gorge and its river are too important to be thought of in pieces. They decide that the concrete of the Robert Moses should be taken away and that the green grass and wildflowers and trees that they all love should replace it.

If we are genuinely interested in preserving and restoring this remarkable geological and botanical landscape, the Robert Moses Parkway along the lower gorge will be removed in its entirety. If, on the other hand, we insist on our trivial conveniences, and on intrusive commercial gain, we'll end up with some half-baked compromise. The Niagara Gorge will be further degraded and, we will, with deep regret, along with all the generations that follow us, be left to dream, to wonder about what might have been.

Bob Baxter, Conservation Chair




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Niagara Heritage Partnership

MPO Box 1495

Niagara Falls, New York 14302-1723