One of the perks of writing about a city on the upswing is getting to be present when efforts that have been in the works for decades finally come to fruition. There is nothing quite like the expansive joy of ardent believers who kept at something year after year, plugging away, never giving up hope, seeing things come together at long last.
Last Friday was exactly one of those days, with over a hundred present to celebrate progress on Seneca Bluffs, and make some more. As I toured Seneca Bluffs – a “Natural Habitat Park” – and saw some of the work underway, I talked with some of the folks who have played a key role in restoring this key ecological node from what it was for years: a neglected, ill-used clutter of illegal dumping and debris, overgrown with invasive species.
Note: at the end of this post you can find out how you can pitch in at Seneca Bluffs (and some other sites) this weekend.
On site I found crews from Labatt USA and Pegula Sports and Entertainment having a great time, planting native species and restoring the natural function of the place. With 75 and 25, respectively, having escaped into the wild, their offices were closed. That’s crucial, because, as I’ve always seen it, involving people in these kinds of projects is the way to create new environmentalists, without them even realizing it. They named the event, “Tap It Forward.” And how appropriate: as Ommegang Brewery protested during New York’s hydrofracking debate, without clean water you can’t make beer.
While some I talked with couldn’t tell me the species of trees they were planting, they knew they were native and non-invasive. Lauren Dixon, with North American Breweries (parent of Labbatt’s and my hometown brew, Genesee), told me that employees have been asking for Waterkeeper to come in for a brown bag training on some of those details.
But I did find a mini-training going on in a meadow area near the river, showing a crew how to plant a native grassland species and also – Queenseyes, you’ll appreciate this – milkweed. Showing the proper technique for seed distribution was Andrea Locke, coordinator of Western New York PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management). Based at the Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State, WNY PRISM is on a probably endless mission to get a handle on invasive species in the region, both plant and animal, while also bolstering native species.
According to their website,
The WNY PRISM Mission is to proactively identify, evaluate, and address invasive species priorities in western New York using a coordinated partnership of local professionals, organizations, and private citizens to improve, restore, and protect local aquatic and terrestrial resources.
Tying all the work together at Seneca Bluffs is a marriage of sorts between WNY PRISM and Erie County, I learned Friday from Erie County’s Vicki Haas, who oversees Erie County’s three natural habitat parks. Uniquely, those three parks (the others being Red Jacket Park and Old Bailey Woods) are overseen by the Department of Environment and Planning (DEP) rather than the Parks Department – although there is close cooperation between the two agencies, Haas assured me.
The partnerships and collaborations Haas described, and that I saw at work on Friday, reminded me of how Waterkeeper has also built a family to achieve its mission, as I wrote recently. Essentially it will take a family, including the neighborhood and surrounding community, to help Erie County manage the natural habitat parks like Seneca Bluffs. While Friday was about getting work done, and much was accomplished, it was also about sending this message.
And it’s been a long time coming. The original master plan for Seneca Bluffs was done by Ecology and Environment around the turn of the century. Over the years some projects been done, but what made Friday so important was the sense that things are finally coming together. The last three years have been especially crucial, Vicki told me. During that time, while the Army Corps moved forward on the shoreline restoration funded by federal monies secured by Waterkeeper, Erie County and PRISM moved forward to get a handle on the invasives on land.
The toughest tackle by far were the forests of Japanese Knotweed that obstructed beautiful views, blocked access to the water’s edge, and chocked out native species. I visited the site in 2010, tried to get to the water’s edge, and got genuinely lost in the Knotweed. Partly through mowing, and partly through judicious spot application of herbicides, they have made astounding progress. According to Haas, their success has brought the park to the point where the remaining invasives are now in pockets that can be tackled in manageable efforts, especially when volunteer teams are available to do the manual labor.
On a visit last year, I saw some of that progress in progress. With invasives coming under control, the overall plan for the park has been coming into view. And what a view it is. Although intentionally natural rather than a landscaped park in the Olmstedian sense, there is a design, and it has a subtle aesthetic beauty that somehow connects with a visitor on a visceral level. It is hard to describe in words, but an insight from art may help.
Last year, when I visited Seneca Bluffs, it was shortly after visiting the groundbreaking Blistering Vision exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Arts Center which explored Burchfield’s life-long commitment to nature and the environment. While his paintings of nature are well known, it is less well known that, early in life, Burchfield considered becoming a naturalist. This informed all of his work, even his industrial and street scenes. His journals describe in words what is revealed in his paintings: a deep, spiritual connection with nature. He also devoted much of his life and work to developing a natural aesthetic. Plenty of examples can be found here.
Seen through that lens, the landscape at Seneca Bluffs takes on a kind of Burchfieldian quality. It imparts a feeling of deep connection to nature, contentment, and even joy to be there. We need these kinds of places, and we need these kinds of vistas. It’s a civic benefit that we can provide them so close to home. It makes smart use of our natural resources to do so. But to make that happen, it takes good government and a good civil society.
And that was the real story of Friday: the partnerships that have been formed, and the leadership provided by Erie County, PRISM, and Waterkeeper. The timing couldn’t be better, as it also dovetails with the revival of Seneca Street. It also helps answer the long-asked question of how, with all the ecological and habitat restoration underway locally with the Buffalo River cleanup and the Niagara River Greenway, will we maintain these areas? After all, as Haas told me, if they let up on the gas, the invasives would come back. The answer is, in part, public-private partnerships. Another answer is making sure the public sector has adequate capacity to do its part. Municipal governments used to be able to do everything they needed to operate and maintain their parks in house, with their own forces, including growing their own plants. Haas is going back to the future with that, including establishing a tree-growing operation at the County Jail property in Alden. That way, the County will have a steady supply of trees in the pipeline for volunteers to plant, and to take the place of those lost to deer and beaver damage.
Another critical piece, which fell into place last year, was the acquisition of the ten-acre “inholding” parcel. Until recently it was for sale, and even eyed for a housing project. Because the original design didn’t include it, the next step, Haas told me, is to develop a site plan. Because of the legacy of the site, they are looking for low-impact uses that would not involve much excavation, she told me. That sounds like a great design challenge on which to unleash our best ecological planning and environmental design minds.
What is happening at Seneca Bluffs is just one part of a new day dawning for all of Erie County’s Natural Habitat Parks. All three are getting a boost, perhaps the biggest since they were established – beautiful green symbols of a city on the upswing again.
You, too, can help the partnership for Seneca Bluffs (and several other waterfront sites) this weekend. There’s even an after party!
Get connected: https://bnwaterkeeper.org/programs/cleanup/
Note: the photo gallery below includes my photos from Friday and from a year ago, and also photos from Erie County and WNY PRISM.