Thursday, July 19, 2018

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What are those tiny pink flowers in your lawn?

Dry summers like this one, when mowings are few and far between, reveal some interesting plants in our lawns that otherwise might be taken down by mower blades.

One that immediately comes to mind is the very small, pink flower that has been adorning Western New York lawns over the past week or so and will continue to do so for another two weeks. It’s especially noticeable this year when the dainty petals add a little bit of color to otherwise sunburned lawns.

Those wee wildflowers have an easy name to remember. What’s easier calling a pink-colored flower a pink?

The type you are most likely to see is the Deptford pink, named after Deptford, England where this invasive species defined the landscape. Back in the 1500s and 1600s, Deptford was a rural community just outside of London. These small flowers filled the fields and meadows there, making for a sea of brilliant color in the summer months.

Those days are long gone as Deptford is now an industrialized commercial district of London, one that is overpopulated (so much so that realtors say the community is “not for the faint of heart”) and almost totally devoid of the green space that centuries ago defined the community as an easy-living alternative to urban London.

Things have become so bad in the United Kingdom for this once-abundant plant that it is now listed as endangered there. 

Luckily, these beautiful flowers were saved from total destruction by being brought to the New World in the 1700s. No one knows for sure if it was accidentally or on purpose. Regardless, they have staked claim to the almost the entire United States and can be found in lawns, fields, roadsides, and “waste areas” (places being reclaimed by Mother Nature, such as brownfields).

It’s one of those invasive species you can welcome. It doesn’t grow in great abundance; it doesn’t choke out native plants; and, they are nice to look at.

It all comes down to that pretty little flower, which is no more than a third of an inch in width. They will often bloom when the plant reaches an inch or two in height, sporting a 5-petal star shaped flower that is brilliant pink. If you get down to ground level and give it a closer look, you will notice small white dots all over it.  If allowed to flourish, the plant will grow to heights of 10 to 15 inches.

The color pink actually got its name from this flower.

It was long thought that the scalloped edges of the flowers looked like they were “pinked,” a process by which tailors and seamstresses cut zigzags into clothing to prevent fraying. That process is now accomplished by pinking shears, introduced in 1931, but prior to that it was done with much effort by hand. In old English, dating back to the 1300s, pink came about as a verb meaning, in essence, to pierce or stab.

After comparing the petal’s edges to clothing affected by that process, the name pink was given to the plants. Then, from there, it was the name given to their brilliant color because everyone in old England was familiar with plant. We’re talking the days before Crayons, color swatches, and all that good stuff, so it was easy to anoint a name to a color, especially an intense one, based on something familiar.

So, the next time you see one of these sprites in your backyard, don’t pick it, even though you might consider it to be a weed because it looks out of place with a manicured lawn. Pinks are interesting – they’re attractive, they have a neat history, and back home in their motherland they are on the decline. Let them thrive here – go pink.   

From the 19 July 2018 All WNY News

New York needs more forest rangers

If you visited the Adirondacks in recent years you were likely overwhelmed by the crowds.

Perhaps you planned on hiking one of the 46 high peaks -- such as Marcy and Colden – or even lesser mountains elsewhere in the Park (like Bald/Rondaxe) and quickly realized that everyone and his brother had the same idea. It’s not uncommon in the summer to see cars overflowing from designated parking areas and lining the roads for sometimes hundreds of yards.

You might have turned around and searched out trails less traveled or maybe you joined the masses on their ascent. If you chose the latter, you were likely taken aback by the throngs on the summit. Each one of those cars likely held a family or a group of friends, meaning dozens, and sometimes hundreds, were tackling the climb at once. It wasn’t what you expected going to the Adirondacks -- you went there because you wanted to get away from civilization.  

Where are all these people coming from -- haven’t we been told that the computers forced everyone indoors and away from Mother Nature?

The opposite has occurred. The power of social media – the shared experience, the photographs, the desire to beat the Joneses – has driven people outdoors to see what their friends saw and do what they did. Every time someone shares on Instagram a picture of the view from say, Mount Haystack, it’s incentive to join in the fun.

This is not just anecdotal, not just a feel that things are busy in the wilderness. It’s real. In the 10 years ending 2015, foot traffic at Cascade alone more than doubled from 16,000 hikers a year to 33,000. Over that same period, Van Hoevenberg saw a 62 percent increase in hikers – 53,500 people climbed the peak in 2015. Those are just two trails!

Because of that, many areas of the Park -- and the infrastructure and the environment -- are facing serious overuse.

Look at parking. Last fall, in advance of the Columbus Day crush, as a means to curtail dangerous and destructive roadside parking and traffic jams the Department of Environmental Conservation announced that hikers would not be allowed to use the parking areas for Cascade, Porter and Pitchoff Mountains. They were forced to park at Mount Van Hoevenberg which had unsuspecting hikers add another 4 miles round-trip to their hikes.

That was just one weekend, a symptom of a greater crisis. A study found that 35 parking lots in the High Peaks were designed to hold fewer than 1,000 cars yet frequently had more than 2,000 trying to park in them on any given day in the summer.

This surge in hikers has led to an environmental nightmare. The unsuspecting are trampling alpine plants that took decades to restore. Trash and human waste are being left along the trails. Animals are being harassed. Nuisance bears are being trained. The very definition of wilderness has been eroding along with the trails that lead into it.

Not only is the Park itself facing overuse, but so are the men and women who are trying to manage the people, places, plants, and peaks. We have too few forest rangers to handle all of those concerns.

Today, there are 137 forest rangers responsible for 4.9 million acres of DEC-administered lands. Back in 1970, there were 140 forest rangers and only 3.5 million total acres of DEC land. So, over the past half century, the number of forest rangers has slightly declined while the DEC has acquired roughly 30 percent more land and – using the Adirondacks as an example – a few million more users.  

In 2012, NYS rangers patrolled 2,600 interior miles on foot in the High Peaks. 4 years later, that number was down by nearly a third. That’s because of the lack of manpower and changing conditions. Forest rangers are now required to focus on parking and traffic control and trail clean-up, instead of doing what they were hired to do – that is, protect the environment and the people using it. Too few men and women are able to save the trails and endangered species or educate hikers on where to go, how to dress, and what to look for.

That last part has led to something of a public health crisis. A lot of those Facebook users looking to work their way into the Adirondack 46ers club aren’t experienced or competent outdoorspeople. They don’t have the right clothing, footwear, shelter, food, or water, which puts them at risk. Somebody has to save them and the overworked rangers are. Rangers completed 62 search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks in 2012. By 2016, there were 98. Putting such hard works on so few puts the rangers at risk as well as those they are trying to save.  

The rangers and countless Adirondacks organizations have tried hard to get the state to add more rangers. But, it’s fallen on deaf ears. Another budget session came and went in Albany and neither Governor Cuomo or DEC Commissioner Seggos saw the need to add to the payroll.

Maybe it’s time they heard this message from the rest of the state. Many of us here in Western New York go there with family and friends, so we need to speak up. The Adirondacks belong to all of us. The Park is a public asset that should be enjoyed, safely and naturally. In order for that to happen we need more rangers.   

From the 23 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, July 13, 2018

Small town America: Big time poverty

There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. On any given distribution day 20 to 35 families (encompassing 80 to 130 people) use the service. That’s a substantial number, given how small Gasport is. The Census Bureau says the population within the hamlet proper is just over 1,200 people. That means, if all those individuals hail from the immediate area, 7 to 11 percent of area residents rely on the charity to get by.   

If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they don’t really know anyone in need.

That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.

That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.

We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs of disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.

Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 

Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.

Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We see that here in the Empire State in spades – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.

Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.

In urban locales, 13 percent of the population is considered impoverished while 16 percent of rural and small town Americans are.  

That accounts for 8 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this newspaper is circulated.

Worse yet, of those 8 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors.  

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 29 percent. In Geneseo it’s 31 percent and in Albion it’s 37 percent.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rate for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (17 percent), Niagara (18 percent), Livingston (19 percent), Genesee (20 percent), and Orleans (25 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-5 or 1-out-of-every-4 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 35 families at Gasport’s food pantry? That’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the mobile food pantry that used to be in Medina – 200 to 300 families used to line up at a time. It’s no wonder so many pantries can’t keep up.

That’s why Medicaid and other public health programs over so heavily utilized – and, in turn, heavily-taxed – in upstate New York. Medicaid is a burden on our property and sales taxes because so many families are forced to utilize the program.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty of the fields, forests, and hills seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly ugly circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the policies, locally and nationally, to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.

From the 16 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, July 12, 2018

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Those aren’t ticks in your home – they’re pseudoscorpions

With all the press that has been cast upon ticks, especially with Western New York being a hotbed for those that carry Lyme disease, many people have been diligent about checking their bodies and clothes for the little parasites after having spent time outdoors.

Many of those souls have been surprised to find what they believe are ticks in their home which leads to all sorts of fear and paranoia – “If I brought these ticks into my home on my clothes, they could be anywhere!”

Before getting too frightened and then heading off to the doctor for unnecessary bloodwork to test for Lyme, give the little critter a closer look.

The little tick-like arachnids in your home might not be ticks, they are more than likely pseudoscorpoins.

Like the name implies, they aren’t scorpions, but rather fake scorpions. If you looked at them closely you’ll notice that at the end of their very long front legs (even longer than the front legs of ticks) are tell-tale club-like pincers, much like those sported by true scorpions.

Pseudoscorpions lack the tail and stinger that scorpions have and their bodies are very small, averaging about 3 millimeters in length, and roundish, which accounts for the confusion with ticks. It’s any easy mistake for anyone to make – one could say that if a tick and a scorpion had a baby it would look like a pseudoscorpion.

They are relatively common, living in approximately one of every five homes. These long-lived mini-monsters, which can thrive up to 3 years, tend to go overlooked due to their small size and their preferred hiding area: Around old books.

Booklice and dust mites frequent old books because they feast on the starch-based glues that was used to bind them. The pseudoscorpions eat those small critters, catching them in their oversized claws then secreting a digestive fluid into them which allows the scorpion to suck their insides out.

Pseudoscorpions are also frequently found in sinks and bathtubs, which leads many people to believe that when they took a shower a tick fell off of them. They show up there because, once again, that’s where they feed. The humidity around showers attracts small invertebrates that feast on mildew, creatures so small you almost never see them – that’s what the pseudoscorpions feast on.

The “book scorpions” can be found almost anywhere in your home, even a long distance away from books and bath because they are frequent fliers. They don’t have wings, but they’ll occasionally latch on to a house fly to either try to eat the much bigger creature or to consume the even smaller animals hiding in the fly’s hairs. This form of mass transit allows them to spread their range with ease.

Pseudoscorpions not only look weird, but they have a weird mating behavior. The male will prepare an area of a flat surface, putting effort into making it free of fuzz and dirt. He then dumps his sperm onto that surface and encourages the female to walk over it and in turn pick up the sperm. To make her do that, he displays his pincers as a show of strength then he proceeds to dance to coerce her into joining him. This rather unusual and elaborate behavior makes the mating ritual sometimes go on for almost an hour.

Despite their tick-like appearance, nasty looking claws, and strange sexual behaviors, pseudoscorpions pose no threat to humans. Many entomologists and extension offices encourage you to not kill them and let them live in your home because they are doing you a favor and killing pests that might be eating your books and giving you allergies.

So, the next time you think you’ve found a tick in your house, don’t fear for your life. Give it a closer look – it’s probably a pseudoscorpion that you’ve been sharing your home with.   

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 12 July 2018 All WNY News

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Orleans County: Setting the standard for acceptance

Earlier this year, I attended a charity concert in Medina organized by my good friend Bilal Huzair and his lovely family. It was an interesting and eclectic evening to say the least: The celebration began with country-western music which was followed by Pakistani music and then closed with a nice blend of East and West cultures, with songs sung in English, Hindi and Spanish.

I couldn’t help but be enamored by the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity that night. Everyone was having fun, interacting, and championing a common cause (the fight against hunger here in our region), despite all of their differences – WASPs, Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans and Mennonites were all equals, all friends.

Realize though, that this shared loved didn’t begin or end there at the Medina Theatre. As my daughter and I sat there entertained and educated, I had a recurring thought: “My goodness, this is what Orleans County is all about”.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a community where diversity and acceptance are paired so well.

Oh, you’ll find many cities, large and small, that will be a little more diverse, but, for the most part, they’re segregated, whether that’s intentional or not. Think of any given metropolis with its clearly defined neighborhoods – you’ve got your “Chinatown” and “Little Italy” or the blacks live here while the whites live there routine. Other than the occasional passing-through to indulge in a festival or an ethnic experience, you rarely see races and creeds interacting in cities.  

That’s not the case along the south shore of Lake Ontario.

Look at these examples of many:

Huzair, his Muslim peers, and their friends at the World Life Institute have been incredibly generous to the community, providing English-as-a-second-language classes to local migrant workers and their families; hosting Project Life, where children from war-torn countries spend summers with local host families; and running a mobile food pantry that served 300 families at a time.

One-time farm workers Leonel Rosario and his family have been welcomed with open arms by local residents, their impeccable Mexican restaurant, Mariachi De Oro, becoming so popular that it has expanded 3 times in its first 7 years and has become something of a tourism destination in itself. The Rosarios also opened up a retail store – Monte Alban – and have given of themselves to Orleans County and its people.

A few years ago, Amish farmer Marcus Miller lost the milking parlor at his dairy farm in Ridgeway to a fire. Once the ashes cooled, dozens of his friends, be they Amish, Catholics or competing farmers from his neighborhood, were there with him to help rebuild that complex, laboring in single-digit temperatures.  

His Amish friends have also created furniture, window, and roof businesses, as well as the super-popular Miller’s Bulk Food and Bakery on Route 104, that are all successful thanks to their attention to their customers and those customers’ appreciation for them, despite having a lifestyle and religious path so different than theirs.

Driving through sleepy Orleans County, you might not, at first glance, realize how diverse these towns are. But they are – according to the Census Bureau, Orleans County is 86% white, 5% Latino, 7% African-American. 3.5% of county residents were foreign born.

Those numbers aren’t far off the numbers of Niagara County, which has to its benefit three cities, which, as a general rule, tend to add to the diversity rolls.

So, why doesn’t Orleans County seem like other places? Why don’t diverse populations catch your attention as they do when you drive through Niagara Falls, Lockport or Buffalo?    

It’s because diversity has not become an oddity or a wedge as it has elsewhere – it’s not used as a means to divide people but rather as a way to bring them together. You have families of different colors and religions doing business with one another, living next door to one another, standing in the trenches together serving those in need, and creating friendships that know no boundaries. Acceptance is something that many if not most diverse communities lack, but Orleans County possesses in spades.  

As America continues to be grossly divided -- and even embarrassingly ugly -- along lines of color, religion, education, income, and politics, it would behoove policymakers and university think tanks from across this country to spend some quality time in Medina, Albion, and Lyndonville. Just why does acceptance work so well here and how can we make it work elsewhere? We could be the United States again if others took the time to learn from the humble and loving people of Orleans County.        

From the 09 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News