Tuesday, July 2, 2024

A public movement for public safety


The state legislature can sometimes be big on ideas but small on implementation.


Far too often, in an effort to right a wrong or improve something that needed improvement, the legislature goes with wholesale change, rather than taking its time with baby steps or fully investigating the impacts. This is why small business owners fret about the regulations and costs of doing business in the Empire State and school boards and county legislatures pull their hair out over unfunded mandates.


This all-or-nothing approach to governance has also had a negative impact on public safety in New York. In recent years, the state has instituted a variety of changes to criminal justice, with the primary goal being social justice reform, that have had, in many circumstances, unwelcome consequences despite being well-intentioned.    


I know that from listening to Niagara County dispatch most of my waking hours – the airwaves can be quite busy at times and I routinely hear the same names and the same crimes. That’s more than an anecdotal observation: Within Niagara County vehicle thefts are 31% higher than they were just five years ago while larcenies remain up about 19%; homicides have grown from 4 in 2019 to an average of 14 in the four years that followed; and, since 2019, there have been more than 1,400 repeat offenders booked in the county. Many criminals now feel emboldened.


Niagara County isn’t alone in that regard. If you want one of the most visceral examples, things have been so bad in the Big Apple that Governor Hochul deployed the National Guard to keep order in New York City’s subways. Yes, she brought in the Armed Forces to restore what the state government broke. It’s almost surreal.


So, what can be done?


This is where we need your help.


Last month I participated in the first meeting of the Niagara County branch of the Consortium for Safe Communities. Sheriff Filicetti brought together two dozen of us from across the county and across the spectrum to talk about public safety. Men and women from law enforcement, local government, schools, small businesses, non-profits, and places of worship – a diverse mix of left, right, and center – spoke openly, in a non-political fashion, about trends in public safety, the possible causes, and potential remedies. It was an enlightening and productive conversation.


Our branch is part of a movement being rolled-out statewide that was started by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office last fall. The purpose is to educate the masses about the issues and get them engaged. The hope is that power in numbers – from the Consortium’s members and the citizens who are their customers, congregants, and constituents – gets the legislature to make adjustments to some of the recent reforms to ensure that, in the quest for socioeconomic justice, public safety isn’t a castoff. It’s believed that if lawmakers hear from regular people, with a common voice in volume, they will act. They’ll be getting an earful, politely, from more than sheriffs, police chiefs, town justices, and public defenders – they’ll also hear from the regular citizens who worry of the crime that impacts them, their families, their homes, and their communities.


Collectively, the various counties now onboard with the Consortium have narrowed down the first foray into reforming the reforms by focusing on four items: One, adopting a Risk of Public Safety Standard (ours is the only state that does not empower judges to detain individuals when they pose a threat); two, introducing a Repeat Offender Standard (to detain individuals re-arrested while out on appearance tickets or their own recognizance); three, drafting a Clean Law (to uphold the positive intentions of bail reform while safeguarding constituents from individuals who persist in criminal activities); and, four, opposing elder parole legislation (which could be dangerous and arbitrary while re-victimizing the innocent).


To better understand these items and make your voice heard on them, visit the Consortium’s website (ourconsortiumny.com) to read about them and fill out the associated form to add your name to the growing list of concerned citizens. Better yet, write your own letter using those points with specific details about how you and your community have been and will be impacted. Mail or e-mail that letter to the heads of the senate and assembly while copying your local sheriff and state legislators on it. 


This is the first time that we’ve asked for your help and it won’t be the last. You’ll probably hear from us on a regular basis. The various branches and members of the Consortium for Safe Communities will continue meet in the coming months and years to analyze pending and existing legislation and the impact on public safety…and you.



From the 04 July 2024 Wellsville Sun and Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thanks for the memories, Camp Dittmer

As many of you know, it is emotionally painful to put an animal down.

The pet that you spent so many years with was beloved, truly a member of your family. You knew that incurable illness had taken its course and something had to be done. You owed it to that animal, to you, and your whole family. Even so, that never lessened the emotional heft – your companion was no more.  

That’s the way I’ve felt with the sale of Camp Dittmer.

That longtime Boy Scout camp, located in Phelps in the Finger Lakes region, was sold earlier this week. For more than 60 years, that beautiful property served as a summer camp for thousands of scouts from the Iroquois Trail Council (and its predecessor the Lewiston Trail Council), as well as scouts from literally all over the world.

I was one of those scouts.

And, I was one of those who had to make the difficult decision to sell the camp.

I had been the president of the board of the Iroquois Trail Council for almost ten years and I knew for most of my tenure that moving that property was inevitable. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t escape the harsh reality of upstate New York’s changing demographics and population. As school enrollments declined dramatically, the number of scouts did as well; there are fewer kids in the community to serve. Just look at the twenty-year declines in some school districts in the Council’s territory: Albion 35%; Medina 34%; Roy-Hart 32%; and Lockport 25%.

But, being reasoned and reasonable, knowing the end had to come, doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the end actually being here.

From now on, Camp Dittmer can only live in my mind and heart.

Scouts assembling on Remick Lake

I am forever appreciative of the impact that place and its people had on me as kid, and the opportunities it provided me in the later years.

My first time there was as a young scout in 1987. I immediately fell in love with Dittmer, a tranquil destination with its own lake and beautiful forests. There was a council-wide weekend fishing derby on Remick Lake. I made it to the finals after catching a huge bass, and during those finals — from a canoe, so exciting for this 12 year-old! — I tangled with a massive pike. I’ve been hooked on fishing – and Scouting – ever since.  

From 1987 to 1992 I spent a week there every summer, enjoying good times in the campsite, around the lake, and in the dining hall with my friends and our scoutmasters. During that time, I earned merit badges and learned life skills that I carry with me to this day.

In 1993, I took a job at Camp Dittmer as the nature director. It was my duty to teach campers about the various nature merit badges, take them on hikes, and show them how to catch the monstrous fishes that swim in the lake. My years as the director were life-changing. Prior to that, I was maybe something of an introvert. Having to lead a small staff and teach large classes taught me to take control, manage organizational functions, educate, and speak to groups.

Following those summers and my graduation from college I began working in my family business. But, I still went to Dittmer every summer with Troop 18 for the decade during which I was the scoutmaster. I wanted the kids to experience what I did. Those weeks away also transformed me. I became scoutmaster at the tender age of 22. To be responsible for 20 kids while managing volunteers and parents who were much older than me prepared me for the responsibilities of my career and ultimately parenthood, instilling care, empathy, and maturity.   

If it’s possible for a place to help make you who you are, Camp Dittmer certainly exceled in that regard. It had its part in defining who I am as a man, father, employer, speaker, angler, volunteer, naturalist, and so much more.

I’ll never forget that.

The iconic moose head in the mess hall

And, I’ll never forget the sights, sounds, and smells of Dittmer…things like dozens of happy and boisterous children; the tranquility of the lake before the campers awakened; the American flag proudly waving in the parade field; the majesty of bugle at flag raising; the chorus of bullfrogs in the lake; the sound of a trophy bass smacking a topwater lure; the water carnivals at the waterfront; the food, songs, energy and moose head in the mess hall; my awesome and unique coworkers when I worked on staff; the smell of the pines in the campsites; the reverence of the outdoor chapel; and each week’s closing campfires.

Thanks for the memories, Camp Dittmer.

I’ll miss you.

But, you’ll always be with me.  

You’ll always be part of me.

From the 25 June 2024 Wellsville Sun and Greater Niagara Newspapers

Exploring the WNY Wilds: All around the mulberry bush

I love eating. I love nature. I love eating nature.

The next month and a half are a special time for me and other wild locavores in Western New York, as we are blessed with so many types of edible fruits in our forests and fields. From wild strawberries to black cherries to blackcaps, one’s palate can never be bored. Years like this — with a kind winter, minimal frost damage, and consistent rainfall from bud to flower to fruit — are especially bountiful and some plants seem overflowing with juicy fruits.

Among the most overlooked and underappreciated of these is the mulberry.

Not everyone has a taste for mulberries. My wife could do without them. Those of us who enjoy mulberries appreciate the subtle fleshiness of the fruit and the unforgettable flavor that is at once sweet and tart. They are so juicy that they often pop in your mouth when you bite into them.

Every year I collect the berries in volume and have a quarter-quart as my morning and afternoon snacks at work over their three week peak.

If you do that, be sure to have a toothbrush handy in your desk as the juices tend to darken your teeth, just as they do your hands when picking and eating them.

Similarly, if you go out and pick them, be sure to wear old shoes that you can leave on your porch or in your mudroom. The ground below a mulberry tree will be littered with overripe berries and you will step on them. You don’t want to be bring that dye into your home and stain your carpets or woodwork.

Where to find them

Mulberry trees can be found mostly in the agricultural areas, especially those with dairy farms in the immediate vicinity. It won’t be often that you’ll find them in woodlots or larger forests of the area.

That’s because one of the greatest consumers of mulberries is the European starling. These pesky birds inhabit feedlots by the hundreds because they love to eat the corn and other grains that the farmers put out for their cattle. The starlings will wander away from the farm when mulberries are ripe and, if you don’t make periodic visits to your local mulberry tree, they will clean it completely of the berries.

If you want to find a mulberry tree, narrow your search to within a half-mile of a farm and look for them in hedgerows and along “natural” hedgerows (like creek edges). These are places where the farm starlings will roost and defecate – it is their droppings that spread mulberry seeds and ensure future generations of trees. I guess starlings are good for something.

Mulberry trees can also naturally appear in lawns. That’s because the robin, one of our most common backyard birds, is an avid devourer of mulberries, and they, like starlings, will plop the seeds in their stomping grounds.

Do you want a cue that there are likely mulberries in your neighborhood? Check the hood of your car in the next few weeks. If there are bird droppings on it that are deeply purple, chances are your feathered friend had mulberries for dinner.  

What to look for

Mulberry trees are relatively short trees. They are 20- to 50-feet tall and can start producing fruit at about 15-feet in height (which is why you’ll need an a-frame ladder if you are serious about harvesting them).

The leaves are mostly oval or heart-shaped but they can also have a mitten shape and are typically three- to five-inches long and two- to three-inches wide. Mulberry leaves are also very glossy on the top. If you encounter the trees in the fall, the leaves will be yellow.

The bark of the trees is furrowed, even scaly, and not the least bit smooth.

 The tree has a spreading crown (it doesn’t grow straight up like, say, a tulip tree) and has been known to be planted as a shade tree for that reason.

In the spring, mulberry trees produce greenish, spiked flowers than can be up to two-inches long. They gradually turn into fruits which first look white, become pink-red, and then turn a deep purple – almost black – when ripe. The fruits are one- to one-and-a-half-inches long. When picking them, a small bit of green stem will remain atop the fruit. That stem is edible and will do nothing to either improve or ruin the flavor of the fruit.

The fruits might start to become ripe by July 1. It’s rare that you will see any into August.

Interesting and miscellaneous facts

The red mulberry is native to North America and we are just at the very northern edge of its range. It is the one you are least likely to find around here.

You will mostly encounter its Persian cousin, the black mulberry, which was brought to the States to create a silk industry. Those who introduced them here failed to realize that silk worms love white mulberry leaves but have no care for black mulberry leaves. After failing in that regard, settlers decided to keep the trees anyway because of the delicious berries.

White mulberries are quite uncommon in WNY and just as tasty – their berries, like the name implies, don’t go dark like the others.

Mulberries aren’t berries, they are collective fruits. But for layman’s sake, throughout this column, I identified them improperly as people have for centuries.

It is highly encouraged that you thoroughly wash mulberries before eating them due to the likelihood of starling droppings on them. Starlings are not the cleanest birds.

Mulberries can eaten raw or put in pies, jams and jellies. They are quite tasty when served warm over dumplings/biscuits. My favorite treat is to top vanilla ice cream with them.

Enjoy that summer bounty!

From the 18 June 2024 Wellsville Sun

Don't overlook the Canalway Trail


We are blessed with incredible public assets in Niagara County -- from town parks to state parks – that allow locals and tourists alike to explore the Niagara Frontier and enjoy the outdoors.


One of those assets is, for vast stretches, lightly used: The Canalway Trail.


It may be more familiarly known as the “towpath” because back in the Erie Canal’s heydays of the 1800s it was walked by the mules and horses that pulled packet boats and barges. In the first half of the 1900s, it became a freeway of sorts for hoboes, who set about for income from harvests and odd jobs. 


Maybe it’s those original utilitarian purpose that keeps people away. Maybe it’s the misbelief that it’s not interesting enough. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s everywhere and everyday – something we pass over on our commutes and overlook because it’s just “there”.

Whatever the reasons may be, I encourage readers to cast those thoughts aside and appreciate the miles of trail awaiting you.

This column will periodically look at stretches of the trail, giving you insight into local history and natural history. We’ll begin by looking at the trail as it heads from the Orangeport Road bridge in Gasport to the Canal Road bridge in the town of Lockport. This is my favorite part of the trail.

Round-trip from the Orangeport parking lot it’s a good 4 mile hike. Moving at a fair pace, a hiker can accomplish the hike in an hour and 15 minutes, longer if you stop to rest, fish, or watch wildlife.

Getting there is easy. Most readers will make their way to Gasport on Route 31. Just to the west of the hamlet is Orangeport Road. Within a few hundred feet of getting onto Orangeport Road, you will cross over the canal. Once you do, quickly approaching on your right will be Berner Parkway. Take Berner all the way to its end. The turnaround there is the parking lot for the trail.

It’s called Orangeport because back in the 1800s once stood an inn that was frequented by canal boatmen – it was painted a bright orange as a means to attract attention and imbed the hotel in memories.

Upon walking out of the lot, go towards the bridge and continue heading that direction.

This portion of the trail is stone dust perfectly groomed by the Canal Corporation. You can walk, run, bike, or push a stroller with ease; it’s friendly to all types of use.


For the next two miles, you will be graced with pastoral scenes to the north. The closest road is Slayton Settlement, a mile north, so you won’t encounter houses on the trail side of the canal until you get to the next bridge. Instead, you’ll see orchards, small forests, and thousands of acres of crops.


The lack of civilization means the trail puts you close to wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see deer or turkeys coming out of the woodlots. In the spring, trees lining the trail are chock-full of warblers, the “butterflies of the bird world.” During the summer and fall, avian fishmongers love this stretch – kingfishers, green herons, and ospreys. You might even see a bald eagle fly overhead.

Enjoy the wildflowers along the path, especially in summer and fall. Many people derisively look at late-season flowers as weeds. They are not. The whole palette of colors is there, as you can see hawkweed, morning glories, chicory, and butter and eggs to name a few.

Along the trail you will see 3 different streams that get their water from PVC pipes that run from the canal. The purpose is to keep the streams flowing so farmers can use the water to irrigate their crops. A fourth creek doesn’t get canal water, flows under the canal, and has a wooden fence high above its culvert. This creek is one of the more interesting in the region as its natural gas is the reason why Jamesport was renamed Gasport in 1826.

Across from that creek houses show up on the south side of the Erie Canal. The first one might look familiar. Prior to the late-1990s it was Camp Margaret Castle, owned by the local Girl Scouts who also rented it out to Boy Scouts for their camporees.

Approximately 400 feet past that you will come to a pleasant picnic spot, a grassy area with boulders and a bench.

Further down the trail you will come upon the Canal Road bridge. This single-lane steel bridge was built in 1900 and is still in great shape. This is where most hikers turn around and head back.

Make it a point to hike the Erie Canal’s towpath this year. You might find yourself falling in love with this trail system, especially along this quiet, rural stretch.

Hope to see you on the trail!



From the 19 June 2024 Greater Niagara Newspapers