Thursday, August 28, 2014


Last week, the Buffalo News ran a front page story about the increasingly-famous “Eternal Flame” at Chestnut Ridge Park in Erie County which is created by gas seeping from shale at the park. In the ensuing report, the News made mention of some notable gas seepages across Western New York.

The article failed to mention the most notable of them all – the gas that accounts for the name of an entire community: Gasport.

That’s a significant oversight given our seepages’ natural and historical importance.

The young hamlet at the time of the construction of the Erie Canal was known as Jamesport. It was an unauthorized name, having no legal merit or consideration by the town of Royalton’s founding fathers.

In 1826, students from the Rensselaerian School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) were making an excursion up the Erie Canal for the purpose of geological study when they discovered gas bubbling in springs near the Canal. They suggested to one of the locals that the community be named Gasport instead, recognizing the oddity. The students were delighted on their return trip just days later to see that the name was painted on buildings and docks.

Over time, those gas springs have been mostly eliminated, covered up by progress – houses, farms, and businesses – and most people would not know how we got our name. But, there are still places where the gas can visibly be found if you do some exploring.

The near-surface pocket of gas is located in an area that begins roughly one block west of the Main Street bridge and is within a half-mile of each side of the canal from that point westward to the roughly the border with the Town of Lockport.

Most of the shale structures that allow the gas to reach the surface are buried under the soil, so you would have to search out the small streams that go under the canal, as through the centuries they have cut through the dirt, sediment and shale and allowed the gas to escape.

As you come upon one of the larger gas leaks, the smell is unmistakable. The area around it will smell like rotten eggs. While methane itself has no smell, in the presence of biological agents and sulfur it can create stinky methanethiol which accounts for the stench.

In some streams, the bubbles will be periodic, a series of them coming up for one to two seconds at a time and reoccurring every five to 10 seconds. In other springs which have cut deeper into the shale, the bubbles will be continuous and the water actually appears to boil, and the roiling noise can be quite load.

This photo shows a gas seepage that is located above the water level. 
As some of these streams dry up in the summer, you can still encounter the gas. Exposed formations of shale will continue to bubble with even the slightest bit of moisture and the ground itself will make hissing and bubbling sounds. These above-ground seepages will leave a white-grey froth.

In areas adjacent to these larger seepages, the gas will impregnate into the soil around the creek. If you dig into the nearby soil (which, around these gas wells will be either sand or extremely-dark, almost black dirt) you will find that even in the heat of summer, the soil is cool to the touch, an outcome of lots of gas penetrating the ground.

You can even replicate the Eternal Flame here in Gasport (although the outcome will be a little different). As the video below shows, placing a match over bubbling rocks will create a brief flame as long as the match is held over it.

If the gas is captured and allowed to concentrate in a defined area rather than immediately escaping to the air, the results are even more impressive. To do so, just place a pipe into the shale around one of the leaks and loosely place a rock over the end of the pipe to allow a small release of the gas. Once you light it, it will stay light, just as the Eternal Flame does. The video below shows one such experiment that we conducted on our farm:


Although the total area in which gas seepages may or may not be found in Gasport is really not that large (four square miles, maybe), it has attracted the attention of some gas companies in recent years. On the heels of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and the hopes that a similar industry is allowed in New York’s Southern Tier, one company sent letters to us and other local landowners about an exploration lease.

Everyone to a man said “no”.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Gasport’s gas seepages are unique, perhaps fragile, and offer an interesting link to our geological and historical past.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. As you see in the videos above, when he says he lights his gas…he means it. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Bear hunting coming to Niagara County

In last week’s column I discussed why local residents shouldn’t be fearful of the growing number of black bear sightings in Niagara County. Bears, despite their size and reputation, are relatively docile creatures and man-bear relationships can be appropriately managed with just a little common sense.

Most naturalists and seasoned outdoorsman would agree with that, but the folks at the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) – who control the balance of nature in New York State as much as the Creator himself – disagree and are looking to manage, even over-manage, our interactions with bears to the point that those interactions don’t exist at all.

The DEC plans to do this by ensuring that bears themselves don’t exist in Niagara County. This will be accomplished through hunting, which, the DEC announced in late-July, will now be allowed in all of Upstate New York.

Starting this year, hunters can harvest black bears in Niagara County with methods and seasons that coincide with the whitetail deer bow season (Oct. 1 – Nov. 14), regular firearm season (Nov. 15 – Dec. 7), and the late archery/muzzleloader seasons (Dec. 8 – Dec. 16).

This scheduling methodology allows hunters to take bears that they might happen upon while they are out the field pursuing our most popular game animal, the deer. This incidental harvest ensures that the highest number of people in the woods have the greatest chance of taking a bear, rather than having a separate bear-only season which limits both participation and total take.

The point of the DEC’s new management plan is to prevent the itinerant black bears who have been visiting us from establishing permanent populations on the Niagara Frontier. They want them totally eliminated even though there are vast wild areas where they could maintain healthy and safe populations. That extermination plan is something akin to the barbaric bounties and/or slaughters placed on bisons, wolves and passenger pigeons in the 1800s, something we’ve grown to regret a century and a half later.

The DEC’s management plan for the period 2014 to 2014 can be read online at where they outline their reasons and methods for the changes, as well as what may come in future iterations.

The current plan is bad enough, but there are a few items of controversy that can be found in their potential proposals for the future.

The DEC intimated that they are entertaining the thought of the harvest of cubs and allowing bear hunting over bait piles and with hunting dogs – things that could be considered poor sportsmanship.

It’s wrong to harvest a young animal (you wouldn’t do that to a fawn), it’s not fair to alter an animal’s behavior and feeding over time only to guarantee its harvest (it’s like hunting a farm animal) and although it makes sense to hunt upland game birds and rabbits with dogs (as they hold close to cover), you shouldn’t need them to hunt megafauna like bears --- especially when my fellow deer hunters and I are out in the woods and can easily have our hunts ruined by free-roaming dogs.

Following my June column about this for the Greater Niagara Newspapers (when the DEC’s public comment period was still open), DEC personnel and friends of the agency said I was wrong in reporting that their long-term strategy would include those 3 items of ill repute. But, if you go to page 22 of their plan, under strategy 2.1.6, you will see those ideas in black-and-white. I can’t make up the truth.

The Niagara County bear hunt is a significant change in game policy and, to me, an unwelcome one — and I’m a hunter! We shouldn’t be exterminating creatures that are trying to get a foothold in a rural region that can accommodate them, especially a place that was once their home before we took it away a couple of centuries ago. We should allow them to populate and then, and only then, should we concern ourselves with the idea of putting them in the trophy room and on the dinner table.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport, where he appreciates bear sightings, knowing they won’t last for long if the DEC’s plans come to fruition. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at 

From the 21 August 2014 East Niagara Post

Friday, August 22, 2014

Stop hating all Muslims

The aftermaths of the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri and the beheading of James Foley in Syria offer a stark contrast in the understanding of bigotry in America.

The riots in Ferguson and accompanying water cooler talk across America came about from a divide pitting black against white that was disingenuous, even artificial,  and not as deeply rooted as the news would have you believe. It was manufactured by race baiters (Al Sharpton and friends) and the talking heads on those same alleged news outlets (like CNN).   

At that very same time, a real, more deeply-ingrained hatred manifested itself as it has numerous times since 9/11. The Foley beheading reminded too many Americans that they hate Islam and despise Muslims. This didn’t need the media to prime the pump; it just spewed out.

Think about random conversations you overhead or were party to following the beheading. How many followed a “those damn Muslims” path? Take a glance at your feeds on Facebook and Twitter. How many articles and memes have you seen identifying Islam as a religion of hate?

Too many people, I would even say a majority of Americans, are painting the entire religion with a wide brush-stroke that makes all Muslims evil. Rather than attributing the work of ISIS and other militant groups --- which are incredibly small in numbers but large in impact – to a very small minority of morally-bankrupt practitioners of Islam, it’s popular to blame them all.

While most terrorists may be Muslims, most Muslims are not terrorists. Most Muslims are like most Christians – inherently good people, believing in a mostly-peaceful religion, who try to live to standards of morality but have their own personal flaws. In short, they are humans as you and I are -- not animals – trying to be perfect in an imperfect world.

Two Orleans County business owners whom I admire are devout Muslims. Their love of Man far rivals that which I have seen from most Christians. They devote countless time and dollars to improving the lot of life for the impoverished in that deeply-poor county as well as directly helping children from oppressed nations throughout the world. Their sacrifices and commitments are something special, no matter the religion.

Their peers in faith are equally-adept at practicing charity, which is both obligatory and voluntary in Islam. A 2012 study in the United Kingdom found that Muslims were the most giving of all religious groups, contributing 38% more than Jews, 84% more than Protestants, more than twice what Catholics do, and more than 3 times what atheists give.

That is but one aspect that attributes to Islam being a religion of peace.

Many non-Muslims choose to believe otherwise, implying that terror organizations represent the mainstream of the religion and that it is a deadly, vindictive religion. While having never picked up the Quaran, they are quick to tout random quotes from Muhammad that say Islam must convert all non-believers and tax and/or kill those who don’t convert.

If other religions practiced such selectivity and total lack of historical context, Christians would be looked as murderous war mongers, too. After all, the God of the Old Testament had the Israelites wipe out and destroy Jericho, Heshbon, Bahsan and numerous other places, indiscriminately killing women and children in the process because non-believers and those associated with them needed punishment. That’s a heavy body count, one that is overlooked due to the more just people and kinder God of the New Testament.

It’s silly to classify Christiandom as evil and violent because of that, just as it is to do the same to all of Islam.  Christians need to look in the mirror – and read their own doctrines – before pointing an accusatory finger at other religions. What did Jesus say about the first stone?

Islamaphobia is an ugly disease and one that unlike disdain for skin color or sexual orientation is left unchecked. It’s allowed to be expressed in the open and almost no one stands up against it. Even the innocent Muslims targeted by the hurtful chatter and piercing eyes turn their cheeks and take it.  

Hate. Is that any way to treat your fellow man, no matter what religion he practices?  

From the 25 August 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Niagara County's black bears are not to be feared

A few years ago I was turkey hunting in Allegany County when I did something no successful hunter should ever do. I fell asleep. Getting up well before sun-up, hiking the hills, and then sitting quietly under a tree with the warm May sun beating on you can have that effect.

Maybe ten minutes into my nap I was awakened by a snapping stick. I quickly woke up, thinking a turkey was coming in to me. As my sleepy eyes adjusted to the light I saw a black shape just ahead of me. I quickly realized that it wasn’t a turkey. It was a black bear less than 15 yards away, coming right at me!

I didn’t freak out. I didn’t blast him with my shotgun. Instead, I did what you are supposed to do in such close quarters. I stood up, spread my arms to make myself appear larger and yelled “get!” And, boy did he ever!

The 250-pound beast grunted, spun around and hightailed it to a spot 50 yards away where he paced back and forth trying to figure out what just happened. A minute later he trotted away, obviously in fear.

My guess is that prior to me going into “attack” mode he didn’t know I was there because I was camouflaged and he was only heading to my exact spot because he had been downwind of me and caught a whiff of my deodorant. He probably figured there was something pleasant-smelling in the woods that he could eat.

The encounter with that bear is one of a dozen that I’ve had in Western New York over the past 20 years. Under all such circumstances I wasn’t the one who was afraid. The bear was. Each and every encounter resulted in the bear either walking or running in the other direction after the bruin realized there was a human present.

As an outdoorsman and naturalist — and one who has experienced it first-hand — I know that black bears are harmless creatures, more afraid of us than we are of them. But, unfortunately, most people do not know this. Hollywood has them believing that all bears are deadly man-killers while the Discovery

Channel has them wrongly assuming that all bears are aggressive, 900-pound grizzlies.

I really can’t blame people for being scared either. Even without the media influence a bear sighting can be a naturally disconcerting experience. Except for deer, most animals of the woods are wee little things like chipmunks and coyotes, so when a creature the size of a bear appears out of nowhere it can frighten even the strongest of souls.

That seems to be what’s happening in Niagara County. Bear sightings have been on the rise the past few years and 2014 has seen a record number of bears frequenting our fields and forests. When you look at the accompanying social media posts, their visits startle the people who saw the bear and those who did not — they worry about the safety of their property, pets, and children. Hundreds of families — city dwellers and rural folk alike -- now worry if their lawn might be the next one visited by a bear.

It might just be. These bears are just a few of the many that will visit Niagara County. They are on the move because their population is growing ever-so-slightly and the local lands that were once small family farms have grown into brush or woodlots, creating more attractive habitat.

Don’t be afraid of these bears. Despite their size, teeth and claws they are relatively docile. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. There are roughly 900,000 bears in North America that result in, on average, just over two human injuries per year. Since 1900 there have been 61 people in the US and Canada killed by black bears. In comparison, man’s best friend sends 1,000 people to the hospital every day for bite wounds and dogs kill about 36 people in the US every year.

Nonetheless, don’t go out of your way to be a friend to bears. Whatever you do, don’t feed them and don’t approach them. You wouldn’t do that to a fox, opossum or raccoon. Bears are wild animals and, like all those wild animals, they can turn. Just keep your distance and appreciate them for what they are, a fascinating and rarely-seen part of the natural world. You should count yourself as lucky — not unlucky — if you happen to see one. Accept their visits to your neighborhood with open arms...or with spread arms and healthy yelp if that makes you any feel safer.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he looks like a tourist with his camera in hand, always on the lookout for the next black bear. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at 

From the 16 August 2014 East Niagara Post

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Niagara's nighttime skies are ruined by light pollution

If, like me, you live in the rural parts of the Niagara Frontier, you’re accustomed to some spectacular nighttime views, especially this time of the year when you can get outside and appreciate them without freezing to death. It’s invigorating (some folks even say it’s akin to a religious experience) to marvel at the cosmos, something that so few Americans have the chance to do. Only 20 percent of our nation’s population lives in rural areas, meaning 8 of every 10 people rarely if ever see the stars, especially in the volume that we do.

But, alas, even the magnificence that we see is not close to perfect. It doesn’t matter if you live in the most remote locales of Niagara Counties, you’re still missing out on thousands of stars for the same reason that the city folk do: light pollution.

Look off in the horizon and you may see a glow from a nearby village or city that obscures that portion of the sky. Now, imagine countless cities and towns around us, all pouring that much light and then some into the skies. This accumulated visual noise spreads into the night, creating a glow that extends far beyond its sources. The ability to see the faintest of stars, including the dense Milky Way, is affected and what we think is a true nighttime sky really isn’t close to that at all.

That’s a result of being surrounded by numerous cities small (Lockport), medium (Buffalo) and large (Toronto). We’re within 500 miles of 46 percent of the US population and 57 percent of the Canadian population. Imagine all of the lights used to illuminate our homes, the roads we drive on, and the businesses that serve us. Rarely are the lights off even in the wee hours, meaning the sky glow over populated areas is relentless. In essence, a mammoth light umbrella covers us in Niagara County.

To see how we compare against the few dark parts of the US and Canada (specifically some areas of the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Far North) refer to the awesome Dark Sky Finder that can be found online at The website has an interactive map that you can drag around the US and zoom in to specific communities. It shows in a varying range of colors how intense the light pollution is.

Looking at the map, you’d probably be surprised to find out that the Lake Ontario shoreline of Somerset still can’t escape the lights emitted by Rochester and the Greater Toronto Area. The whole Northeast suffers from that same fate, we’re an absolute mess. The closest that we can get to perfection is in desolate areas located within the Adirondacks and Appalachia. Stargazers can find true dark skies within the NY’s Moose River Plains and PA’s Susquehannock State Forest, the latter of which is renowned for its celestial views facilitated by a quarter million acres of near-wilderness.

Even if you can’t trek into those areas, you can still revel in more accessible sites that have incredibly vivid displays. Vast areas in Northern Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains possess only trace amounts of manmade illumination (look for the blue and purples hues on the map) and, therefore, nighttime skies that truthfully put ours to shame. In them, the stars seem endless and tightly packed while the Milky Way is actually, well, milky. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience those sights on clear nights while camping and I compare the difference between them and rural Gasport’s skies to the difference between Gasport’s and retail Amherst’s skies; it’s really that significant.

So, if your family vacations ever take you to the aforementioned wilds, do yourself a favor and duck out to the Great Outdoors every cloudless night that you can. You’ll be amazed at the sights and you’ll get as near as possible to seeing the stars as they were when man first set foot on this continent.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where watches the nighttime skies instead of primetime TV. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 07 August 2014 East Niagara Post

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Stories told by beech trees coming to an end

This smooth-barked tree shows what a healthy beech 
looks like. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER)
The Erie Canal towpath was once the interstate for itinerant workers — hoboes, if you will — who traveled from town to town in search of their next farming or handyman gig. While doing so, they frequently stopped over on my family’s farm, which butts up to the canal. It was an attractive spot to set up camp because of the fresh water they could drink from a brook that runs through our woods, the same brook from which they ignited gas for cooking (there is a reason it’s called GASport).

While there, they often killed time by carving their names and other things in the bark of the beech trees that are common in the woods. The smooth gray bark, so easy to cut with a pocketknife, has always been quite inviting to amateur artisans, not to mention young lovers who wanted their names forever inscribed in Mother Nature for all the world to see. The hoboes, the lovers, and anyone else interested in making a statement left their calling cards on the beeches — old-fashioned graffiti that remains to this day.

Those trees tell stories. On the trees that were cut when they were mature and thus slower to grow, I can still make out dates from the early 1930s. Some of the handiwork, less legible as the tree grew, obviously came from much earlier times. There are names; some of them belonged to the hoboes, while others I recognize as locals who probably carved the tree when they were in their teens and 20s. Now, they are in their senior years and their arboreal artwork has aged less dramatically than they.

Two beeches show the efforts of my family. One has neatly cut into its bark two words: “Ray Confer.” My grandfather probably did that when he purchased the farm in 1955 when he was six years younger than I am now. He has since passed, so that tree has always offered a comforting portal to a time gone by. The other tree in question displays my dad’s boast of having hunted his first squirrel. He likely carved that when he was just 12 years old. That tree is like a trophy, one as impressive as the deer heads on his wall.

How a beech tree looks when beech bark disease has run its course. This
tree is dead.
Sadly, all of these trees will, quite soon, no longer be able to tell their stories. About a half-dozen years ago, beech bark disease reared its ugly head on the Niagara Frontier in volume, bringing with it its deadly one-two punch. First, an insect attacks the bark. Then, the wounds left by the insects are infiltrated by a fungus. It doesn’t take long for the once-beautiful bark to crack then fracture completely, falling off the tree. The malnourished beech topples over within a couple of years of its first symptoms.

It won’t take long for the disease to take its toll on local forests, wiping out one of our most abundant trees and our best storytellers. It’s disheartening to think that the trees that should have outlived me won’t, taking with them the interesting connection I have to my family and the dozens of hardworking men who made their way across the region in hopes of overcoming the economic realities of their time.

Not one to let memories — better yet, history — die so pitifully, over the past few years I’ve taken photographs of the various trees and their carvings that remain. If you have a stand of beeches, especially one along the towpath or the rail line, you should take the time to do so, too, to familiarize yourself with the people who once called our fair community “home,” be it for years or just one night.

By capturing the images on film we can maintain the carvings for the ages, just as their artists had intended.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he won’t carve “Bob loves Bernadette” on trees because, unfortunately, the trees might not last as long as their love. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 31 July East Niagara Post

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fifty Years Later: Losing the War on Poverty

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, ushered in by President Lyndon Baines Johnson at his first State of the Union speech in which he said "We shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

The weapons he brought to that war include the Social Security Act of 1965, which introduced Medicare and Medicaid. Five decades later they remain an indelible part of American life and American expectations, used extensively by the poor and (especially in the case of Medicare) the not-so-poor.

Despite their abundant patronage, these massive, unconstitutional programs have not eliminated poverty. Nor are they even remotely efficient or affordable.

Medicare, which provides health “insurance” to almost 50 million Americans aged 65 and over, is funded through a payroll tax of 2.9 percent split between the employee and the employer.

Despite stripping the working economy of more than 3 percent of its value annually, the program is still unable to adequately fund itself. Since 2008 the Medicare trust fund has been paying out more than it brings in. The program’s trustees say that Medicare will be bankrupt by 2026, but a 2013 report by Forbes showed that the actual date of insolvency is 2016 when you eliminate some accounting gimmicks of Obamacare.
Upon its collapse, what will the federal government do? It has done nothing yet to prepare for Doomsday, even though it’s not too far away. So, a financial crisis and tax tsunami are looming for American taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries, as well as the companies and workers who must be paid to provide for oldster’s care.

The crisis continues with Medicaid, which provides medical and health-related services and funding to the poor. In 2013, approximately 73 million Americans received Medicaid. The total cost was $415 billion. That expense is expected to exceed $600 billion by 2017.

There is no end in sight to its blood-letting. It should be noted that the program is notoriously abused and overused, with some states — like New York — providing recipients with products and services that those on private health insurance would never receive without considerable deductibles and co-pays. In the Empire State, the accumulated cost to taxpayers is a whopping $16,000 per Medicaid recipient.

The abject failure of this War on Poverty can be seen in the poverty rate. The number of Americans considered impoverished stood at 15% of the population last year, up from 12.5% a decade ago. When the War began in 1964, the poverty rate was 19%. After 50 years and trillions of dollars is 4 percentage points the best we can do?

What accounts for this lost war?

It’s obvious that Medicare and Medicaid create and/or maintain poverty rather than alleviate it.

In its effort to combat the very poverty it had previously created through taxation and regulation of a productive private sector, the federal government managed to feed the poverty monster by adding to the cost of doing business (which inhibits job growth, stunts wages and sends jobs overseas) and living (which prevents people from spending as much as they could in the free market, which would then encourage economic development and squash poverty).

Whenever money is forcibly removed from the private sector like the hundreds of billions for the War on Poverty every year, the private sector is unable to do what it should – that is, create wealth.

Thus, the average worker, because of diminished employment opportunities, becomes impoverished by the invisible hand of the government. That individual then relies on government subsidies, further stressing the system of dependence unleashed by our government, which will then, again, take away more jobs and opportunity further down the road.

It’s a vicious cycle --- and a war we are losing because of the very weapons we are using to fight it.

From the 18 August 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal