Monday, March 21, 2016

Volunteerism and the 19 Percent

Have you ever wondered why it seems like you see the same people engaged in the efforts of your local non-profits, churches, fire companies, and youth organizations? It’s not an illusion. Those tireless souls really are involved in everything.

They not only want to be, but they have to be because no almost one else is giving up their time. For a state and a people that pride themselves on being leaders, New Yorkers, as a rule, do a poor job of showing it.

The Corporation for National and Community Service produces an annual report that looks at volunteerism rates across the nation. The Empire State ranks 50th, with just 19% of its residents volunteering; compare that to first-ranked Utah (46%) and our neighbors like Vermont (35%) and Pennsylvania (27%).

The lack of participation is pretty universal when you break down the demographics. 20% of New York teenagers volunteer, while only 14% of college-aged adults volunteer. Only 16% of those aged 25 to 34 give of themselves while those aged 35 to 44 see the highest participation rate at 24%. Jump ahead to Baby Boomers in the 55 to 64 age bracket and 20% of them volunteer in the Empire State.

What does that say about New Yorkers? We evidently have a culture that sees volunteerism as something foreign. No one is learning from lessons about self-sacrifice that they are taught in churches and high school civics classes. 

Think about it: Less than 1 out of every 5 residents cares enough about our neighbors and our neighborhoods to lend a hand. That’s counterintuitive, because we should have one of the higher participation rates based on need alone.

New York is the 29th most-impoverished state in the Union (Buffalo is the third-poorest city in the US). We rank 27th in the nation in terms of disability rate. We have the 24th greatest population of senior citizens (in terms of percentage). 23% of New Yorkers drop out of school. There are almost 2,000 volunteer fire departments in the state. All of those factors scream “help!”

It’s unknown if New York’s volunteerism numbers will ever dramatically improve. One would have thought that the Great Recession would have been a wake-up call. In past economic collapses, volunteerism skyrocketed because people were compelled to help those hit hardest, they had time on their hands, and people stuck closer to – and became more interested in - their communities. That didn’t happen last time. In 2009, just as the Recession started to come to an end, New York’s volunteerism rate was right where we are now.

So, what can we do?

For starters, if you or your family have ever partaken in an event or club run by volunteers (Easter egg hunts, Boy Scout troops, little league teams, church school, etc.) or had a property or life saved by unpaid first responders, thank those who made that all possible. A simple “thank you” goes a long ways in validating their efforts. 

Secondly, take the time to participate yourself. Make it a point to help others. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Go out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter. It’s challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. There’s an unmatched joy that’s had in giving and watching others receive the services you provide. There’s a reason that the 19% do what they do. Let’s not let them hog all the fun.

From the 21 March 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, March 3, 2016

In defense of the DEC’s burn ban

Much to the chagrin of many rural Niagara County residents who read this newspaper, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s annual ban on the open burning of brush goes into effect mere days from now.

From March 16 to May 14 of every year the state does not allow the burning of limbs, sticks and tree mass in towns where such activities are otherwise allowed the rest of the year (that would be communities with populations under 20,000). Over that two month period, the DEC still allows small cooking fires and campfires that are less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in length, width or diameter.

This law is a necessary tool to prevent wildfires, as the grasses, leaves, and weeds of the springtime are perfect fuels for fires that can and do advance from their intended purpose. While the ground may seem saturated from snow melt and spring rains, the same can’t be said for the plants – they just spent a winter in suspended animation or death and they don’t have any water in them. Those dry plants will ignite from a nearby flame or windblown ashes. The ban’s end date coincides with the greening of that local plant life.

The law, which went into effect in 2009, continues to be a sore subject for local property owners. Brush burning had always been a rite of spring, as homeowners with spacious country lots found themselves cleaning up and disposing of the remnants of winter storms while local farmers were getting rid of trees that fell from woodlots and hedgerows into their fields.  

Despite the DEC’s reasonable expectations and the very real threat of a $500 fine (for the first offense) and larger ones and even jail time for repeat offenses, rural landowners continue to burn during the ban. They certainly can’t cite ignorance to the law, as each year there is an incredible amount of press that the ban receives in local broadcast and print news. What they can cite is their own indifference to it; I guarantee the common sentiment is, “It’s my property. I can do what I want.” 

Local property owners took that cavalier approach to a whole new level last season. Many of them probably assumed that the brutal winter of 2014-2015 was so cold and snowy that the ground was soaked from the thaw and therefore fires wouldn’t happen. But they did…and often. The Niagara County Sheriff’s office told me that during last year’s prohibition period (which was made a week longer because of the dry May weather) there were 58 fire calls across Niagara County for brush and grass fires that went out of control.

Think about the scale of that – 58 times over a two-month period, wildfires threatened and destroyed property (be it land, woods or structures) and wildlife. Fortunately, no human life was taken. Not only were the properties of the burners affected, but so were their neighbor’s lands and buildings.

Luckily, no houses or forests were lost in those five dozen crises, and that’s a testament to our local volunteer firefighters. They abused themselves and their equipment (it’s never good to drive fire trucks across a beat up field or into a forest) to keep these out of control fires at bay. So, while some guys will throw around the property rights argument, they need to understand that their neighbors have a right to safely enjoy their property and the firemen have a right to enjoy their weekends and evenings with their families (when most of these wildfires occur).

So, I ask that my fellow countryfolk use some common sense this spring and respect the law, the environment and your fellow man. Hold off on your brush fires and bon fires until June. A simple fire can quickly become a major situation this time of year. As Smokey Bear says, “only you can prevent wildfires.”       

 From the 07 March 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers


Keep your eyes to the skies. In the coming days, one of my favorite signs of spring – and certainly one of the most beautiful – will be migrating through the region. Tundra swans will be making their journey to the far north and will grace us with their angelic appearance and interesting calls.

Tundra signs will soon be seen overhead -- a sign of the coming spring.
Tundra swans spend their winters along the mid-Atlantic and mid-Pacific coasts of the United States, although you might see a few stragglers on the other end of the county enjoying the open waters of the Upper Niagara River. They’re just now beginning their northward treks and I’ve always found that their migration through eastern Niagara County hits its peak right around March 15th of every year, and flocks can be seen as late as the first week of April.

Their numbers are nothing like those of the Canada geese or various ducks that pass through the area. Overall, their northern breeding populations come in at just under 200,000 birds. I would consider tundra swans to be uncommon migrants around here – I might be lucky to see maybe a half dozen to ten flocks each March. That’s what makes seeing them so special.

You can’t mistake them when you see them. They tend to be high fliers. They have large white bodies and very long necks (which allows you to tell them apart from snow geese, which are also white). They have a mammoth wingspan of 5 to 7 feet and they’re big…a healthy adult bird can weigh more than 20 pounds.

They have an interesting call that travels a very long distance – and which will alert you to an incoming flock. It’s best compared to a clarinet-like hoot or maybe even a dog bark. Tundra swans were once commonly known as whistling swans because of the whistling sound created by their wings in flight, a sound so pronounced you can hear it even if they are 100 feet above your head.

They will stop to feed in open fields while here and they spend their evenings and nights sleeping on ponds and Lake Ontario. If you take a scenic drive around the back roads of the town of Somerset or the northern reaches of Hartland on some upcoming weekend, you might see them on the ground at local farms, eating left over corn or soybeans.

Tundra swans are not be confused with mute swans, a beautiful but rather offensive invasive species that the state is trying to eliminate for many good reasons ( Mute swans are the only swans you’ll see in Niagara County from May through September.

Tundra swans, on the other hand, are with us for only a few weeks.

Savor their brief visits and their stark beauty -- it means spring is right around the corner.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he always stops in his tracks when he hears swan calls. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 03 March 2016 East Niagara Post