Friday, July 19, 2019

Reimaginations of the Erie Canal

A couple of weeks ago this column highlighted the importance of the Erie Canal to tourism and quality of life in the region while encouraging readers to take part the Reimagine the Erie Canal initiative. There were public listening sessions in Lockport and Brockport last week and the state’s Task Force was pleased with attendance and participation.

If you couldn’t make it to those hearings and have some ideas about how to improve and capitalize on the Canal be sure to send your comments to them, as I will. As someone who lives and works in canalside communities and spends a lot of time along the shores of the waterway, I have my own ideas on reimagining the Canal. Here are just a few of them:

Join the club.

The Adirondack 46ers is a community of men and women who have tackled all 46 high peaks in the Park. Membership is a badge of honor and something that many strive for and might never achieve. Whether or not they join the club (which has a roster of 11,000 hikers since 1918), every step along the way is special, from the people met to the wildlife encountered to the scenes seen. It’s an adventure.

Experiencing and completing the entire Canalway Trail should be celebrated the same way. The Trail is nowhere near as wild or taxing as the Adirondacks but, at nearly 400 miles in length, completing it is a major undertaking and a rewarding one at that: The well-groomed trail showcases so many wonderful communities and natural areas, showing off the people and places that make Upstate so unique.

A Canalway Trail Club in different variations (hike, bike) could prove to be quite popular and for those who don’t complete it in one week like 650 cyclists did last Sunday it will make for repeat, recurring business for the Canal economy. Like the ADK46ers, membership could be gleaned piecemeal, one stretch at a time.

Market as one.

Right now, there are state-produced websites and brochures that market the Canal as just the Canal. They are brief and don’t focus on the entire experience around the Erie Canal. Doing so is left to individual counties, cities, and towns.

For visitors sailing the system or cycling the trail that can make a full appreciation of the trip a little difficult and lacking. By having to visit dozens of websites and social media accounts -- if those communities even have them -- they will miss something interesting, for sure, and they won’t be aware of all the amenities along the way.  

The state needs to produce a large brochure, updated annually, and deeper websites that takes visitors along the entire length of the Canal and highlights the people, places, history and things to do in each community. The benefits afforded tourism could be huge.

Similar marketing models can be seen with the Niagara Wine Trail. Sure, there’s some competition (wouldn’t each winery like to sell more bottles than the next one?) but they all realize collaboration is more beneficial (making a day-long adventure out of wine tasting attracts far visitors to Niagara County than one establishment ever could).

Expand that mentality to the Canal. Rather than having villages compete against one another for the attention and dollars of tourists they will all benefit as one voice, especially with something as long and varied as the Canal. Those who a travelling aren’t here just for North Tonawanda or Rochester, they are here for the entire upstate territory.

Invest in canalside niceties.

Many people are surprised that the state gave control of the Canal system to the New York Power Authority a few years back. It’s odd that a power company is in charge of a piece of infrastructure, but there is some reward to be had.

NYPA is a public benefit corporation, a public entity that is run as a quasi-private enterprise. That means it has profits, profits that could be shared with Canal towns.  

NYPA has given out hundreds of millions to communities near Niagara Falls as a part of the Greenway funds associated with relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. A similar program could be introduced to Canal host communities. While the Canal is nowhere near as profitable as the Power Project (as a matter of fact, it doesn’t even turn a profit), power funds could be diverted into a “small” account.

Imagine if NYPA set aside $300,000 annually and towns and villages bid on grants to bring niceties specific to the Canal’s use to their port and bridge areas – benches, marketing signage, restrooms, wifi, power hook-ups for boats, etc. That would go a long ways in improving how the Canal and its communities are utilized.         

Do you have your own ideas on making the Canal better?

If so, drop a letter in the mail to the Reimagine the Erie Canal Task Force’s WNY co-chair, Bob Duffy, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, 150 State Street, Suite 400, Rochester, NY 14614.

Share your ideas. Let’s reimagine the Canal together.

From the 22 July 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, July 15, 2019

The EPA is giving free rein to invasive species

Too many scientists and policymakers focus so much on global warming that they’ve given short shrift to active environmental threats destroying our forests and waterways at unprecedented rates.

One could argue that invasive species, not warming temperatures, are the greatest threat posed to natural balance in North America. These animals and plants don’t belong in our country but, through global trade, they have ended up taking root, destroying our resources in perpetuity.

Among them are emerald ash borers, beetles that came from Asia in the 1990s and have killed more than a couple billion ash trees. More than 7 billion of these trees are threatened by the unstoppable beasts, including a billion here in the Empire State. If you want to see what they’ve done already, head out into the lush summer landscape and see the hundreds of tall, dead, leafless trees they’ve left in their path of destruction.

Also noticeable here in this region is the mass die-off of beech trees. The smooth-barked trees well known for their carving graffiti will be totally wiped out by 2025. The loss of those nut-bearing trees will affect every mammal in the forest.   

Then, there’s the woody adelgid which is wiping out hemlocks across the northeast. Once those coniferous trees die off so will impressive populations of migrant songbirds like warblers that frequent them.

The pestilence doesn’t end in our woodlands. Our waterways are under attack, too. Consider the Asian carp, a large bottom-feeding fish making its way across the Great Lakes where it will be certain to disrupt the system’s $7 billion fishery.

These invaders represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many more are here. More are coming.

It wasn’t always like this.

Prior to 2000 our greatest invasive nightmares were limited to the introduction of pests and disease that wiped out elms and chestnuts, trees that once grew large and dominated our forests. Those depressing die-offs slowly took place over decades.

But now, such attacks seem to be effecting so many species and are happening too fast and in new ways.

You can blame our shrinking world and the global economy.

With the vast amount of exports we bring in annually it’s no wonder that we’ve opened our borders to such invasions. More than 11 million shipping containers come to America every year, filled with unchecked product of questionable integrity from questionable sources. If the products themselves are suspect, imagine the skids upon which they are shipped (what insects do they carry?) or the craft that carry them (what do their ballasts hold?).

That begs the question: Why has the EPA done so little to regulate trade and incoming material? Is it misplaced priorities? 

Many have argued that the EPA’s modus operandi is unconstitutional. The federal government is not authorized to legislate environmental issues within the states. Truthfully, there is no agency that better understands the uniqueness of New York and its various habitats and the creatures that inhabit them than the state’s environmental arm, the Department of Conservation. It is that agency and New York’s state and local lawmakers (along with citizen participation) that should decide what are permissible levels of development and non-standard inputs into the environment as well as what may be taken from it.

But, constitutionally, the EPA does have the power to oversee aspects of international trade and protect our environment – and economy – from outside damage. The preamble to the Constitution describes the limited purposes of our federal government and among them is the provision of common defense and regulation of trade. Under that, the EPA would actually have constitutional justification to focus on those external threats, specifically invasive species at the point of entry.

If the EPA were serious about living out its mission – and the Constitutional responsibilities of the federal government – it would set strict rules and conduct numerous inspections to protect our nation from these outside factors that will compromise our environment and health more than any domestic factors will. Rather than harassing a locally-owned farms and gas stations, the EPA should instead hold accountable the massive the foreign firms and governments that don’t care the least about America’s wild lands and natural resources, as well the equally-guilty American corporations that don’t have or follow ethical and environmental policies and standards.

It seems like Big Money is winning out here, especially with help from abroad. Corrupt trading partners — like China — would prefer to see our resources expunged because it means more exporting business for them. Our losses are their gains. Invasive species represent a sort of economic warfare. And, it’s war in which the EPA has seemed to throw up the white flag.

From the 15 July 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, July 8, 2019

Maximize the potential of the Erie Canal

Many New Yorkers will tell you the State Canal system is dead. They look at it as a historical remnant, thinking its ship sailed in the late 1800s when rail lines took over as the preeminent economy-driving infrastructure.

I beg to differ.

The Erie Canal and its connecting waterways are still vital to this day.

While it’s rare that you’ll see barges moving heavy equipment to manufacturers or grains from farmers, the Canal creates value in other ways, some measurable (tourism), others immeasurable (recreation and health). 

This week perfectly highlights that.

If you thought you saw a lot of cyclists on the Canalway Trail on Sunday you’re weren’t seeing things. That was Day One of the 21st annual Cycle the Erie Canal bike tour which covers 8 days and all 400 miles of the Canal. In total, 650 cyclists made their way across Erie, Niagara and Orleans Counties on the Sabbath before spending the night in Albion.

I encountered 65 of them at various points on the trail while taking my two-year-old son on one of his 4 mile stroller rides on it. Being ambassadors of goodwill for Gasport we made sure to offer our cheery welcome to every one of them. By doing so, we literally bid well to one-out-of-every-ten participants of the event. 

I’m glad we did -- and I hope others in every port town did the same – because every little bit helps with tourism.

The number of accents on the return salutations was overwhelming. There were men and women who sounded as if they were from the South, Texas, the Midwest, the North Central states, Ontario, Boston, New York City and more. These were people who don’t hail from WNY but were here enjoying this beautiful public asset and briefly seeing the wonderful places and people along it.

We can only hope they return in other fashions, perhaps on a road trip, perhaps on a float trip, staying at local beds and breakfasts and rental properties and spending their money at local restaurants and shops.

When they do that, their impact is huge. A 2017 study found that visitors and residents alike accounted for $1.3 billion in spending associated with Canal events, tours and rentals. Vacationers alone spent 60 percent of that total.

As we saw last spring when Geraldo Rivera sailed it, you never know who you might encounter on the Canal.      

Hopefully, you see a neighbor there, and that’s where the other event of this week comes into play -- the 29th annual Erie Canal Fishing Derby.

The Derby is one of the most impactful family-friendly events to take place on the waterway. Driven by the chance to win $20,000 in total prizes and spend quality time together on or along the water, it has proven to be incredibly popular every year, across multiple generations. Parents who were once themselves young kids wetting their lines during the contest now share the event with their children.

The Derby creates a lifetime -- no, many lifetimes – of love for what the Canal offers.

And, the Canal offers a lot – not only fishing and cycling, but hiking, jogging, birdwatching, powerboating, kayaking, canoeing, history and more.

The quality of life that it affords those who live near it is extraordinary. As Aristotle so succinctly said more than 2,300 years ago: “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous”. Nature can’t get much more accessible than this: 400 miles of water bordered by a public trail.

We need to capitalize on that, whether it’s for economic reasons like tourism or for social reasons like public health and recreation.

Luckily, the state is headed in that direction.

In May, Governor Cuomo announced an initiative to examine how the Canal can be reimagined for the 21st century in an effort to boost local economies and inspire new opportunities for tourism and recreation. In doing so, he created the Reimagine the Canal Task Force. It is made up of a unique group of souls representing diverse groups and communities invested in and impacted by the Canal.

They will be holding multiple public input sessions this summer. The first round takes place next week with local meetings happening from 6 to 8 p.m on July 15th in Lockport at the Challenger Learning Center and July 16th in Brockport at Cooper Hall on the College campus.

If you can’t make it submit your comments and ideas to the Task Force’s WNY co-chair, former lieutenant governor Bob Duffy who is now CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. You can mail your correspondence to him at the Chamber:  150 State Street, Suite 400, Rochester, NY 14614.

If you live in a Canal community and value what the Canal means or could mean to your canalside town -- and all of Upstate -- please take the time to reach out to the Task Force. There’s so much value, so much potential in the Canal. Let’s make sure we all take advantage of that.

From the 10 July 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News