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Dirt and wood chips slid from gold-painted shovels Tuesday as top local, state and federal officials gathered in bright autumn sunshine to mark a step back toward nature for the Buffalo River.

"This has been a long time in coming," said Richard Tobe, Erie County environmental commissioner, during groundbreaking ceremonies for a new riverbank park.

The ceremonies Tuesday marked the launching of efforts to develop a "string of pearls" series of riverbank pocket parks, connected by the city's namesake waterway.

While the shovels wielded by political leaders bit into the earth of the Bailey Avenue peninsula, parks also will be developed along Ohio Street and at the foot of Smith Street.

Michael Raab, County deputy environmental commissioner, said construction bids will be sought starting this weekend, and the work should start next spring and finish by autumn.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency associate administrator, who came from Washington for the event, saw an even greater meaning in the joint effort that involves several levels of government.

"I think the challenge is to bring us back to the rivers in our communities," she said, contrasting the urban rivers of her Cleveland childhood with the river-centered culture of Boston and Washington.

"This is community-based environmental protection at its best," she added, standing near the confluence of the Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek. "There has been remarkable progress, and we're beginning to see the real restoration."

Under the park plan, the City of Buffalo has turned over several pieces of property to Erie County for habitat restoration and recreational development. State and federal agencies have joined the planning.

Funding for the $1.25 million project comes largely from the EPA, although the county has committed parks and planning resources and the city, through Council Member David J. Czajka of the Lovejoy District, has allocated $75,000 in block grant funds.

South Park High School students will help maintain the habitat and recreation area on the Bailey Peninsula, across Bailey Avenue from the Southside School. Students and teachers also were on hand for Tuesday's ceremony.

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