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PUT NIAGARA FALLS ON THE 'NEW YORK' QUARTER

Think about what most symbolizes New York State for the rest of the world, and only two possibilities come to mind: the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls.

That defines the choice when Gov. Pataki gets around to recommending what the Treasury Department should put on quarters turned out to commemorate New York State.

And the answer should be a no-brainer for the Pataki brain trust: Niagara Falls should be on New York's quarter.

Once Congress gives final approval to the plan to give every state its "own" commemorative 25-cent piece, all quarters still will have George Washington on the front. But the eagle on the back will be replaced with 50 designs, one of each state's own choosing.

The new future for the quarter is actually a federal money-making ploy. As collectors hoard the new coins, the plan is expected to raise up to $5.1 billion. The federal government will produce five commemorative quarters each year, with states selected for their turns in the order in which they ratified the U.S. Constitution.

The whole thing starts in 1999. But with federal approval of all designs still required and prohibitions on human likenesses or anything "frivolous or inappropriate," it's not too soon for this region to start lobbying for the falls.

The case should be easy to make.

After all, the falls -- a magnificent work of nature -- was here long before man figured out how to hit a chisel without hitting his thumb, much less produce metal sculptures like the 1886 Statue of Liberty.

In fact, given that the idea for the statue was conceived in France and money to build the monument came from France, a good case can be made that the statue isn't even a native New Yorker.

New Jersey certainly didn't think so a few years ago when -- not content with marketing Jimmy Hoffa's burial site as a tourist attraction -- it tried to claim the statue as its own. New York beat back that attempt in court, but it just underlines the statue's lack of real New York roots.

New York had the right claim to the island in its harbor where the statue stands, but Liberty personified in the shape of a woman is really a national symbol. It has often appeared on U.S. coinage over the years as a representative of the whole nation, as well as on U.S. stamps and in other contexts where Americans were looking for a national symbol. Neither New York nor New Jersey can convincingly claim ownership of the concept.

The roaring water of Niagara Falls, by contrast, virtually screams "New York." It's always been here and always will be, no matter who sits on any court.

Skeptics may scoff that it's shared with Canada. But the entire American Falls, all of Goat Island and a good part of the Horseshoe are New York territory. And the border-state image isn't a bad one for New York to cultivate, anyway.

Granted, we who live in the state love the Statue of Liberty and all that it stands for -- but for New York symbolism, what a case can be made for Niagara Falls -- sparkling, shimmering and beautiful -- and not movable by anyone.

At a time when nature has never been more popular with the public -- just ask Republicans who tried to declare war on the environment -- New York must capitalize on the fact that it has one of the world's natural wonders.

Putting the cataract on the back of American quarters would be a constant reminder that Niagara Falls is in New York State, and that it isn't just for lovers. It's for everyone.

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