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Like the very topography in which it exists, Goat Island, the tourist attraction that splits the Niagara River in two at the edge of the American and Horseshoe Falls, may be on the brink of ruin or salvation.

"We're at a critical juncture," said Robert H. Borgatti, a member of the Niagara Heritage Partnership, a group dedicated to environmentally responsible development. "We still have an opportunity to preserve the Olmsted vision, but we've been moving continuously in the wrong direction for the past three decades."

Frederick Law Olmsted was the landscape architect who, in 1887, began a difficult campaign to preserve the Niagara Reservation, America's first state park, especially Goat Island, his "jewel."

"Goat Island is the soul of the city," Borgatti said. "It's the best thing and perhaps the last thing Niagara Falls has going for it. If we lose that, we might as well give up."

Although much of the interior of Goat Island is still relatively undamaged, parts of the island are being trampled to death by visitors.

"Olmsted planned this park for 2,000 visitors a year," said Niagara Reservation State Park Naturalist Ray N. Spencer. "We get 7 million a year."

The wear and tear is most noticeable on Luna Island, a tiny, tourist-packed vantage point abutting the southern edge of the American Falls, forming a third, much smaller waterfall known as the Bridal Veil Falls.

Here, broken asphalt paths fall away into deep ruts that run like trenches between large swaths of former grassy areas, now worn down and devoid of all vegetation.

Tree roots poke through the eroded ground like exposed tendons, vulnerable to damage from the feet of visitors. Standing dead center in the island is a leafless and withered tree.

Luna Island has always gotten the worst of it. Back in 1887, Olmsted reported on "the present condition of Luna Island . . . its surface more generally worn by the feet of visitors." He warned that "unless stringent measures are used to prevent it, Luna Island will inevitably become a barren rock."

More recently, unpainted benches, full garbage bins and an assortment of human litter make parts of the 100-acre Goat Island look more like a decaying inner city neighborhood than a natural preserve.

"The degrading of the Niagara Reservation, particularly of Goat Island, is an environmental crime exceeding that which occurred at Love Canal," said E.R. Baxter III, a founding member of the Niagara Heritage Partnership. "We should be sickened by the blatant commercialism, alien plant growth and landscape sterility that have become the main character features of Goat Island."

The island was once lush and thriving with many species of wildlife. With its vegetation nourished for centuries by spray from the falls, the island formed a natural nursery for many species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Most of those have disappeared from the heavily traveled perimeter.

Dead and dying trees now stand in the area that in 1879 provided English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker with "a greater variety of vegetation within a given space than anywhere in Europe, or east of the Sierras in America." That same year, Olmsted wrote that he had never seen such "forest beauty" in 4,000 miles of travel throughout the United States.

That beauty is rapidly disappearing, said Baxter, who is also a founding member of the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council.

"The native plants and trees that made Goat Island unique in the world are being eliminated," he said. "They are being selectively trimmed for better views or replaced by blacktop, mowed lawn and ornamental front yard trees."

Manicured look was rejected

Olmsted and his partner, the young English landscape architect, Calvert Vaux, wanted native trees and plants to flourish on Goat Island, as opposed to the cultivated and manicured "garden park" created in the 1880s on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. "Nothing would be more deplorable," they wrote in 1887 in their "General Plan for the Improvement of the Niagara Reservation."

A modern-day Olmsted supporter, Lauren Dimet, a member of the board of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, agrees that the appeal of the island lies in its wild nature. "I would be very upset if Goat Island looked like the Canadian side," she said. "There are so many places to get lost on Goat Island."

Until two years ago, Dimet led visitors on walking tours around the wild sections of the island. "There are so many places to get lost here," she said. "It's awe-inspiring."

Olmsted and Vaux also didn't want buildings and statues that would be "harshly intrusive upon the natural scenery."

"Nothing of an artificial character should be allowed a place on the property, no matter how valuable it might be under other circumstances," they wrote.

Olmsted scholars agree that provision definitely would have included the huge statue of inventor Nikola Tesla looming near the towering "Power Portal" by the Cave of the Winds.

"There's a war of aesthetics going on," said Borgatti, who with Paul Lamont made the award-winning PBS documentary "Fading in the Mist," a history of the struggle to preserve the natural beauty of Niagara. "If any more improvements are planned for Goat Island, they should be along more natural designs. Olmsted understood you have to have pathways and bridges, but constructed of wood and stone, not steel and concrete. We've got to get away from the light standards and guardrails that belong on superhighways."

The wood and stone bridge to the Three Sisters Islands at the south end of Goat Island is more in keeping with the Olmsted plan than the stainless steel structures on Luna Island, he said.

"The thing to keep in mind is that Goat Island is not a park," Borgatti said. "Olmsted never used the term 'park.' It's a reservation. A lot of things that are acceptable in other parks, such as Delaware Park, don't belong here."

Buffalo's 367-acre Delaware Park is more geared to providing recreational sites that include a golf course and running track than retaining its pristine quality. It is one of six Olmsted-designed parks now under the aegis of the Buffalo Parks Department.

What works in Delaware Park may be all wrong for the Niagara Reservation, agreed Gretchen Toles, a trustee and former board chairwoman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

"It's a philosophy you have to adopt and State Parks is doing a much better job in understanding what Olmsted's intent was," she said. "There is a greater awareness that the natural attraction of the Niagara Reservation is unique and that we should focus on that."

Toles said the New York state parks office has to resist pressure from some public sectors and local government officials to develop commercial tourist attractions similar, if not identical, to those that appear to thrive on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

But Goat Island has to cater to tourists and visitors to a certain extent, said Spencer.

"This is a state park, funded by tax dollars, and people have every right to come here," he said. "And with all those people come certain requirements, such as parking lots and iron railings. In a perfect world, I'd rather not have them, but with all the visitors, you have to consider their safety and convenience."

Borgatti and others would like to see all vehicles -- not to mention gift shops and the restaurant -- banned from the island.

"I personally feel Goat Island should be a walk-through experience, not a drive-through," said Borgatti. "It's such a small area, it was absurd to allow cars. You can't appreciate it by driving and it destroys the ambience for pedestrians."

But Spencer said a surprising number of people who visit the island are old or infirm and if they couldn't drive or be driven to it, they would never get to see it.

"You have to walk a tightrope," said Spencer, meaning the state parks office and its personnel. "On one hand, you have to harden the park by putting in parking lots and steel railings, and you can't do that without taking away some of its natural beauty. On the other hand, if you didn't put in those things, you couldn't accommodate and protect all the people who come to the park."

Borgatti conceded that Olmsted created the park with the express purpose of attracting visitors, but in a way that would preserve the area as much as possible.

"It was his belief you could accommodate both," said Borgatti. "Then technology rolled in."

Technology and time.

Vandalism killing trees

"The trees on the island do have a lot of problems," said Spencer, as he walked around the island last week. "Mostly it's just attrition, as the mature trees die off, but sometimes it's vandalism."

Some trees become infected and die after people carve their initials and other graffiti into the trunks, he said.

"They think they're not hurting the trees, but they're killing them," Spencer said. "It's another case of people not being considerate of the environment."

Near the State Parks Police headquarters, where the ground has sunk several inches below the asphalt footpath, Spencer stopped and put his hand on an old oak tree.

"This tree is dead," he said. "It's got to go. This fall or winter it will be cut down."

The park naturalists are trying to follow the Olmsted plan by replanting native species as the mature trees die off. New trees are currently being planted on Green Island, which lies in the rapids between Goat Island and the city shoreline.

The demise of trees hurts the diversity of bird species and other wildlife, Spencer said. The drop in bird population is also the work of a band of feral cats that scrounges for food on the island, preying on chipmunks and songbirds.

The cats, along with unwanted dogs, rabbits and other pets, are being driven over to Goat Island by irresponsible owners and left there to fend for themselves, Spencer said.

Spencer and his team of naturalists caught one abandoned rabbit and donated it to Gaskill Elementary School, where it goes by the name of Abbott the Rabbit. It was named after Francis Abbott, the "Hermit of Niagara," a young, longhaired eccentric who came to Goat Island in 1829, wandered amidst its natural beauty for two years, then drowned while bathing below the falls.

Spencer, looking more groomed than Abbott, but just as enthralled, walked around Goat Island, looking at the damage of time and tourism.

Webworm in the trees devoured the foliage. Kids on inline skates tore by on the pavement, past signs that prohibit roller-skating. People fed begging squirrels beneath signs prohibiting feeding the wildlife. The blades of helicopters throbbed overhead.

"When I come down here I get sad," said Paul Gromosiak, a local historian and author of several books about Niagara Falls. "Look at that tree," he said, pointing to the withered growth in the center of Luna Island. "I used to sit in its shade and now it's dead."

New attention to Olmsted

But Olmsted's memory and his dream for Goat Island are very much alive in the Cataract City.

Two weeks ago, the new Niagara Falls postmaster, Robert L. Hellerer, unveiled astamp commemorating Olmsted "and the genius of his vision."

At a ceremony in the park's Orin Lehman Visitor Center, Edward J. Rutkowski, assistant deputy commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said, "This park is one of the most valuable pieces of property in America today."

But poor maintenance and the irresponsible behavior of thousands of visitors are turning parts of Goat Island into a scarred and dilapidated piece of property.

Baxter cited "the lack of a guiding philosophy about what the island should be."

As an example, Baxter cited a coin-operated newspaper box chained to a post at the entrance pathway to the Three Sisters Islands at the south end of Goat Island.

"If you don't see anything wrong with that, there's a more profound gap between what is and what should be than I can imagine," said the published poet of such acclaimed works as "Looking for Niagara."

A lush natural retreat

Tourists who arrived on the island by crossing the first footbridge built by the Porter family in 1817 found deep forests, luxuriant vegetation and myriad species of wildlife. People called it a paradise, an escape from the bustling mills and factories beginning to crowd the Niagara shore in the mid-1800s.

On Aug. 7, 1869, Olmsted arrived.

After several failed ventures that included running a mining operation in California, Olmsted, a tall, rugged 47-year-old sporting a handlebar mustache, went on a Goat Island "ramble" with Buffalo lawyer and politician William Edward Dorsheimer and a young Brooklyn architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. The next day they were joined by Olmsted's partner, Vaux. The four men agreed that the Niagara gorge must be restored to its original wild state.

Olmsted had created Central Park, which he called his triumph, and in his larger mission to save the American wilderness, he wanted to protect the natural beauty of Goat Island from burgeoning industrial development and commercialized tourist attractions.

In 1871, the novelist Henry James drew attention to the matter, writing in "The Nation" about his concern for the fate of Goat Island. In 1878, the painter Frederic Church entered the picture and the public campaign to preserve the natural falls environment -- the "Free Niagara Movement" -- proceeded slowly over the next decade.

By the winter of 1879-80, the Olmsted group had a petition containing 700 signatures of leading politicians, judges and writers (including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) from the United States and Canada, asking that the falls be placed "under the joint guardianship of the two governments" of New York state and Canada.

In their fight to preserve Niagara, Olmsted and Co. ran up against the Niagara Falls Gazette, which backed the commercial interests. The group fought on, mailing thousands of letters urging legislators to pass new laws to protect the falls.

On March 14, 1883, the New York Legislature passed a bill, which was signed by Gov. Grover Cleveland, a former Buffalo mayor and admirer of Olmsted. The law provided for the expropriation of property at the falls and established a board of five commissioners to manage the new reservation.

Two years later, the Niagara Reservation State Park was opened, with Goat Island as the acclaimed "jewel of Niagara."

In their "General Plan for the Improvement of the Niagara Reservation," Olmsted and Vaux wrote in 1887 to Dorsheimer, then the president of the State Reservation's board of commissioners, "It is to be hoped that whatever is done shall tell toward a general result that shall be lastingly satisfactory."

Several proposals for Goat Island deemed unsatisfactory over the years included turning it into a penitentiary, a military ammunition dump, and a fairgrounds and permanent circus site.

Goat Island, which was briefly known as Iris Island, dodged those fates and remains the only place near the falls still bearing a resemblance to the awesome splendor described in 1683 by the explorer priest, Father Louis Hennepin, the first European to give an eyewitness account.

"The most beautiful and at the same time the most frightful cascade in the world," Hennepin wrote of his 1678 encounter with the falls as he accompanied the explorer Reni-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, on his journey in search of the Mississippi.

Stretched to the limit

Today, with an annual budget of $3.5 million to operate the entire Niagara Reservation's 435 acres, including the 100-acre Goat Island, parks people say they are stretched to the limit. The small maintenance staff also is responsible for Whirlpool, Devil's Hole and Reservoir state parks.

The Niagara Reservation budget is considerably less than the $20 million to operate and maintain Olmsted's "triumph," the New York City-owned Central Park, which at 843 acres is not even twice its size. That park is in "excellent shape," said Central Park Conservancy spokesperson Jennifer Wald. But the Niagara budget is not too far off the $5 million to operate and maintain many more acres -- 1,500 -- of Buffalo parks, including the 367-acre, Olmsted-designed Delaware Park, said Commissioner Daniel Durawa.

The combined parkland on the Ontario side of the Niagara River, although huge at 4,000 acres, operates on an equally large annual budget of $64 million (Canadian), said George W. Bailey, director of communications for the Niagara (Ont.) Parks Commission.

One of the criticisms heard on the American side is that the cracked pavement and ruts next to the paths wouldn't be tolerated on the Canadian side. Even Bailey agrees that $64 million can fix a lot of problems.

Meanwhile, the State Parks people say they're doing the best they can.

"We're continually improving the Niagara Reservation," said Spencer, citing the current planting of native species on Green Island, once the home of a paper mill.

Spencer is optimistic about the future of Goat Island. "It has survived for more than 100 years. I think it's going to be around for many people to see for a long time," he said.

People may see it for years to come, Baxter said, but he's unsure whether they will still enjoy it.

"It would take courage to assume a fresh perspective, a different vision of what the island should be," said Baxter. "But State Parks is very capable of halting destructive maintenance practices and beginning to restore native plants and trees."

Baxter said if there isn't enough expertise in the parks to achieve this goal, there are plenty of botanists and related professionals in the private sector who would be willing to help.

"It's not too late for a second flowering," Baxter said. "A profusion of native species can once again flourish on the island and the forest can regain its vitality.

"There's a lot of work to be done. But what could be a more worthwhile goal for the next century?"

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