Within a few months, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to release a draft of its long-awaited management plan for land it stewards in Zoar Valley, home to a large number of Western New York's tallest and oldest trees.

About two dozen noisy protesters marched outside regional DEC offices on Michigan Street on Thursday to make it clear what they want to see when that draft is made public.

"What do we want? Zoar protected," they chanted. "When do we want it? Now."

Concerned that the DEC will allow "resource extraction," which could involve timbering, in the 2,927-acre site along Cattaraugus Creek in the Cattaraugus County town of Persia, the protesters said they want the area designated as unique, which would afford some protection from development.

"The reality is we're fighting a department that won't recognize what we're saying -- that this is our last wild national treasure in Western New York," said Al Brown, one of the organizers of the recently formed Friends of the Ancient Forest.

Brown said a conversation he had recently with a DEC forester involved in putting the management plan together leads him to believe the DEC will seek to remove trees and minerals from some of the management area.

He said that sort of activity would spoil the beauty of the relatively undeveloped land. "Nobody even knows we have this spectacular gem 45 minutes from Buffalo," Brown said.

For years a haven for rafters and hikers, the secluded Zoar Valley has become increasingly well-known as home to the tallest hardwood forest in the United States outside of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina and east of the Pacific Coast.

The forest grows on plateaus next to the creek, and it has remained untouched by loggers due to the steep walls of the creek gorge.

It contains a number of champion or near-champion trees, including a 156-foot tulip tree, a 155-foot sycamore and a 128-foot American basswood, the world's tallest such tree.

DEC spokeswoman Meaghan Boice-Green reiterated a commitment made last year by the DEC's regional director, Gerald F. Mikol.

"We have no intention of logging in the gorge or in a buffer area around the gorge," she said.

Boice-Green also noted, "Our understanding of the law is that it would require an act of the State Legislature to be designated as a unique area."

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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