PEKIN – The Western New York Land Conservancy has been putting together what it is calling “an encyclopedia” of the Niagara Escarpment.
The study of 20 properties along the escarpment for their ecological, historical and geological value was conducted last year across Niagara County.
The results of the study, part of the conservancy’s long-term push to preserve as much of the escarpment as possible, will be presented at a public meeting from 5:30 to 7 p.m. May 28 in the Pekin Fire Company hall, 3024 Upper Mountain Road, a location right on the escarpment. Also, the 250-page study is expected to be posted in full on the conservancy’s website that day.
Executive Director Nancy Smith said about 10 percent of the escarpment’s total length in the county was surveyed.
“While we found some very unusual ecological communities and some species of concern – birds and salamanders – that’s on 10 percent of the land,” Smith said. She also said she will discuss the species in detail at the upcoming meeting, along with three plants of “special concern.”
“We believe there’s much more we were not able to see. The weather is different each year and you might miss something,” Smith said. “If you’ve got one day to do a plant survey, you might miss something that’s important.”
But within those limitations, she said, the results still constitute “an encyclopedia of the escarpment.”
“We worked with a lot of community stakeholders and elected officials to gather a lot of information, so it’s not just ecological findings, but also descriptions of the history and geology of the escarpment,” Smith said.
The survey work was funded by a $316,673 Niagara River Greenway grant, approved by its ecological standing committee. Work was carried out by Ecology & Environment of Lancaster, along with volunteers from the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society.
“One of the really important purposes of the meeting is, it provides us an opportunity to gather even more information from community members who have lived along the escarpment for generations and explore ways we can work together to enhance the escarpment going forward,” Smith said.
The escarpment is the ridge that bisects Niagara County from west to east. Its best-known feature, which has eroded south from its original location over many centuries, is the drop-off that creates Niagara Falls. The main line of the escarpment runs from Lewiston to Royalton, and it contains such noteworthy locations as the site of Artpark, the Erie Canal locks in Lockport and Royalton Ravine.
North of the escarpment’s cliff face, Niagara County is primarily flat as it extends toward Lake Ontario.
The conservancy’s long-term plan is to protect the escarpment’s distinctive characteristics and local species of plants and animals from further development, but Smith said the goals would vary from property to property, depending on how “ecologically sensitive” each site is.
“For one property, the goal might be to preserve it in a very pristine state. The goal for a different property might be to have public access. People fall in love with natural places when they get a chance to visit them, spend time there,” she said.
That’s all long-term planning, because at present the conservancy owns only one parcel of land along the escarpment, a 36-acre site off Leete Road in the Town of Lockport.
“This is taking steps forward, to find out which of the communities along the escarpment might like to have more land protected, or might like to have more public access. This is what we’re exploring,” Smith said.
Other than parks, most of the property along the escarpment is privately owned.
“We have identified some that we consider priorities for preservation, depending on what the owner’s interested in,” Smith said. “Everything we do is with the cooperation of the landowner. … We don’t expect to own the whole escarpment.”
For example, Smith is hoping that someone will help by purchasing a densely forested 47-acre parcel of land in the northern part of the City of Lockport, which has conservation value; its owner has placed it on the market.
Gary Clark, 64, bought the land off Stone Road, just behind the City of Lockport composting plant, about 10 years ago in hopes of building a home on it, but that didn’t work out. He cooperated with the field studies, allowing five or six visits by the escarpment’s consultants and volunteers, along with officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It’s a very ecologically rich site,” Smith said. “We’d like to see someone buy it who is conservation-minded, and then perhaps put a conservation easement on it.”
“They brought botanists in there and amphibian specialists. It was really interesting,” Clark said. “The escarpment makes a 90-degree turn on my property, Eighteen Mile Creek cuts a valley through the escarpment. I own both sides of the creek, and it’s a federal wetland.”
The site was mined in the 19th century for Medina sandstone and limestone for construction of the City of Lockport, Clark said.
“Now it’s all forested. There’s really a lot of history there. I believe there’s some of the original horse-and-wagon trail to get up into Lockport for commerce.”
He said he is sympathetic to the conservancy’s goals. “I think it’s a great thing. That is a very unique piece of property,” he said, but he needs to sell for financial reasons. The asking price is $195,000.
Smith said the Clark property includes “a very unusual fern called Goldie’s fern. I’ve only seen that one other place. … In addition to very unusual plant life, there are a lot of salamanders. There’s a professor who takes students there. We’d like to see an owner who is interested in having that continue. Education is a public benefit, as well as preservation of that wildlife habitat.”
One possibility, Smith said, is that the DEC could hold a conservation easement and that the owner could be paid for the development rights he wouldn’t be using.
Smith said the conservancy hasn’t been helped by everyone in its survey efforts. “We did have some people who didn’t cooperate,” she said. The entire effort is voluntary, she said, and overall, “we were very pleased with the participation.”
Some communities have shown interest in escarpment protection, such as the Town of Cambria, which added an Escarpment District to its zoning ordinance in 2009 “to provide for the orderly planning and land use of the areas and to preserve the natural beauty, protect wildlife, minimize pollution and to assure the community and land owners that this land by properly developed.”
The area protected lies between Lower Mountain and Upper Mountain roads, from one end of the town to the other with variations in the width of the district. Homebuilding is allowed, as long as no structures are placed within 80 feet of the escarpment shelf or face.
Smith said the conservancy is hoping to form a “Friends of the Niagara Escarpment” organization, comprising individuals and representatives of not-for-profit groups.
“Hopefully,” she said, “that can carry the momentum of this project into the future.”