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IF IT WEREN'T so sad, it would be funny. At the same time local and federal leaders are eyeing ways to safeguard and enhance the natural beauty of Niagara Falls, they also have to fend off the attack of the giant ice-cream cone -- and another high-rise monster going up in Canada.

The contrasting developments highlight both the promise and the perils of the falls area. The recent momentum for saving and restoring the falls continues to run head-on into the drive to turn it into a giant commercial bazaar.

The latest encouraging sign is Rep. John LaFalce's interest in protecting the magnificent Niagara Gorge and lower river by putting the area under some form of federal designation.

Whether deemed a "wild and scenic river," a part of the national park system or a national heritage area, the river and its rock-walled gorge would stand a much better chance of being preserved in their natural state for all to enjoy if put under the federal umbrella.

The idea originated with Falls City Council Chairman John Accardo, who notes the gorge and river rank with any of the nation's parks when it comes to beauty and that the area has environmental and historical significance, as well.

A federal designation would mean Washington would help preserve the area and make it accessible with management improvements like better trails and signage. That would relieve New York State of some of the financial burden for what is really a national and international attraction.

Of course, city leaders no doubt see some local economic benefit spinning off from
federal improvements. That's desirable. But what has to be kept firmly in mind is the difference between development and exploitation. In the long run, avoiding despoliation of the falls and river is the best way to go economically as well as for the public good.

A designation from the federal government -- which is more removed from the need to placate local entrepreneurs -- might prevent harmful development and help ensure better stewardship.

Nothing better illustrates the need for better stewardship than the fact that the Niagara Falls, N.Y., Planning Board is considering approving a "Twist of the Mist" ice cream stand not far from the historic Niagara Reservation.

The building would take the form of a giant twist ice-cream cone a stone's throw from where the Maid of the Mist tour boats run -- hence the tacky name.

It would be the perfect attraction for a carnival.

However, the falls is a natural wonder, much as overdevelopment on both sides of the Niagara River seems to deny it.

Of course, the ice-cream cone is a mere bite compared to the wall of towers and high-rises in Canada that chew up the falls view from the American side. And the distressing news is that the Canadians plan another big hotel on the skyline.

But that's no excuse for garishness on the American side.

It is hard to imagine how, with a straight face, a community could even propose seeking a "wild and scenic" designation for the gorge in one breath while approving a giant ice-cream cone in the next.

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