Jack A. Gellman, a Niagara Frontier State Parks commissioner, stated in a recent "My View" column that Frederick Law Olmsted's plans for Goat Island need to be rethought "because they are just not suitable for the 21st century." I believe he is wrong about the General Plan for the Improvement of the Niagara Reservation created by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
For example, the Olmsted design did in fact anticipate as many as 10,000-plus visitors a day, not 2,000 as implied by Gellman. And the designers did plan for roads, bridges, restrooms, maintenance buildings, police protection and so on.
One of the reasons Goat Island was designated a reservation was to remind us of its astounding profusion and variety of botanical treasures. It was hoped this reminder might protect the unique island environments from thoughtless commercial intrusion or incompatible design features.
This island of North American wilderness was also given the distinction of being named a National Landmark, partly in recognition of its forest, wildflowers, ferns, mosses and other native plants. Sadly, these reminders have not served us well.
Since just after the turn of the century, when native plants were being replaced with ornamentals, the encroachment on the island's wilderness has been relentless: a statue, a monument, a memorial plaque, a Butler building add-on, more wildflower meadow mowed, additional parking black-topped, roads widened, Viewmobile path added, underground wiring installed that destroyed woodland red trilliums, a huge restaurant and souvenir building constructed, 60 trees cut down to "improve the view" for restaurant patrons, and so on. The damage has been gradual, but steady. It's death by 1,000 cuts.
It is little wonder that the people who want Festival of Lights displays on Goat Island, including some of our Niagara Frontier State Parks commissioners, can't understand what's wrong with one more cut. Preserving the reservation as wilderness and accommodating tourists is a balancing act. When accommodation crosses the line to pandering, however, we lose both our balance and the wilderness environment. We're in the process of doing that.
When I drove Viewmobiles for several years as a summer job, I knew dragging 100 tourists around with my voice blatting out a memorized spiel over the PA system was destroying the natural contemplative experience for others. But I needed the money. Viewmobiles arrived and departed stations every four minutes for 30-minute tours. This is one of the ways we get people to stay in Niagara Falls longer.
Meanwhile, the Niagara River Corridor, including Goat Island, recently received another distinction when the National Audubon Society, supported by a host of other international organizations, designated it a Global Level Important Bird Area, vital to an incredible variety of migratory songbirds and other species. Warblers still pass through the Goat Island environment on their journeys as they did when my father took me there as a young boy. The woods, though, is a ghost of its former luxuriant self, when it seemed alive with birds, blossoms and wildflowers.
Currently, under the direction of regional parks director Edward Rutkowski, the system is exploring ways to more completely satisfy the Olmsted vision. I strongly support this.
Far from being "not suitable for the 21st century," as Gellman claims, the Olmsted/Vaux plan for the reservation is more relevant now than at any time since it was submitted. We should reacquaint ourselves with it to assess the ways we've failed to live up to the plan over the last century, and how we can do better.
E.R. BAXTER III is the author of "Looking for Niagara" and is a founding member of Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council.