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FESTIVAL TO MARK PARKWAY'S SHIFT FROM 4 TO 2 LANES AS TRAIL OPENS

NIAGARA FALLS - Hikers, cyclists, in-line skaters and, when the snows come, cross-country skiers will soon replace cars, SUVs and tour buses on a 5-mile stretch of the Robert Moses Parkway above the Niagara Gorge.

"Our mission is to promote the usage of this trailway while promoting awareness of the value the gorge front offers residents and Niagara regional tourism," said City Councilman Paul Dyster, founder of the Niagara Waterfront Education Outreach Program.

The state parks office will begin a two-year pilot project Saturday by converting the two southbound lanes of the parkway between Devil's Hole State Park and the Schoellkopf Geological Museum into a hiking-biking path along the Niagara Gorge. The two northbound lanes of that section of the parkway will become a two-way, undivided highway going north and south.

The closing of part of the parkway and the opening of the hiking trail will be marked by the Great Niagara Gorge Festival, a daylong celebration along the rim of the gorge high above the Niagara River.

"The grand opening of the gorge front pedestrian-bicycle trail is a milestone in Niagara's return to ecologically based tourism and community activity," said Robert M. Rubin, a member of the Niagara Waterfront Revitalization Task Force. "We reside in, and are stewards of, the most spectacular urban landscape in the world."

Up to 2,000 people are expected to flock to Whirlpool State Park to take part in a wide variety of events designed to satisfy the body, mind and soul, said festival coordinator Pam Smith, a member of the Niagara Waterfront Revitalization Task Force, which is orchestrating the day's events.

"We encourage families to bring their walking shoes, bicycles and picnic baskets and experience the Niagara River and the gorge in a new and stimulating way," said Smith. "This project is intended to educate people about the significance of the environmental assets that make up the Niagara River waterfront."

The festival starts at 10 a.m. and features a gorge-top walk along the new Niagara trail that will link Niagara University, Devil's Hole State Park, Whirpool State Park, the new DeVeaux Woods State Park, Schoellkopf Geological Museum and Niagara Reservation - America's first state park and home to the falls.

The 5-mile bicycle trail is part of a long-range project that will ultimately link existing disconnected bike paths from Chautauqua to Youngstown, said Dennis Galucki, chairman of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council's Bicycle Pedestrian subcommittee.

The day's events will also include a 5K run, a parade of decorated bicycles and a local theater production chronicling the recent history of the Niagara area.

Niagara historian and author Paul Gromosiak suggests that everyone bring an American flag to the festival.

"Since the tragic events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, I've never seen so many of our flags flying throughout the Niagara Frontier," said Gromosiak. "This would be a wonderful opportunity to express our patriotism in a part of America that has such history and significance."

The $1 million trial run to turn part of the parkway into a hiking-biking trail was initiated by the state as a compromise between groups like Niagara Heritage Partnership and people who say the parkway is a vital link between downtown Niagara Falls and Lewiston.

The partnership, which wants to restore the natural environment of the Niagara Gorge by removing a 6-mile section of the parkway from downtown Niagara Falls to Lewiston, says it has the support of more than 30 organizations with a total membership of nearly 1 million. The group also says it has collected the names of more than 3,000 individuals through door-to-door campaigns, local events such as National Trails Day and on its Web site, www.niagaraheritage.org.

"The Niagara Heritage Partnership refuses to see the two-lane closure as a compromise," said the partnership's Bob Baxter. "We take the state parks' word that it's a pilot, a test project to find out the best solution to a bad decision made nearly half a century ago. It's puzzling as a pilot, however, and we're still trying to find out about its underlying rationale."

The gorge festival's scheduled events will be interspersed with a variety of entertainments and booths in and around Whirlpool State Park, including Underground Railroad interpretations, student art contest, face-painting and autographs by Buffalo Sabres mascot Sabretooth and the Triple-A baseball team's Buster the Bison. And there will be plenty of food and refreshments, said Smith.

Schedule of events:

5K race starts at 11 a.m. Runners are asked to register for the run between 9 and 10:30 at Whirlpool State Park.

Bicycle parade, where prizes will be awarded for the best-decorated bike, and the gorge walk, to be led by the Niagara Middle School Marching Band, will both get under way at noon at Schoellkopf Geological Museum, heading for Devil's Hole State Park. Registration, which is necessary for the bicycle cavalcade and for the heritage walk to get a T-shirt, will be at 11:45 a.m. at the museum.

The Outer Circle Orchestra, a local group of musicians, will perform at Whirlpool State Park from noon until 4 p.m.

A staged production of the area's history by the Western Door Playhouse, a band of Niagara County actors and actresses, will be performed at 2:30 p.m. at Devil's Hole State Park.

For details, see the festival's Web site, www.niagaraheritage.org.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com