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Nature Watch: Purchase of Stella Niagara Preserve will protect river ecosystem

Members of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Penance and Christian Charity arrived in Buffalo in 1874, locating the first Motherhouse in downtown Buffalo. Seeking a permanent location in 1907, the sisters purchased the March Estate on the banks of the Niagara River in the Town of Lewiston.

Built there in the early 20th century, the magnificent Gothic structure on Lower River Road now serves as the home of Stella Niagara Education Park, a parochial school for prekindergarten through eighth grade as well as the administrative center and hospital facility for the order.

Until recently, I knew none of that history, but I did know the area because the woodlands around Stella Niagara retain many birds through the winter. On Christmas Counts we record flocks of wintering robins and waxwings there. We also count troops of chickadees and kinglets, and one year a catbird stayed over. Appropriately, we also find cardinals in these Franciscan woods, but these have crests instead of galeros.

But now the sisters’ property will serve nature in a new way. I joined about 50 regional conservationists a few weeks ago for what Nancy Smith of the Western New York Land Conservancy called “a pivotal opportunity within an individual’s lifetime, an organization’s lifetime and the history of the region.” The Land Conservancy is purchasing from the sisters the 29-acre property across Lower River Road from the Stella Niagara buildings.

As Smith announced this, we could look down over the lovely property, a meadow rich with goldenrods and the purple of asters and woodlands of maple, ash, oak and sumac clothed in reds, yellows, greens and bronzes. And beyond the trees we could see the blue of the Niagara River. The property includes almost 1,500 feet of shoreline.

Smith went on to justify this purchase.

Conservation: “With its extensive river frontage, open meadows and riparian zone, the Stella Niagara Preserve is an ecological resource of incalculable value that will help protect and restore the Niagara River ecosystem. With its important aquatic and terrestrial habitats it will help sustain the rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species that live here. These include species like the lake sturgeon (threatened in New York) that spawns in the Lower Niagara River. The Niagara River supports at least 19 species of gulls and over 20 species of waterfowl as well as several protected bird species, including the bald eagle and the common tern, both listed as threatened here. ”

Economics: “A study of the economic benefits indicates that every dollar invested in preserving open space returns $7 in economic value for the ecosystem services that open space provides.”

Cultural: “Known locally as the ‘five-mile meadow,’ this is the very spot where the British landed in 1813 to capture Fort Niagara. It is part of the Niagara County Historic Trail and it is a nationally designated Peace Site. Still earlier it was an important canoe landing site for the region’s Haudenosaunee native peoples who once used the Niagara River extensively for transport, trade and fishing.”

Quality of life: “This is best captured by the quiet beauty of this magnificent view and from the intangible benefits that everyone who walks in nature receives.”

All is not yet accomplished, of course. Despite major grants totaling more than $2.3 million, the organization must still come up with an additional $800,000 to complete the project.

Smith invites all of us to step forward and help to “achieve Olmsted’s vision of a necklace of protected and publicly accessible open spaces along the length of the Niagara River.”

There is plenty of credit to go around for what has already been accomplished. Franciscan Sister Edith, Lewiston Supervisor Steve Reiter, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, State Sen. George Maziarz and Steve Schoenwiesner, chairman of the Niagara Power Project Relicensing Ecological Standing Committee, all deserve credit, but I think Smith and her staff deserve our special thanks for playing the central role in this welcome activity.