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Unveiling Stella Niagara’s vista of natural splendor

LEWISTON – Visitors to the Stella Niagara Preserve will be able to bird-watch, launch kayaks and canoes, and view religious art in a setting that its new owners have vowed never to develop.

There are no signs, no benches or other amenities, and not much will be added, even after the Western New York Land Conservancy finishes making some improvements on the 29-acre site on Lower River Road.

“We accept the responsibility of caring for this land in perpetuity, because we know it’s important, because we told the sisters we would – and we have come to know and love them,” Nancy Smith, executive director of the conservancy, said Tuesday.

Sister Edith Wyss, of the Sisters of St. Francis, the order that had owned the land for 108 years before selling it May 20 for $2.25 million, spoke of “giving over what we have loved and cherished and cared for, given to us from God, and giving it over knowing it would be cared for so well.”

The preserve officially opened Tuesday as part of the Niagara River Greenway, and a few visitors took a walk on the preserve, across the road from the nuns’ motherhouse and elementary school. Some on the walk said they saw a bald eagle.

Two mowed paths of grass meet in a loop and lead to the river, where kayaks and canoes can be put into the water. There’s no need for a dock or a ramp, because the drop from the shore to the water is only about a foot. However, boaters must carry or wheel their craft, because no motor vehicles are allowed.

The paths take walkers past a peace memorial in honor of President John F. Kennedy and a small chapel, both of which feature the murals of Polish artist Jozef Slawinski, and on the northern edge of the preserve, a stone grotto in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Jajean Rose-Burney, director of development for the conservancy, said that the chapel won’t be open except for special events but that the murals are visible by looking through the windows.

The preserve extends for a quarter-mile along the Niagara River, making it the area’s longest stretch of privately owned undeveloped riverfront.

The site is believed to have been used as a landing spot by the Iroquois for millenniums, Rose-Burney said. British troops landed there Dec. 19, 1813, en route to capturing Fort Niagara and burning the Village of Lewiston during the War of 1812.

There are a few large trees that are believed to be at least that old, Rose-Burney said, but most of the thick woods on the site is second-growth forest that grew up after the site was cultivated.

The conservancy has hired a nationally known landscape architect, Darrel Morrison, whose first visit to the site will be Aug. 3-5. His goal will be to preserve and restore wildlife habitat, while steward Ken Horvath of Lockport will take charge of removing invasive plant species.

Thirty monarch butterflies were released at Tuesday’s opening ceremony to take advantage of the milkweed that grows on the property. David O’Donnell, of Clarence, whose Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm provided the insects, said milkweed is the favored host plant for the species.

Smith said some benches will be installed because they represented “naming opportunities” in the fundraising for the project, which so far has brought in about $3.6 million. In addition to the purchase price, which will help the sisters keep their school open and continue their ministries in inner-city Niagara Falls, the conservancy is building a fund to maintain the site.

Smith said a public meeting will be held this fall to obtain user input for access and programs on the site. She said interpretive signs will be posted to explain the history of the property.

More than $2.5 million in funding came from various Greenway-related sources, all of which originate with the New York Power Authority. There was a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a $200,000 gift from Joseph and Pamela Priest, of Lewiston. Ten foundations contributed, with the Tower Family Fund, named for a Porter family who once lived on Lower River Road, giving $200,000.

The preserve is located opposite the intersection of Lower River Road, which is Route 18F, and Pletcher Road. Free parking is available at the Lewiston Senior Citizens Center, located at that intersection. There is no admission charge to visit the preserve, which will be open daily from dawn to dusk.