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Crumbling Falls bridges overdue for repair

Drowned out in the excitement over the potential for engineers to temporarily shut off the water on the American side of Niagara Falls is how we got here.

It’s not a postcard-perfect picture.

The stone arch bridges that stretch over the roiling rapids of the Niagara River have been crumbling for more than a decade, since a chunk of concrete the “size of a car” fell from one of the bridges into the water below.

That’s not exactly the first impression you want to leave with the millions of travelers who come to see Niagara Falls every year. Though the deteriorating bridges reopened to pedestrian traffic with the help of two temporary metal trusses, they once served as a reminder of just how much work had gone undone in one of the state’s flagship parks.

The crumbling stone arch bridge to Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park was used to illustrate a stark November 2010 report by two parks advocacy groups that warned that the state park system had fallen into “crisis” with a billion-dollar backlog of projects that had to be done.

“What had been a welcoming attraction at the park,” the report noted, “has become a detraction.”

Today, more than five years later, that billion-dollar backlog across the state’s parks has been dramatically whittled by renewed investment in rebuilding everything from bathrooms to nature centers across the state. Parks that were on the brink of closure in 2010 have been given new life.

Those who make it their work to watch out for the state’s parks no longer use words like “crisis.”

“As park advocates, this is a pretty good time to be around,” said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, which co-wrote the report with the Alliance for New York State Parks. “It’s really great to see the reinvestment in our historic system.”

Mark Thomas, who oversees Niagara Falls State Parks as western district director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, tallies more than $64 million worth of work that has been completed or is in the works in Niagara Falls with state money and funds from an agreement to relicense the Niagara Power Project.

“We were losing ground every year,” Thomas said. “Now we are gaining ground every year, and basically getting the system back to the level that the public would expect.”

The dramatic change in attitude toward state parks is a good news story for which Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers deserve credit.

But the crumbling Niagara Falls bridges – which will remain in their temporarily repaired state until at least 2019 – still serve as a symbol of what happens when the state puts off investing in its natural treasures.

For too many years, the state overlooked mounting projects needed at Niagara Falls State Park.

That’s not a place we want to end up again.

What’s fascinating about the plan to divert part of Niagara Falls to replace the bridges is the man versus nature element of the story, that this waterfall that for centuries has been seen as an awesome power of nature can be turned down to a trickle by human engineers.

The very fact that man can so abruptly meddle with something nature has been doing for thousands of years should only underscore the need to protect the park and its wonder.