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Can Niagara River, now a Ramsar site, prove to be an ecotourism beacon?

The waterfalls are a given.

But there's a lot more for the 8 million tourists at Niagara Falls State Park to appreciate along the Niagara River corridor.

That's why government and tourism officials sounded so excited about an international designation bestowed upon the Niagara River corridor Thursday, when it became just the 40th Ramsar site in the United States. It's a designation that recognizes rare and unique wetlands for their importance to biological diversity and to humanity as a whole.

"This side of the falls is developing in a more natural way, where the other side is dense, dense, dense development," said Rep. Brian Higgins. "I still think this side has miles to go, but it is making progress. It is these kinds of initiatives that will help preserve the natural environment and celebrate it for what it is, and not what you can create for it."

Niagara Falls, state and federal officials hope the international designation will make the Niagara River a bigger ecotourism draw. The Ramsar designation comes from the Ramsar Convention, a global treaty with 170 country signatories signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said the Ramsar designation can help change the mindset about a trip to Niagara Falls.

"For decades, people thought of Niagara Falls as a sort of roadside attraction, like you're driving through the upper Midwest to pull off the road to see a giant ball of string or something," Dyster said. "So you come down to the railing, check it off your list and drive on. That's not the way we want people to experience Niagara Falls and the Niagara River in the future.

"We want them to think this is a region of significance that is worthy of a deeper dive, a longer stay and a greater level of understanding and appreciation."

Gregory Stevens, executive director of the Niagara River Greenway, called the designation a great honor that offers a great opportunity.

"This means so much more than the falls itself, because it pulls in Grand Island; it pulls in the Tonawandas; it pulls in Erie Canal and the Empire State Trail; it pulls in Fort Niagara and the camping at Four Mile Creek State Park," Stevens said. "It gives us an opportunity to present the broader spectrum of all our resources."

Marketing region's beauty 

More visitors have been coming to Niagara Falls to experience the outdoors, said Andrea Czopp, vice president of operations for Destination Niagara USA, which promotes travel and tourism.

In 2017, the organization began producing the "Outdoor Adventure Guide" to promote activities that capitalize on the region's natural beauty. Those include hiking the Niagara Gorge, biking on trails, fishing in Lake Ontario and visiting the recently renovated Niagara Falls State Park.

The Ramsar designation will resonate with those coming for those activities and further help the identity of the American side of the falls, Czopp said.

"We know there are a lot of people who seek out Ramsar sites because they are such a prestigious designation," she said.

"A global recognition like this can only help to boost the efforts we've put forth over the last couple of years to set ourselves apart from the Canadian side of the falls as being the more natural side," she said.

A state parks official also said the designation will boost environmental tourism.

"This ties in the ecotourism and the active recreation that the governor's office is trying to do," said Mark Mistretta, regional director of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. "This is perfect timing."

Pursuit of the designation began six years ago when students at the University at Buffalo School of Law Environmental Advocacy Clinic began researching, mapping and lining up political support for the lengthy application.

Kim Diana Connolly, the clinic's director, said Ramsar-designated sites often see ecotourism benefits.

"I think this is going to increase attention," Connolly said. "People are going to want to come see one of the most important waters and wetlands of the world."

Protecting the corridor

Jajean Rose-Burney, co-chairman of a steering committee, said the recognition is well-deserved.

"We have great migrations of birds, ancient and massive fish and incredible protected, endangered and rare species of plants and animals," he said.

But the designation doesn't protect the biodiversity that it celebrates, said Rose-Burney, also deputy executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy.

"Ramsar says this is one of the most important places in the world," he said. "It's an honor, an award, but Ramsar doesn't protect the river. We have to protect the river."

Stephen Guertin of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services also said the international recognition should draw tourists.

"This Ramsar designation is a big deal," said Guertin, deputy director for program management.

He said it will make clear there is a lot to do and see beyond the waterfalls.

"We view [the designation] as a global beacon for public lands," he said. "It will help the local tourism economy. Hunters, fishers, anglers, bird watchers, sightseers — the greater outdoor recreation economy — will want to come and visit."

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