Remember how the trees lining the Erie Canal in Brighton, Pittsford, and Perinton were saved last year? That wasn’t the end of the story.
First, a quick timeline. Clearcutting of the Erie Canal embankments started in Medina in October 2017 with little public notice. When the Democrat and Chronicle picked up the story, trees had been lost in Eagle Harbor and Albion as well. By late November, they were gone in Holley. The state—in the form of the New York Power Authority and Canal Corporation—had a goal of removing all woody vegetation on elevated embankments along the canal, including in Brighton, Pittsford, and Perinton.
I learned that the FEMA dam management guidelines the NYPA used to justify the clearcutting were remarkably free of scientific evidence. I found a comprehensive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers literature review that concluded “both benefits and risks of converting wooded levees to grass-covered levees … have yet to be fully investigated.” This review, as well as lots of additional research, convinced me that the threat posed by healthy trees was low and gave me the confidence to speak out for a more measured approach that could preserve the other values of trees in this environment.
I still have my talking points for the first public meeting in Monroe County: “The natural beauty of the Erie Canal is a key component of the economic value of the Canal to our communities. Degrading that beauty unnecessarily would be a shame. A tailored management plan that includes input from many different experts, and a public process of discussion, will result in an outcome that protects people’s safety AND the natural values of the canal.”
Readers can imagine how the public meeting went. Engineers from the Canal Corporation described the historically vegetated canal embankments as a miles-long dam and insisted that there was no acceptable treatment except complete tree removal. Large photos of a 1974 breach caused by engineers working under the Canal were misleadingly presented as the worst-case scenario. A 100-year record of trees safely growing on the embankments was dismissed. Environmental concerns were brushed aside by the NYPA CEO as “mere aesthetics.” A more comprehensive review of the project was not an option. A reporter told me afterward that citizens could never win a fight like this with the state. It was disempowering and disheartening. But before I left the meeting, two other concerned women pressed their phone numbers into my hand.
The three of us formed the early core of the group we named STOP the CANAL CLEAR CUT. We felt uncertain and overmatched, mostly alone in an effort that seemed both parochial and impossible. But solidarity gave us strength. My fellow organizer Elizabeth Agte had a conversation with a public official in which she described our “David versus Goliath” attempt to stop the cutting. His reply became her motto: “Just remember, ma’am … David won.”
We utilized Facebook to inform and organize more than 600 concerned citizens, encouraging them to attend meetings, write letters, and demand more public discussion. The legal strategy we advocated, led by Pittsford Supervisor Bill Smith and joined by Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle and then Perinton Supervisor Mike Barker, temporarily paused the clearcutting—unfortunately, not before the trees in Brockport were lost. And in March 2018, Judge Daniel Barrett halted the project, ordering the statutory environmental review. It was the committed activism of ordinary citizens that preserved the trees in Brighton, Pittsford, and Perinton in the winter of 2018.
However, our work isn’t over. In the areas that were cut, we can see the dramatic transformation of the Erie Canal embankments from wooded hillsides to barren slopes; so we continue to advocate for restoration. State engineers have not changed their position that there is no acceptable alternative to this transformation for all of the raised embankments, so we wait to see the required environmental impact statement for the remainder of the project. We persist in an uncertain and contentious effort to preserve and restore the value of our scenic, shady canal path.
There is a different model this discussion could follow. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent establishment of the Reimagine the Canals initiative created a task force to develop recommendations to “leverage economic development and recreational opportunities” for the future of the Erie Canal. The task force includes representatives from environmental interests such as the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, academics with expertise in geology and environmental engineering, and tourism and recreational trail advocates. Reimagine the Canals promises “a series of public meetings across the canal region, where residents, business owners, municipal leaders and other stakeholders can offer their ideas and insights.” In short, the very thing STOP the CANAL CLEAR CUT asked for at the beginning of the embankment project—a seat for all interests, and a public process at the decision-making table—is now in place. We are hopeful that the reimagination could include viewing the historic embankments of the Erie Canal as something more than just a dam.
The Erie Canal is a unique and priceless public resource that deserves a thoughtful, creative, and inclusive management plan. We are happy to see Reimagine the Canals provide a structure and mechanism for this plan. When their public forums are scheduled, you can be sure we’ll be there. We hope many other interested folks will be there too. And we hope our efforts fighting for a landscape and community we love reminds us all to use our voices together. Just remember—David won.
Ginny Maier is a resident of Fairport, co-founder of STOP the CANAL CLEAR CUT, and a member of the Biology faculty at St. John Fisher College.