Trees belong on the Erie Canal

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The state had a goal of removing all woody vegetation and brush on elevated embankments along the canal. (Photo courtesy of Bill Maier.)

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.

Ginny Maier

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.”  

Though activism saved vegetation along the embankments in Brighton, Pittsford and Perinton, trees in Brockport were lost.
(Photo courtesy of STOP THE CANAL CLEAR CUT)

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. 

5 thoughts on “Trees belong on the Erie Canal

  1. Keep fighting the good fight! It is unfortunate that the State engineers cannot cite recent relevant data to support their position. If the goal is minimization of risk, and the shape of the embankment when viewed in section were considered, one could argue the only trees that require removal would be those that overhang the center of the embankment assuming their root structure is similarly broad. That would retain integrity of half of the embankment width and leave the embankment face lush. The “cut ‘em all” approach is irreversible.

  2. Trees do NOT belong on The Erie Canal Earthen Embankment Dams. Ms Mair’s group are conveniently omitting to tell folks that the trees in question are growing on the raised sections of the canal embankments that are holding up hundreds of millions of gallons of water some 20-70 feet above entire communities.

    The STCC have been told this so many times, even by their own ‘expert witnesses’ One Professor Donald Gray stated quite clearly “I don’t know of any earth dams where woody vegetation was purposely planted or allowed to grow on a face of the dam.”

    This is SAFETY issue to which FEMA, US Army Corp of Engineers, ASDSO (Association of State Dam Safety Engineers) and numerous engineering companies have all categorically stated The only vegetation allowed on a DAM is GRASS.

    Why? Because the vegetation growing on these DAMS is dangerous. The trees are old cottonwoods that keep falling over, and the undergrowth is so dense that inspections for leaks is impossible. Animal burrows are a HUGE danger to a major flood.

    People’s lives have been put in jeopardy by this group of people. The operation of bringing the canal dams into a SAFE condition has been delayed by these radical tree huggers. Those living in Bushnells Basin and towards Fairport on the western side of the canal are in peril of flood.
    Last year 200 feet of the embankment was shored up with 50 feet long sheets of steel hammered into the trial vertically to stop a flood of Jefferson Ave near the school. I saw the huge pond of water at the toe of the dam, a result of 80 years of neglect by the old Canal Corp who were starved of cash by politicians.
    You can read all about the arguments the Erie Canal Neighbors Association has brought against Ms Maier and Agte at https://ecna.createaforum.com/the-stop-the-clearcut-argument/
    There are also many documents to be found at http://www.eriecanalfacts.wordpress.com

    The NY Canal Corporation will start their Embankment Rehabilitation Program along the trail between Pittsford and Fairport 31f this fall. All in compliance with the SEQR study.
    see https://ecna.createaforum.com/erie-canal-embankment-integrity-program-(eip)/

    A video that the Canal Corp has just issued!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvMej8WRAn8

  3. I appreciate Ginny’s articulate and scientific approach to an issue that means so much to all of us who live along the Historic Erie Canal Corridor. We have benefited greatly from from a professional scientist who calmly ascertains the real issues around canal maintenance.

  4. Thank you Stop the Canal Clear Cut for the hard work you do and for shedding a bright light on what has transpired.
    The “Blitzkrieg” approach on the West side by the NYPA/CC was an unfortunate solution to resolve maintenance issues. Their failure to conduct a complete environmental review and to solicit public input prior to work commencing, was vindicated in a court of law. Collaboration and transparency are what is required to arrive at an equitable solution that addresses the safety concerns. As Ms. Maier so eloquently wrote….”The Erie Canal is a priceless public resource that deserves a thoughtful, creative and inclusive management plan”. By working together we can achieve that goal.

  5. Thanks, Ginny, for your (and Elizabeth and Janice’s) ongoing leadership on this very important issue, and the enormous amount of time and research you’ve invested. Thanks also to all the folks who have added their voices along the way. I feel so very bad for the residents on the west side who lost their trees — taking with them a major source of property value and enjoyment. Now I’ll add my own bit of inspiration, the famous quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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