Trees on the Erie Canal are at risk again

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Remember when citizen activists, together with local town leaders, stopped the New York State Canal Corporation. from cutting down the trees on the Erie Canal embankments? When the community rejected a cookie-cutter “solution” to a nearly nonexistent risk imposed from a desk in Albany? What an inspiring David-and-Goliath story, the triumph of a scrappy group of everyday citizens and small-town politicians over a seemingly all-powerful, distant, and unaccountable state bureaucracy. 

Ginny Maier

Well, of course, the story was not quite that simple. The court ruling that stopped the tree removal in 2018 required the Canal Corporation, and its parent agency, the New York Power Authority, to complete the legally required environmental review process they had neglected. Now, nearly four years later, that review is complete. Our scrappy group—named Stop the Canal Clear Cut—has had to rouse itself to again try to be heard.

The new maintenance plan that is under environmental review is, unfortunately, not a surprise. It still asserts, without convincing evidence, that trees and natural vegetation have no place on the raised embankments of the Erie Canal.According to this plan, the ideal future state of miles of now-forested embankment is turf grass, maintained by mowing and herbicide application. It rejects the values of the natural vegetation as a source of shade, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, community character, history, and environmental conservation.

Even with three years to articulate the maintenance plan and prepare the environmental impact statement, the Canal Corporation and NYPA did not consult with professional botanists or ecologists. We know this for certain because no self-respecting biologist would suggest that removing trees would not negatively impact wildlife because animals will “most likely move to any suitable habitat adjacent,” since they “instinctively make decisions that maximize their lifetime reproductive output.”

Not only is the idea that animals will simply know to move somewhere else when their homes are destroyed grossly simplistic and nonscientific, it is also telling that the authors of the EIS expect wildlife to be more flexible than the Canal Corporation and NYPA are. Because even after local communities asked loudly and clearly to develop a plan that preserved the values of vegetation on the embankments, these agencies have never considered an option that would leave those trees in place. 

The EIS includes an estimate of the cost of the maintenance project: $2 million to $4 million per mile of embankment. Consider this: the scenic and shady portion of the canal towpath between Fairport village and Bushnell’s Basin is approximately five miles in length. For the $10 million to $20 million it would cost to remove nearly all the trees from this section and rebuild the embankment, the state could hire someone to walk that section every day at $100,000 per year—for a minimum of 100 years. 

This plan would use the public’s financial resources to destroy acres of natural vegetation that is highly valued by the public, all in an attempt to avoid an embankment collapse caused by vegetation, something that has never occurred in the history of the Erie Canal. It’s nutty. And it’s also fiscally irresponsible. We could be relying on the cost-free benefits of the natural vegetation that has colonized over 100 miles of these embankments in the last century, creating a network of roots that almost certainly stabilize their slopes. Instead, NYPA and the Canal Corporation propose to create a permanent, ongoing turf maintenance need in its place. Perhaps we shouldn’t say permanent; given the state’s history of chronically underfunding the Erie Canal, we expect that the natural vegetation will return on its own within decades, once this maintenance inevitably falls prey to budgetary needs. 

In all of this time since the lawsuit in early 2018, the Canal Corporation and NYPA have never answered our call for public dialogue and collaboration in producing a more sensitive and sensible plan. The release of the EIS is no different. There was no press release announcing the comment period. There have been no meetings to address questions about the maintenance manual or environmental review, just a single day of virtual hearings to receive comments. Requests by the press for dialogue are ignored or rebuffed. The lack of transparency and accountability has been appalling.

And it is unclear what leverage is being used by the Canal Corporation and NYPA to stifle public discussion. These are agencies with the resources to reward favored communities with high-profile capital projects. We have some reason to be concerned about this. Despite many requests by their constituents to engage the public, leaders the town of Perinton, the village of Fairport, and Monroe County have stayed away from the discussion. It is not clear why these governments would not wish their constituents to participate in the one-and-only opportunity to comment on this impactful maintenance plan.

One thing that has changed since 2018 is the state legislative delegation from Monroe County. We are thankful for the steadfast leadership of Bill Smith, Pittsford town supervisor, and the support of Bill Moehle, Brighton town supervisor, since the beginning; they are now joined by Samra Brouk and Jeremy Cooney in the state Senate and Assembly members Jen Lunsford, Marge Byrnes, and Sarah Clark in asking the state for a better plan. We are humbled by and thankful for their support.

But we still need every member of the community who cares about this issue to weigh in if we are going to change the Canal Corporation and NYPA’s plan. The comment period ends on Sept. 5, the day before Labor Day. You can get more information about commenting on our Facebook page or at stopthecanalclearcut.org. Please be a part of the scrappy crew. We still believe that ordinary people’s voices, raised together, can make all the difference.

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.

8 thoughts on “Trees on the Erie Canal are at risk again

  1. The new Erie Canal’ ”maintenance plan” is perfect for laying down enough cable to extend broadband. At least, that is my long-held theory. No tree roots or wildlife to interfere! When I wrote to the New York Power Authority, they flat-out denied my supposition.

  2. This was addressed originally as a comment to: Bergmann Associates, in re The maintenance of earthen dams. MAINTAIN THE CANAL PROPERLY.

    I refer to the relevant FEMA manual for the maintenance of earthen dams, linked. It is well that the New York Power Authority was assigned responsibility for the canal. The Thruway Authority could not have been expected to have earthen dam expertise. The Canal is a long dam, on both sides, some earthen, some concrete, some at grade. Tree growth is a concern for both earthen and concrete impoundments, but especially for earthen dams.

    https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/2020-08/fema-534.pdf

    The original Erie Canal was built to canal standards of the day, without trees on the newly-built embankment. For the sake of historic preservation, the canal should be restored to original appearance. The trees shown in the picture were natural growth without removal while the canal was not being properly maintained during its decline.

    Here is another link about canal maintenance that demonstrates the need for the civil engineers see all of the surface of an embankment. Trees on the embankment are not discussed, being unthinkable on a canal earthen bank:

    https://usbr.gov/assetmanagement/docs/Canal_Embankments.pdf

    This matter also should be examined for historic preservation of a remarkable achievement from 1825. There is a new Erie Canal historic site accessible from the Thruway near Weedsport.

  3. While I am supportive of the idea we should leave the trees in place for the protection of the natural environment, my greater concern is for safety. The Canal Corp has correctly pointed to standards for the construction of new canals without acknowledging that such standards don’t necessarily apply to embankments that have been in place for decades. The process of removing trees and other vegetation undermines the structure of the embankments that must be backfilled properly or a greater risk can be created. Before citizen protests stopped the clear cut action in 2018, clear cutting on the western side of Rochester left tree stumps in place that have not, to this day, been removed. Nor has the required fill been installed. Why would we expect any more responsible action by the Canal Corp in Fairport and Pittsford?

    Further, the chief engineer of the Canal Corp told me pointedly in 2018 that they had not done a survey of soil conditions and that none was needed because the soil along the 100 miles or so on which the clear cutting activity would occur was all the same. The claim is patently ridiculous. The embankments along Bushnell’s Basin are constituted largely of sand that presents a risk of collapse from the clear cut activity proposed.

  4. The issue of impending clear-cut removal of trees along the banks of the Erie Canal requires the attention of all the residents who value the aesthetic, recreational, economic, and climatic benefits of the Erie Canal. Think of it as the equivalent of giving NY DEC license to clear-cut the Adirondack National Park. Y/Our input is urgently needed to reverse this uninformed government overreach.

  5. As a 17 year resident of the canal between Longpond and Elmgrove Rd. in Greece, i am vehemently opposed to any clearcut project. Im not a landscape engineer but it doesn’t take a tin if bricks to fall in anyone’s head that this is pure pork and an abuse of our environment. I will be happy to spend my afternoons sitting on the banks that are in walking distance to my property to hinder this effort. Never thought I’d be joining the ranks of the tree huggers but here we go…if anything to prevent fiscal waste and abuse of this state’s already strained budget. Tell me where to get signs made and posted along our stretch of the canal.

  6. There is more to this matter. The “New York State Barge Canal”, authority apparently became unable to function for want of toll income. Today, the fees obviously will not support the cost of the canal: https://www.discovertheeriecanal.com/tolls-passes-and-permits/
    The underlying unsolved problem is, whose gonna pay for running the, romantic, recreational Erie Canal? It had landed on the New York thruway Authority, an entity not chartered to run a canal, but with cash flow to support the canal by taxing highway traffic. I don’t know whatever happened next in detail; the canal is carried now by the New York State Power Authority, with lots of cash flow, but not likely to have had canals in its enabling legislation. Accounting misallocations – malpractice! It happens all the time when a bill shows up in the legislature with special favors to special interests, not germane to the title of the bill.

    It would be honest to compose a new “Erie Canal Recreational Authority” with transparent definitions of how the bills would be paid. Assuming that we can’t bill the boaters what it costs to maintain their pleasure, there must be a levy on the Towns that benefit from the tourist/recreational income. The State would have a share to reflect the benefit of the canal beyond the Town beneficiaries. If the canal cannot be supported on what the electorate is willing to pay, even in grants and charitable contributions, then the canal is finished.

    The quarrel over clear cutting is utterly moot, until we know if the canal is viable in honesty.

  7. Leaving aside other pro and con arguments, it is indisputable that trees absorb carbon, especially mature trees. At a time of increased peril from excess carbon, it is foolhardy to destroy those trees. If climate change outcomes proceed as they have this year, saving the Canal won’t matter.

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