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.
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.