Almost five years to the day after the citizen group Stop the Canal Clearcut was founded, we find ourselves near the end of the legally required environmental review process we started fighting for in December 2017. The final draft of the New York State Canal Corporation’s Embankment Management Guidebook and the manual’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement were released late last month, and NYCC tells us they intend to move ahead with vegetation removal next fall and winter.
Recent headlines have emphasized that the revised plan saves the trees, and that “clear cutting is off the table.” But one doesn’t have to dig deeply into the pages of documents released by the Canal Corporation to see that this is misleading. Shane Mahar, an NYCC spokesperson, helpfully summarized the agency’s goals in an interview with WXXI: “The trees that are on the embankments today should not be there.” And if you view their own PR website, you can see that turf grass lawn is the NYCC’s preferred aesthetic. In the revised plan, the process of converting the embankment from a natural landscape to a manicured industrial one just may take longer than they originally hoped.
The Canal Corporation has not moderated its approach despite strong public opposition. Last summer, over 1,000 citizens submitted comments on the draft environmental impact statement. Nearly all listed reasons to preserve the natural vegetation—including shade, wildlife habitat, and climate protection—and pleaded for the development of a new plan that centers preservation of the natural environment.
Instead of listening to the public outcry, the NYCC’s “concession” only allows for the potential of preserving some scattered trees. This option will be available only in areas of the canal that individual communities have designated as scenic. In reality, this seeming concession is an illusion—without the surrounding natural vegetation, any remaining isolated trees would be at risk of wind damage and removal. The ultimate result will be treeless embankments, because without surrounding seedlings or saplings, nothing will take the place of trees that are lost.
As for the portions of the embankments that don’t meet the Canal Corporation’s “community thresholds,” the plan is to convert them to lawn without any opportunity to save even some of the trees.
The Canal Corporation became a subsidiary of the New York Power Authority in 2017. Under this new regime, decades of flexible management that accommodated forest regrowth has been derided as “lack of maintenance.” This is despite the fact that in the history of the Erie Canal, there have been no emergencies or breaches resulting from natural vegetation.
The NYCC’s novel policy of sterilized Erie Canal embankments is also not supported by state law. In 1992, recognizing that they needed to redefine a historic canal that no longer had value as commercial infrastructure, the legislature established the Canal Recreationway Commission. This commission’s purpose was to develop a statewide plan directing the evolution of the Erie Canal in order to maximize its recreational and scenic value. The plan’s vision of the recreationway is a 524-mile linear park that is a “greenway.” Faced with the choice to abandon this relic structure, legislators 30 years ago chose to honor its legacy, but also to imagine it as a new, more modern resource. The Canal Corporation’s new management plan severely undermines this vision.
NYCC officials continue to insist that removing natural vegetation is the only safe option. From the beginning, our group of grassroots volunteers has been urging the Canal Corporation to reconsider this viewpoint, which resulted from redefining the canal embankments as industrial dams. Even if we accept their redefinition, NYCC engineers refuse to acknowledge the science that tells us that an intensive reconstruction of the embankments could create more risk than it theoretically mediates.
While we have shared with them academic reviews and scientific studies on the subject of vegetation on dams and levees, the Canal Corporation has responded with fear mongering. They continue to reference deadly dam failures that had nothing to do with vegetation in their documents, and they use stories of Erie Canal breaches caused by construction activities as if they are warnings about the risk of leaving the embankments alone. When we remind them that the number one cause of death on the Erie Canal is drowning, and that trees along the embankments have demonstrably saved lives, they dismiss us, saying “we aren’t concerned about swimmers.” We see this indifference in the management manual, which contains no discussion of strategies to reduce the risk of drowning deaths.
For five long years, members of Stop the Canal Clearcut have used the opportunities afforded by the state’s environmental laws to fight for the state’s expressed vision of the Erie Canal—a linear park, a greenway, a place to recreate in natural beauty. Although we are just grassroots volunteers with no budget or staff, we have kept the Canal Corporation’s industrial vision at bay, keeping miles of the canal trail shady and beautiful. Our effort has also saved the state millions of dollars—NYCC’s Environmental Impact Statement estimates the initial cost of their maintenance program is, at minimum, $2 million to $4 million per mile of embankment.
In these same five years, our members have written hundreds of letters and emails to the governor and our legislators asking them to fight for the Erie Canal greenway their predecessors imagined 30 years ago. Gov. Kathy Hochul and her representatives have never once responded. While local legislators have expressed support, they have not yet sought any legislative action that would realign the Canal Corporation with the vision of the state’s Recreationway Plan.
If you want the natural character of the Erie Canal to be protected, please let the governor and your state legislators know that it is now time for our state elected leaders to step into the fight. Tell them that if they don’t, their legacy will be a canal that is an expensive eyesore. And that that would be a failure that their constituents will remember.
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.