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Preserve, Protect, and Defend Biodiversity

There is no such thing as sustainable development that does not account for healthy ecosystems

The fundamental cause of human-created climate change is the eradication of biodiversity. This eradication is accelerated by the economic exploitation and the characterization of these resources as commodities. The harvesting of forests and the use of our waterways as waste repositories have dealt fundamental blows to our planet’s ability to support life. The ecological services provided by ecosystems are marginalized as economic “externalities.” Ecological and social contexts have to be woven in to the sustainability equation, with the real bottom line being biodiversity. A purely economic definition of “sustainable development” remains an oxymoron. We have to change this.

The potential negative impact on our region’s biodiversity by climate change is substantial. The positive contribution to atmospheric stability by biodiversity is fundamental science. We must recognize the overwhelming significance of habitat destruction and the exploitation of natural resources. This is a very addressable strategy.

We can:

• rethink, redefine, and react to fundamental causes of climate change. This will characterize the value of our current generations.

• identify, catalog, and reverse the unprecedented human evisceration of biodiversity.

Western New York is located in one of the most historically biodiverse regions on the planet. Our Great Lakes, rivers, creeks, streams, wetlands, forests, uplands, and meadows are vital components of a rapidly vanishing bioregion of global significance.

Although most of our natural assets have been urbanized or seriously altered by human activity, there remain significant areas that are ecologically productive. Most areas can return to ecological productivity with planning and investment.

The sweetwater seas

The Great Lakes contain nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

The Great Lakes Basin is a bioregion that supports nearly 10 percent of the US population and 25 percent of the population of Canada. Urbanization, industry, and agriculture have diminished our ecologically productive capacity.

Our waters are a valuable asset. They face growing threats championed by economic activities with a laser focus on growth and development. We can enhance our planets capacity to support life and atmospheric stability if we continue to provide opportunities for biodiversity. But only if we engage conservation as a primary first line of defense.

One of the most significant threats to our waters involves waste treatment and disposal. For example, just seven sewer authorities throughout the Great Lakes including the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) discharge almost 20 billion gallons of untreated sewerage and storm water through combined sewer overflows (CSOs). The BSA is responsible for releasing almost two billion gallons per year of our untreated material into the Niagara River, Buffalo River, Black Rock Canal, Scajaquada Creek, and 52 other permitted outfalls.

The good news is that currently the BSA has a 19-year plan developed in conjunction with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper to address CSOs. The BSA is one of the only sewer authorities in the Great Lakes with a “green infrastructure plan.” It comes with a $500-million-plus pricetag.

The bad news is that the BSA plan is not enough and there is no guarantee that the money can be raised. Our culture is in a suicidal cycle of downplaying infrastructure investments of this kind. Maybe we will build a new football stadium instead.

The bad news goes deeper with the BSA. It is a “self-permitting” public authority. The BSA alone determines and monitors what it processes through its system. This is not a unique situation. The political and economic underpinnings of a public authority give the BSA extraordinary legal powers and can keep public scrutiny at arm’s length. Contentious issues involving permitting disclosures result.

The BSA is the sole authority for Buffalo Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permits (BPDES), issues permits for “trucked-in waste,” and permits for “temporary discharges.”

While the BSA is on record as saying that it is doing nothing illegal, permit applicants “self-identify” the materials that they are seeking to discharge into the lake.

This means that the potential for deliberate or unintentional misidentification of materials permitted for release by private entities is there. Public scrutiny of these permits does not include public review of permit applications prior to permitting.

We would be shocked, just shocked, if illegal activity takes place, but the potential is there. A recent example of the kinds of problems that exist under this current system include an investigation of fracking wastewater permits undertaken by Artvoice in the late winter of 2011-12.


Despite all the industry hype about the environmental benefits of a transitional natural gas economy, one of the least reported aspects of hydrofracking is that the activity releases huge amounts of methane, a less-reported but highly significant greenhouse gas. Coupled with the documented consequences of using billions of gallons of water, concocting and injecting proprietary chemical soups that are highly toxic that appear in groundwater, aquifers, and other drinking water sources, hydrofracking is not the answer. Even on a purely economic basis, hydrofracking does not live up to industry hype. Mix in the development of landscapes eaten by roads, well heads, lagoons, and other infrastructure demands, and it becomes more clear that this energy strategy does not support biodiversity and is instead another nail in the coffin of atmospheric stability.

Land use

Land use models that transcend traditional economic factors are being developed locally. Riverkeeper has introduced a GIS land use database focusing on watersheds. This groundbreaking approach to identifying value is transforming our ability to promote conservation and protection. Other local working groups are focusing on expanding the concept and identifying areas that have economically quantifiable ecological services values, such as intact or partially intact ecosystems on both public and private lands. County forests, parkland, land banks, abandoned farmland, trails, wood lots, and other areas are strategic places.

A new database approach could form the basis of quantifiable analysis of critical habitat and biodiversity generators. The objective is to create a tool to build upon traditional land use concepts that help citizens and governments determine planning, zoning, conservation, and land protection. One potential outcome is incentives that would target keeping public and private land ecologically productive.

Buffalo’s waterfront

We can recreate an ecologically productive waterfront by avoiding industrial, commercial, or inappropriate mixed-use development. Only if we make significant public investments does this land become valuable land for the developers. Instead of driving profits just to the developers, let’s invest in an economic plan that benefits a broader spectrum.

By concentrating development on the downtown side of the river and harbor, we will build a better city. The Outer Harbor should remain as open space with public access. How about a national marine sanctuary just off shore? An economic plan that encourages conservation through recreational and tourism will make us wealthier as a sustainable community.

Urban greenscaping

Community-owned lands such as parks and streetscapes can contribute to biodiversity. If you have a yard, you can make a difference. Here is how: Learn about the kinds of beneficial animals such as pollinators, local birds, and butterflies that depend on native plants, and then landscape with those plants! There are plenty of local organizations that promote this kind of gardening. One word of caution—avoid using native plants in rain gardens that collect street runoff. Toxic materials from automobiles, lawn chemicals, and other poisons can accumulate in these gardens, and if you are using plants that attract native butterflies, birds, and bees, they will absorb the toxins, which can be counterproductive.

Jay Burney is founder of the Learning Sustainability Campaign and Greenwatch. Greenwatch provides a forum for discussion and promotion of community literacy about issues related to ecology, sustainability, and biodiversity. Visit Greenwatch on Facebook.

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