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The Future and Fate of Times Beach Nature Preserve

Times Beach is a 50-acre shoreline nature preserve in downtown Buffalo. It is situated on a historic, narrow strip of land and water at the convergence of Lake Erie, the Niagara River strait, and the Buffalo River. Its location is of great consequence, and unique in the Great Lakes.

From its trails, boardwalks, and overlooks, you can see the splendid cacophony that our new downtown has become. You can absorb the wilderness of the waters. From here you can see, smell, and hear Buffalo’s history and future. Most importantly, it is part of a critical migration corridor and breeding area for an extremely wide variety of birds, pollinators, and other wildlife that make up the biodiversity the Great Lakes region. More than 240 species of birds have been observed here. That is more than almost any other place in the Great Lakes.

Times Beach serves as the western gateway to the Niagara River Corridor “globally significant” Important Bird Area (IBA). This internationally recognized designation was created in 1996 by conservation organizations and governments in order to provide protections for migratory and breeding birds. Annual migrants can travel from the boreal forests and arctic coastlines of Alaska, the center of the North American continent, through this IBA, and on to the Mississippi, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and into Central America. Songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, gulls, and shorebirds depend on the natural resources of this region. Of the almost 300 species of birds found in our region, more than 30 species of birds that are endangered, threatened, or of special concern depend on the IBA. Some, such as the Bonaparte’s gull, abundant during fall migrations here, represent large portions of the global population.

Our area, including Times Beach, is an important anchor of global biodiversity. The “globally significant” IBA designation positively compares us to places such as the Galapagos, the Everglades, Yellowstone, and the Hawaiian Islands.

Sadly, the ecological productivity of Times Beach has been in great decline in recent years. This is partly due to invasive species. The Army Corps of Engineers has now undertaken an important project to restore the nature preserve.

Another cause has been Outer Harbor development that has included construction and schedules that pay no heed to avian risk. For instance, construction of Wilkeson Pointe Park, a beautiful public park next to the Times Beach, included dawn-till-dusk activity—big tractors, unabated noise, and 24/7 light intrusions, which we think totally compromised the autumn shorebird migration at Times Beach, a usually highly reliable and ornithological notable event.

Beyond that, the park’s developer, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, built a bike trail and a lawn right up to the Nature Preserves property line, ignoring our long-standing request for an appropriate buffer. This is shameful disregard of an important nature preserve. We need, at least, to have “bird smart” planning and design on the waterfront.

The biodiversity protected by the Niagara River IBA and Times Beach goes beyond birds. Many species of pollinators—including migrating and breeding butterflies, bees, and dragonflies—as well as amphibians, fish, mammals, and more are supported by the local ecosystems that need protection and stewardship. Biodiversity is the foundation of life on earth, and the quality of life of humans is wholly dependent upon a healthy environment.

Today we are witnessing new challenges to our region’s biodiversity. There are great and important plans that promote shoreline development in Buffalo, which will characterize our city for generations to come. Much of the recent work on the Outer Harbor, the trails and the new parks, has been a tremendous boost to our confidence and our opportunities to move proudly ahead.

Over the past few years, public and private meetings have been held to help characterize how the Outer Harbor will be developed. This exciting process has included public engagement that has focused on the importance of public access and open space on the waterfront, as opposed to private development and limited access. Much has been said about “ecological sustainability” and the importance of supporting the foundation of what is inarguably our most valuable resource—the freshwaters and the ecosystems that support it. One fifth of the earth’s remaining fresh surface water is located in the Great Lakes. The future of life on earth depends on the quality and quantity of these waters. Our region and Buffalo’s waterfront play critical roles. We, the local humans that make the decisions about our relationships with these resources, have a great responsibility to the future.

One of the significant strategies advocated by many, including Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, has been a focus on what is referred to as “Blue Economy.” The origins of this concept stretch back to work by the developers of the Niagara Corridor IBA. We recognized then that we could promote economic development by focusing on true conservation strategies and developomg ecotourism—the largest and fastest growing sector of the tourism market. We have demonstrated that we can capture an enormous bird-watching market, as well as the recreational sector that includes boating, camping, hiking, and touring. Add to this the concepts of aggressive land conservancy, an Erie Niagara Marine Sanctuary, a National Shoreline designation, educational and research investments such as a Niagara Bird Observatory, a Great Lakes “Woods Hole”-type institute promoting sustainable waters, and connect to ongoing educational and research investments, cultural and heritage tourism strategies, and we will be engaging in conservation as a central part of our economic development strategy. This is a vision of a long-term sustainable future that will help to float everyone’s boat.

Today, however, I am sad to say that Times Beach Nature Preserve is threatened.

This past summer the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and the City of Buffalo released a segmented Outer Harbor Brownfield Opportunity Area plan (the development plan for the Outer Harbor) that includes most of the Outer Harbor waterfront in one section (the South Zone) and a downtown-oriented entertainment and commercial district (the North Zone). This segmentation was advocated by many public commenters during the scoping process that was begun over two years ago. The idea was to promote downtown density, and to help focus public access and open space as opposed to private development in the Outer Harbor areas.

Unfortunately for Times Beach, the end of Fuhrmann Boulevard that includes Times Beach and the new Wilkeson Pointe Park have been included in the North Zone—the commercial and entertainment district. This plan includes residential development around Times Beach.

Recent announcements and actions by Governor Andrew Cuomo include new state parks on the Outer Harbor. This can be a good thing. But less reported is that the governor’s announcement included two high-rise condominium buildings at Wilkeson Pointe Park, adjacent to Times Beach, and up to 400 acres of shovel-ready property for mixed-use (commercial and residential), stretching from the Seaway Pier to Dug’s Dive at the Small Boat Harbor.

The Friends of Times Beach is advocating what can be described as “bird smart” development strategies, but these ideas have not gained much traction with the decision-makers.

We applaud the idea of open space and think that Buffalo Billion investments should iclude encourage ecological sustainability. Why not filter some of this money into improved infrastructure for the Buffalo Sewer Authority, which according to Artvoice’s partner, Investigative Post, dumps up to four billion gallons of untreated sewerage into local waterway each year? Local EPA administrator Judith Enck,says that this degrades the waters, makes fish inedible, and smells bad. Western Lake Erie is already a dead zone because of algae mats fostered by poor planning and inadequate water treatment strategies. This dead zone is creeping our way.

We must better learn the deep connections between places like Times Beach, the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers, healthy Great Lakes, a healthy planet, and a thriving human population. Our urban experiences, plans, and strategies characterize the present and future of these assets. If the dead zone gets here, we can say goodbye to our most profound asset for generations or longer.

Conservation is a valuable tool that may make or break our economic future and capacity. Learning about this kind of fundamental sustainability teaches us that we must become the best stewards. This is an emergency.

Jay Burney is the founder of the learning sustainability campaign, GreenWatch, and a founding member of the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, and served as the chair of the Niagara River Globally Significant Important Bird Area Coalition.

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