The Western New York Land Conservancy is now several steps closer to creating the Stella Niagara Preserve. In July, the Niagara River Greenway Commission voted unanimously that the proposed preserve was consistent with the Niagara River Greenway Plan. Less than a week later, the Greenway Ecological Standing Committee approved a $500,000 funding request. This grant is the first money received for the more than $3 million project and is the largest single amount ever awarded to the land conservancy.
Tim DePriest from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and chairman of the Greenway Ecological Standing Committee, said, "Creating the Stella Niagara Preserve will be an important milestone for the Niagara River Greenway. We are excited that the land conservancy has taken this project on."
The Stella Niagara Preserve property is located on the river side of Lower River Road in the Town of Lewiston. It sits across from the Stella Niagara Education Park and Center of Renewal. With 29 acres and more than a quarter mile of shoreline, the preserve is the most ambitious and high-profile project in the land conservancy's 22-year history.
Land conservancy staff said it will be the first nature preserve along the Niagara River to be owned and operated by a not-for-profit, and it could be the first property acquisition funded by the NYPA relicensing settlement, a critical step toward making the Niagara River Greenway a reality. This public private partnership - with a not-for-profit taking the lead and committing to long-term legal and financial responsibility for the preserve - will be a model for creating new, high-quality public spaces along the Greenway without burdening public agencies with increased costs.
Paul Dyster, mayor of Niagara Falls and a member of the Greenway Commission, said, "Since the very beginning of the Greenway, this property has been a priority for protection and new public access. It's great to see the project moving forward with so much support."
Steven Reiter, supervisor of the Town of Lewiston, said, "The Stella Niagara Preserve will be a great use of that property. I am glad the land conservancy is helping to protect it and preserve the view of the river."
Land conservancy staff said the property has incredible ecological importance. It has a variety of habitats, including a riparian zone, a large meadow, a forest area, and vernal pools that support rare plants and animals such as the threatened Lake Sturgeon and the endangered shrub called Ninebark. The shallow off-shore shoal supports larval smallmouth bass, yellow perch and rock bass.
The entire Niagara River is internationally designated as a globally significant important bird area because it is home to threatened species such as the bald eagle and common tern, and supports hundreds of thousands of migrating water birds, especially during winter months when all other water in the region is frozen. The property was placed on the Niagara River Area of Concern priority habitat list in 2012, making it an international priority for protection.
The property also has significant cultural importance. It is a nationally designated Peace Site and is part of the Niagara County Historic Trail. It was an important canoe-landing site for the region's Haudenosaunee native peoples who used the Niagara River for transport, trade and fishing. Known locally as the five-mile meadow, it is the very spot where the British landed in 1813 to invade the U.S. The chapel, thought to be the tiniest religious structure in Western New York, was in the national spotlight in 1955 when it "miraculously" survived an ice jam and flood that destroyed many other properties along the river.
Because of the property's gentle slope down to the river, it is one of the few natural landing sites on the Lower Niagara. The off-shore area, known locally as the "Stella Drift," creates ideal conditions for fishing. The view from Lower River Road overlooking the property and the Niagara River has been described as breathtaking. Considering these factors, the site is ideal for public access.
Once acquired, the land conservancy will develop a trail system, provide new fishing, canoe and kayak access, provide interpretive and wayfinding signage, enhance 18 acres of grassland and savannah habitat, offer public programming, and carefully steward the property.
Sister Diane Gianadda of the Sisters of St. Francis, the current property owners, said, "We are grateful to the land conservancy and the Greenway Ecological Standing Committee for assisting us in finding a way to share this beautiful property, a gift of God's creation, with future generations."
The land conservancy is working closely with the Sisters of St. Francis to ensure that this ecologically, culturally, and spiritually uplifting place along the Niagara River is protected forever. Nancy Smith, executive director of the Land Conservancy, said, "We are so pleased to have the opportunity to help achieve the Olmsted-inspired vision of a necklace of protected and publicly accessible open spaces along the length of the Niagara River."
The Western New York Land Conservancy is a regional, not-for-profit land trust that permanently protects more than 5,000 acres of land with significant conservation values in Western New York, for the benefit of future generations. Its members envision a future in which natural areas, farmlands, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty are cherished and protected as part of the landscape and character of Western New York.
The organization is one of 1,700 land trusts nationwide, including 90 in New York, which have protected 40 million acres over the past 20 years. For more information on upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, or the mission of the Western New York Land Conservancy, call 716-687-1225 or visit www.wnylc.org.