Environmental Ethics


(This 748th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 31, 2005.)


There is a wilderness ethic that is expressed in various ways: "Leave it as you found it", "Pack it in; pack it out" or "Strive for zero impact."


I find this ethic both wonderfully fulfilled and terribly broken here on the Niagara Frontier.


When I hike the Conservation Trail, the Bruce Trail or the Finger Lakes Trail, away from roads I find no litter whatsoever. The trails themselves are all that mar the landscape. (Farther afield I find the same true in the Adirondacks, in Algonquin Park, in the Minnesota Boundary Waters and along the Appalachian Trail.)


But in our public parks things are quite different. Unless I follow closely a park clean-up squad, I find a garbage-strewn landscape. And landowners tell me that they have as much trouble even on their posted property.


For example, I see debris left by teenagers regularly in Amherst State Park. They gather evenings to hold beer parties around campfires. Although that is probably illegal, the law is not my concern; instead, what irritates me are the beer cans, broken bottles and other detritus they leave. Instead of cleaning up their mess, they simply move on to another area for their next party.


Take another case. On private property below The Nature Conservancy's Deer Lick Conservation Area in the south branch of Cattaraugus Creek is a beautiful waterfall. I know about it because back in the 1960s, unaware of the falls, I almost went over it in a kayak. Fortunately, I managed to ground my boat a few feet above the 20-foot drop.

(Looking down the falls in the South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek)

For years and despite the fact that this falls is on posted private land, it has been a magnet for swimmers and picnickers. To get to it you have either to hike down the gorge wall, a dangerous and illegal undertaking, or to wade more than a mile up the creek.


On a recent weekday morning Pat McGlew, Bill Cain and I visited the Conservation Department fishing access parking area by the closed Forty Road bridge where a half dozen hikers had already left their cars to trek up to that falls. The area was strewn with trash. And although Wayne Gall and others had brought out hundreds of pounds of refuse the previous weekend, the area around the falls already had the appearance of a garbage dump. Broken glass covered the ground where barefoot swimmers walked.


In addition a number of living trees had been chopped down evidently to obtain a few upper branches to burn.

This thoughtless behavior poses impossible challenges for conservationists including not only the landowners, but also local fire fighters, police officers and sheriff's deputies, The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Environmental Conservation. To them the problem extends beyond despoiling the area. There have been many accidents, some fatal. Providing emergency assistance in this remote chasm is very difficult, dangerous, time consuming, expensive, and for landowners in particular legally threatening.

(Trespassers burned a full garbage bag waiting to be carried out.)

Is the only solution to these problems closing the entire Zoar Valley Wilderness Area to the public? (Interestingly, this solution was proposed 35 years ago in Dunn's newspaper cartoon with a single word caption directed at Zoar trespassers: "Out!") Or will a permit system be instituted and strictly enforced?


Sadly, a few idiots -- I can think of only worse epithets for these thoughtless and often drunken trespassers -- are ruining things for the rest of us.


Thankfully not all youngsters are bad apples like them. Pat, Bill and I went on to Deer Lick where we met three New York City teenagers participating in The Nature Conservancy's Internship for City Youth program: Jacky Chow and Steffan George from Manhattan and Kris Lee from the Bronx. With them was their mentor, Dan Tainow, from nearby New Jersey. All are students at the High School for Environmental Studies located in the heart of the Big Apple.


These enthusiastic youngsters are spending the summer learning about our state's magnificent natural areas and contributing to their protection. They will spend three days at Deer Lick where one of their tasks will be posting sanctuary boundaries. They will then move on to the Thousand Acre Swamp outside Rochester for other conservation and land stewardship experiences.


Too bad those trespassers didn't have that same kind of exposure.-- Gerry Rising