Reinstein Woods

(This column was first published in the August 16, 1993 Buffalo News.)

What was the vegetation like here when European explorers and colonists first reached this region in the 17th and 18th centuries?

We are fortunate to have an answer to that question right here in the Buffalo metropolitan area. In Fort Niagara we have a military museum, in Letchworth Park a geological and paleontological museum, in Niagara Falls and Salamanca Native American museums, and in Mumford’s Genesee Country Village a museum of early colonial life. Equally important, in Cheektowaga’s Reinstein Woods, less than eight miles from downtown Buffalo, we have a unique biological museum that provides a living answer to that opening question.

Here you can walk through 65 acres of primeval forest, forest that existed before the European settlement of this area in the 1820s. To do so, as I did while assisting biologist Chuck Rosenburg there on bird and amphibian surveys, is humbling. You find yourself in deep shade for the canopy of old-growth beech, maple, and black cherry a hundred feet overhead closes out most sunlight. Except for a few downed trees, the ground is remarkably uncluttered and you walk as though through an empty cathedral with two and three and even four foot diameter columns rising to the high vaults.

You are surrounded by neutral colors: grays and browns. There is little green: only a few saplings reach toward breaks in the ceiling above. The forest floor is soft, noise-absorbing leaf mulch, a mattress underfoot. The quiet is intense: the distant snort of a deer or the shrill chatter of a chipmunk come as a shock in this silence.

How was this lovely glade preserved? The story is one of great good fortune and several heroes. It is well told by local environmentalist, Bruce Kershner, in "Buffalo’s Backyard Wilderness," newly published by the Western New York Heritage Institute. Kershner’s book not only traces the history of the Reinstein Woods, but also describes its vegetative zones in detail and projects the future of this botanical treasure as well.

The property’s good fortune began when the 1800 Holland Land Company survey of Western New York ran a boundary transit that followed the edge of these woods. That line separated the three colonists who purchased land to the north from the former Buffalo Creek Indian Reservation to the south. For this reason these back lot buffer zones were among the few that remained uncut by the newcomers.

Enter the heroes: former Cheektowaga medical doctor, attorney, and urban developer, Victor Reinstein, and his family, who purchased the property in 1932, then cared for and protected it from development; and Department of Environmental Conservation officers John Spagnoli, Don Becker and Henry Williams, who cooperated with the doctor’s heirs to transfer the land to New York State in 1986 as The Dr. Victor Reinstein State Nature Preserve.

Only about a quarter of the Reinstein Woods is ancient forest. In fact, a remnant of that old growth forest extends beyond the preserve into neighboring Stiglmeier Town Park where it may be reached on nature trails. Much of the remainder of the preserve has been modified by man, mostly for the better. Creeks were dammed to create 20 ponds and marshes; conifers, otherwise rare among the region’s hardwoods, were planted; Dr. Reinstein built a home that is now unoccupied and sealed; and finally, access roads and fences were constructed that now allow DEC resident caretaker Jeff Liddle to monitor and protect the valuable property.

Rules of the preserve require admission of visitors only in preseheduled and guided groups. Volunteers in a grassroots organization formed in 1987 and called the "Friends of the Woods" support the sanctuary and lead those worthwhile tours.