Pipeline

(This column was first published in the May 4, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Their story began in the early 1980s when Bob and Paulette Skibniewski drove the secondary roads of Cattaraugus and Allegany counties and studied real estate advertisements in local and regional newspapers looking for rural property. They sought some wooded land to serve them and their school age children for camping. Later they might build on it.

    Finally in January of 1985 Paulette phoned her husband at work to tell him that she had found a Buffalo News ad offering 43 acres for sale near the state land surrounding Little Rock City. They knew the area -- this might be perfect for them.

    As they drove down Route 219 that afternoon, the threatening gray day dissolved into a near-blizzard. Approaching Great Valley they followed snow plows through heavy drifts, but they persevered and finally struggled up an unplowed lane through hip deep snow to find the property of their dreams.

    Bob told me this story on a very different day. We stood on that same land looking out over the lovely valley to the ridge beyond now softly colored with the early buds of red maple. It was a breathtaking panorama: farm buildings and a few homes miniaturized by distance, the highway reduced to a pencil line paralleled by a file of bare trees that would later shade Great Valley creek, all this further trivialized by the vast woodlands.

    Thirteen eventful years had passed since that blustery day and much had been accomplished here. A thousand foot driveway had been graded, a small area above a woodland pool cleared, electric lines strung and a sturdy house nearly completed. In current vernacular this was a place to die for.

    We walked up the steep hill behind the house through woods carpeted with the delicate violet and white blossoms of spring beauties and occasionally highlighted by the bright green of Christmas fern and ground pine. Mushrooms were everywhere. Squirrels and chipmunks dashed about, a turkey ran off over the ridge.

    Back down at the pond we found dozens of newts, woodland amphibians now returned to their aquatic form to complete their life cycle. In the shady depths beyond them bluegills lurked among pond weeds.

    The country quiet was broken only by the soft chatter of chickadees, a phoebe and a jay announcing their names and a song sparrow occasionally bursting into tuneful chatter from a tangle of multiflora rose.

    Unfortunately there is a down side to all this. Bob had brought me here to show me how his property would be invaded. The Millenium Pipeline Company plans to run a natural gas pipe from Canada under Lake Erie to the New York-Pennsylvania border and then diagonally across New York State to New York City. Their announced line through the Southern Tier will largely follow state land including the Little Rock City property but will cross that of Bob, his neighbors and hundreds of other private landowners. A 25 yard wide swath will be clearcut along the entire route, millions of forest trees removed, another open scar left on the land.

    It could be argued that the construction would have little effect on the Skibniewskis. The route, as presently drawn, would pass well behind their house. But Bob sees it differently. Why, he asks, cannot such a line follow the broad open land already cleared along Route 17?

    He knows the answer, of course. Then Millenium would have to negotiate with the Seneca Indians, who have demonstrated independence and political clout. The company would much prefer to deal with the soft bureaucracy "protecting" state lands and people like himself -- little guys.

    He has a point.