By Don Glynn
Niagara Gazette — Wire fencing for hundreds of feet, orange cones marking work zones, and heavy-duty construction equipment along paths where tourists usually tread.
It’s hardly a welcome mat for any of the eight million annual visitors to the nation’s oldest state park. That’s the scene, however, on the 70-acre Goat Island, the parcel that separates the 182-foot American Falls and the 175-foot Horseshoe Falls.
By late May, though, when the prime 2013 tourist season is launched, visitors will find vast improvements at three major sites on the island: the Cave of the Winds, Luna Island and Three Sister Islands.
A closer look at the overall plan, part of Landscape Improvement Program developed by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation:
• LUNA ISLAND: A small island just a stone’s throw from Goat Island, separating the tiny Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls. The soil is severely compacted, tree roots are exposed and there is serious soil erosion. Crews will remediate the soil, import new soil more adaptable to the conditions and plantings that should survive longer. Also, the work includes new pedestrian walkways, overlook improvements, enhanced landscaping as well as new benches, light posts and railing. (Estimated cost: $1.18 million).
• CAVE OF THE WINDS: One of the most popular attractions on the island, it is operated by the regional state parks agency, not a private concessionaire. Major improvements planned: The elevator building, upgrade of the electrical system and replacement of elevators that carry visitors to the foot of the gorge, and refurbishing the tunnel leading to the outdoor gorge walks. (Cost: $1.4 million). The cave had been scheduled to end operations for the season Oct. 26 but the closing date was moved to Oct. 20 after a number of rocks fell from atop the gorge onto the viewing areas below. Subsequently, the site was inspected for any loose rock and crews did scaling to stabilize that part of the cliff. Due to the improvements planned, no off-season gorge trips will be offered this year.
• THREE SISTERS ISLAND: Those viewing areas that reach out into the upper channel afford unmatched views of the rapids above the Horseshoe Falls. Park officials note that the “lush and richly varied” vegetation has been degraded by invasive species that destroy habitat. Those species will be removed and native species will be planted in a way to preserve the restoration efforts. In addition, proposals for the islands include a new trolley stop, expanded existing and ADA (Americans with Disability Act) parking and a walkway for the handicapped linking the new parking with the islands. (The islands are named for Asenath, Angeline and Celinda Eliza, daughters of Parkhurst Whitney, a prominent businessman and pioneer hotelier in Niagara Falls.)
“We wanted to make certain that these projects would have minimal impact for the tourists,” said Tom Watt, general manager of the Niagara Falls State Park. The work started in late October is scheduled for completion by May 26.
Earlier this year, the Albany-based parks agency announced a $25 million initiative for the parkland that includes Prospect Park and Goat Island. Watt explained that most of the cost will be covered through the Niagara River Greenway funds provided by the New York Power Authority, as part of its re-licensing agreement, and Gov. Cuomo’s NY Works program.
The park general manager said the overall landscape program presents a long-term vision for changes in the state park here. He described the plan as one component of an extensive planning effort that should guide state investments in revitalizing the entire park.
State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said earlier that other rehabilitation work at Niagara Falls under the same initiative will include way-finding and signage improvements, rehabilitation of park roadways, walking paths and infrastructure, and designing the replacement of the landmark bridge that links Prospect Park with Green Island and Goat Island, across the upper rapids.
“When it’s all done, it will be gorgeous,” said Mark Thomas, western district director for the state parks department, alluding to the temporary inconvenience for visitors to the world-famous destination.