Niagara Gazette

July 11, 2013

GUEST VIEW: There's no defense for Three Sisters Island 'upgrades'

By Bob Baxter
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A June 28 letter by Erik Kulleseid took Niagara Gazette columnist Bill Bradberry to task for his thoughtful and well-written critique of the recent Three Sister Island “rehabilitation.” Bradberry’s column was a model of carefully crafted and qualified language written by a man who’d regularly visited the islands since he was a child; his failure, according to Kulleseid, were criticisms “completely off the mark” because he hadn’t inspected the work in person.

Kulleseid lists affiliations after his name as if they will lend credence to his misperceptions: Senior vice president of the Open Space Institute and executive director of Alliance for New York State Parks, Albany. Unfortunately, his view from Albany appears severely compromised by his role as an apologist for State Parks.

Here are several examples: He writes “We all recall the uproar and local embarrassment two short years ago when a New York Times travel writer described the park as ‘shabby’ and ‘underfinanced.’” But we all don’t recall it, and when we do, we recall it accurately. Here’s what the travel writer, Barbara Ireland, actually said: “Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls, New York, the visitor who ventures inside the shabby, underfinanced state park is surprised to discover vestiges of something like a natural landscape.”

What she was noting was the loss of what Olmsted valued most, natural landscapes, ie, trees, undergrowth, trilliums, red and white, on the forest floor, perhaps wild grape vines — foliage. It was through this foliage that the visitor was to glimpse the water, and then, minutes later, to appreciate a fuller view of the powerful river framed by it, the rush of white-water rapids; this was the experience Olmsted desired for the visitor and how he designed it.

Kulleseid also used general and vague phrases in praise of the governor, and by extension State Parks, for doing wonderful things, one of which was “reopening vistas.” But what does “reopening vistas” mean in reality? Start the chainsaws. It means cutting trees down. This helped to create the impoverished scene that Barbara Ireland perceived and reported.

So whoever’s trying to justify State Parks spending 25 million because of an hysterical, knee-jerk reaction to the word “shabby” should look elsewhere for a rationale. No wonder they’re broke.

Kulleseid also said that the governor’s response to the “needs highlighted by the article,” this reopening of vistas, among other achievements, such as “enhancing the park’s aesthetic” (whatever that means), is “paying homage to its Olmstedian vision.” Really? And what “Olmstedian vision” would that be?

New York State Parks has, of course, over the years all but obliterated the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted at Niagara. Let us count the ways: their stubbornly maintaining acres of a maintenance garage facility on the unique gorge rim (just a few hundred feet from the new train station being completed); establishing vast parking lots on Goat Island; encouraging by contract the Top of the Falls restaurant and gift shop; cutting down trees to “improve the view” of restaurant patrons; large scale removal of mature trees along the south side of the island and elsewhere to “improve views”; maintaining acres of “lawn” rather than forest; allowing snack-shacks and carts selling other merchandise to chase after tourist dollars; putting up a photo-op billboard; a souvenir shop; wide backtop paths for trolleys; the larger-than-life statue of Tesla; the stone-block and masonary entranceway called “The Power Station Portal”; the cultivation of tulips, geraniums, daffodils, petunias, marigolds and other “gardenized” ornamental beds; dragging their feet and manipulating the so-called “scoping study” of the gorge parkway; ignoring the legitimate EDR study of the gorge parkway that recommended total removal; signing off on the Wallenda walk; and the recent “rehab” of The Three Sister Islands, etc, etc (there’s more), all of which would have been prohibited in the interest of the natural environment per Olmsted.

And yet State Parks has the nerve to call the park at Niagara an “Olmsted” park? They’ve thrown Olmsted’s carcass under the tour buses so often they’re now throwing what’s left, the remaining pieces of him, under the tires. The only homage OPRHP pays to Olmsted is the frequent mention of his name as if it’s a charm that will keep people from seeing what commercial despoliation has gone on under the guise of stewardship.

Even recognizing the need to provide a safe and accessible visitor experience at the Three Sister Islands while preserving their historic character, a challenging balance to achieve — what the State Parks has done there is wrongheaded, saddening, and despicable, a Fail of the first order. Frank Croisdale presented this view in his “Three Sisters Islands Rehabilitation a Travesty to Olmsted’s Memory,” while all the “official” views were praising it to the heavens. Some of us felt as if we were experiencing a variation of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” But perhaps we were lucky; the original intent was also to construct a restroom on the Three Sisters (discussed in “Ecotourism Best Way ...” at www.niagaraheritage.org). Maybe they ran out of money.

Do you remember the aura, the atmosphere of wilderness that used to be at The Three Sisters? Are those smooth stone pavers even native stone? Rough concrete was far preferable. Those who are fans of suburban shopping malls and patios and potted plants are probably happy— it’s getting ever closer to the things they love.

Bradberry has credentials that trump those of Kulleseid — he has lived on the Frontier and pays attention, as does Croisdale.

Me too, for that matter. Kulleseid had better get busy — he has a lot more letters to write.

Bob Baxter is the conservation chair of the Niagara Heritage Partnership