UB part of decades-long effort to earn international wetland status for Niagara River Corridor

Representatives from the federal government, the Buffalo Niagara community and UB stand in front of a plaque for the Niagara River Corridor's designation as a Ramsar Site.

Project leaders unveil the plaque designating the Niagara River Corridor as a Wetland of International Importance at a designation ceremony held on Oct. 3, 2019. Among them are Lynda Schneekloth (left), professor emeritus of the School of Architecture and Planning and member of the bi-national Niagara River Corridor Ramsar Site Steering Committee.

by Charles Anzalone and Rachel Teaman

Published October 23, 2019

The Niagara River — and nearly two decades of work by community leaders and partners at the University at Buffalo — gained national prominence recently when the river and its corridor became a Wetland of International Importance and part of the Ramsar Convention.

The Niagara River Corridor is the 40th Ramsar site in the United States, joining more than 2,300 wetlands worldwide recognized for their rare habitats, wildlife and biological diversity.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, adopted in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Almost 90 percent of United Nations member states have endorsed it.

The designation was announced on Oct. 3, 2019, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., by the project’s leading advocates: the Niagara River Greenway Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, representatives of the UB School of Law and School of Architecture and Planning, the Ramsar Site Steering Committee, New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The designation will help everyone see that the river is one of the most important natural places on Earth, putting our back yard on par with places like the Galapagos Islands and the Everglades,” says Jajean Rose-Burney, deputy executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy and the U.S. co-chair of the bi-national Niagara River Corridor Ramsar Site Steering Committee. “This was a bottom-up effort, led by individuals and organizations who live and work right here along the river.”

The effort was also guided by research and public service by UB’s School of Law and the School of Architecture and Planning. Most recently, 33 students in the School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic invested over 1,450 pro bono hours to perform the legal and policy work required for this Ramsar designation.

The School of Architecture and Planning’s Urban Design Project (which is now part of the UB Regional Institute) jump started the research nearly 20 years ago through its research on a number of plans and publications documenting the significance of the Niagara River corridor.

Among the effort's foundational studies was the watershed “Rethinking the Niagara Frontier” initiative of 2001. Led by the Urban Design Project and Ontario’s Waterfront Heritage Trust, the project reimagined the Niagara River Corridor as a natural heritage resource and spawned a series of ecologically focused tourism, economic development and greenway planning efforts.

Aerial view of the lower Niagara River and Niagara Gorge.

The Niagara River corridor houses the largest energy producer in New York State and supports at least 338 species of birds, 100 species of fish and other wildlife, particularly in the Niagara Gorge.

Rose-Burney, who worked on these efforts as an urban planning student at UB and a research assistant at its Urban Design Project, then under the leadership of Professor Robert Shibley, praised the students’ work in securing the Ramsar designation. “The UB School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic and the UB School of Architecture and Planning helped immensely with this work,” he says.

Lynda Schneekloth, professor emeritus of urban planning at UB and member of the Ramsar site steering committee, has worked on the effort for years.

"The Niagara River corridor not only houses the largest energy producer in New York State, but supports at least 338 species of birds, 100 species of fish and other amazing wildlife, particularly in the Niagara Gorge," Schneekloth wrote recently in The Buffalo News, in a viewpoint piece celebrating the designation. 

She and Shibley, who founded the Urban Design Project in 1991 and is now dean of the school, directed a host of research studies over the past 20 years on the corridor's economic, ecological and cultural significance, which informed and supported the designation effort. 

Says Shneekloth: "The corridor is especially known for water birds with 120,000 recorded on a single day. Many of these birds are using the Niagara River corridor for migration along the North American Flyway – traveling from Latin American to the Arctic and back each year, stopping here for a rest and food before continuing their yearly journey. "

Select studies and publications by the Urban Design Project that informed the Ramsar designation effort:

Olmsted in Buffalo and Niagara (2011), by L. Schneekloth, R. Shibley, T. Yots

The Power Trail: History of Hydroelectricity at Niagara (2006), by B. Gawronski, J. Kasikova, L. Schneekloth, T. Yots

Achieving Niagara Falls' Future (2002), by the Urban Design Project, with Foit-Albert Associates and the Waterfront Regeneration Trust.

Rethinking the Niagara Frontier (2001): A bi-national effort to stimulate conversation, re-imagination and collaboration around the Niagara River, edited by R. Shibley and B. Hovey. 

Ryan A. McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer, says the designation not only gives rightful recognition to one of the most iconic bi-national rivers in the world, “but it also celebrates an innovative partnership among the University at Buffalo law school, our students, leading environmental intuitions, local elected leaders, business and the community at large.”  

“It has been an honor to collaborate with these organizations and people as we work to showcase the mighty Niagara,” McPherson says.

Activists say the Ramsar recognition will help preserve the integrity of the Niagara River and create a healthy shoreline everyone can enjoy.

“What the Niagara River already has is a lot of boating, fishing, hunting, bird-watching, and swimming,” says Rose-Burney. “And what Ramsar can do is draw the attention of the people outside the region to the Niagara River.

“The Ramsar site label, the award, makes it obvious that this place is incredibly important, incredibly diverse and reason to come here.”

Gregory Stevens, executive director of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, says the designation is also helpful in restoring the river to health after past industrial pollution.

“Core to the mission of the Niagara River Greenway is the restoration of healthy riparian ecology, and promoting global awareness of the unique importance of the Niagara ecosystem,” Stevens says. “The Ramsar destination will shine a bright light on all the tremendous work under way to restore the health of the mighty Niagara."