A Watershed Management Plan for the Upper Genesee River
The Genesee River Wilds Project is a watershed management plan for the upper Genesee River. This plan does not merely apply short-term solutions to geographically isolated sources of water quality impairment. Such approaches have demonstrated only meager success because improvements in one location typically have been offset by new problems in another. The narrow focus of these approaches also limits the options for funding, community support, and optimization of funds that might otherwise help achieve multiple goals at once. In contrast, the Genesee River Wilds Project takes a more holistic approach that includes long-term solutions to the social and economic problems that are the primary causes of water quality impairment.* This approach recruits a more comprehensive range of stakeholders and taps into a wider array of funding sources.
The target of this watershed management plan is the “Genesee River Wilds.” This phrase refers to the Genesee River watershed from the river’s sources in Potter County, Pennsylvania, to the southern boundary of Letchworth State Park in New York State. The plan’s goals are to develop (1) a corridor of forested riparian (streamside) buffers along the upper Genesee River and its tributaries that include (2) a system of minimally-invasive riverside nature parks connected by (3) a multi-use trail (rail-trail for bicycles, hiking, and other active transportation) and (4) a blueway (water trail for canoes and kayaks). The Genesee River Wilds Project is being implemented by a coalition of groups and individuals consisting of federal, state, county, municipal, and non-profit organizations; business corporations; educational institutions; landowners; farmers; anglers; hunters; hikers; bicyclists; kayakers; canoe paddlers; and many others who participate in various official and unofficial ways.** The coalition works to improve the health of the upper Genesee River and its watershed; protect them from future environmental threats; and enhance their recreational potential.
To restore, protect, and enjoy the upper Genesee River by combining conservation, recreation, and business.
Improving Conservation Strategy for the Neglected Upper Genesee River (originally prepared and circulated for Lake Ontario Conference, March 2012)
Create a forested conservation corridor along the upper Genesee River and selected tributaries reaching approximately 70 miles from the river’s sources in Pennsylvania to the southern boundary of Letchworth State Park in New York State. This will include riparian buffers (streamside reforestation zones) and a system of environmentally responsible forested nature parks with trails, boating access points, camping areas, and other minimally-invasive features for natural outdoor recreation. These will be connected by the relevant sections of an interstate rail-trail system reaching from Rochester, NY, to Williamsport, PA. This trail system will be created by linking together existing trails such as the Genesee Valley Greenway (NY), the WAG Trail (a section of the defunct Wellsville-Addison-Galeton railroad in NY from Wellsville to the NY/PA border), and the Pine Creek Trail (PA). This will help integrate the southern section of the Genesee River into the recreational systems of Letchworth State Park (“the Grand Canyon of the East”) and Pine Creek Gorge (“the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”). The result will be a large and attractive resource for conservation, recreation, and tourism. The broad implications of this project justify investments of funds and other support from organizations concerned with the conservation of the upper Genesee River watershed, flood and erosion mitigation, the health of Letchworth State Park, economic development in Rochester, the water quality of Lake Ontario, recreation, natural science education, state and regional tourism, and many other interests.
For a related planning document with maps, photos, rationale, and connections with related parks and trail systems, see the Triple Divide Greenway and Trail System page, which includes the final version of the lavishly illustrated Triple Divide Trail System Strategic Plan in PDF format.**
(1) Environmental Conservation: Previous decades of relative neglect of the upper Genesee River and its tributary streams have contributed to erosion, flooding, sedimentation, and leaching of industrial toxins, municipal waste, salt and chemicals from roads and drainage systems, and excessive agricultural nutrients. This has negatively impacted fisheries, wildlife habitat, and the river’s resources for recreation, drinking water, and other uses.
(2) Conservation of Areas Downstream to Lake Ontario and Beyond: The competing effects of pollution and conservation in the upper Genesee River watershed extend beyond the immediate area to all points downstream. The geological riches of Letchworth State Park, the health of the river habitat in Rochester, and the water quality of Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River are impacted by developments in the upper Genesee River watershed.
(3) Flood Control: Reforestation of the floodplain of the Genesee River and its tributaries is a much more effective and inexpensive means of flood control than costly construction projects that merely channel the river’s energy toward the next town downstream. Forested park systems in the floodplain reduce flood damage while simultaneously providing areas for recreation and eco-tourism that attract business to safer areas nearby. This is a more cost-effective use of floodplains than business development, housing construction, and other activities that increase erosion, require costly infrastructure repair when a flood occurs, and increase flooding downstream.
(4) Accommodating Existing Development: Creating a “system of parks” (rather than a single massive park) that restores and preserves a conservation corridor connected to contiguous pockets of wilderness accommodates the patchwork of towns, farms, and other developed areas along the upper Genesee River. These often contain municipal parks, forests, and other features that can be incorporated into a comprehensive riverside park system stretching from just north of Lyman Run State Park in PA to the southern boundary of Letchworth State Park in NY. Such a system of parks cannot replicate the deep chasm and thundering waterfalls of Letchworth State Park, but it can complement, extend, and interface with the recreational system of Letchworth.
(5) Compatibility of Conservation, Recreation, and Business: Environmental conservation, recreational pursuits, and economic development can be complementary and mutually profitable activities. Together they raise quality of life, encourage tourism, and make an area more attractive for new business development. Thus an effective way to recruit allies for environmental protection is to take a three-pronged approach that combines environmental conservation, minimally-invasive forms of outdoor recreation, and environmentally-sustainable business.* Similar practices are emphasized in “Smart Growth” planning. Consequently, developing a system of nature parks along the Genesee River that will simultaneously protect the river and promote tourism is one of the project’s preeminent strategies.
(6) Promoting Cooperation Through Respect and Incentives: Respectful and generous treatment encourages the cooperation of farmers, county and municipal legislators, and other local stakeholders. This is especially effective when it takes forms that promote eco-tourism and other sustainable business; provide easements, rent, or purchase prices that encourage better alternatives to existing land use; and other financial incentives that ameliorate concerns about property tax revenues, agricultural profits, and other economic implications.
(7) Maximizing Benefits at Minimal Cost: A multi-use approach is a cost-effective and efficient way of advancing environmental protection projects. Flood control, road construction, bridge maintenance, sewage system repair, real estate turnover, county and municipal planning, and other routine activities that require public or private investment often may do double-duty as opportunities for implementing a conservation project. The funds and labor that they require often can be used for tree planting and other forms of landscaping, building of boat launches and forested parks, land acquisition, securing matching grants, and other strategies for developing one part of a conservation and recreational system at the same location. Nature parks are some of the most inexpensive but attractive recreational systems.
(8) Education: Collaboration with universities, colleges, public schools, and other educational institutions in developing educational programs for adults, youth, and children generates more responsible use of the river. Educational signs, trails and recreational equipment suitable for children, and other features with instructional value often can be added into a conservation project at minimal cost. Recreational infrastructure that brings children and youth into contact with wilderness areas is an especially rich resource for experiential learning and sparking an interest in the natural sciences. This infrastructure can also function as the equivalent of science laboratory equipment by providing easier access to the natural laboratory of the great outdoors.
(9) Improving Health and Quality of Life: Since forests and aquatic weeds in riverside wetlands provide a natural water filtration and purification system, creation of a forested buffer zone along the upper Genesee River offers a relatively inexpensive way to reduce toxins that currently seep into the river from polluted areas nearby. Clean water, aesthetically pleasing forests, and relaxing recreational park systems that accommodate children and adults enhance family relationships, health, and other features associated with the quality of life. In addition, they attract businesses and highly-skilled workers such as physicians and young engineers trained at nearby universities, whose expertise allows them to choose the most appealing locations in which to live. Such individuals contribute to local infrastructure that attracts even more business development, thereby increasing the opportunities for profitable employment. Studies indicating that some of the most frequent users of recreational trails are over 50 years old suggest that the region’s aging population will be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the enhanced quality of life brought by the project’s park and trail systems.
(10) The Greater Good: The project will benefit both the immediate area and a range of people far beyond those who sacrifice their time, energy, and money for its progress. Economically depressed rural communities along the upper Genesee River that direct development away from the river will mitigate the danger that some future flood may overwhelm their limited budgetary resources. Such communities will also attract investment from outside stakeholders who can help fund riverside nature parks, which will beautify these communities and make them more attractive for tourism. Landowners who agree to conserve, rent, or sell a cherished piece of land along the river will receive financial rewards and the satisfaction of knowing that this land will be protected for the enjoyment of future generations. Wealthy donors who may live as far away as Rochester will be confident that their investment in reforestation along the distant upper reaches of the Genesee River will improve its health all the way down the river to Rochester itself. Federal and state officials who secure funds to purchase land and develop recreational infrastructure along the upper Genesee River will be helping to improve an impoverished region’s economic stability and restore the water quality of Lake Ontario, which is one of the nation’s largest treasuries of freshwater. Since the Great Lakes hold 21% of the world’s freshwater, any project that contributes to their health ultimately has global implications.
*For more on targeting economic issues as a strategy for watershed management and river conservation: See “The Genesee River Wilds Project” in Happenings: Finger Lakes Institute Newsletter, August 2012
**Genesee River Wilds Project in Other Planning Documents:
This watershed management plan has been incorporated into numerous other planning documents. E.g., regionally, Western New York Regional Sustainability Plan, Appendix A-16 (two separate entries, “Triple Divide Trail System” and “Genesee River Wilds Project”; WNY Regional Economic Development Council, 2013); county, 2020 Vision: Allegany County Comprehensive Plan 2013-2023 (Allegany County, NY, 2013), especially “Appendix Y: Triple Divide Trail System Plan” (entire plan); also “Section III: Rural Character,” pp. 19, 43; and other references. See the Triple Divide Trail System page for links to many other planning documents that incorporate the Genesee River Wilds Project and Triple Divide Trail System.