Bob Baxter's Niagara Greenhouse
P. M. Eckel

Res Botanica, a Missouri Botanical Garden Web Site

July 24, 2004 (Ver. 2 August 6, 2004)


Bob Baxter's Niagara Greenhouse

by P. M. Eckel


The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has its disciplinary eye on the New York Power Authority (NYPA) as NYPA seeks license to continue to utilize the public water supply to produce the hydroelectricity you are using as you read this essay, or that you have used to print a paper copy. 


Please do not underestimate the value of this energy or the privilege of being the beneficiary of an extraordinary technical monument, which is the combined power synthesis of the Massena and Niagara facilities of NYPA, together with the equally monumental Ontario Hydro complex, which make much of the power presently available to the northeastern provinces and states. 


As I understand it, if you are utilizing energy generated at these facilities, you are both a customer of the Power Authority and, as a tax payer, you own a piece of it, since it is a hybrid agency whose board of governance half consists of representatives of the New York State government and half from the private sector (corporations that have purchased the bonds by which operation of the plants are financed). These interests are given a monopoly on power generation because it is in the public interest to ensure a regular, dependable source of energy, as well as an acknowledgement of the fantastic amount of money needed to be raised to build these projects, investment money deriving from the private sector. 


In exchange for this monopoly privilege granted by the State of New York and the federal government, it is beholden on the Authority/utility to act, during the relicensing process, as though it had the patron-function (according to their hybrid governance structure) and accountability of a government based on a democratic model (as I interpret it).  Not only must the Authority be profitable, they must see to the declared interests of the citizen-customers they serve. 


The Authority is thus at least partially a representative government, and the relicensing process is an exercise in generating a mandate under which the private interests who profit from the generation and sale of electricity will best serve the citizens they supply during the next license term. This term could be 50 years, but probably should be shorter to accommodate a review in, perhaps 30 years, as the system is dependent on the watershed delivering an adequate volume of water within predictions of a deterioration of lake levels overall. 


During the relicensing period, ongoing during the next several years, where the citizens and Authority governance are relatively transparent to one another, the customer-citizens are charged a higher rate, which is both a price for energy (as a custom) as well as a tax on citizens. 


This higher rate/tax generates a fund of money whereby the citizens directly affected by the operations of the plants improve their regional infrastructure that may have been impaired by plant operations to the benefit of the market the Authority serves. These improvements are paid for by this relicensing tax (rate hike) in their electric bill. 


This bill can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars that, considered as a sudden glut of wealth, can be potentially stupefying to beneficiaries who are unprepared.


This fund is a collective subsidy made by all the citizen-customers who utilize Authority-generated power sent to the affected communities. 


Since this hydroelectric energy derives from the Niagara River, one of the primary geographic treasures of nature given to residents who derive their livelihood from this resource, FERC, in its wisdom, appears to have decreed that a great percentage of this fund be used to improve the river's natural ecological function. In the language whereby the private interests settle with the public interests that they serve as a monopoly entity, there is a strong focus on ecological restoration. 


It is incumbent upon the citizens associated with the Niagara River, and the beneficiaries of this fund, to understand how ecological restoration will be implemented. 


Firsthand experience of the condition of ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial along the river, reveals that whatever deterioration the power plants have had on the region, it is nothing at all compared with the devastation committed by the communities themselves irrespective of operations of the power entities. Such deterioration indicates a lack of local government preparedness to adopt and implement an environmental restoration mandate.


A large body of money suddenly released upon a citizenry generally, multilaterally, and unevenly or totally unprepared in attitude, ability, expertise or will, either individually, through its individual social institutions (such as education curricula) or governing bodies, or absence of expert bureaucrats, can have a destabilizing effect within the individual communities, or in how they interact.


Environmental restoration in its details must be formulated as soon as possible by the citizens and their representatives. The other customers in the energy market who are being taxed for the purpose of benefiting local communities demand that their rate hike/tax be rationally spent by the communities along the river, or by whomever the Settlement is applied to. 


There are two basic types of environmental restoration (habitat here being assumed to be botanically based):


1. Passive. This method assumes that if disturbance regimes (whereby the habitats deteriorated in the first place) ceased, then nature would reassert herself. In an area where most of the species are exotic and/or invasive and are contributing their seeds to the natural reservoir by which habitat is to be recolonized, this form of restoration could be a disaster. 


2. Active. This method implies a process of actively planting organisms that have roots (herbs, shrubs, trees). This method could be disastrous if the stock is alien or even if the stock is genetically dissociated from native stock already developed within the region.


Natural restoration must, as much as effort can be expended, derive from native stock. It may appear to be an excessive condition to emphasize the genetics of native stock, but the region has a distinctive genetic heritage, associated with thousands of years of post-glacial floristic recolonization of the aboriginal landscape.  During that period adaptive pressures unique to the region have been placed on the species establishing themselves here first.  There have been unique hybridization and backcrossing events during past millenia in response to variations in extended cold and hot periods. Our climax forest(s) occur on the edge of huge continental ecosystems, such as the Mixed Mesophytic Forest to the south and the Boreal Forest to the north that covers most of Canada. The peculiar genetic as well as floristic nature of our regional species composition is a historic record of the migration of several floristic types since post glacial times. 


An example is the Oaks in the old growth forest in the north boundary of DeVeaux State Park where Red Oak (Quercus rubra) has hybridized and back crossed with Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Evidence of this in the existing trees in the park is the character of the acorn and winter bud that displays characteristics of both species. New plantings of trees from outside the region, although of the same species, have a different morphology - they may be larger, their leaves paler in color, but at any rate, they have little scientific or biohistorical interest or value. The planting of such trees can hardly be said to be a restoration. 


A greenhouse and staff: Since there is a pitiful amount of native stock yet available in the settlement target region, and utilizing native stock by transplant, cuttings or seed harvest is in itself a threat to what is left, it is absolutely essential that there be a greenhouse facility and a fully qualified staff to run it. 


There also needs to be a fully qualified field botanist and field ecologist.  The field botanist is absolutely crucial to ensure that all herbaceous, shrub and tree species are correctly identified (many rare species are very difficult to get right). A field botanist is essential because the locality of native stock is to be carefully mapped and the characterization of the species community from which it derived and whence it is to be reintroduced requires expertise. Such a field botanist must be able to identify all vascular plants within the targeted floristic locality.


Also the land or habitat that native stock comes from should be protected by purchase, lien or other legal instrument, although this may not be necessary if the property owner gives permission and populations are successfully cultivated and reintroduced "into the wild."


A field ecologist is also crucial to assess and plan authentic plant community restoration based on what is (and what was) originally the case, or on analogy with similar habitat as close to the restored target as possible.


Horticulturists who specialize in the requirements of raising native stock are essential so that successfully reared adult specimens can be returned or reintroduced into the field. 


Staff would need to design protection for reintroduced species or newly restored habitat that is initially vulnerable to imbalances (e.g. invasion of other species, temporary drought, failure to reproduce, predation, vandalism, dominance within interspecies competition, fertilizing, etc.).


Restoration, to have any credulity, must have the professionally staffed greenhouse as its basic tool.  Implementation of this facility in not one but many of the affected communities would reintroduce another vanishing species into the labor pool - the now vanishing botanist/systematist. Such professions enrich the intellectual pool of a community, providing a source of expertise to many agencies and institutions, especially schools at every level and to all manner of regulatory agencies.


Emphasis must be made that these are professionals with expertise in botany, in the identification of all plants within the restoration mandate.  Without such identification many ecological mistakes can be made, many natural assets of value damaged or destroyed. 


There are so many communities that are expected by their central government (in the name of FERC among others), by their state government, and by the great body of fellow citizens and energy customers to see that the settlement fund is wisely governed by the wisdom of the numerous governments deemed affected by power-generation operations. Many of these communities already have greenhouse facilities in place to beautify parks, streets, businesses and public buildings inside and out. Greenhouse facilities exist to teach on the university, such as the University of Buffalo, Niagara University and Niagara County Community College, to name a few, and high school levels, and many have horticultural expertise - but none, it is assumed, has the ability to restore without the addition of the professional staff as discussed above. 


The pioneer proponent of the greenhouse element in this entire process is Robert Baxter, head of the Niagara Heritage Partnership, and in whose honor I dedicate this essay. He has displayed leadership as the organizer of many public groups interested in removal of the Robert Moses Parkway along the rim of the Niagara River gorge. He has understood that a greenhouse is essential in restoring the original forest complexes along the rim and gorge crest, and has the beautiful idea of mitigating the stark concrete face of the Robert Moses Generating Plant with a greenhouse wedded to the structure of the generating plant itself and a beneficiary of heat wasted through the natural inefficiency of power generation and transmission. 


The dominant or climax plant community in our area is an upland (as opposed to a wet) mixed deciduous (as opposed to all evergreen) forest of some sort (to be determined site by site).  Typically it is dominated by Beech-Sugar Maple trees but, especially along the crest of the Niagara River gorge, this climax is shared by significant areas of Oak-Hickory-dominated vegetation - one of the fascinating botanical characteristics of the Niagara Gorge, which is a veritable caldron of plant species on both sides of the river. 


These trees along the crest produce a rain of nuts during late summer, to the benefit of the forested talus and riparian habitat on the lower slopes and rock platforms.


It must be borne in mind that the first beginnings in restoration have already been undertaken all along the Niagara River in native and urban places by a veritable army of industrious experts who have never gone to school and are totally unpaid. They work industriously, especially in late summer and early autumn and receive no thanks. They are heartily cursed throughout the winter, and are responsible for the annual loss of tons of birdseed. 


We are referring, of course, to Niagara's squirrels. There are two color forms to the common creature - the ordinary gray, and the black variant.  There is also the rare Fox Squirrel that may be spotted from time to time.


The dedication of these creatures to whom we owe so much for the existence of our forests along the Niagara River cannot be overestimated. We are all familiar with how relentless they can be at burying nuts. From personal experience I can say they are nuts about Black Walnut.


They will gnaw half of a golf ball away thinking it is the fruit of that tree.  In the fall, after I filled a pail with some of the nuts showering down in Whirlpool State Park and other areas with nut trees and emptying it in my driveway, by morning all the Walnuts, most of the acorns (but sadly not the Hickories - these perhaps being too bitter) are gone.


In the spring I discovered no less than six Black Walnut trees sprung up about the yard (as weeds, me being an indifferent gardener) - the forgotten buried treasure of a harried autumn squirrel. Just think!  Imagine six Walnut trees planted in the barren vista of the Robert Moses Parkway along the upper and lower river.  Six people with six squirrels and six yards with six seedlings in each adds to 36 trees. Multiply that by six people from each of the communities along the river about to receive settlement and you can generate the beginnings of a forest restoration using native stock (and native labor at the cost of a bag of bird seed).


If squirrels can do this, an army of children with acorns in milk cartons under the guidance of educated teachers can support introduction of more nut species.  Expertise in education and cultivation programs using children and nut-growing enthusiasts may be sought in the American Chestnut Foundation (contact New York Chapter president Herb Darling at which has liaison with the School of Forestry and Environmental Science at Syracuse. The American chestnut can be reintroduced in special areas at Niagara in a program together with that distinguished society and its colleagues in the Society of Ontario Nut Growers.  The Cooperative Extensions of Cornell University can be a source of information and various United States agencies may be of assistance in providing Federal guidance in watershed rehabilitation, as has occurred along the Connecticut River. 


The Niagara Parks School of Horticulture just across the Niagara River in Ontario could develop a special program devoted to carefully managed restoration based on greenhouse technology with the addition of professional botanical and ecological staffing to their already superlative horticultural staff. 


Ordinary people can have these productive trees established in their yards, according to my experience, by laying nuts down in the driveway. It is especially striking how easy and how important this is when it is realized than the sister species to the Black Walnut, the Butternut (Juglans cinerea), is on the Watch List of the New York Heritage Program. It is a shame that such a beautiful tree should be on its way to eradication from the New York State flora. Certainly the populations that are rather frequent on the talus slopes of the Niagara gorge can be utilized to reintroduce this species by gathering their nuts under controlled conditions, professionally germinating them and preparing them for reintroduction in appropriate places along the gorge rim - especially or primarily in sites that have no forest cover due to clear cutting (any area with a native community should be reserved as an ecological model for restoration and should not have material introduced there).


When the Parkway is removed between Devil's Hole and Whirlpool State park, removal of introduced trees may also be undertaken and a plan for encouraging the redevelopment and extension of the old growth section at DeVeaux, and the old growth in Whirlpool State park (where only the trees remain) can be implemented. 


A community that can serve as a model for urban forest development is North Tonawanda. They have such an extraordinary urban forest that in places it appears as though the sky itself has green clouds. They are the proud holders of a nearly undisturbed and as yet scientifically unrecognized bottomland wet-hardwood forest composed of oaks and hickory species, including the only population of Shumard's Oak (Quercus shumardii) outside of Buckhorn Island State Park in the State of New York. 


The squirrel could be the symbol of community cooperation in reforestation regimes professionalized with Settlement funds. One can imagine a motto such as "Nuts for Niagara."  New jobs employing expertise of great community value in many social and governmental institutions along the river are a surety.  Settlement money can be used for reforesting the watershed adjacent to the River, which will contribute to an amelioration of a coming water shortage by natural hydrological conservation on which we may have to rely in the years ahead. and serving as a model for upstream and downstream community achievement. 


I am grateful to Bob Baxter for his support and encouragement for not only myself but for those across many communities of people in the three Nations sharing his vision of beautiful habitat.