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The Birds of Amherst State Park

I invite you to join me on a tour of a crime scene.

That is the opening line of a letter I am sending to Carol Ash, New York State parks commissioner; Satish Mohan, Amherst supervisor; Williamsville mayor Mary Lowther; and Ed Rutkowski, deputy state parks commissioner for Western New York. Local readers concerned about this crime should visit as well. My letter continues:

Before we go, I offer some background.

For many years a lovely natural enclave largely within the village of Williamsville and entirely within the Town of Amherst, a property designated locally as Williamsville Glen, has attracted many bird watchers, hikers and anglers.

Beginning only a quarter mile north of Main Street just beyond the formal Williamsville Glen Park, this narrow, gerrymandered area along Ellicott Creek extends north to Sheridan Drive. Despite its small size, it has provided some remarkable bird records. Even with its inland location, well over a hundred species are recorded in these parklands each year. And on one May morning in 1990 Peter Yoerg and I found 23 warbler species here.

Several years ago the former glen owners, the Sisters of Saint Francis, decided to sell it. The possibility of development threatened, but local leaders stepped up and the area was purchased by an agreement between the Town of Amherst and the state to become Amherst State Park.

A local committee met regularly with a commercial firm hired to prepare plans for the park. Committee members were unanimous in their demand that the area be kept "as natural as possible." The final document did not satisfy everyone but it largely followed that recommendation. With the exception of a single trail bisecting the park east to west, the trails were to be kept as simple pathways.

Now with that background, join me for a visit there.

We'll enter the park from Mill Street and the former Sister's House.

Walk down with me through the orchard to the creek. There is much damage here from last October's storm. Many old fruit trees are bent or broken but this does not represent much change from the past. I have never known this as a producing orchard; rather, it has been for over thirty years a birding site. During migration beautiful white blossoms are picked over by kinglets, chickadees, bluebirds, orioles, vireos and warblers. Willie D'Anna once pointed out a yellow-bellied flycatcher for me in one of these trees. My hope is that no further pruning will be done here.

But now we reach the creek and the first sign of devastation. Most underbrush has been removed. Shrubbery where we formerly found winter wrens, white-throated and fox sparrows, wood thrushes and redstarts is gone. Last year I contacted the town to ask that this removal be stopped. Clearly my request had no effect.

One of the sad features of parks today is driven by fear of molesters hiding behind bushes. But take away the undergrowth and you no longer have a natural park. We already have plenty of lawns and playgrounds.

Far worse is to come. Head south with me into the mixed woodland. For a few yards we find ourselves among hardwoods but suddenly we emerge into a formerly forested area now bulldozed down to mud and rock. Leading from it is a scoured path fifteen feet wide that leads a hundred yards to the edge of the tennis center property.

Where Richard Salembier last year discovered a rare prothonotary warbler the brush is gone; all that remains is slimy mud. Where several years ago I found an equally rare worm-eating warbler, tall pine trees have been removed and the piles of muck that remain add gluey inches to boot soles. Where bay-breasted warblers and Philadelphia vireos sought insects, attractive willows have been removed.

Already in some areas the trees and bushes are being replaced, but notice what is replacing them. The vigorous purple shoots of Japanese knotweed are already forcing their way up through the thick clay. They will soon form dense, almost impenetrable, seven-foot high canebrakes.

I am left with questions. Who is at fault for this crime? Which town or village administrators ordered or even allowed this bulldozing? Is there no longer citizen oversight of this park? What leadership is the state showing?

Please don't let this park desecration continue, here or elsewhere.-- Gerry Rising

A Crime in Amherst State Park

(This 842nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 13, 2007.)

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