For the love of nature, the Sisters of St. Francis preserve the Stella Niagara

Stella Niagara_Jajean photoToday we hear from Jajean Rose-Burney, Development Director at the Western New York Land Conservancy, about a unique partnership among a religious order of nuns, a non-profit land protection agency, and a federal grant program that all share a common interest in natural resource conservation.

View from the shoreline at Stella Niagara. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

View from shoreline at the Stella Niagara. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Imagine a place with inspiring views, a shoreline along a majestic river, rich with history of Native American cultures and historic battles, and acres of vulnerable wildlife habitat. That place is Stella Niagara. All of us at the Western New York Land Conservancy, a regional not-for-profit land trust, are working to protect Stella Niagara in perpetuity, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is helping fund our effort.

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The story of this special place began many millennia ago. As glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, they left behind enormous basins of freshwater, what we know as the Great Lakes. A river, the Niagara, formed between two of those lakes, carving its way through a steep escarpment, forming a deep gorge and a rushing cataract, Niagara Falls. A few miles downriver, past the raging rapids and roaring falls, and beyond the impenetrable gorge, you’ll find a gently sloping emerald plain along the tranquil turquoise waters of the lower Niagara River. This beautiful shoreline is the Stella Niagara.

Stella Niagara is one of a handful of natural landing sites along the Niagara River, a place that allows for easy access to and from the river. For centuries, many Native American groups launched canoes from this spot as they hunted, fished, and traded on the Niagara. It was the very spot where the British landed during the War of 1812 on their way to burn the Village of Lewiston and capture Fort Niagara. It was also the very spot that the Sisters of St. Francis, an order of Franciscan nuns, chose to call home in 1907. They have been the owners and stewards of this property ever since.

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The Stella Niagara property is home to a small chapel that was in the national spotlight in 1955 when it ‘miraculously’ survived a flood of ice that destroyed many other properties. Photo courtesy of Western New York Land Conservancy

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The Chapel at Stella Niagara as it stands today. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Recently, the Sisters began evaluating economic realities as part of a long range planning process and decided to sell their 29 acres along the Niagara River at Stella Niagara. As the largest privately-owned, undeveloped frontage along the entire Niagara River, this parcel is heavily eyed for development. In keeping with the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi and the Sisters’ deeply held concern for the natural environment, they asked the Land Conservancy to purchase, and protect, this spectacular property.

When I spoke with Sister Edith Wyss, Provincial Minister of the Sisters of St. Francis, about their offer, she said “There are certain places in the world that are so spiritually uplifting and whose beauty is so awe-inspiring that they just have to be protected for future generations to enjoy. Stella Niagara is one of those treasures.”

The Stella Niagara property will secure both aquatic and upland wildlife habitat. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Trust

The Stella Niagara property provides both aquatic and upland wildlife habitat. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Trust

Protecting the Stella Niagara property is part of a broader strategy to protect wildlife habitat along the Niagara River. The river is internationally designated as a globally significant Important Bird Area, on par with places like the Everglades and Yellowstone. The river supports threatened species of plants and animals, like the bald eagle and lake sturgeon, and is home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl and gulls during the winter. Black-crowned night herons, endangered in many Great Lakes states, are common on the Stella Niagara property. Because of its unique currents, the shallow water off-shore from Stella Niagara is an important hatchery for numerous species of freshwater fish.

Stella Niagara property provides important habitat for many wildlife species and is considered  a globally significant Important Bird Area. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Stella Niagara property provides habitat for many wildlife species and is considered a globally significant Important Bird Area. Photo Credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

In June 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, through the Joint Venture Habitat Protection and Restoration Program awarded us $300,000 to support the purchase of this land. Upon hearing the news of the awarded grant, Nancy Smith, the Executive Director of the Land Conservancy said, “We are so grateful for receiving this significant award, and we are thankful to the Sisters of St. Francis for working with us to protect this spectacular place.”

The property will provide outdoor recreation opportunities in the local community. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

The property provides outdoor recreation opportunities in the local community. Photo credit: Western New York Land Conservancy

Once acquired, we will open the property as a publicly accessible nature preserve, called the Stella Niagara Preserve, the first nature preserve to be owned and operated by a not-for-profit along the Niagara River. The preserve will have walking trails and allow for fishing and kayak access on the river.

Learn more about the Western New York Land Conservancy

Learn more about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

2 Comments on “For the love of nature, the Sisters of St. Francis preserve the Stella Niagara

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