Stella Niagara Preserve
The Stella Niagara Preserve is the most ambitious and high-profile project in the Land Conservancy’s history. The preserve is located on the Niagara River along Lower River Road in the Town of Lewiston just north of Niagara Falls, and sits across from the Stella Niagara Education Park and Center of Renewal. With 29-acres and over a quarter-mile of shoreline, it is the largest privately-owned, undeveloped tract of land along the entire length of the Niagara River. The property is incredibly scenic, and is one of our region’s most ecologically and historically important places.
Importance of the Property
The property has incredible ecological importance. The entire Niagara River is an internationally designated globally significant Important Bird Area, a designation shared with places like the Everglades and Yellowstone. The property itself has a variety of habitats including a riparian zone, a large meadow, a forested area, and vernal pools. These habitats support rare plants and animals like the threatened Bald Eagle and Lake Sturgeon, as well as an endangered shrub called Ninebark. The shallow off-shore shoal supports larval Smallmouth Bass, Yellow Perch, and Rock Bass. The property was placed on the Niagara River Area of Concern priority habitat list in 2012, making it an international priority for protection.
The property also has significant cultural importance. It is a nationally designated Peace Site and is part of the Niagara County Historic Trail. The preserve is also part of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. It was an important canoe landing site for the region’s Haudenosaunee who used the Niagara River for transport, trade and fishing. Known locally as the five-mile meadow, it is the very spot where the British landed in 1813 to capture Fort Niagara. It has been home to the Sisters of St. Francis since 1907. The chapel, thought to be the tiniest religious structure in Western New York, was in the national spotlight in 1955 when it ‘miraculously’ survived an ice jam and flood that destroyed many other properties along the river. The property is also home to several sgraffito-style murals by Józef Sławiński, a renowned Polish artist.
Because of the property’s gentle slope down to the river, it is one of the few natural landing sites on the Lower Niagara, perfect for launching a canoe or kayak. The off-shore area, known locally as the ‘Stella Drift,’ creates ideal conditions for fishing. The view from Lower River Road overlooking the property and the Niagara River is breathtaking. Considering these factors, the site is ideal for public access.
Stella is Protected
In June 2015, after a more than $3 million capital campaign, the Land Conservancy purchased this spectacular property from the Sisters of St. Francis. It was opened to the public in July 2015 and features walking trails, fishing access, and a place to put a kayak in the water. Visitors can park at the Lewiston Senior Center in the lot nearest Pletcher Road and the baseball diamonds.
The Land Conservancy prepared a Vision Plan to guide our landscape restoration design and the ongoing stewardship and maintenance of the Stella Niagara Preserve. It will inform decisions about public access, as well as activities, programming, and collaborations at the Preserve. It will also guide the creation of interpretive elements and education components, from signage and displays on-site to education and outreach materials about the Preserve.
A World-class Nature Preserve
The Stella Niagara Preserve will be a world-class nature preserve that provides an iconic cultural, natural, and recreational link in the Niagara River Greenway. The Land Conservancy hired nationally renowned restoration landscape architect team of Darrel Morrison and Nancy Aten to create a concept plan for the entire preserve, and to restore prairie grassland and a savanna landscape to a major portion of the site.
This wonderful video from the Library of American Landscape History will help you get to know Darrel and his work:
The Land Conservancy surpassed the $3.27 million needed to create the preserve in late May 2015. Funding received and committed includes $1,853,487 from the Niagara Relicensing Habitat Enhancement and Restoration Fund, $500,000 from the Greenway Ecological Standing Committee, $300,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through the Joint Venture Habitat Protection and Restoration Program, and $150,000 from the Greenway’s Town of Lewiston/Host Communities Standing Committee.
The project received hundreds of individual donations from throughout the community. In February of 2015, Pamela and Joe Priest, residents of the Town of Lewiston, contributed a $200,000 challenge gift, which was also met in May 2015.
The project also received incredible support from foundations, including:
- $200,000 from the Tower Family Fund, Inc.,
- $65,000 from the East Hill Foundation, $50,000 from the John R. Oishei Foundation,
- $50,000 from the Gallogly Family Foundation,
- $25,000 from The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation,
- $25,000 from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo,
- $15,000 from the Hahn Family Foundation,
- $10,000 from the M&T Charitable Foundation,
- $10,000 from the Joanne & Frank Collins Foundation, and
- $2,000 from the Western New York Foundation.
The Land Conservancy received a catalyst grant in 2014 from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Land Trust Alliance through the NYS Conservation Partnership Program. This program is funded through the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). This grant supported efforts to create the Stella Niagara Preserve and to protect other land in the Niagara River Greenway.
This world-class restoration will take time to develop, so please be patient when you visit the preserve. At the beginning of the restoration, many non-native invasive species needed to be controlled, which left the site open for new native plants. Most of these native plants will take several years to grow to their full size. Once they are established, Stella will have a beautiful and diverse ecosystem that requires little maintenance. We are still working to establish an expanded trail system for the public to enjoy. During this time, some trails may be muddy or closed temporarily.
With funding from NY Sea Grant, we created a sedge meadow with wetland plantings that provides habitat for herons, frogs, and dragonflies. It will also reduce erosion and improve water quality in the Niagara River.
You may also noticed some tall grass waving in the breeze when you visit Stella. What you are seeing is called a cover crop. This cover crop is annual rye grass, which gets to be 3 to 4 feet tall. Cover crops are a common part of restoration projects and are used to help establish a planting of native grasses and wildflowers grown from seed or very small plants that need time to establish. Cover crops have several benefits including: suppressing weeds that could crowd out the desired planted species, quickly establishing cover on bare soil to prevent erosion, protecting young seedlings from the wind, sun and desiccation (drying out), and providing temporary wildlife habitat until the desired plant community is established.
If you don’t like the tall grass, don’t worry. Cover crops are temporary. Within two or three years the cover crop will become less and less noticeable as the desired native plants grow larger and more visible. Within five years, the cover crop species may not even come up anymore. The native vegetation planted at the top of the slope at Stella Niagara and along Lower River Road are mostly short plants that won’t grow tall like the rye cover crop and will include a variety of beautiful native grasses and wildflowers that will add color and texture to the planting.
We will continue to maintain a system of mowed paths throughout the preserve to provide access and views of the preserve to visitors. We encourage everyone to come to the Stella Niagara Preserve again and again and experience the change in the landscape over the restoration process, the seasons and the years.
Thank you for your understanding and patience throughout this process. We hope you enjoy watching the transformation of the preserve.