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FEATURE ARTICLE

From ‘Sight’ to ‘Site’: Wading the Waters of the Niagara River Corridor Ramsar Designation

A bird's eye view of Niagara Falls between the U.S. and Canada, facing northwest. The International Boundary, stretching 5,525 miles (8892 kilometers), is the longest international border in the world between two countries. Photo courtesy of The Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, via Shutterstock, 2020.

Above: A bird's eye view of Niagara Falls and the border between the U.S. and Canada. The International Boundary stretches 5,525 miles (8892 kilometers) and is the longest international border in the world between two countries. Photo courtesy of The Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, via Shutterstock, 2020.

RAMSAR HELPS PROTECT ONE OF NORTH AMERICA'S ECOLOGICALLY SIGNIFICANT WATERWAYS.

Published September 23, 2020

Keywords: Environmental Law, Ramsar, International Wetlands, Wetlands Policy, Environmental Studies, 

Title: From ‘Sight’ to ‘Site’: Wading the Waters of the Niagara River Corridor Ramsar Designation
Article by: Laura Wirth

The Buffalo-Niagara region celebrated the Ramsar Designation of the Niagara River Corridor in Fall 2019, after years of effort to obtain this important conservation status. Kim Diana Connolly in UB’s School of Law was instrumental in the process and continues to work to expand the conservation area internationally, a process made more challenging by economic and other limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Baldy Center’s Laura Wirth spoke with Professor Connolly about achieving the designation and ongoing efforts.

The Ramsar Designation Ceremony of the Niagara River Corridor on October 2, 2019, hosted by the Niagara River Greenway Commission, New York State Parks, University at Buffalo, and the Bi-national Niagara River Ramsar Steering Committee, celebrated the culmination of a multi-year application process to achieve this important conservation status. Just prior to the formal ceremony, the Baldy Center co-hosted “Learning from the Ramsar Designation of the Niagara River Corridor: Honoring the International and Local Importance of Environmental and Cultural Treasures,” which brought together local experts with national and international authorities to reflect on what the designation means on both academic and practical levels. 

The Ramsar Treaty is an international treaty that supports the conservation of wetlands and safeguards efforts already taken to preserve the ecological functions of named Ramsar sites, thus protecting delicate flora and fauna, waterfowl, and human lives and livelihoods that depend on designated wetlands. Its mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.” (1) Ramsar designations provide recognition of efforts surrounding the restoration and protection of critically important wetlands and promise that progress will continue in the future. Kim Diana Connolly’s students in UB School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic invested substantial time in navigating the legal and policy aspects of the complex Ramsar application process and gathering all required information for the Niagara River Corridor Ramsar designation.

Kim Diana Connolly.

Kim Diana Connolly

When asked about recent activities along the Niagara River Corridor and next steps, Connolly expressed that “there was a hope for momentum on a national level after the 40th Ramsar site designation here. It was a big deal and there was a lot of excitement in DC and there was enormous excitement locally at all sorts of levels. Part of what’s happened is that the COVID situation has really impacted the momentum on both sides.”

The Niagara River Corridor Ramsar designation was the 40th designation in the United States, and it set the stage for the first transboundary designation in North America. A transboundary designation occurs when two countries sharing the same wetland system commit to formal international partnerships in the planning of projects and initiatives that support the shared ecosystem and community.

Connolly explained that the next planned step in the Ramsar efforts would be to do a designation on the Canadian side, leading to a transboundary designation, but that efforts have been put on hold due to the need for governments to cope with the devastating effects of COVID-19. “The tension between the U.S. and Canada in light of COVID saddens me because it creates a barrier to continued vital work,” Connolly said. “Yet looming behind COVID are the economic realities for Canada and the U.S., so the delay is understandable. But then looming over all of meaningful environmental policy is climate change, and the realities of what’s needed to address that crisis.”

Connolly referred to an image from the Buffalo News (2) demonstrating visually the stark contrast in the two countries’ approaches to re-opening during the pandemic. In it, two Niagara river boats were photographed near one another - the American Maid of the Mist at 50% capacity and yet seemingly crowded compared to the adjacent Canadian vessel holding only six passengers for their cruise of the Falls. This side by side visual is a symbol of the barriers and roadblocks to moving forward in designating the Canadian side of the Niagara River corridor. The economic realities of the pandemic have slowed progress in achieving the transboundary designation, but not stopped it completely.

Connolly expects that the process will move forward again after things settle a bit. During the interview, she reflected briefly on the recent Ramsar designation and immediately sent an email to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about next steps. Although international designation efforts have slowed, Connolly’s work on federal wetlands protections continues.

(1) The Convention on Wetlands and Its Mission. Learn more.

(2) Gee, Derek. “In Niagara Falls, Tour Boats Become a Covid-19 Case Study.” Buffalo News, 15 July 2020.

Laura Wirth is the Assistant Director of the Baldy Center. She holds a Master of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences from the University at Buffalo. She collaborates with Baldy Center staff to develop and support Baldy Center projects, fellows, research, and conferences. 

Kim Diana Connolly, JD, Professor of Law, Director of Clinical Legal Education, and Vice Dean for Advocacy and Experiential Education in UB’s School of Law, is an active member of the Baldy Center research community. She has organized several events related to environmental research and advocacy, especially surrounding wetlands protection and restoration. Learn more.