A Place That 'Feeds My Soul' - a Conversation with Margaret Wooster
Some places just speak to us. For Margaret Wooster, former Executive Director of Great Lakes United, the Oxbow wetland just off Buffalo Creek in western New York is one of those places. Thirteen years ago, she and others in the Buffalo, NY area started working on protecting this little meander off Buffalo Creek, which eventually empties into Lake Erie. “It's an amazing place,” Wooster said. “I just walk around and look at things because I always learn something, I always come away with something new to find out, to look up. It's just this amazing place.”
An oxbow wetland is a sharp loop in a river that, over time, has become cut-off from the main river because of sediment build-up and flow. These wetlands are important for providing habitat for wildlife, flood control, and improving water quality.
After eight years of directing Great Lakes United, and with her experience working as a planner for the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board, Wooster has devoted a great deal of her time to writing about and working to protect the waterways and wetlands of western New York state.
Buffalo Creek (Elma, NY 9/26/10; photo by Amanda McClure; proper rights reserved)
In 2009, the State University of New York published her book, Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes. In this book, she tells both the history of and the present day efforts to protect the rivers of western and northern New York that flow into Lakes Erie and Ontario, as well as into the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers. She also has a new book she’s getting ready to publish, Meander. In these books and other writings of hers, she explores not specifically the Great Lakes themselves but instead the watersheds that feed the Lakes.
“The whole thing I've been writing about is the Great Lakes Basin as a bowl,” she said. “The tributaries are really important to the entire hydrologic cycle of the Lakes. And so I'm interested in the way in which our creeks here in western New York come into Lake Erie and the Niagara River. I've been following the creeks to their source and doing some biological testing along the way... It's just forever interesting to understand where you live in your watershed.”
The rivers and creeks that make up that watershed are what energize Wooster. “I would say science is my spiritual connection to the Lake. I mean, not like strict numerical science, but what gets me excited and committed is understanding how it works... How does this tributary work? Why does it meander so much at this point? What is happening up in the headwaters, where we have a whole lot of factory farms?” she asked. “(These farms) are not doing well by our aquifers that are our source waters. I'm constantly coming across stuff like that. So I think I find the tributaries much more interesting than the Lakes themselves, because you can kind of see how land use is affecting them, and you can intervene.”
Her intervention with the Oxbow wetlands began when she was working with the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper organization, which sought funding for restoration projects with the Buffalo River. To obtain the funding, they had to find a reference point for restoration, some portion of land and water that could show what the area looked like before it was degraded.
“There was nothing in the city of Buffalo, so we went upstream,” Wooster recounted. The first place they thought could serve as that reference point, “meaning it was intact enough to have a remnant of its original animals and plants, and that it was somewhat functional, was the Oxbow.”
The group was able to obtain funding and got busy, securing a designation of the Oxbow as a protected wetland, taking out invasive species, and getting area students involved with the restoration work.
This, however, is where the story gets complicated. The group discovered that the Oxbow had been intentionally cut off from the main river in the 1950s to help mitigate flooding and sediment flowing to the Port of Buffalo. To accomplish those goals, five dams were built along Buffalo Creek. One of them, unfortunately, created hazardous conditions that led to five people drowning, including a firefighter trying to save someone else.
“The Oxbow is considered a nuisance, and that's a big word in environmental work,” Wooster said. “If you're labeled a nuisance, it's very hard to get anything done. And I think I'm a bit of a nuisance, but for sure the Oxbow.”
In her soon-to-be-published book, Meander, Wooster writes that “anger and sorrow are almost guaranteed” for anyone who becomes attached to a natural place they’re trying to protect. Here, in the story of her efforts to protect the Oxbow, is where “the heartbreak comes in,” she said.
“I could even get kind of weepy over this,” Wooster said. “Thirteen years I've been at it with the Oxbow and ‘For what?’ you might say, because I don't think I've made much of a dent in the Oxbow itself. But it's made a huge dent in me. I just love to be there... I don't know what it is exactly about that place, but it's a kind of orphan. There's no one in charge at the Oxbow. It's just this piece of forgotten land, and it's full of wildlife. It's an island habitat. It's full of deer. It's full of foxes. It's got coyotes. It's full of snapping turtles. It just goes on and on, and incredible birds.”
“Every time I'm there, I see something new and I get to show it to people,” she added. “So yeah, I would say that feeds my soul. I definitely come away from places like that stronger, happier, feeling thankful that I had the privilege to be there.”