By RICK MILLER
GOWANDA — State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos held a press conference Tuesday at Zoar Valley with the parents of victims of the beautiful — but often dangerous — gorge separating Cattarugus and Erie counties.
Seggos said a number of major efforts to improve safety at the 3,000-acre state Multiple Use Area that includes the main branch of Cattarugus Creek and its South Branch in the town of Persia — the site of many tragedies resulting from falls.
Crews from DEC have placed nearly 400 signs at access points to the gorge, including Valentine Flats and the Forty Road parking lot where the press conference was held. The signage warns visitors of the dangers of the gorge and of a new requirement to stay 15 feet back from the edges of the gorge at all times. The Valentine Flats trail at Overlook Point was shortened by DEC crews to keep anyone from walking out onto the point.
Segos said an accessible platform will be constructed next year at the edge of the gorge overlooking Valentine Flats. It will contain a memorial to Brooke Walker of Springville, who died last summer in a fall at her first visit to Zoar Valley, and 20 other accident victims since 2004, Seggos said.
He credited Brooke’s mother, Marla Walker, and Mary Beth Long, mother of Conner Long, another Zoar accident victim, with pushing the DEC to take action to make the multiple use area safer. Walker worked with Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, who lives in nearby Gowanda, and state Sen. George Borrello to present her checklist of items needs to make the natural area safer — beginning with signs and maps.
“Tomorrow, May 27, will be Brooke and Garrett’s 17th birthday,” Walker told the press conference. “Brooke will not celebrate turning 17. We are grateful and hopeful that with these improvements and continued enhancements to Zoar Valley, others will be able to celebrate many birthdays for years to come. Brooke continues to give back.”
Garrett, Brooke’s twin brother was also at the press conference.
Chad Staniszewski, acting Region 9 director, said the press conference was designed to get the word out about the new safety measures at Zoar Valley, including restricting access to the South Branch above the Forty Road parking area. This will deter trespass on adjacent private lands that lead to the Zoar Falls area — also private.
Crews from DEC have also been “brushing in” other unofficial trails to create barriers that lead onto private lands on the South Branch.
Two new assistant forest rangers will be stationed in Zoar Valley this summer along with an intern from the SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry and a Student Conservation Association Natural Resource steward, Seggos said.
Their jobs will be to help educate visitors to the dangers of not staying on trails, entering swift-moving waters or climbing 300-foot cliffs.
New kiosk panels at access points at Valentine Flats and Forty Road will include new maps, safety messages and take-away maps.
Seggos noted that many of the 16,000 to 20,000 visitors to Zoar Valley each year found out about it on the internet and often rely on outdated Google maps to find their way.
The commissioner said that working with Google, DEC staff have managed to prioritize the new state maps in a Google search. They will show up at the top of the search results now. Google also removed false trails that showd up on its maps
Seggos said he met in March with Brooke’s mother to discuss her checklist. Upon visiting the area, he knew it was imperative to get the word out quickly to alert visitors of the dangers of Zoar.
He wanted major progress by Memorial Day when visitors start to spike. “When people come here, they need to think of safety first.” The improved signage is designed to make visitors more aware of the dangers.
Seggos was upset to learn some of the new signs had been torn down and thrown into the gorge. This will not be tolerated. Investigators are already probing those instances, he said.
Two new trails that are compatible with the Americans With Disabilities Act will be constructed in the Valentine Flats area, Seggos said. The DEC is looking at building other trails as well.
All the efforts to make the Zoar Valley area safer will hopefully result in fewer accidents and deaths, Seggos said. If successful, emergency crews won’t be called to the wild, natural area as often.
“My sole focus is on safety,” Seggos said.