An Expert Opinion! Clear Cutting Canal Embankments

An Expert Opinion!

Clear Cutting Canal Embankments

By Thomas X. Grasso President Emeritus, Canal Society of New York State

Since the New York State Canal Corporation announced its plan late last year to clear cut trees from Erie Canal embankments in western New York, there has been much opposition. I, on the other hand, think that clear cutting trees on canal embankments is not only necessary, it’s long overdue.

The Erie Canal, like similar inland waterways worldwide, is one of the few artificial creations of humankind in harmony with nature. If it ever went away, what could possibly replace it of equal or greater importance, beauty, and worth? Nothing! What would become of Pittsford’s Schoen Place or Carpenter Park on the opposite bank, Bushnell’s Basin, Fairport, Brockport, and beyond? I can’t imagine anyone thinking a vanished Erie Canal to be good thing -it is that important to us all.

Therefore the canal today, as it was in the past, is a huge, vital, economic component of our daily lives and our quality of life. However, we need to do more to preserve, enhance its beauty, encourage proper and appropriate development, market and advertise, and make it sustainable for future generations. Keeping those sections of the canal, well above the general “lay of the land”, safe is crucial to the future viability of our canal system.

The fact is that treeless embankments are safer than treed ones. The issue is safety! This is a common “best practice” for any properly-managed and well-maintained canal system. I have, over the years, examined in the field and researched numerous canals both here in North America and Europe – those in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Serbia among the most notable. They all have virtually treeless embankments signifying that the overwhelming majority of well-schooled canal engineers, here and abroad, adhere to this practice. These engineers are the experts whose first responsibility is to protect the public’s welfare, and I have found these men and women to be of the highest integrity and thoroughly knowledgeable.

The science doesn’t end at the Hudson River or the shores of America. It isn’t old science either. Even if it were old science, so are the basic laws of physics. Isaac Newton would probably take umbrage if his science was called old. Although the principle of “trees on canal embankments is dangerous” may seem counter-intuitive to many people, thousands of civil engineers worldwide can’t possibly be wrong. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan so eloquently stated – one is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

In Germany, officials use the term Damm when referring to a canal embankment. They are not being duplicitous or attempting to “pull the wool” over the public’s eyes, they are precisely calling it what it is – an earth dam retaining water. Therefore when the Canal Corporation uses the term earth dam for a canal embankment it is completely accurate. Be aware that I am not an apologist for the Canal Corporation, we have been in dog fights before on several issues…but not on this one.

If the loss of trees is the real issue, then perhaps a tree planting program can be launched in each town to counterbalance the cutting.

The cutting is taking place between Lockport and Fairport, a total distance of about 150 miles. In this epic distance, tree cutting will take place along a total length of about 20 miles or a mere 15% of the total distance.

Let’s give some credit to the New York Power Authority for trying to catch-up on a huge backlog of maintenance issues – a significant cost to them. Do we really think that any government agency will spend hordes of money on a project just to anger, if not enrage, the public? One of the Power Authority’s priorities is public safety and risk management.

Lastly canal embankments are both strikingly beautiful and splendidly stunning engineering achievements. So one of the side benefits of proposed cutting is that the embankments will be brought into clear focus, amplifying their existing splendor now masked and muted by the vegetative cover. Today people can glide across one of these embankments on a boat or bike or walk across on the trail alongside and have no perception of being on a high embankment perhaps tens or scores of feet above a valley floor or adjacent landscape below.

Consequently, once cleared of trees, the public’s experience will be enriched because from the tops of embankments, there will now be vistas of the land, roads and creeks below, unknown since perhaps the 1940’s. Looking down on the tops of trees will definitely increase your awareness of and appreciation for the impressive achievements of the engineers who designed and the laborers who constructed them. Perhaps the addition of signage to point out these facts could be added to better inform those who already enjoy the wonderful treasure of the canal that runs through our community and equally for those that don’t.

Tree cleared embankments give us needed safety as well as vistas and beauty at the same time. So, what is so wrong with this? I say ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! And that, my friends, is just one of the reasons why the western section of the canal is the best 100 Miles of the Erie Canal and why you too should join me.


Embankment (Damm) on Main-Danube Kanal north of Nürnberg, Bavaria. T.X. Grasso 05/2008

Thomas X. Grasso President Emeritus, Canal Society of New York State*
*The views expressed here are mine alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Canal Society of New York State.

A tribute to Thomas X Grasso




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