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Wild WNY / Ramsar man

Thanks to Jajean Rose-Burney, the Niagara river corridor has a new, important designation

Jajean Rose-Burney and wife Ana Hernandez Balzac


When the United States side of the Niagara River was approved as a Ramsar-designated site (Wonder what Ramsar is? Click here.) just weeks ago, one individual played a significant role in that achievement. This was not his first success, and his story is worth telling.


Shortly after graduating from the University at Buffalo in 2007, Jajean Rose-Burney and wife, Ana Hernandez Balzac, joined the Peace Corps. When they were assigned to a government planning office in Puebla, Mexico, Rose-Burney was not at all enthusiastic. A birdwatcher by avocation, mentored by local senior ornithologists Dave Junkin and Bob Andrle, he had hoped to be assigned to a tropical forest rich in bird species. Instead, the couple was sent to work in urban Puebla.


When he checked a map of the region around Puebla looking for birding opportunities, Rose-Burney noticed the eleven-square-mile Valsequillo Reservoir. Upon inquiring, however, he was told it was “too polluted to drink from, swim in, or even boat on. No fish and no birds. The reservoir is nothing more than a smelly, toxic mudhole.”


Nonetheless, Rose-Burney visited the reservoir to check this out firsthand; what he found surprised him. As he reports, “Yes, the water was used as a dump for nearby industry. Yes, the fifth largest city in Mexico pumped its untreated sewage into the reservoir. Yes, half of it was covered with invasive water hyacinth. But the water was clear and blue. Huge rafts of ducks floated on its surface. Flocks of herons waded in its shallows. Fishermen were pulling in the day’s catch; farmers were collecting the last of the season’s harvest along its shores. The reservoir wasn’t dead; it was teeming with life.”


Excited by this discovery, the couple convinced their boss that they could submit the reservoir area as a Ramsar conservation site [see sidebar for information about Ramsar] and Rose-Burney went to work collecting data about the plants and animals of the area. His own year-long survey listed 169 bird species, eight of them protected or threatened and twenty particular to that region. He recruited Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla biologists and their students to inventory reptiles and amphibians and colleagues to do the same for plants. His final twenty-page Ramsar Wetland proposal in Spanish was for a ninety-six square mile area—twice the size of Buffalo.


In doing this, he helped head off plans to develop urban Puebla to the shore of the reservoir. Working with the federal environmental agency and Valsequillo area zoo director Amy Camacho, who had also been appointed state environmental director, he gained support for the designation of part of the Valsequillo borderlands as a state park, thus changing the vision for the area from urban development to an ecologically sustainable region.


For his successful work in gaining Ramsar recognition for the Valsequillo Reservoir, his program was honored by the president of Mexico, Filipe Calderon.


Rose-Burney and Balzac returned to Buffalo at the end of their Peace Corps tenure. Rose-Burney now serves as deputy executive director for the Western New York Land Conservancy and Balzac as an awards analyst for the University at Buffalo Research Foundation. Most important, Rose-Burney brought his Mexican experience with Ramsar to bear on the Niagara River Corridor. He co-chaired the committee of New York and Ontario volunteers who steered the proposal that has brought Ramsar designation to Buffalo.


In addition to Rose-Burney,  hundreds of locals participated in the process including government officials of the cities and towns along the river as well as environmentalists. The other steering committee members were Jocelyn Baker (Ontario co-chair with Jajean), Corey Burant (Niagara Parks Commission), Joseph Gould and Jeanne Beiter (Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper), Tim Heinmiller and Liette Vasseur (Brock University Environmental Sustainability Research Unit), Ryan McPherson (University at Buffalo Chief Sustainability Officer), Kerry Mitchell, Tom DeSantis, Alicia Perez-Fuentetaja (SUNY Buffalo State College Biology Department and Great Lakes Center), Patrick Robson (Niagara College) and Lynda Schneekloth (University at Buffalo Regional Institute). Legal support was provided by Kim Diana Connolly of the University at Buffalo School of Law with students of the University’s Law and Architecture and Planning schools. The Niagara River Greenway Commission, led by Greg Stevens, served as the nominator for the Ramsar designation.


All of those who supported this project deserve our thanks, but I will always refer to my friend Jajean Rose-Burney as the Ramsar Man.


What is Ramsar?



The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty promoting the conservation and wise use of water-based ecosystems; it is named for the city in Iran where it was initiated in 1971. Designation as a Ramsar site honors that area as of global importance, thus heightening its international awareness and strengthening local economies through increased tourism, recreation, and funding opportunities. Already 169 participating countries have designated 2,227 Ramsar sites, covering over 830,000 square miles. There are forty Ramsar sites in the US.


Ramsar is a “good faith” designation to encourage the maintenance of the ecological character of the site in the context of “wise use,” such as boating, bird watching, hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Ramsar is not regulatory and comes with no new restrictions.


To qualify for Ramsar designation a site must meet at least one of nine criteria.


1) It is representative, rare, or unique.

2) It supports vulnerable, endangered or threatened species.

3) It supports keystone or endemic species.

4) It supports species at a critical stage in their life cycles such as migration and breeding.

5) It supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.

6) It supports one percent of the individuals in a population of one species of waterbird.

7) It supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish species.

8) It serves as an important food source, spawning area, nursery, or migration path for fish.

9) It supports one percent of the individuals in a population of at least one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.


An indication of the quality of the United States Niagara River site, it is one of the very few that meets all of the first eight criteria (the Canadian side meets all nine.) Some specifics: It supports at least 338 species of birds, 100 fish (eighty-nine indigenous), thirty-one mammals, eleven reptiles, thirteen amphibians, twelve mussels, and 231 plants. Of these species, twenty-one are listed as endangered by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), seven on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. One is protected federally in the US and forty-five in New York. Single day observations have exceeded 120,000 gulls and waterfowl with six species representing greater than one percent of their North American population, one of them, Bonaparte’s gull, represents greater than twenty-five percent.



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