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Chautauqua Lake: The Importance of People

By March 27, 2018April 9th, 2018News

Chautauqua Lake: The Importance Of People

By Thomas Erlandson

From 1980 until I retired in 1998 I taught a course named Conservation of Natural Resources at Jamestown Community College. I did not originate the course, but took over from the late Bob Sundell when he retired from the college biology faculty. Many in our area remember Bob as an avid “birder,” and he was, in my opinion, one of the best and most knowledgeable bird authorities in New York state. For the course, Bob had chosen a textbook with the same title as the course, Conservation of Natural Resources, and I continued to use that text. When I retired the course was renamed, as I recall, Environmental Science. The current JCC catalog lists a course named Conservation Biology along with several others with either “environment” or “environmental” in their names, including Biology 1550 – Introduction to Environmental Science. This leads one to conclude that words and topics such as “conservation,” and “environment” are of great importance in higher education, at least locally, and in the education of young minds in particular.

Bob always taught Conservation of Natural Resources, as an “evening course,” and I continued that tradition. Our rationale was that the course content was of interest to the entire community, so the evening opportunity was provided for “adult learners” to participate as students. Many older students did take the course during the years I taught it, and were among the most interested participants, contributing much to class discussions. Among the discussion topics during the first class each year was the definition of the word “conservation.” What, exactly, does it mean to “conserve” natural resources?

The textbook answered that question by giving several possible definitions, and at this point I wish I had saved a copy of the text for reference. Instead of consulting my 1959 American College Dictionary, I did an online search for definitions, choosing the following provided by Merriam-Webster: “Planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect.” That definition of conservation has merit, but I do not recall students suggesting it. My own favorite back in the day was “wise use.”

I preferred “wise use” because it related to our human “scientific name,” Homo sapiens, translated “wise man.” Although there are other intelligent species, we humans are the only species on the planet that can apply wisdom to our decisions. Other species make use, in some cases intelligent use, of their environment, but only we humans can make wise use, if and when we choose to do so.

Although Chautauqua Lake has been used by humans for many centuries, the impact of Native American lifestyles on the lake was not great – their hands were lighter on the land than ours have been. Before Euro-Americans began settling the lake and its watershed in the very early 19th Century, Seneca families established summer fishing camps on what we call Long Point and Bemus Point. Now, two centuries later, the uses we humans make of the lake and its watershed are highly diverse. Chapter 6 of the Chautauqua Lake Macrophyte Management Strategy (MMS, 2016), provides information “regarding the types, location and intensity of human uses” of the lake, obtained by direct observations, file reviews, an online survey of users and public meetings. Table 6.1 ranks the recreational uses in their order of popularity. I do not list them here because one need only devote a few hours to observing the lake on a summer day to develop one’s own list of lake-related activities engaged in by 21st Century Homo sapiens.

During my years teaching Conservation of Natural Resources, I emphasized that we humans are not the only species that “uses” Earth’s various habitats. As a biologist with particular interest in freshwater biology, I am well aware of the diversity of organisms that inhabit and depend on aquatic ecosystems such as Chautauqua Lake. Many species are invertebrates, the “animals without backbones” that the more squeamish among us claim to dislike. The vertebrate animals are more familiar: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and other mammals than our selves. While they do not “use” the lake as we do, it is their home to one extent or another, their habitat, the place where they live.

Among the more vocal individuals addressing lake issues these days are those who argue that the lake’s myriad non-human animals are more important than people, that our role as Homo sapiens should be relegated to preserving the lake for the use of all species but our own. At the core of their argument is the premise that chemical herbicides must not be used as a management tool to control the populations of the two species of nuisance alien plant “weeds” which the Chautauqua Lake Partnership and several Towns and Villages around the lake are targeting in their effort to provide a more usable lake for people.

  • In taking that position they ignore the fact that we humans are the only species that can make decisions leading to the “wise use” of natural resources, the only species intellectually capable of stewardship.
  • In taking that position they ignore the fact that herbicides are commonly used in agriculture and in many lakes across our state and nation, all regulated by the appropriate environmental agencies, in our case the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • In taking that position they advocate that harvesting the weeds is the only in-lake method of weed control acceptable, and they ignore the MMS conclusion that herbicide use is an acceptable method, one that provides an opportunity for native plants to reestablish where the non-natives have forced them out.
  • In taking that position they advocate that using methods preventing phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients from entering the lake is the best way to prevent weed and algae/cyanobacteria growth, ignoring the overwhelming reservoir of phosphorus already in the lake-bottom sediments.
  • In taking that position they ignore the fact that over 25 percent of the county revenue from property taxes is paid by people owning homes on the shores of Chautauqua Lake – not up in the watershed, but around the lake.
  • In taking that position they ignore the reality that Chautauqua Lake is at a turning point along the pathway to its ultimate eutrophic demise – a pathway accelerated by human mismanagement – and that the time to act is now, using every management method permitted.
  • In taking that position they advocate that “conservation” is “preservation,” and one must ask what kind of a lake will be preserved. I hope that it is not the highly impaired lake we now have.

It is time to acknowledge the critical importance of people and to wisely use our human knowledge to slow Chautauqua Lake’s accelerated decline. If we do not, what will our descendants inherit?

Although the original source of this quote is unknown, we should consider it carefully with regard to the future of Chautauqua Lake: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our grandchildren.”


Thomas A. Erlandson is a Chautauqua Lake Partnership board member and biology advisor.