Great Arc Initiative & Geoparks

In recent years, the idea of the Great Arc has emerged as a tool for building cross-boundary conservation and sustainable development activities in Ontario and adjoining states in the U.S. The Great Arc refers to the entire Niagara Escarpment landform, from central New York, north through Ontario and south along the west side of Lake Michigan. The Great Arc is a special landscape of considerable natural, cultural, economic, aesthetic, recreational, touristic and symbolic importance in Canada and the U.S. At its core, the Great Arc is a corridor for migratory birds and wildlife and also for people who hike and move along it through the seasons. (Nelson, 2002).

In 2002 the Great Arc Initiative was launched and has involved many individuals and groups, although in recent years, no significant activity has occurred. The Initiative is loosely organized and participation levels of its’ partners vary based on time availability and level of interest. To generally describe the makeup of the effort, the following groups, entities, and individuals are noted as having some significant past level of involvement in the Great Arc Initiative:

  1. University of Waterloo, Ontario
  2. University of Toledo, Ohio
  3. Ontario’’s Niagara Escarpment Commission
  4. Niagara Escarpment Resource Network (NERN)
  5. Western New York Land Conservancy
  6. Michigan Karst Conservancy
  7. Nature Conservancy of Michigan
  8. U.S. Forest Service (Hiawatha, MI Unit)
  9. Parks Research Forum of Ontario

Many of the resources that exist within the Niagara Escarpment corridor suggest the notion of a “geopark” as a method to collectively implement the components of conservation geology. It is crucial to understand the concept of conservation geology in order to see that, when applied through current efforts along the Great Arc, a significant opportunity exists to collaborate between the U.S. and Canada on the possible development of the first UNESCO Geopark in either country. Of the 64 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Geoparks worldwide, neither of these countries has received such a designation. In synergy with its Man and the Biosphere Reserve program, a designation can be awarded to recognize “sites representing an interest for the earth science (UNESCO, 2010). What better place than The Great Arc (the Niagara Escarpment corridor) to implement such an idea.

While no significant activity has occurred with this group since 2007, five separate conferences and symposiums were held in Wisconsin, Ontario, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan between 2001 and 2006 in an effort to draw interest and attention to the development of the Great Arc concept. Perhaps the surge of recent activities in Wisconsin regarding awareness of the Niagara Escarpment will prompt additional actions to formalize this effort as a model for conservation geology.

“Geoparks are not just about rocks-they are about people. It is crucial that they get involved-we want to see as many people as possible getting out and enjoying the geology of the area.Our aim is to maximize geotourism for the benefit of the local economy and to help people to understand the evolution of their local landscape.”

– Chris Woodley-Stewart, Geopark Manager, North Pennines AONB

A Geopark is defined by UNESCO in its International Network of Geoparks program as “a territory encompassing one or more sites of scientific importance, not only for geological reasons but also by virtue of its archaeological, ecological or cultural value”. The program aims to enhance the value of such sites while creating employment and promoting regional economic development in parallel with the protection of its ecological value. The program’s goal is to designate a network of up to 500 Geoparks worldwide, of which only 57 have been recognized as of 2009 (UNESCO, 2010). When the program was first established in 1998, the following qualifications were developed in order to consider a site for designation as a Geopark. According to UNESCO’s website, a Geopark needs to:

  1. Have a management plan designed to foster socio-economic development that is sustainable (most likely to be based on agri-tourism and geotourism);
  2. Demonstrate methods for conserving and enhancing geological heritage and provide means for teaching geo-scientific disciplines and broader environmental issues;
  3. Have joint proposals submitted by public authorities, local communities and private interests acting together, which demonstrate the best practices with respect to Earth heritage conservation and its integration into sustainable development strategies.

The Niagara Escarpment, or Great Arc, is a prime example of a geologic feature that could qualify for a Geopark designation. Many of the Geopark themes fit naturally with the numerous legislative efforts and localized conservation programs that have taken shape across the escarpment corridor over the decades. All of these efforts have been raised to their current status by the vision and hard work of concerned communities and their citizens who recognized that the Niagara Escarpment is a special place that is worthy of recognition and protection. Combining and integrating the many programs along the corridor, along with filling gaps in planning and management in some areas, could allow for the eventual creation of a Great Arc Geopark.

Such an effort would require the cooperation and coordination of dozens of organizations and dozens of agencies across the corridor in order to create a cohesive Geopark program that fosters conservation awareness and action. Integrating the components of conservation geology into these programs, and subsequently a Geopark, even with a reasonable level of effectiveness could help to broaden the public’s view of what the Niagara Escarpment is, particularly at an international scale.

And why not a Geopark for the Niagara Escarpment?! The Niagara Escarpment corridor has long been known as a unique natural feature which contains rare geological, ecological, and cultural landscapes. These natural and cultural features need to be placed in context within both the narrowly defined Niagara Escarpment and its broader surrounding landscape in order to establish a better definition for, and awareness of, the Niagara Escarpment as a true corridor system. The amount and variety of geoheritage sites which are recognized by the existing systems and programs may lend themselves well to efforts which seek formal recognition as a Geopark.

By applying national and trans-national planning concepts such as a Geopark, the individual resources of the Niagara Escarpment can be enhanced as a system which defines the current and future social and economic well-being of its owners and caretakers. Achieving the Geopark designation would certainly give people a reason to celebrate the Niagara Escarpment well beyond the year 2010!

Author’s Note: The UNESCO Geopark program allows for annual submissions of an application to seek this designation. The last submission date listed at the time of this writing was the October-December, 2009 timeframe. No timeframes for the next round of submissions have been established as of the time of the writing of this paper (Dec. 2009) and therefore provides the Great Arc community with time to work toward the goal of preparing and submitting an application for the Geopark designation.

If you have interest in collaborating on a future Geopark application effort, please contact Eric Fowle at