Jun 28


STAMP is but the latest offense

The Tonawanda Seneca Nation opposes the giant industrial park, which they regard as a threat to their territory and way of life, and the latest in a long history of transgressions against their people.

Scott Logan, a member of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, stands at the edge of the Big Woods. Photo by Garrett Looker.

This is the second of a tw0-part series. The first story is here.

Standing at the edge of the Big Woods, an old-growth forest that researchers say contains one of the most unique ecosystems in New York, Scott Logan feels he can see history repeating itself.

What he’s looking at are Plug Power’s hydrogen-producing electrolyzers, two massive spheres towering over land that once belonged to Logan’s Tonawanda Seneca Nation. The Nation has new neighbors: The Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, STAMP.

“To look at this, it worries me,” Logan said. “If something like this, this close to our borders, happens then it sets a precedent of what else? We’re still trying to save the land, they’re still trying to take it, it’s still the same story.”

The Tonawanda Seneca territory is just a sliver of what it once was, due to the connivery of land speculators and government officials that dates back more than 200 years. What remains of its land — just 12 square miles, home to some 700 residents — is now threatened by the construction of the adjacent industrial park.

STAMP borders the Big Woods, home to deer and turkey that Nation members hunt and plants they rely on for medicine. Members fear industrial activity at STAMP could harm the forest and disrupt their way of life. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has so far declined to study how STAMP will affect the deer population.

“This is all we have left,” said Chief Roger Hill, one of the Nation’s leaders. “We can’t go to Pennsylvania, or Ohio, or Cheektowaga or South Buffalo. This is why we have to protect what’s left.”

Chief Roger Hill, one of the Nation’s leaders. Photo by Garrett Looker.

STAMP’s developer, the Genesee County Economic Development Center, is not moved by the Nation’s concerns. Nor are Gov. Kathy Hochul or U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who are championing the project. They regard STAMP as important to the future of New York’s economy and a key component of a “semiconductor superhighway” corridor stretching from Buffalo to Syracuse. Once completed, the 1,250-acre megasite will be one of New York’s largest industrial parks. 

The Tonawanda Senecas see things differently. 

In interviews, Nation leaders and members described a fundamental disconnect between themselves and the state and local agencies seeking to build STAMP.

“They’re looking at it in a materialistic way, a money-making way, and we don’t look at things like that,” explained Mardell Sundown, a Nation member. “We look at how we can live with nature, not how we think we can overcome nature and make money off it.”

Mardell Sundown, a member of the Snipe Clan. Photo by Garrett Looker.

While the Nation expressed concerns after plans for STAMP were announced more than a decade ago, it did not aggressively press its case until the Genesee County IDA started pursuing permits for the industrial park. By then, the project had gained traction, along with some $35 million in seed funding. 

Federal law and state policies mandate the developers to consult with the Nation in the process of planning the project. 

Little of that has occurred, however

“We wouldn’t develop it,” said Linda Logan, a Nation clan mother. “It’s just something we wouldn’t do.”

A history of resistance 

As Western New York transformed from the nation’s frontier to the place it is today, the Senecas, and later Tonawanda Senecas, lost land at nearly every turn.

At one point, Seneca land stretched from Rochester to Lake Erie. As settlers and speculators arrived, they began buying land. Eleven years after the end of the Revolutionary War, in 1794, President George Washington signed a major treaty — one of “perpetual peace and friendship” — with the Haudenosaunee, a confederation of six Indian Nations that included the Senecas. Called the Treaty of Canandaigua, it marked the first formal shrinkage of Seneca land. As a result, the Nation controlled the land roughly from Buffalo south to what is now the New York-Pennsylvania border.

It was the last time the indigenous people would control so much land in what is today Western New York. From there, historian Laurence Hauptman told Investigative Post, Seneca land was slowly but surely “weeded down.” 

Just three years after the Canandaigua treaty, the Treaty of Big Tree with the U.S. government reduced the Seneca’s land holdings and established reservations for the first time. Among them was the Tonawanda Reservation, at the intersection of Erie, Niagara and Genesee counties. It covered 70 square miles, and included the land where STAMP and several wildlife preserves exist today.

Then came the Erie Canal.

“With the plans for canal development and the construction of the Erie Canal that began in 1817, the value of Seneca lands rose exponentially,” Hauptman wrote in his 2011 book, The Tonawanda Senecas’ Heroic Battle Against Removal. “Once a transportation route was in place, the Ogden Land Company proprietors soon realized that by buying out or dispossessing the Indians, they could make a financial windfall.”

It was the same story when the first railroads began stretching across the state.

The treaties and purchases, some of which were disputed by the Senecas because they were not ratified by the U.S. Senate, continued through the first half of the 19th century. By 1838, the Senecas faced another treaty that would force their removal from New York altogether. 

That treaty would have had the Senecas relocate to Kansas. They refused to go.

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Yet another treaty, in 1842, re-established the Allegany and Cattaraugus reservations (which exist today) but not the Tonawanda reservation. The Seneca Nation — with a republican governing system similar to the United States’ — was established a few years later. It split from the Tonawanda Senecas, which wanted to keep a traditional, matriarchal form of government.

Then, the land speculators evicted John Blacksmith.

A Tonawanda Seneca leader, Blacksmith operated a sawmill and lumber yard. Due to the treaty that ceded the reservation, the Ogden Land Company was able to purchase the land from the government. Once it had, it sent agents to remove Blacksmith and others by force.

What resulted, ultimately, was a historic 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Fellows v. Blacksmith — that led to the Tonawandas being able to remain where they are today. The court ruled only agents of the federal government could forcibly remove people — not agents of a private company.

Additional court cases and agreements followed. Using federal funds that would have bought them land in Kansas, the Tonawanda Senecas managed to purchase part of their former reservation back. It’s substantially smaller — roughly 12 square miles compared to the original 70 — but it’s allowed the Nation to exist in Genesee County to this day. 

The Nation today exists as a rural community, home to around 700 residents, according to a Nation spokesperson. Dwellings of various styles — from trailers to cabins to single-family houses — dot the forest. Stores, tobacco shops and gas stations line some roads. A longhouse, featuring classrooms and meeting spaces, sits at the center of the territory. Nation members rely on well water, one reason why they worry about chemicals seeping into nearby groundwater.

A fundamental divide

Both the state and federal governments have recognized that the region is environmentally sensitive — and worth protecting.

To the Nation’s immediate north, for example, is the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, 5,600 acres protected by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Adjacent to that preserve is the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, an 11,000-acre complex of forest and wetlands that 266 species of birds call home. That’s protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And to the immediate east of STAMP is the 329-acre John White Wildlife Management Area, also protected by the DEC. 

With so much protected land surrounding the fields that would become STAMP, Nation members thought the industrial park would never come to fruition.

Illustration by Garrett Looker.

“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘That’s never going to fly. It’s not going to happen,’” Linda Logan said.

So far, two lawsuits against STAMP, including one from the Nation, have gone nowhere. A third lawsuit, also brought by the Nation, was recently stayed after the Fish and Wildlife Service revoked a key permit for STAMP’s wastewater pipeline.

With the assistance of state grants, DEC leadership and a governor and U.S. senator who want to see it built, the Genesee County IDA has forged ahead with the industrial park.

Logan and other Nation members spoke up at early meetings about STAMP, they said, warning of the damage the industrial park could do to the Big Woods. But until the IDA began seeking permits, the Nation had little leverage to stop the development.

Alex Page, the Nation’s attorney, said her client wasn’t informed prior to when Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the state’s first major investment in STAMP via a $33 million grant

“Neither the Nation nor anybody else in the general public had any idea that that amount of money was being allocated to this tiny county IDA for an industrial development next to the Nation until after it happened,” she said.

That was part of a pattern, Page and others said: The Nation was provided only limited information. 

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Department of Environmental Conservation policy requires regulators to consult with indigenous nations. Emails obtained by Investigative Post show the IDA updating the Nation regularly about activities at STAMP — but that doesn’t count as consultation, Page said.

By 2021, the Nation sued over STAMP. In a lawsuit, it accused the Genesee County IDA of not conducting a robust enough review of how the industrial park and hydrogen producer Plug Power would affect the Big Woods. 

A judge tossed the case on procedural grounds. Subsequently, the Genesee County IDA agreed to create a 500-foot buffer around STAMP to partly protect the forest — but Nation members are not satisfied.

 “Last year, we were sitting on the porch with my grandson,” Nation member Mardell Sundown said. “It was hot, he was sweating away. And there was a cool breeze that came and he went, ‘Ahh.’ And I said, ‘Did you respect that?’ That’s nature. We live with nature.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Nation’s most recent lawsuit has been stayed, not withdrawn.

Investigative Post

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