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Effort to restore Times Beach evolves into an ecological model

Over the last century, the land known as Times Beach has been many things: Shantytown. Railroad stop. Municipal beach. And waste dump.

But an ecological model for the rest of the Great Lakes to emulate?

That might seem far-fetched. Until now.

Buffalo’s Outer Harbor nature preserve is entering the homestretch of a five-year demonstration project that began in 2011. The project is designed to eliminate invasive plants and promote native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, with hopes that this rare coastal wetland on Lake Erie becomes an even more vibrant and habitable home for birds, waterfowl and other fauna.

So far, it’s working.

“It’s more than promising,” said Paul R. Fuhrmann, a restoration specialist with Ecology and Environment, Inc. “We think it’s going to be infinitely better ... It will be a premier aquatic habitat site.”

What’s more, the science learned here is now also being employed to combat invasive plants in places like Walnut Beach in Ashtabula, Ohio; the Menominee River near Green Bay, Wisc., and elsewhere in Buffalo Niagara, where habitat restoration work is underway at Unity Island (formerly Squaw Island).

Until recently, phragmites, along with mugwort, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard and buckthorn, owned most of the 56-acre piece of land near the foot of Fuhrmann Boulevard.

Those non-native plant species are harmful because, without any biological controls like predatory insects or herbivores to target them, they flourish and choke out native plant species. The native plants are important because they provide suitable habitats for birds and aquatic creatures indigenous to the region.

“The more diverse habitat you have, the more diverse species you have,” said Craig M. Forgette, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Biologists from Ecology and Environment Inc., teaming up with the Corps of Engineers, the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, Friends of Times Beach and other partners, have, through chemical and mechanical methods, eliminated upwards of 90 percent of the invasive plants that don’t belong in some select spots and have propagated others that do, including New England aster and native milkweed.

“We’re starting to replace (the invasive plants with) what we’d like to have there,” said Jay Burney, chairman of the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve organization. “It’s a pretty major project.”

Scattered patches

Estimates are that only about “5 or 6 acres” remain under the control of invasive species, according to biologists. And those are in scattered patches throughout the site, which until 1977 was the place where the Corps of Engineers disposed of material from its dredging of the federal navigation channel in the Buffalo River.

The fill is contaminated with varying levels of PCBs, heavy metals and other chemicals, but federal risk assessments concluded that birds and animals apparently can thrive there without significant adverse impacts.

That fact, and the site’s ecological importance as one of the few “coastal wetlands” on Lake Erie, has only helped spur efforts to restore the site.

Fuhrmann said a “search and destroy mission” is underway now to clear even more of the foliage that doesn’t belong at Times Beach.

Biologists said the removal of the aggressive invasive plants during the last three years allowed for the natural return of more than 34 species native to the site.

Some – like smartweed, monkey flower, softstem bulrush and various sages – are “just popping up,” biologists say, because they have open ground and sunlight, and they don’t have to compete with phragmites, which once comprised more than 90 percent of the non-native plant invasion.

“There’s a measure of short-term success,” said Kris Erickson, an Ecology and Environment chief scientist. “The idea is to increase the ecological utility of the site.”

Accomplishing that means more than tearing out what doesn’t belong and planting – or allowing to grow naturally – what does.

Deer a present threat

Because it’s a living shoreline ecosystem, there are constant threats.

Like deer.

The animal that’s ravaged the understories of forests across New York State, including Letchworth State Park, is also already doing a number on some of the native plants at Times Beach. According to Burney’s estimates, 100 or more deer could be living in the vicinity of the Outer Harbor.

“There are way, way, way too many,” Erickson said.

That’s why biologists have surrounded native plantings in some test areas with wood and metal fenced enclosures and left others open and exposed as part of the restoration at Times Beach. About a dozen enclosures can be observed just inside the nature preserve along Fuhrmann Boulevard.

“As soon as you plant something yummy for deer, they’re going to come in and chew it all up,” Erickson said. “But, deer don’t browse everything. So, if we identify the species they are not browsing on, maybe we plant more of those.”

Erickson said, for instance, that scientists have found deer enjoy eating elderberry plants and can quickly browse them down, while it doesn’t appear as though they prefer the spicebush or northern bayberry species.

As for spots where invasive plants are “on their heels,” Erickson said biologists will aggressively target those areas with native plantings in hopes they’ll reset the trajectory by allowing those plants to rapidly get a “good foothold” while continuing to spot-treat invasive plants.

Even so, keeping the invasive plants at bay always will be a challenge, officials said.

“I don’t think that will ever end,” Burney said.

Andrew Kornacki, a spokesman from the Corps of Engineers, said what’s happening at Times Beach is unique to the region and the lessons learned here will be put into action in restoring other shoreline ecosystems.

“It’s a great example of how diverse and widespread this project can actually impact,” Kornacki said. “We’re not just talking Buffalo, we’re talking the entire Great Lakes.”

Great diversity of birds

This week, biologists are mapping areas at the preserve where invasive plants remain, as well as mapping those spots where both protected and unprotected native plantings have occurred. Only about 10 percent of those plantings are complete. Later this year, Erickson said, work will continue at cutting out and chemically treating those areas where invasive plants remain and replacing them with more restorative native plantings. The rest of this year’s agenda will also consist of conducting breeding bird surveys at the preserve.

Restoring the preserve back to its native state will promote a greater diversity and number of avian and land animals, biologists say.

Because Times Beach is an important stop in the Atlantic Flyway, a large part of the overall aim is to foster greater productivity for birds.

“We found we have more species of birds there on an annual basis than almost any place on the Great Lakes,” Burney said.

Some of the more than 230 avian species discovered at Times Beach include shore herons, warblers and egrets.

Earlier this month, the first pollinator conservation area was planted at Times Beach. Designed to attract bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinating insects to the area, it’s also part of the overall scheme to let nature help complete the restoration at the site.

“Ultimately, there’s a larger strategy to plant more stuff down there,” Burney said. “We’d like to do a full restoration of the entire site.”