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Infusion of funding could restore Niagara Gorge to 'botanical wonderland'

You’ve seen Niagara Falls.

The American side views are breathtaking from Terrapin Point, Three Sisters Islands, the Cave of the Winds and the Maid of the Mist.

But most haven’t seen the Niagara Gorge the way Father Louis Hennepin discovered its natural glory in the late 17th century – the 43 acres between the Whirlpool Rapids and Rainbow bridges.

The Western New York Land Conservancy hopes that will soon change.

The conservancy is undertaking a $1 million project to “restore the gorge,” with money from the Niagara River Greenway Ecological Standing Committee.

If all goes according to plan, casual visits will mean finding:

• Bald eagles, hawks and other raptors flying overhead.
• Plentiful supplies of lake sturgeon spawning in the lower Niagara River.
• Mink, turtles and other wildlife moving between land and water.
• Ancient species of vegetation thriving on the gorge walls.

“It’s big,” said Nancy Smith, the conservancy’s executive director. “The impact has so much potential.”

The restoration of the Niagara Gorge in the $1 million Greenway Ecological Standing Committee funds to the Western New York Land Conservancy cover the stretch from the Whirlpool Bridge to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. (New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation map)

Think of the Niagara Gorge as a comprehensive botanical guide for the Buffalo Niagara region.

More than 80 percent of all the plant species in the region can be found somewhere in the Niagara Gorge.

“It’s like a botanical wonderland, if you will,” said Mark V. Mistretta, the state parks’ regional capital facility manager.

What’s more, it also contains some rare and threatened plant species found only in the gorge. Some of them – including some fern species – trace their origins to the days of the dinosaurs.

“The vegetation up there is one-of-a-kind in the world,” said Darrel Morrison, an internationally-renowned landscape designer and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"This is a primitive landscape in terms of ecology – it’s so unique,” Mistretta added.


Bringing in experts

The problem is that invasive plants have begun to crowd the gorge in many places. And they proliferate, well, like weeds.

Starting in the new year, the first phase of the project begins with tearing out invasive plant species that have colonized the area over the years.

In their place, native species – propagated from the seeds of other native plants already growing in the gorge – will be planted.

Finding the right people to execute a project is important, because the sensitive area is known around the world, said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

“There’s a special need for the expertise relating to the ecology,” Dyster said. “We have people who are bringing in world-class experts.”

Enter Morrison, and his design partner, Nancy Aten.

They’ve taken on the project. And, they know native plants.

Morrison is the landscape architect who designed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, the extension to the native flora garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the landscaping at the Storm King Art Center in New York City. The landscape architect is considered the nation’s leading authority on native plant restoration.

“I think of him as a modern-day Frederick Law Olmsted, but he’s really focused on ecology and the environment,” Smith said of Morrison, who worked with the conservancy last year several miles downstream at its 29-acre Stella Niagara Preserve.

Here, the conservancy is partnering with the City of Niagara Falls and Applied Ecological Services to restore habitats on the land owned by the New York Power Authority and managed by the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Morrison and Aten will be the expert eco-designers.


Designed for impact

At the gorge, Morrison will focus efforts on a small but high-visibility lawn just below the entrance to the United States by train on the Whirlpool Bridge.

“It’s not a big project area-wise, but it’s an important project,” Morrison said by phone from his home in Madison.

Designs won’t be done until he makes at least another visit to the site, but he envisions “elements of an oak savannah” and “an eastern grassland” with a diversity of native plant species and scattered trees. It will be publicly accessible with a passive recreation area.

Smith said it’ll be designed as an “impact” entrance for those coming into the country from Canada by rail.

Planning and design work is beginning at four chief sites along the stretch of land including a small lawn area near the new Niagara Falls Amtrak station and nearby Customs House, a spot near the overpass of the former Robert Moses Parkway bridge, a “no mow” site just south of there and a parking picnic area closer to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center.

A view of the Niagara river from the Great Gorge Railway Trail. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

When it’s finished, the expected successes realized here will be applied in other places across the country.

“We’re thinking of this as a demonstration project as an example of what other areas can do as well,” Morrison said. One of those other areas may be close by.

A two-mile stretch of the former Robert Moses Parkway, just to the east of the gorge wall, is slated for removal by the parks system to add even more green space along the gorge.

It’s not included in the conservancy’s existing project, but some hope the same experts will be recruited for that area, too.

“It’s the biggest expansion of park land since Niagara Falls state parks began,” Mistretta said.

“No one agency can do this alone,” he said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

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