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Crews set to begin removal of invasive plants from Niagara Gorge

Ecologists and conservationists have a plan to restore the Niagara River Gorge to its original habitat for native plants.

The first part of the plan is to rip out all of the plants and trees that don't belong. And now, after more than a year of cataloging the plants, the dirty work is about to begin.

Like gardeners pulling weeds in a flower bed, work crews later this month will start yanking pesky oriental bittersweet shrubs and Norway maples from the sides of the gorge. The first phase of the ecological restoration is expected to last through 2019 and cost $1 million.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster will be joined Monday afternoon by Nancy Smith, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy, and Mark Thomas, Western District director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, in providing details of the project, known as "Restore the Gorge."

"We're trying to have a long-term impact as custodians of this great natural resource," Dyster said.

The restoration benefits may be more than ecological. The project is expected to increase dramatically the diversity of birds that frequent the area, which will draw more bird-watchers from around the world, boosting the area's tourism economy, said Dyster.

Conservationists and ecologists with the Land Conservancy and Applied Ecological Services, a national ecological restoration company, will be removing invasive species such as the tree of heaven – a Chinese sumac – and the oriental bittersweet shrub in a 43-acre area of the gorge.

Those invasive plants moved into the gorge decades ago and proliferated at an alarming pace, crowding out native species and threatening the unique gorge ecology. The oriental bittersweet, for example, grows as a vine that smothers native plants and uproots trees with its weight. Norway maples and common buckthorn shrubs are other invasive species being targeted for removal.

They will be replaced with native oak trees, ninebark shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Seeds of native plants already growing in the gorge will be used to propagate the new growth. Some of those native plants are endangered because of the growth of invasive species.

The Land Conservancy received nearly $1 million in Niagara River Greenway funds for the first phase. An additional $1 million from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion II initiative will allow ecologists to restore another 125 acres along the gorge rim from Whirlpool State Park to Devil’s Hole State Park.

The Niagara Gorge is considered one of the most biologically diverse spots within the Great Lakes region. It attracts more than 300 species of birds, is home to fern species that date back to the dinosaur age and has more than 100 species of fish swimming in the lower Niagara River rapids.

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