‘Restore the Gorge’ is a rare restoration opportunity in Niagara Falls

on March 29, 2018

One of the coolest things about being an ecological restoration company is our people get to work in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

In February, AES New York field crews started rappelling down the Niagara Gorge cliffs and talus slopes, to begin the three-year restoration of the Gorge just downstream from Niagara Falls.

Niagara Gorge is an ecological jewel that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called “central to the natural beauty of the world-class attraction Niagara Falls”.  The $2.1 million effort to ‘Restore the Gorge’ is led by the Western New York Land Conservancy with funding from several state agencies and organizations.

On-site since early February, AES crews are working in winter when native plant remnants are dormant.  The #1 ecological priority this winter?  Removal of the dense canopy of Norway maple (Acer platanoides), tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and invasive shrubs, by cutting and girdling.

However, the steep slopes and snow cover make Safety Priority #1.  Experienced crew members underwent extensive training for working with power equipment and ropes, says Construction Manager Sean Vollenweider.

The project site is 33.8 acres and extends along the U.S. side of the Niagara River from the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center to Whirlpool State Park.  The extreme geology, with calcareous cliff communities, seeps, talus slopes, woodlands and riparian area, creates a rare habitat for many unique native species adapted to such diverse conditions.

However, over many decades the natural plant communities in the Gorge have declined in quality and function due in large part to the number of woody and herbaceous non-native plants.  Hence, the crews on ropes with saws.

This April, once the woody invasive plants are treated, AES will begin seeding select areas beneath the newly thinned canopy with a carefully researched mix of native seed and cover crop, enhanced with a planting of 5,000 strategically-placed native herbaceous plugs and 1,000 native trees and shrubs.  Crews will make multiple follow-up visits for monitoring and remedial management activities in 2018 and 2019.

Botanical Integrity

For the restoration of this sensitive ecological setting, selection of the native species mix was important. At AES, this began with the research and report, “Preliminary Compilation of Botanical Record for the Niagara Gorge Restoration Project” produced by AES ecologists in January 2017.  Throughout 2017, AES ecologists worked with the Land Conservancy, New York Natural Heritage Program and New York State Parks to finalize the distinctive species that will begin germinating this spring.

Already germinating this month are the 5,000 plugs that are being grown in Wisconsin from New York local genotype seed at AES’s in-house nursery, Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries.  The seed under propagation is just a portion of a significant amount of local native seed has been hand-collected for the project by the Land Conservancy staff and volunteers.

Last October, AES submitted a 66-page Work Plan for the Gorge Restoration which detailed a two-step process focused on vegetation management:

  1. Reduce invasive species to allow sufficient light to again grow soil-stabilizing native grasses, sedges and wildflowers
  2. Plant and seed dwindling populations of once common and plentiful native wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs and trees that occupied the various ecological settings of the Gorge. On cliffs and seeps, only careful, sensitive hand treatment of individual invasive plants will be conducted to prevent impacts to native species, including threatened and endangered plant species.

Technology Support

Prior to writing the work plan, AES Geospatial conducted high resolution multispectral aerial imaging for analysis and mapping of vegetation composition from Niagara Falls through the Gorge to Lake Ontario.  Not only was the updated mapping and vegetation classification helpful to assure accuracy and quality in the restoration plan, this baseline data and mapping will be useful in future years to detect changes in land cover and inform adaptive management.

Rediscovering the Magic

At a recent celebration to kick off the restoration, Western New York Land Conservancy Executive Director called it a day to celebrate “the opportunity for the world to rediscover the magic of the Niagara Gorge as a vital and magnificent window on Niagara Falls.”

AES is pleased and proud to be part of the scientific foundation and on-the-ground restoration work that will help the world rediscover the magic, and ecological health, of the Gorge.

Read more about our work with ‘Restore the Gorge’ here.

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Erin Straub‘Restore the Gorge’ is a rare restoration opportunity in Niagara Falls