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LOCKPORT – The Western New York Land Conservancy is hailing a Niagara River Greenway grant that will allow it to study the past – and the future – of the Niagara Escarpment.

The escarpment, the ridge that runs east to west across Niagara County and includes the drop-off that makes Niagara Falls, is a geological feature that runs as far west as Wisconsin.

“The Land Conservancy’s long-term vision is to ensure that the Niagara Escarpment becomes a visible, preserved and more accessible iconic community showpiece,” Kathy Lasher, Conservancy board president, said in a statement.

A celebration was held Tuesday at Arrowhead Spring Winery in Cambria. At the event, Paul Fuhrmann of Ecology & Environment in Lancaster, said his company will spearhead the research work, ranging from the history of the land to surveys of current plant and animal life.

“You’re going to find things that grow in that geologic setting that are different from anyplace else in the region,” said Nancy Smith, the Conservancy’s executive director.

Fossils and rare plants and animals are commonplace on the Escarpment.

She said Ecology & Environment will map and evaluate about 20 sites by the end of 2013.

Although there have been similar studies along the escarpment in Wisconsin and Ontario, “this has never been done in New York State. We don’t know what we’re going to uncover,” Fuhrmann said.

The $316,673 Greenway grant is 80 percent in hand, Smith said.

Liz Berardi, Conservancy office manager, said much of the escarpment was once cleared for agriculture, but as the number of farms in Niagara County has declined, much of the land along the ridge has returned to its wild state.

“One of the first steps is to check the oldest aerial photos and compare them to now, to see where the large areas [of preservation interest] are,” Berardi said.

Paul Leuchner, a former Greenway Commission member, said aerial photos of the escarpment from as early as 1918 exist.

“They pretty much scraped all the timber off the landscape where it was flat,” Fuhrmann said. “It’s dramatic up to the 1950s.”

Most of the 20 sites are on private property, but participation is strictly voluntary, Smith said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com