Finding Ways to Preserve Natural Areas in a Complex City

Friday, February 24, 2012
New York is a city of extreme contrasts and diversity – and not just because of its population. There are contrasts in geography and landscape, too.
Less than a mile from one of the world’s busiest airports, JFK, Atlantic Ridley sea turtles, peregrine falcons, and more than 100 species of fish live unencumbered by development in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. It’s the only national wildlife refuge accessible by subway – the A train – and a significant segment of New York City’s natural areas, which, according to a 2004 study conducted by New Yorkers for Parks and NYC Audubon, comprise more than 12,000 acres.
Yet many wetland areas, which help improve water quality, control flooding, moderate storm surges and provide a habitat for wildlife, are vulnerable to threats from development and pollution. Much has already been lost. Now, steps are being taken to preserve the still-sizable amount of wetlands that remain.
Last month, the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning & Sustainability submitted the Draft New York City Wetlands Strategy to the City Council. The report examines all threats to the City’s diverse array of wetlands – from marshes in Queens to woodland streams in Staten Island to Bronx park ponds – and proposes policies to address those threats.
Right now, the City’s waterfront and waterways are governed by a complex array of several City, State and Federal agencies. The report, however, offers ideas for making wetlands protection – and enforcement of those protections – simpler and more comprehensive.
One of the proposals within the report is to increase wetlands acquisition by the Department of Parks & Recreation. NY4P strongly supports this initiative, as mapping the City’s wetlands as parkland is the strongest mechanism for preservation, and wetlands currently under the jurisdiction of other City agencies should be transferred to the Parks Department as soon as possible. Until these land transfers are complete, a temporary protective development hold should be applied to each site.
Further, it’s worth noting that there’s a need to protect all natural areas, not just wetlands, from development. Through its Forever Wild program, the Parks Department has identified 51 natural areas that provide New York City with multiple environmental and ecological benefits. Many of these sites are under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction, but not all of them. In addition to wetlands, all Forever Wild sites should be transferred to the Parks Department for long-term preservation and care.
Because we believe Parks is the most appropriate agency to manage, restore and maintain the City’s wetlands and natural areas, and because we live in an era of strained public budgets, it’s also paramount to identify a funding source to help the Department in those efforts. That’s why we support the City’s proposed creation of a Natural Areas Conservancy. Parks’ Natural Resources Group (NRG) is responsible for more than 10,000 acres of natural areas within New York City Parks. Since the start of the City’s hiring freeze in 2008, the staff of this small department of 35 has been roughly reduced by half. The creation of a conservancy empowered to raise outside funding, though, would help ensure that NRG has the resources it needs to protect the Parks Department’s growing inventory of wetlands.
That inventory is what helps provide those contrasts and diversity in New York City. There’s Times Square and there’s the Brother Islands. There’s Atlantic Avenue and there’s the Staten Island Greenbelt. There’s JFK Airport and those turtles under its landing path. New York City’s natural areas and wetlands are vulnerable, in large part, because of their close proximity to contrasting environments.
The proposed land acquisition and conservatory creation policies would go a long way toward simplifying the bureaucratic governance of those vulnerable areas – and providing the best-equipped agency with the tools it needs to keep those areas protected.

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