Why We Play Fair: NY4P interviews the Natural Areas Conservancy

NY4P had the chance to catch up with Sarah Charlop-Powers, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy, about her passions, her organization’s work, and how they are involved with the Play Fair Campaign.


Sarah Charlop-Powers, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.
Sarah Charlop-Powers, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.

NY4P: What is your role and why do you feel passion for it?


Sarah Charlop-Powers: I’m the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy (NAC). I helped launch this organization in June 2012, and we work in private-public partnership with NYC Parks—similar to the Prospect Park Alliance or the Bronx River Alliance—but instead of working in one park, we work across more than 50 parks. Our geographic focus is the 20,000 acres of forests and wetlands that are within the five boroughs.

I’m passionate about this work because I grew up in the Bronx, not far from the Bronx River, at a time when the city parks system was still recovering from a lot of neglect from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It wasn’t until I went to college upstate at Binghamton University that I fell in love with wilderness. I got really involved in hiking and camping and began my career in conservation in a much more rural environment. I had the opportunity to return to NYC and weave together my love of wilderness and my love of science with my passion for creating high quality access to nature for New Yorkers. It really felt like a dream come true. My work sits at the nexus of equity and access to parkland, and thinking about these places as natural systems that require management and investment to maximize their condition and the benefits they provide.


NY4P: Why did your organization decide to join the Play Fair Coalition?


SCP: I have a deep respect for the role of advocates in our public life. I’m a huge fan of NY4P, and I think that the role of a parks advocacy group is so crucial to bring the community together when things are going well and to be that voice of accountability when things are not receiving sufficient investment.

I would say Play Fair was in some ways perfectly timed with an effort we’d been working on for a long time. In April 2018, the NAC and NYC Parks released the Forest Management Framework for New York City, which is a 25-year plan for the management of the over 7,000 acres of natural forests that exist in NYC. The Framework does two things; it takes a lot of data we collected over years to create a comprehensive look at the current condition of forests across NYC, and it creates a financial model that measures how much investment is needed to implement management over the next 25 years, broken down by capital and expense costs.

When we heard NY4P was embarking on this campaign, we jumped on immediately because we have a year-by-year plan and this happened to be Year One. There has been a lot of momentum and engagement with community groups on natural areas. Last year, the City Council hosted a hearing about the importance of natural areas and 25 groups came out to testify, including NY4P. It married a lot of the groundwork we’ve been doing to this one specific piece. It was a match made in heaven! We were able to add our voice to this powerful Coalition, and I think that for the Coalition, having this really detailed and well-documented set of recommendations really added to the credibility and messaging of the whole Play Fair campaign.


People hiking in Inwood Hill Park, a large park with natural areas and hiking trails at the Northern tip of Manhattan. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.
People hiking in Inwood Hill Park, a large park with natural areas and hiking trails at the Northern tip of Manhattan. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.

NY4P: The actual name itself, Play Fair, is kind of tongue-in-cheek, like, “Give us the resources that have been denied prior.” Would you say this applies to your line of work?   


SCP: Yes, and I have a two-part answer to explain why. The first is that we teamed up with the US Forest Service to do a social assessment. In 2014 and 2015, they interviewed park users in 40 parks across the city. 25% of people said they primarily recreated in the park where they were interviewed, 50% said they recreated in one or two parks, so about half of park users are recreating on city parkland. For people like me, who had to wait until adulthood to make meaningful connections to nature, I realized other New Yorkers may never have that, so it’s important to bring it as close as we can.

Second, there is a huge disparity on what is spent on natural areas compared to other forms of parkland. There’s been a misconception that natural areas are self-managing. Our research actually shows that our forests are at a real tipping point: we have many healthy mature trees and much less healthy young trees, and so we have a real social imperative to give people a high quality experience. These places are on the verge of a rapid decline unless they receive investment and care.


NY4P: In this era of increased concern about climate change, how does resiliency figure into increased management of forests compared to manmade structures such as storm walls or barriers?


SCP: We know that natural areas—forests and wetlands—are really important for mitigating the effects of climate change. They store a lot of carbon, protect our coastal areas, and cool our city. We focus on how to manage these resources as they change in the face of climate change. This year we released a tool that looks at the condition of forests across the city and recommends what to plant in them to maximize their likeliness of surviving into the future. For example, we’ll look at a forest in the Bronx, and say, “OK, this is an Oak-dominated forest, and in a hundred years, it’s going to be a lot hotter, so this is what we should plant so that it will survive long-term.”


NY4P: How has Play Fair funding already been used in your organization?


SCP: The Play Fair funding [$44 million in total] included $4 million to fund the first year of the Forest Management Framework. To be perfectly clear, none of the funding comes to the NAC, it goes to NYC Parks’s Natural Areas Group. We have been very involved in helping to shape the plan of how the funding will be spent and all of the money is being spent within the Framework we designed with NYC Parks.

Of the $4 million, almost $3 million has been used to hire 47 seasonal staff, which includes gardeners, a trail team, a team to do ecological monitoring, and a team to do GIS tracking of where work has been done. The other million is for work by contractors, and a small portion of that will come to the NAC through a contract to expand our efforts to create alignment with other organizations and conservancies.

Some of the deliverables that have been developed include: planting 15,000 trees and shrubs; planting almost 40,000 herbaceous shrubs, which are little plants; improving 40 miles of trails, which advances our citywide trails initiative; engaging 3,500 volunteers; and training 20 advanced volunteer groups, which are groups that can then go out and do work on their own. So this funding is creating a huge footprint on the ground and a huge mobilization and training of staff, volunteers, groups, and conservancies across the city.


NY4P: In terms of future years, what would ideally be funded regarding the NAC’s work?


SCP: We need 24 more years of funding for the Forest Management Framework and we’re excited to work with Play Fair to get this funding included. In 2020, we’re going to release a Wetland Management Framework to look at coastal wetlands as well as streams and fresh water wetlands. We want to see our city’s natural areas brought up to world-class quality. We think these are really modest investments considering the huge benefits they provide.


Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.
Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Picture provided by the Natural Areas Conservancy.

NY4P: Do those 24 years of fighting for funding seem daunting?


SCP: The Million Trees program under Mayor Bloomberg was a ten-year investment, and this plan is the next generation of that. We need that level of long term multi-year allocation. It is my hope that the momentum and visibility that Play Fair and NY4P have brought will pair with the high quality work that NYC Parks is already doing to help make the case for that long term investment. The goal is to have, as the Play Fair Coalition has set forth, an additional $100 million for NYC Parks. It should not be a pipe dream; it should be a real thing, and we’re excited to help make that happen.


NY4P: Last question! What is your favorite natural area or park to be in in NYC?


SCP: It’s hard to choose, but my favorite has to be Van Cortlandt Park because it’s near where I grew up, which makes it special for me, and it reminds me of upstate New York, which is another place that is very special to me. It’s a really beautiful park—it seems like you’re not in the city, but you’re in the Bronx, right at the end of the subway line. 


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