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A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

JULY 2010: It's not a pristine wilderness, but this urban wildlife refuge sure serves a lot of people and animals—and is about to get a much needed clean-up.

Saving an Urban Wild Land
A good news story

One of the natural places NRDC works to protect is very near and dear to my heart. Though not officially an NRDC BioGem—or any kind of wilderness—it is as irreplaceable in its own way as Yellowstone. And like much of the Yellowstone area, it is managed by the National Park Service.

At the heart of this special place is a wildlife refuge, the only one of its kind in the national park system. But the true wonder of it is that it is in New York City, my hometown.

I am speaking of Jamaica Bay, which sits at the southern intersection of Brooklyn and Queens—so close to me I can get to it by public transit. My web design firm works with an NPS partner organization, the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, so that is another point of connection for me.

Within Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, you can hike wooded trails, kayak through wetlands and do world-class bird-watching. Some 330 bird species have been observed there—20% of North America's total. And you don't need to know a sandpiper from a tern to enjoy the spectacle.

Birds are not all. Jamaica Bay is home to 60 species of butterfly and 80 species of fish, as well as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. Every spring diamondback terrapins crawl up on the beach to lay their eggs. The horseshoe crabs also come ashore to mate and dig nests, as I have witnessed myself on a guided walk with park rangers.

This sanctuary for humans and wildlife is like another world. And yet, from certain spots, the Empire State Building is clearly visible in the distance. The "A" train periodically rattles across a bridge (yes, that storied train of song) and planes from nearby JFK Airport rise overhead.

It is just that rare mix—of being in the city but not of it—that makes Jamaica Bay so important to protect.

The threats are formidable. One is sea level rise from global warming, which is contributing to the alarming disappearance of the marsh grass islands that dot and define the bay—both ecologically and aesthetically. These islands are projected to vanish within 15 years if the present trend continues.

The other main threat is local and therefore more easily addressed—effluent from four sewage treatment plants that flood the bay with nitrogen.

If you garden (and even if you don't), you may know that nitrogen helps plants grow. Well, it has the same effect in an aquatic environment—with consequences that can be disastrous. Alga can proliferate, reducing oxygen in the water, which makes the environment inhospitable to fish and other creatures, with domino effects on the birds that eat them and animals that eat the birds. It's an undesirable chain of events in any habitat, let alone a wildlife refuge.

Maybe you've heard of the gigantic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Before the BP oil spill, it was the Gulf's chief environmental problem. The cause is fertilizer run-off into the Mississippi River, which lets out into the Gulf. (Nitrogen is a key ingredient in fertilizer.) Virtually nothing lives in the dead zone, which this year is projected to reach 6,500 to 7,800 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. That is the effect of excess nitrogen and other plant nutrients writ large.

Back in my small corner of the world, the dead fish regularly found floating in the bay provide evidence of our local nitrogen problem. Experts suspect that the high levels of nitrogen are also contributing to the problem of the disappearing marsh islands.

But here, at last, is the good news!

New York City has agreed in principle to a sewage treatment plan that will nearly halve nitrogen discharges into the bay, as well as to significant improvements in water quality monitoring. In addition, the city has pledged $15 million over five years for marsh restoration, which, it is hoped, the federal Army Corps of Engineers will match, two to one.

There's more. The Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the National Park Service, has been restoring marsh islands with material dredged from the harbor floor to deepen shipping lanes. And soon, the National Parks of New York Harbor Parks Conservancy will be launching a "Campaign for Jamaica Bay" to leverage government funding for the bay with private sector support—and a roster of programs and activities that will benefit the community.

One interesting plan for the bay is oyster bed restoration. A keystone species that was once abundant in the bay and throughout the harbor, oysters eat algae and filter nitrogen from the water. Their return could play a significant role in bringing the ecosystem back to health.

It is still unclear what the future holds for Jamaica Bay, but the prospects have begun to look brighter. From your vantage, wherever you reside, it may not seem to matter much. Jamaica Bay will never match the majesty of the great wild places that you dream of visiting one day. But Jamaica Bay is in a city where millions of people live—and can be visited any day. That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of it.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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Egret at Jamaica Bay with Manhattan skyline in background

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On This Topic


Jamaica Bay soundscape
CATBIRDS, TOWHEES AND CRICKETS are among the wildlife I encountered on a visit to Jamaica Bay last September. On the trip, I collected sounds and pictures for an interactive "soundscape" for the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.


Spring peeper
Wallpaper
YOU CAN DOWNLOAD free ringtones and wallpaper based on audio and photography from my visits to Jamaica Bay. The chiming sound of spring peepers (that's a peeper above) is an early sound of spring at the refuge and makes a particularly good ringtone. See how a peeper makes his call in this YouTube video by kelsadee.


Resources


New York Harbor Parks
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

10,000 Birds
Jamaica Bay Birding (amazing photos!)

NRDC's Switchboard
NYC to Clean up Jamaica Bay

Gotham Gazette
Can the City & Oyster Save Jamaica Bay?

The New York Times
Scientists Baffled by Loss of Marsh Muck to Restore Islands in Jamaica Bay

Goddard Institute for Space Studies
The Vanishing Marshes of Jamaica Bay: Sea Level Rise or Environmental Degradation?

Gulf Restoration Network
The Dead Zone


Bird on West Pond
Daisies



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.