Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.
There is a gravel trail that loops around a pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of New York City's Gateway National Recreation Area, and in its circumference you can see the richness of nature in the unlikely setting of the largest metropolitan area in the United States.
Against the silhouette of Manhattan, you might spot 332 species of birds—avocets with upturned needle-like bills, blue herons with sinuous necks, sandpipers, loons, mute swans elegant and pale as moonlight, and sometimes even a snowy owl.
West Pond, as it is known, is one of a pair (the other being East Pond) along the route of the Atlantic flyway. By grace of their protected shoreline and freshwater, the ponds have always attracted huge numbers of birds and, in turn, bird-watchers.
Last October 29, the stunning blow that was Hurricane Sandy breached the ponds, opening them to the saltwater marsh, and wrecked much else in Gateway, which is part of the National Park System and encompasses three units: Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Staten Island and Jamaica Bay in New York.
In Sandy Hook, where the Coast Guard tidal gauge broke during the hurricane when the water level topped 13 feet, the storm shifted dunes into parking lots; swept the Tiki Bar in Sea Bright off its foundation and left it in pieces on the beach three miles away; and demolished the stage where Sandy Hook Foundation-sponsored summer concerts were held, leaving only a set of stairs to nowhere to commemorate its existence. Paths were ripped up, and electricity, water, and sewage were knocked out. "It was like a washing machine on an agitator cycle," said Pete McCarthy, Sandy Hook's unit coordinator.
In the Jamaica Bay section of Gateway, wind and water lifted an entire dock from Riis Landing on Rockaway Peninsula and propelled it a mile and a half across the bay to Plumb Beach, where it came to rest with a deck chair and pair of flip-flops still on board, as if teleported magically through air. The storm flooded the Jacob Riis bathhouse, buried playground equipment in sand, and tossed propane tanks, sailboats, and trees onto the shoreline. In all, the park suffered $180 million in damage, the amount appropriated for repair.
Sandy, and the wreckage left in its wake, has amplified questions that have dogged the park, which has struggled since its inception with underfunding and an unfocused sense of purpose and identity. And the storm prompts a more immediate and urgent question: Is there a silver lining to Sandy? Can this disaster actually spur the remaking of Gateway, which has been accused of failing by some but is beloved by many?
A Park for the People
Gateway National Recreation Area was established in 1972, the same year as its bookend urban counterpart on the West Coast, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California. The premise behind its founding—that of taking parks to the people—was a departure from the classic National Park Service (NPS) mission of preserving historic and natural resources. Despite a visitor population of more than eight million people a year—nearly all day-trippers (summer is high season because of the beaches)—Gateway is still a work in progress.
Unlike iconic national parks like Yellowstone with its Old Faithful or Mount Rainer with its eponymous peak, Gateway has no spectacular centerpiece. It spreads over 26,000 acres in parts of New Jersey, Staten Island, the Rockaway Peninsula, and Jamaica Bay, a hodgepodge of beaches, saltwater marsh, and bay, plus defunct forts, barracks, gun emplacements, and other vestiges of its military history (pre-Civil War through the 20th century). Also in the mix are Sandy Hook lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in the country, and Floyd Bennett Field, New York's first municipal airport. And there are playing fields, piers, grassland, and 550 buildings, many historic, but many decaying—a process accelerated by wind, water, and the legacy of mold left by Sandy.
It's a scattered realm, agrees Gateway's superintendant Linda Canzanelli, who argues that diversity is the park's strength. "There are 20 things that could make it a national park," she says, ticking off 60 miles of shoreline, wetlands, marinas, and historic buildings. The NPS, she says, has been working to correct a series of mistakes. "It has to be a destination park, not just a nine-to-five city park. We need things like camping, youth hostels, and hotels. We didn't understand the role of recreation and organized sports in the park, and we didn't focus on the fact that New York City is lucky to have a premier park system; we didn't try to establish a separate identity."
To which one might add another problem: transportation. "For those New Yorkers without cars," then Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., of New Jersey said in the 1970s, "Gateway might as well be in Wyoming." Although the problem is being worked on, the subway stop nearest to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge nature center is a mile away. Many other parts of the park, like Floyd Bennett Field, are a longer trek, and the only option for getting to Sandy Hook, other than by car, is service by ferry from lower Manhattan at the cost of $45 round trip.
In 2007, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an advocacy group, published a report card on the state of the national parks that assigned Gateway dismal marks. "Staffing and funding shortfalls affect all aspects of the park's operations," the report said. "New habitats, restored marshes and modern recreation facilities are needed to create an environment that is suitable for park visitors, native wildlife and plants."
A follow-up editorial in the New York Times called the park "one of the more discombobulated units in the National Park System." Although the fine print at the bottom of the NPCA report carried the caveat that it represented a snapshot of the park in 2007 and did not necessarily reflect its current state, Alexander Brash, NPCA's northeast coordinator, says not much has changed since then . . . except Sandy, which he calls a gift from heaven. "Sandy wiped the slate clean. Now there is money to repair, fix, and reconstruct. For once there is a better vision in place. It's a golden opportunity to make a great urban park."
That better vision comes in several guises. In July, the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation and the NPS signed an agreement allowing the two agencies to cooperatively run 10,000 acres of federal and city-owned parkland around Jamaica Bay. Coordinating habitat restoration and management, creating a seamless network of parkland, and developing new philanthropic sources are among the goals. "Sandy helped galvanize the relationship" between the two agencies, says Giles Parker, chief of staff at the Office of the Commissioner at National Parks of New York Harbor.
Also in process is a long overdue general management plan, a reimagining of the park that will address sustainability, transportation, and natural and historical resource issues, as well as the relationship between the park and local communities. Buttressing the forward momentum is support from organizations like the Friends of Gateway, Friends of Sandy Hook, National Parks Foundation, Trust for Public Land, Environmental Defense Fund, Rockefeller Foundation, and others.
Deep affection for Gateway is evinced by comments on Gateway's Facebook page. One post-storm message just said: "Hang in there, Gateway!" Along with post-Sandy complaints ("Slackers! How long do we have to wait for you guys to do something at Great Kills Marina?") are expressions of concern ("How did the holly forest survive?"). Most of all, there is a desire to come to the rescue of an adored, if troubled, resource. One person asked, "Is there any way I can volunteer to help? I may have lost everything but it's important to restore this park for future generations."
From Moses to Sandy
"Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it," President Theodore Roosevelt said of the Grand Canyon in 1908, but the dictum does not apply to the dynamics of a national park in an urban area, like Gateway.
So much of Jamaica Bay has been impacted and manipulated by man, both within and outside the refuge. There are marshes rebuilt by the Army Corps of Engineers, trails, docks, seawalls, and areas built up by landfill, not to mention four sewage treatment plants. John F. Kennedy International Airport is nearby, with its attendant problems of toxic runoff and the notoriously bad juxtaposition of jet engines and birds.
The two freshwater ponds were also created by man. They were ordered up by Robert Moses, the revered or reviled (depending on where you stand) master builder of New York City, who in assorted public official roles over the course of 44 years (from 1924 to 1968) oversaw the building of 416 miles of parkway; 13 bridges; 658 parks; numerous beaches, tunnels, civic centers, and pools; and the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.
Moses was vilified as a bully and destroyer of neighborhoods, but the wildlife refuge owes its existence to him. In 1938 William F. Carey, the city's commissioner of sanitation, wanted to put an incinerator and ash dump in Jamaica Bay. The possibility of a deepwater port was also suggested. Moses thought otherwise and lobbied for a "place within the limits of the city where the strain of our city life can be relieved . . . where the old may rest and the young can play . . . Are we to have another waterfront slum?" he asked. His vision and values prevailed. The incinerator and port were scuttled. Score one for Robert Moses.
The larger East Pond has been repaired—the tracks for the A train ran on top of its berm—though its water remains brackish. The smaller West Pond was left with a 60-foot-wide gap that erosion will widen. There is debate over whether the pond should be restored or allowed to be subsumed by the surrounding marsh, and even within the NPS you can find adherents to both sides.
"We would never have built them today," Superintendant Canzanelli says of the ponds. As for restoration: "Rather than making snap judgments, we need to get to people who are knowledgeable, look at peer-reviewed studies, and hear debate." Perhaps, she suggests, the answer lies outside the seesaw question of restore or not; for example, a pond could be built in a less vulnerable place.
The NPCA advocates restoration. "We believe the breach should be repaired in light of the pond's value in making wildlife accessible in this urban environment," its president, Thomas Kiernan, wrote Jonathan Jarvis, NPS director. Explains NPCA's Brash: "It's one of the few places you can take school kids and have a flight of a hundred snow geese come so close that if you are a sixth grader from Brooklyn, you can practically touch their tail feathers." The idea is that a national park in an urban area should provide what he calls a "wild experience" as a step toward growing a constituency that will support and appreciate other, more iconic parks.
Another, more long-range concern spotlighted by Sandy is the specter of rising sea levels and climate change. "We have a new reality," says Will Shafroth, acting commissioner at National Parks of New York Harbor. "Sandy has accelerated the pace with which we are going to have to deal with climate change and sea level rise, and it is unthinkable not to make decisions sensitive to those concerns. We can't rebuild without taking that into account."
Shafroth mentions the bathhouse on Riis Beach, which abuts the water and was beaten up by the storm. In rebuilding, he suggests, the first floor might be left open as a pavilion. "If waves hit, they will wash right through." Among other things, Sandy has refocused the lens as to what gets built and where and how.
"But how much do you do, and how much political will is there to doing anything other than putting things back to where they were six months ago?" asks Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. "It is pointless, for example, to restore the ponds if they can't be maintained." Chronic underfunding of all national parks has always been a problem, and—in the era of sequestration—will probably remain so. The sustainability of political will is a valid question, particularly in an attention-deficit-disordered world where fading headlines subvert good intentions. The crisis recedes. People forget.
Should the ponds be allowed to revert back to nature? "Absurd," Phillips says. "There is no such thing as letting it revert. Everything in Jamaica Bay has been altered, from tidal flow to salinity to turbidity. Jamaica Bay is a hugely important wetland, not a square inch of which hasn't been disturbed and altered by human activities. It's an urban system and needs to be managed."
Prospects that the ponds—and Gateway in general—will be managed correctly never looked better, Brash maintains. He's convinced a seismic shift has occurred, that the players involved finally get it and will move forward toward a vision that incorporates creative partnerships, opportunities for community interaction, private philanthropy, and cooperation between city, state, and federal agencies. As for the sustainability of political will: "I believe everyone will rise to the occasion. If a destination park is created-one that inspires and attracts-people and resources will be on hand to make it work, and the park will more than stand on its two feet."
On the gravel path around West Pond, now interrupted by a tidal flow of saltwater bracketed on each side by orange plastic fencing, you could spot a tree swallow that had made an unseasonably early appearance. An osprey couple had set up housekeeping on one of the nesting platforms. Mute swans glided in tandem.
Explain the kick of bird-watching, I asked Dave Taft, the NPS coordinator for the Jamaica Bay unit of Gateway and my guide for the morning. Taft, who had a pair of binoculars draped around his neck, thought a bit, and began to talk about a bird he cherishes, a bird with a back as blue as a marlin and a flash of white on its wing.
"The black-throated blue warbler is a tiny bird, about three or four inches long," he said. "It is one of the miracles of natural history, and I wonder how many mistakes on the way to its evolution it took to make it.
"Looking at this bird is my way of saying, 'On this day, the state of evolution produced this beautiful thing, and I am also the product of that same process.' It is the period at the end of a sentence . . . only to continue on to the next sentence."
In the foreground, a heron alighted on the shoreline. In the distance, a 777 lifted off from one of the runways at JFK airport and turned east toward the Atlantic.