By Len Maniace
To paraphrase Mark Twain – the report of nature’s death in New York City is an exaggeration. And given some help, nature can thrive in our city. That’s what leading experts from government and nonprofit groups told a City Council committee this week.
Natural areas in the New York City park system include Alley Pond Park in Queens.
Of the 30,000 acres of city parkland, 10,000 acres are considered natural areas: forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands and salt marshes. Within those natural areas, 51 sites are designated “forever wild” nature preserves.
“New York City is portrayed as a city of brick and concrete, commerce and culture, a place that is beyond nature. But that’s not true. It’s a city of wild nature and snaking waterways, too. A place like no other along the East Coast,” said Bram Gunther, city Park’s chief of forestry, horticulture, and its Natural Resources Group. He’s also president of the Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit that assists in studying and restoring the city’s natural areas.
There are few signs of the city in many of New York City’s natural areas. Photo credit: Natural Areas Conservancy
Those natural areas are accommodate 2,000 species of plants and 350 species of birds. Across the city’s five boroughs there are more than 220 species of native bees, Gunther told a hearing the City Council’s Park Committee Tuesday.
That natural bounty exists here despite centuries of neglect; 85 percent of the city’s saltwater marshes have been filled in since the arrival of Europeans. And the 10,000 acres of natural areas are not pristine. In cleaning up the Bronx River, an astonishing 77,000 tires were removed. The cost of restoring natural areas is high, about $1 million per acre, but those efforts are paying off. In 2009, the alewife, a type of herring, returned to the Bronx River for the first time since the late 1600s; beavers have been spotted there, too, in recent years.
Once the city’s natural areas were victims of widespread dumping; now the number-one threat to natural areas are invasive species, Gunther said. These are usually non-native plants that run rampant because they have no natural predators, crowding out native species, upon which a network of beneficial insects, birds and other animals depend.
Phragmites is an invasive species that dominates many salt marshes in New York City and along the East Coast.
To get a better handle on the health of its parks, the city just completed what officials are calling the world’s largest ecological and sociological assessment, a huge data set that will help with continuing restoration and also provide a baseline for studying the effects of climate change. The study provides insights on the prevalence of invasives versus native plants. In Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, 67 percent of the understory plants – shrubs and small plants – are native, while the figure is only 40 percent at Marine Park in Brooklyn, said Sarah Charlop-Powers, Executive Director of the Natural Areas Conservancy.
Getting rid of invasives is not easy. Typically it takes two years of stripping invasive plants from a site before the area can be restored with native plants. That typically involves heavy equipment and human labor ,which are expensive. But not always. At Staten Island’s Freshkills Park a herd of goats are helping to keep invasives under control. “They eat an enormous amount of vegetation,” Gunther said.
Officials plan to release the entire study online in 2015.