I visited Pelham Bay Park on a chilly February morning. I was excited to kick off my semester long project of exploring parks in the NY area and mad at myself for forgetting a coat. Though I would have loved to wander around the park and explore, I had a mission. The Natural Areas Conservancy, a group devoted to protecting New York City parks, was hosting a walk through the park and I was very interested in hearing what they had to say.
Pelham Bay Park is the largest park in NYC, though not the most well-known. It has lots of opportunities for birding and hiking, two historic mansions, islands, a beach, two golf courses, and 13 miles of shoreline. The park also has the second largest collection of saltmarshes in the city. Pelham Bay Park represents a great resource for New Yorkers who want to enjoy nature. But, with the possible effects of climate change on the mind, I wanted to know what was being done to protect and conserve Pelham Bay for the future.
Our group met outside the Bartow-Pell Mansion and then started a slow meander towards the salt marsh, discussing the trees that could be found in the area. Pelham Bay is home to lots of non-native trees. When the Bartow-Pell family lived there they brought in many different types of trees to decorate the grounds. Though the diversity of trees does create a pretty effect, it is not beneficial to the native trees. The non-native trees in the park are nitrogen fixers, meaning they take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil, converting it into ammonia, a form usable by plants. This, at first, sounds like a good thing. But these non-native trees fix too much nitrogen into the soil and that causes the soil to be unable to support native trees and plants that rely on less ammonia. Native plants adapted to live in the low-ammonia level soil that is normal in an urban environment, but the growth of invasive species upset this system – they cycle nitrogen too quickly. In addition, the invasive trees produce a litter layer that prevents native species from easily germinating and thus changing the future composition of the forest. Though 76% of the canopy, or top layer, of trees in the park is composed of native trees, the mid-story only has about 60% native trees. This indicates that non-native trees are taking over and might soon outnumber non-natives.
Another worrying sign about the trees in Pelham Bay were the vines. The group leaders referred to any section of trees completely covered by vines as Vineland. There was a lot of it. Though the vines create the feel of being in a jungle and add a sort of mystery to the location, they are very dangerous to the health of the ecosystem. Invasive vines grow and cover the canopy of the trees, cutting off the trees’ and other plants’ access to the sun; effectively getting rid of their food source and eventually killing them. The leaders mentioned that the Natural Areas Conservancy has hosted events where volunteers get rid of the vines, but having recently done that myself, I realize how troublesome it is. The vines are strong and usually well entangled with the limbs of the trees. Sometimes they are impossible to remove. Plus, the invasive vines will only come back without constant vigilance.
Finally, we reached the salt marsh. It was low-tide when we arrived and it was easy to see the trash that had found home in the mud of the marsh. The NAC is attempting to aid the marsh along with the Natural Resources Group, part of NYC Parks Department. They hope to restore the river banks, wetlands, and marshes, protect wildlife and the ecosystem of the marsh, while also protecting the city from rising sea levels and future storms, such as Hurricane Sandy. In 2013 the NRG was awarded a grant from the EPA to study the effects of climate change and how rising sea levels will affect the wetlands in NYC parks across all of the boroughs. Though I was happy to hear about the effort being made to safeguard the parks, it was a pleasure to hear that Pelham Bay Park has some of the best marshes in New York City, according to the NAC. The marshes are both of high quality and low vulnerability to degradation.
Pelham Bay Park has so much more to explore than just what I got to visit. It was clear that this park is one of the best protected parks when it comes to the possible effects of climate change because of the work of groups like the Natural Areas Conservancy and the Natural Resources Group. They are working hard to make Pelham Bay a natural place to explore for years to come.