Randall’s Island

Randall’s Island is a park in sections. I visited the island on a rainy morning in April. I was surprised, upon entering the park, to see how much of it was not actually parklands. The island has a wastewater treatment plant, a fire academy, a psychiatric center, a shelter, and a few other buildings. Along the edges there are gardens and wetlands, and on the inside are soccer fields, tennis courts, a stadium, baseball diamonds, and a golf course.

I walked along the southern edge of the island. The path is multi-purpose allowing for both walkers and cyclers to use it. It’s edged with pretty gardens, including one section that is a native plant garden. This is a great conservational move because native plants need less maintenance than non-native plants and do not promote the spreading of invasive species. This does make me wish that all of the gardens on the island used native plants.

Marshlands at Randall’s Island

Just a few feet from the path is the East River. There are no protections to stop the river from flooding the island in the event of a storm, but the grass strip between the path and the river does help prevent runoff from entering into the water. The northern end of the island, which I didn’t have a chance to explore, has even more protective elements. That section of the park is home to salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. Both of these natural areas work as barriers between the developed sections of the park and the river during floods or storm surges by soaking up the excess water and releasing it slowly. They also help to stop erosion and offer food and sanctuary for birds.

Just a step and you’re in the East River.

The Randall’s Island Park Alliance has raised over $16 million to restore and develop the natural areas of the park. They first worked on restoring the salt marsh and freshwater wetland; later they repaired a seawall, planted another salt marsh and helped create a second growth forest.

Another cool feature of the island is the Urban Farm. Only an acre large, the farm produces organic fruits and vegetables and uses a wide variety of growing methods. Some food found at the farm includes: rice, kale, leek, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, and corn. There’s also a chicken coop. Even a farm as small as this one is great in this changing ecological world. An urban farm helps, in a small way, reduce the city’s ecological footprint.

Though the majority of Randall’s Island is likely to be flooded in the case of an extreme weather event and rising tides would severely decrease the acreage of the island, I believe Randall’s Island is doing its best to fight the effects of climate change. They regularly look for volunteers to help get rid of invasive plant species, plant native trees, and get rid of trash. The restoration of coastal marshes goes a long way to helping prevent runoff and erosion from hurting both the park and the river.

From an island in the East River to a park alongside the Hudson, in the next post I cross Manhattan to visit Riverside Park.



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With the threat of rising sea levels, the New York City government has to seriously consider how to protect its land. New York is not only threatened by elevation of the water level, which could decrease the size of coastal areas, but also by the increasing damage that could be caused by storm surges. One way that the coast could be protected is by building barriers.

Examples of barriers include seawalls, groins, and jetties. Seawalls are exactly what they sound like, walls built in the sea, which protect the coast from being inundated with too much water (Gornitz et al. 2002). Groins are a series of posts or sometimes a wall, built onto a beach that is meant to catch littoral sand that is moved by the currents. Jetties are long strips of land that make inlets stable and protect harbors from the worst effects of waves. The decision of where to place barriers and what kind of barrier to use is vitally important, both to the area it protects and the ecosystem it affects.

After the disastrous effects of Hurricane Sandy, New York City had to consider what can be done to protect itself. One option that was first thought of was to build moveable barriers in the ocean, like those found in the Netherlands. (Sobel 2014) There are examples of barriers like that as close as New England, protecting small channels from being flooded with water. But those types of barriers only work for small areas. The shores of New York are too long to be protected by a moveable barrier. Bryan Walsh wrote in Time that a Dutch-style barrier surrounding New York City from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Rockaway Beach would be an option, but would cost anywhere around $10 – $15 million (Walsh 2012). Christa Marshall in Scientific American wrote about a proposal to build two different seawalls, first a seawall in the East River, then a seawall from Sandy Hook to Rockaway Beach (Marshall 2014). This double seawall would create an extra layer of protection. It is doubtful that this will completely stop all flooding, but it would limit the amount of damages that would occur in New York. Still, though barriers are able to stop water from damaging the land, they also have great consequences.

A rendering of a sea wall between Brooklyn and Staten Island – Source Fox News

The greatest consequence of coastal barriers is erosion. With seawalls, erosion occurs both at the base of the seawall (Gornitz et al. 2002) and further down the coast where the seawall does not extend. These areas suffer even more than they usually would because the seawalls just move the waves further along and when they reach an unprotected area, the waves are even more powerful than normal (Dunn 2009). If rubble is placed directly next to the seawall, erosion at the base can be decreased. Groins, if they are not placed in the right spot usually increase erosion of beaches further downstream, as do jetties. Erosion of beaches causes habitat loss for animals who nest or lay eggs there and can decrease the number of invertebrate species who live on the beach (Dugan and Hubbard 2010).

New York must consider the cost of building barriers. Though they might protect the city from flooding, they could also pass the consequences further along to other cities. Building barriers is considered to be a “hard” approach. In the next science post, I will investigate a “soft” approach, beach nourishment.




Dugan, J.E., and D. M. Hubbard. 2010. Ecological Effects of Coastal Armoring: A Summary of Recent Results for Exposed Sandy Beaches in Southern California. US Geological Survey, Department of Interior. Scientific investigations report, 2010-5254. Reston, VA, USA.


Dunn, P. 2009. Can Seawalls Prevent Beaches from Eroding?. MIT School of Engineering. http://engineering.mit.edu/ask/can-seawalls-prevent-beaches-eroding

Gornitz, V., S. Couch, and E. K. Hartig. 2002. Impact of sea level rise in the New York City metropolitan area. Global and Planetary Changes 32: 61-88.

Marshall, C. 2014. Massive Seawall May Be Needed to Keep New York City Dry. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/massive-seawall-may-be-needed-to-keep-new-york-city-dry/

Sobel, A. 2014. Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. HarperCollins. New York, New York, USA.

Walsh, B. 2012. Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can Learn from Other Threatened Cities. Time. http://science.time.com/2012/11/05/sandy-what-a-coastal-u-s-can-learn-from-other-threatened-cities/

Image – http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/10/29/one-year-after-sandy-progress-on-20-billion-sea-wall.html


Great Kills Park

My trip to Great Kills Park, part of the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area accidentally occurred too early for two different reasons. The first reason is that I went in late March, only a week before the ranger station opens up for the summer season, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The second reason takes a bit more explaining, so keep reading.

After a long bus ride from Manhattan, I arrived at Great Kills Park – two stops after the one I was supposed to get off on. Siri has never been my friend and the location I thought was supposed to be the park entrance was actually just a fenced off section of the park. I walked along the side of the road to get back to where the gate is and once again took in the sight I’ve become so used to: trash everywhere and lots of vines.

When I finally made it to the gate I was surprised to realize how far of a walk it was to get to the main section of the park. The sidewalk stretched on forever and there wasn’t much to see. The parklands on either side of the road were fenced off. I saw a sign saying that an environmental cleanup operation was going on and that entrance was prohibited. Other signs said that there were hazardous materials in these spaces. I kept walking.

The path was surprisingly busy, despite the chill. Lots of people were running or riding their bikes. Some walked with family, others chatted on their cell phones. All were out to enjoy the park.

Eventually I reached the beach, and the closed visitors center and parking lots. The beach seemed nice, though lifeguards were not posted at the time (they’ll start working after Memorial Day). I’m not much of a beach person, so I kept walking. I passed by the busy marina and walked all the way out to Crookes Point. In this area of the park I was finally able to find hiking trails, though they were very short and not cleared very well. They felt like afterthoughts to the general purpose of the park. Finally, I sat on the edge of the water, on a rocky ledge, watching a group of men fish and some seagulls fighting.

All in all, I have to say that this is not my kind of park. I prefer parks with great views and lots of hiking trails. Great Kills is meant for more recreationally minded people, what with the beach and marina. My assessment of the park was furthered when I was able to get ahold of a map. The park contains soccer fields, four ball fields, a model airplane flying field, and a few more trails in that mysterious closed off section of the park.

That 265-acre mystery section was once a city landfill. Robert Moses (the same Moses who built the Jamaica Bay Ponds) wanted to strengthen that section of Staten Island marshland so that it could be used for recreational purposes. Household and industrial trash was dumped there to compact the land and fill it. In 2005 during a helicopter sweep of the area, the New York Police found 80 hot spots of radiation, which were 200 times the background levels expected in such an area. That section of the park was then closed down to be surveyed. Though Hurricane Sandy delayed the survey process, eventually the National Parks Service discovered 1,200 locations with elevated levels of radiation. Thirty-five of the spots were excavated and the rest still need to be investigated.

It doesn’t end there though. During the survey, the NPS realized that not only was the radiation even more prevalent than they first suspected, they also found out that the waste material dumped in the land, as well as having radioactive materials, contained chemical contaminants. This has led to another, separate study of the land that started in 2015, which will take approximately five years to finish.

Trash on Crookes Point in Great Kills Park

It’s hard for me to make an assessment of how well Great Kills can stand up against climate change with so much of the park blocked off. It was difficult to get a feel for how much land invasive species had taken over. From what I could tell, the beach seemed healthy – if a bit full of trash – and there were barriers in place to prevent erosion. On park message boards I saw signs for a Littoral Society clean up event from last October. I visited Great Kills four years too early to really understand the park, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to visit again in the future.



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Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The first thing you notice about Jamaica Bay is the trash. It’s everywhere. It’s caught in the trees; it’s on the ground in minuscule pieces so that it almost blends in with the earth. It’s a sad sight to behold and to enjoy the park you have to ignore the litter everywhere.

Trash at Jamaica Bay

I arrived at the park first by subway and then a mile-long walk to the park entrance. Without a car, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, is hard to access, but definitely worth the visit. It is the only wildlife refuge managed by the National Parks Service and is an important birding location. Twenty percent of North American bird species stop at the refugee each year. When I visited, I almost got to see an owl, but it flew away just before I got there.

There are two main trails in the park and I decided to walk the loop around the West Pond. This puts you immediately out on the marsh. It feels completely natural, other than the looming views of the Manhattan skyline. I hadn’t really taken a good look at the park map, so I was surprised when my walk abruptly ended. Hurricane Sandy had breached part of the pond, rendering the trail impassable, and three years later it still hadn’t been fixed.

The West Pond Breach – Source: NPS

After a thorough search for information of Jamaica Bay I did find out there is a plan underway to fix the trail, but I also learned something interesting about the pond. The West Pond and its eastern counterpart are both man-made ponds, created under the orders of Robert Moses, a city planner who worked in the New York City area. Plus, not only were these parks man-made, they were also fresh-water ponds. This means that the break is especially bad, because it turned the fresh-water area into a salt-water space. This makes the pond unable to support some of the unique birds that visited the freshwater pond. Hopefully the pond will be repaired soon, but first the NPS must assess the viability of restoring the pond to a freshwater ecosystem or letting it “revert” to saltwater. (Supporters of restoring the pond to freshwater think it doesn’t make sense to let a man-made pond revert to anything.)

The National Park Service said, in a report produced before Hurricane Sandy, that they expect Gateway to be affected by climate change in four main ways: sea level rise, temperature changes, precipitation changes, and extreme weather events.  Hurricane Sandy is arguably an example of such an extreme weather event caused by climate change. There have been other effects already occurring in the meantime. The National Parks Conservation Association says that the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay have lost 60% of their area. In 2014 a grant of $11.1 million was provided to the park for many projects including salt marsh, wetlands, and forest restoration, as well as oyster bed enhancements.

A view of the Manhattan skyline from Jamaica Bay

The Nature Conservancy is working with the National Parks Service and the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy to make the park more resistant to rising sea levels and also to protect it from the changing climate. They plan to weed out invasive species, such as Asiatic bittersweet, and plant new trees and shrubs and species that are flood-resistant and can tolerate and flourish in salty water. They also plan to add in milkweed to attract pollinators. Emily Nobel Maxwell, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s program in NYC hopes that this will serve as an example of what could be done to protect the rest of the City’s coastline.

Though Jamaica Bay has its issues, it’s clear that the National Park Service and proponents of the park are trying to improve and conserve it for future use. When you have the time, you should definitely stop by the park to hike but make sure you read the map before hitting the trails.



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Marshlands Conservancy

Marshlands Conservancy is a beautiful park in Rye, NY, with a shoreline in the Long Island Sound. When I drove into the park, I was the first car there – that quickly changed. The park rapidly filled up. It’s a popular spot, even during weekdays. It has almost 150 acres, three miles of hiking trails, and is great for bird watching.

Marshlands Conservancy

When I started walking in Marshlands, it was immediately clear that the rangers work to keep the park looking as natural as possible. There are no open green spaces for picnicking or playing in. The closest thing available is an overgrown field, but that is so dissimilar to the open areas I usually see in urban parks, that it hardly counts. Most of the park is heavily wooded, with gigantic trees either standing tall or fallen over. Some of the fallen trees had been cut up so as not to block the trails, but the forest had mostly been left to its own devices.

One of the greatest draws to Marshlands Conservancy is the salt marsh. Though the park has lost over 31% of the marsh and 3% per year, the marshes are still a great place to explore and offer an important environmental service. The salt marsh is able to protect the park from rising sea levels and storm surges. Marshes can soak up water and release it at a pace that will not harm the landscape. For storm surges, marshlands can reduce the height of the surge, thus protecting the surrounding area. Also, the marsh provides a buffer zone for runoff before it enters into the sound.

Salt marsh at Marshlands Conservancy

One great act of conservation that happens in the park starts at the nature center and ends on the shoreline. Outside the center there are plastic bags one can grab and use to pick up trash while you walk around the park. At first I thought this seemed to be superfluous. The park was mostly clear of litter. But, when I walked along the shoreline, I saw quite a bit of trash, which washed in with the tides and is deposited in the park. It is fantastic that the rangers actively encourage visitors to help clean the park.

Along with those trash bags, the conservancy also has many other programs to help preserve the park. Every Saturday there is a volunteer opportunity, whether cleaning the stone walls, looking for nesting osprey, or maintaining hiking trails. On most Sundays, though no conservancy activities are planned, there are events to get people involved in nature. Marshlands Conservancy is a fine example of how certain New York parks should look and act like. I’m not saying all parks should eschew picnic areas and playgrounds, but this natural space will protect New York from rising sea levels and offers a fun area to discover the wilderness.

I had a mixed experience discovering the wild while in Marshlands. Near the back of the park there was a wire fence, which I originally thought was unusual. Once I passed through the open section of the fence, I soon came to understand why it was there. A pack of whitetail deer grazed all throughout the area. I was surrounded by about fifteen of them. They would stare at me for a second or two and then go about their business. It felt magical and I know that an experience like this would not be possible in most other New York parks. But, after a minute of trying to walk past the deer, the experience went from magical to a bit creepy. The deer kept staring at me every time I took a step. Though seeing such a large group of deer was very cool, large groups of deer aren’t always a good thing. They eat a lot of plants and can affect the composition of the forest, which can lower the overall health of the area.

The deer are watching.

For my next exploration, I go from one salt marsh to another. The park is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, another area with large animal populations. Though that park also suffers the same tidal trash problems as Marshlands, Hurricane Sandy brought in a whole other set of issues for the refugee.



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Hurricane Sandy

It’s one of the signals of summer – the weathermen announce that it’s hurricane season. To skeptics, saying that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change, would be considered ridiculous. But, Sandy’s consequences are a clear sign of the changing climate and it could be just the first of many severe acts of nature in the future. The consequences of storms like those could be disastrous for New York and any other areas affected.

The majority of Atlantic hurricanes head into the ocean and dissipate, but Sandy followed a different path. It took a left turn and ran straight into NYC. This is not necessarily directly caused by climate change, but global change could create increases in certain extreme weather events. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) states in their Summary for Policy Makers (2013) that there will be an increase in near-storm precipitation in the future, but there is also a low chance that overall tropical cyclone frequency would decrease. This intensification of the hydrologic cycle occurs because greenhouse gasses warm the atmosphere and make evaporation and precipitation occur more forcefully. These predications also say that there could be an increase in the number of intense hurricanes.

Even with these predictions stating that there might be a decrease in storms, future hurricanes will have an even worse effect than they used to because the seas will swell, causing an increase in storm surges. In Adam Sobel’s 2014 book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future Sobel says that because of the increase in greenhouse gases, the planet could warm and make land ice melt more, thus swelling the ocean. This means that future hurricanes could have even worse flooding effects because of the rising sea level.

Sandy had many disastrous consequences for New York. New York is in a generally low-lying area. When New Orleans was hit with Katrina, the topography proved to be one of the biggest causes of destruction. With almost half the land below sea level, hurricane floods created standing pools of water, destroying many parts of the city. The low-lying areas in New York faced similar problems during Hurricane Sandy and will be problematic in the future as well. Subway tunnels flooded, as did all the automobile tunnels in Manhattan, except for the Lincoln tunnel. West Harlem Waterfront Park was submerged; Coney Island, Brighton Beach, most of Jamaica Bay, the barrier islands of Brooklyn and Queens, and many neighborhoods in Staten Island were all completely flooded (Sobel 2014). The rising sea levels caused by climate change could make the next storm to hit New York even worse than Sandy. The sea level around New York City has already risen a foot during the past hundred years and that number will grow as the planet continues to warm (Sobel 2014).

During the storm 3,444 trees fell into city streets. 3,403 limbs fell down and 1,577 branches were left hanging (Foderaro 2012). This reflects a great loss to the city’s green landscape, but that wasn’t the only effect. The salt water that flooded the city during the storm is believed to be the cause of 10,000 dead or declining trees all over New York (Langfield 2015). The city plans to plant more salt tolerant species to replace these trees, which will hopefully save the plants in the future.

Hurricane Sandy trees
Trees being taken down after Hurricane Sandy – Source: The New York Times

One final effect of Hurricane Sandy is how it has impacted the parks in New York City. Three years after the storm, Inwood Hill Nature Center in Manhattan, Taafle Playground in Brooklyn, and Wolfe’s Pond Park in Staten Island all remain closed due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy. As will be mentioned in my blog post about Jamaica Bay, the West Pond loop trail was rendered impassable by the storm and still remains so.

Climate change will cause storms to be even less predictable than they already are and will make them produce even more destruction than previously seen. Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example of what will happen. New York must take up measures to protect its resources from both the rising sea levels and the damage that will be caused by extreme weather events. In the next science blogs I will look at three different measures that could be taken to counteract these effects: barriers, beach nourishment, and retreat.




Brenner, M. 2015. Understanding the effects of Hurricane Sandy on Atlantic Coast tidal marshes, wildlife. Hurricane Sandy Recovery. https://www.doi.gov/hurricanesandy/understanding-effects-hurricane-sandy-tidal-marshes-wildlife

Environmental Defense Fund. 2013. Sandy Success Stories: New York, New Jersey June 2013. Environmental Defense Fund. https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/content/SandySuccessStories_June2013.pdf

Foderaro, L. W. 2012. Storm Inflicted a Beating on City Trees. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/nyregion/hurricane-sandy-inflicted-a-beating-on-new-york-city-trees.html?_r=0

IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Langfield, A. 2015. New York City still feeling the wrath of Superstorm Sandy. CBS Money Watch. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-york-city-still-feeling-the-wrath-of-superstorm-sandy/

Long Island Press. 2014. Sandy 2 Years Later: Winners and Losers on Long Island. Long Island Press. https://www.longislandpress.com/2014/10/29/sandy-2-years-later-winners-and-losers-on-long-island/

NYC Parks Department. 2016. Notices: Park and Facility closures. NYC Parks Department. https://www.nycgovparks.org/news/notices

Sobel, A. 2014. Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. HarperCollins. New York, New York, USA.


Pelham Bay Park

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 salt marsh


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.



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