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.



Helpful Links:













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.



Helpful Links:







Fort Wadsworth

After a train, subway, ferry, and ultimately bus, I arrived at Fort Wadsworth, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Gateway is a collection of three different sites: Sandy Hook, New Jersey; Jamaica Bay; Staten Island, each with multiple park locations. Fort Wadsworth is part of the Staten Island unit and I was very excited to explore a part of New York I hadn’t been to before.

When I arrived at the park, I was disappointed to see that the visitor’s center was closed. I located a map though and attempted to make my way through the park. Crumbling structures from the old military days line the road leading to the overlook. I wanted to take a closer look at the abandoned buildings, but there were signs saying, “Area Closed”. I continued down the path and reached the overlook where you can see Fort Tompkins, the water, and Narrows Bridge, which is directly over the park. It was here where I was able to get a better look at the landscape. This military site is situated on a tall bluff, surrounded by woods, with a small beach. It looked like an interesting place to explore.

Fort Tompkins and the Narrows Bridge

From there I headed down a road, trying to reach the water. On one side was a different old military building, on the other a dense wood, filled with vines. I turned and went down another, less well maintained path that sloped steeply until it reached Fort Tompkins. This path was surround by brush on both sides, though I was able to see the remains of some old buildings. At the base of the path, Fort Tompkins was closed to visitors and there was a long shack, which used to hold torpedoes, with its roof half missing and doors chained shut. I followed the path leading back up to the overlook and was lucky enough to get a view of the beach. It was dirty and speckled with trash. There appeared to be the remnants of structures in the water, though it was hard to tell. I was unable to find a way down to the beach, so instead walked back up to the overlook and left.

Fort Wadsworth was a particularly disappointing trip for me. When I go to a park, I look for trails or interesting features. Though the old buildings were intriguing, I was disappointed by the lack of access available. Other than the one path I walked, there appeared to be no other options for walking. It seemed like a waste of time for such a long trek to get there. I was also saddened by what appeared to be a lack of effort being made to conserve the park. The woods were completely covered in vines and there was too much trash.

When I arrived home I did some research about the park and what, if anything, was being done to help conserve it. After some digging, I found a cultural landscape proposal, created by the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. Olmsted, if you don’t recognize the name refers to Frederick Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. Though the document was very long (200 pages) I was able to glean some interesting facts about the park.

Fort Wadsworth was taken over by the National Parks Service in 1995, a year after the New York Naval Station, the last attempt to redevelop the fort, was decommissioned. Though the park was cleared of vines at this time, after that the park was basically left to grown as it wished.

The vines that I saw suffocating the woods are a type of invasive grape vine called porcelain berry. They have completely enveloped the canopy of the wood and are recommended for removal. What was even more interesting though was the fact that the woods were an entirely new growth. Back when the Fort was in active use, the wooded area was actually a great lawn, kept open for public use. There are pathways underneath all that vegetation that enable visitors to walk down the gigantic slope. If the National Parks Service wants to return Fort Wadsworth to its historical landscape, the Center recommends a very conscientious removal of the trees so as not to cause erosion and a return to its lawn state, with a few shrubs added. They also believe that goats could help maintain the lawn. Goats will eat anything and could clear the lawn.

DSC_0294 4x5
Invasive Vines in Fort Wadsworth

Goats were eventually hired to clear up the lawn of the park. There is a herd of 18 goats which munch on the lawn during the summer and early fall. I just happened to visit at a time where the vines had gotten a chance to grow. The goat’s main food source is Japanese knotweed, another invasive species in the park that is similar to bamboo.

The structures I thought I saw in the water used to be a retaining sea wall, which has broken down in parts, leading to the trash on the beach. A rebuilding of this wall could be helpful in protecting the beach from debris and any storm surges that might occur in the future. Though, because of the gigantic bluff Fort Wadsworth is situated on, it isn’t necessary for the protection of any other part of the park. Along the beach there also used to be a moat, which was fed by the tide and a natural spring. The moat has now been filled in and it is unclear whether the spring still exists.

The proposal goes on to suggest improvements on various buildings in the park. It also says that there is a general redevelopment plan in the works to improve Gateway National Recreation Area, including Fort Wadsworth, though it will take five years to put the plan together. The cultural landscape proposal was created in 2008, which leads me to believe that no significant acts of conservation have since occurred in the park. Our government moves slowly, but hopefully soon we will see a cleaner and better-conserved Fort Wadsworth.



Helpful Links: