Wild wetlands of New York and True Grits

World Reports

The largest urban wildlife preserve in the country at 13,000 acres, Jamaica Bay is the natural transition between land and sea, where hundreds of species of birds, fish, and other wildlife eat, rest, nest, and raise young. Wildlife numbers increase into the thousands annually as migratory birds make the bay their pit stop. Protected from the relentless wave action of the ocean by a long stretch of beach, dotted with many small islands and shallows full of prey, the tidal waters of the bay are the ideal place for birds traveling great distances to refuel and recharge. Jets are the other kind of birds regularly landing in the area: the bay lies in the approach path of New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, reminding any visitor that this important ecosystem is far from remote.

The only major wetlands in the country accessible by subway, the marsh loses 45 acres each year due to its proximity to one of the largest cities in the world. Ironically, that city’s population may help save the bay. If naturalists like Dan Mundy of the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers weren’t initially attracted to the bay’s fabulous concentration of wildlife on a regular basis, binoculars in hand to catch sight of snowy owls or other rare fowl, he never would have noticed the steady decline of the marshes.

Mundy and other urban explorers noticed that Spartina alterniflora, the vibrant green cordgrass binding the wetlands, was dying. That was seven years ago. Since then, activists have managed to place the bay’s problems onto the public agenda.

It helps that the bay is not only a vital wildlife habitat but also a destination for tourists, fishermen, and those seeking a reprieve from the city. A large swath of the bay is also designated as the Gateway National Recreation Area, including historic Floyd Bennett Field and Fort Tilden as well as long stretches of undeveloped beach.

The most vexing challenge is exactly how to save this “Everglades of the North,” although everyone involved agrees a multifaceted approach is overdue.

“If no action is taken to save Jamaica Bay, it will be like watching a kidney patient die without looking for transplants,” said Paul Mankiewicz, executive director of the Gaia Institute.
Several causes of the bay’s demise have been discussed for years, but two emerge as the primary culprits—a lack of sediment flowing into the bay, and effluent discharge. Most of the small tributaries, streams, or creeks that once flowed into the bay from eastern Brooklyn and Queens, providing freshwater, nutrients and suspended sediments, have either run dry or been paved over.

“There is no longer any significant source of natural sedimentary materials reaching the bay,” says Lawrence Swanson,Ph.D. of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook. Dr. Swanson suggests carefully putting dredged material back into the bay, controlling vessel speeds in the area—sharp wakes exacerbate erosion—and filling in some of the deep basins originally carved into the shallow waters by the US Army Corps of Engineers during runway construction.

Other scientists also cite sediment loss and advocate “hypothesis-driven” approaches, such as rebuilding wetlands of significant acreage while simultaneously studying them to better understand habitat interaction. Scientists stress the word “simultaneously,” though, reiterating that the time to mull over causes without acting is past.

The effluent society
Meanwhile, few can ignore the 250 million gallons of effluent pouring into the wetlands every day from the four treatment plants ringing the bay. Rainfall in the city is particularly harsh on the saltmarshes. Everything trodden underfoot on New York City’s streets - chemicals, heavy metals, garbage, animal waste, litter—ends up in the bay, after even light rain storms.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is working toward being part of the solution. DEP Commissioner Christopher Ward recently outlined more than $2 billion in capital projects to be completed by 2006. Projects would target sewer overflow, sewer system improvements, nearby landfill remediation, and ecosystem restoration.

Some stakeholders hope the National Park Service will upgrade the bay to full National Park status, thereby giving it federal protection. The Superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, Billy Garrett, said his office will issue a report containing goals for Jamaica Bay in spring 2003.

But some friends of Jamaica Bay don’t want to wait for the federal government to get involved, and are leery of more reports, stressing the need for action. City officials may help drive the process. “It is imperative that various government agenciesEncluding the City of New York, work together in the hopes of designing a rescue plan for the marshlands,” says NYC Councilman James Gennaro. It may be that plans will finally turn into actions for Jamaica Bay by the time migrant birds make their way north again.

—Journal correspondent Michael Misner lives in New York City.

True grits

What did you do when your mother told to eat your vegetables? You probably at least gave it a try. What would you do if a grandmother told you not to eat certain foods? Well, if you’re a grocery store manager in Decatur, Alabama, you’d call the police.

On October 26, 2002, Jean Tune, 79, and Gerry Coffey, 62, were arrested for trespassing outside a Kroger supermarket. The two women were distributing leaflets and petitions as part of a TrueFoods national supermarket campaign, designed to raise public awareness about the prevalence of genetically modified ingredients on grocery store shelves.

“I think it’s deplorable the way we’re destroying our environment,” says Tune of GMOs, “and it’s deplorable the way our free speech is being denied.” Coffey, her friend for more than 30 years, agrees. “What is particularly galling to me is that here we are in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and we’re being discriminated against by our own legislators,” she says.

At the police station where they were held after their arrest, a sergeant advised the women they could either pay $500 bail or be released on their own recognizance providing they never set foot on Kroger premises again. As pensioners, they chose the second option. On November 20, they were found guilty as charged in municipal court. With the help of attorney Greg Reeves, who has accepted the case pro bono, the elderly outlaws have filed an appeal. The case will be heard before a jury on a date yet to be determined.

In the meantime, the two defiant ladies hold no grudge. They continue to shop at Kroger as they have for years. “I never tried to condemn Kroger,” says Tune. “If they had let us do this, and hadn’t caused this fuss, they would be the best-loved grocery store in Alabama.”

—Audrey Webb

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