New York Habitat Restoration
Wetlands and Waterways

The passage of the federal
Clean Water Act of 1972 led to dramatic clean-up of the waters surrounding New York City – helping to restore estuaries as prime habitats for a myriad of animals. But oil spills, like the Exxon Oil Spill that saturated the waters and marshes of Arthur Kill in 1990, continue to threaten these waters. Other restoration and conservation efforts are now underway to save and protect the estuaries and regional wetlands, given impetus – and funds – by the landmark Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of New York passed in 1997. For example, the Long Island South Shore Estuary Plan and Estuary Reserve Act protects 30 coastal fish and wildlife habitats between the New York City/Nassau County line and Southhampton. A coalition of environmental, business, industrial and community leaders are implementing a plan to reduce nitrogen levels in Long Island Sound 58.5% over the next fifteen years.

Nature Conservancy has been pro-active in restoring New York waterways. In 2002, they received a donation from the Bluepoints Oyster Company of 11,500 acres of underwater land in the Great South Bay. The Great South Bay had once been the mainstay of the U.S. clam industry, with baymen harvesting 700,000 bushels, or half the nation’s supply, in 1976. By 2003, overharvesting and pollution combined to decimate the clam harvest by a staggering 99%. They are now re-seeding the bay with clams and monitoring water quality. Restoration of the clams, considered a keystone species because they act as water filters, will help restore the ecosystem.

Even the
New Jersey Meadowlands – long a noxious cesspool – is being partially restored – though it was so severely degraded that it is a shadow of the once vast coastal plain wetland.

Once a glacial lake, this wetland at one time covered 19,730 acres along the Hackensack River. Comprised of salt and fresh marshes and an extensive Atlantic white cedar forest, the eco-system supported thousands of species, including human hunter-gatherers who harvested shellfish and hunted birds and small game. When the European settlers arrived, they filled, dredged, and diked the wetlands to farm. They also harvested white cedars for their valuable wood, deforesting it by the late 1890s. By the twentieth century the Meadowlands had become a dumping ground for toxic waste and garbage. Today, sixteen hundred acres are landfill, and mercury has leached into its channels and creek beds. Clean-up efforts began in the 1970s, when developers and environmental groups reached a compromise. The
Hackensack Meadowlands Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency established in 1969 to centralize authority over the region, has requested developers to restore portions of the wetland in exchange for developing other parts of it. The Meadowlands sports complex was built in 1974 on 750 acres of the wetlands, and permits for filling and developing thirty-two additional acres were granted by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1977 and 1997. In 1982, the DeKorte Environmental Center was opened with preserved wetland habitat. As of 2005, according to Susan Bass Levin, Chair of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, the plan is to restore 8400 acres of the wetlands ecosystem.

Grassland and Scrubland Restoration

The Nature Conservancy, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Friends of the Hempstead Plains have worked together to save 62 acres of the former prairie. These prairie fragments are now considered a Natural Heritage Site.

The Grassland Restoration and Management Project (
GRAMP) was founded in 1985, when it was realized that the loss of open grassland was directly related to the decline in grassland birds who bred in these habitats. Their first project was to restore the no longer used airfield of Floyd Bennett Field as grassland, an effort spearheaded by Jean and Ron Bourque of the New York City Audubon Society. Ironically, while it was an airfield, it was mowed on a regular basis – a practice that helped preserve its grassland state. This is true of other airfields, even ones as large as Kennedy International Airport, where regular mowing has allowed the upland sandpiper and other grassland birds to breed successfully. Once Floyd Bennett Field fell into disuse as an airfield, woody vegetation invaded. It took a herculean effort by the Park Service and volunteers to cut the brush and manually grub the trees and shrubs. A final clearing was done with the aid of a bulldozer, and continued seasonal mowing keeps the field a grassland. Since this restoration, the northern harrier has returned to breed, and the savannah sparrow breeds here, although the grasshopper sparrow and upland sandpiper have not returned.

It is speculated that disturbance in grassland areas throughout the northeast and midwest because of more intensive farming methods – especially early spring mowing that destroys nests – is hastening the decline of these species. The
Massachusetts Audubon Society posts on its website a detailed set of recommendations for farmers to follow who wish to preserve grasslands on their property. They recommend that 125 to 250 acres be set aside for grassland birds.

Suburban sprawl further degrades grasslands, as farmland is sold and subdivided into suburban tracts and malls. These developments not only destroy open field habitats, but also introduce alien species through lawn and garden plantings, which are typically planted with exotics. The use of chemical fertilizers and toxic herbicides further degrades the ecosystem, in effect sterilizing it. That emerald green lawn exacts a high cost in terms of the health of the soil, water, and whole ecosystem, of which humans are a part.

From landfills to grasslands

In New York City, landfills like those at
Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn are being capped to kill invasive weed species, then planted with native grasses and other flora. According to the website of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEC), they are planting 25 species of trees, 30 species of shrubs, and 20 species of wildflowers – “many extirpated, rare, threatened or endangered species of trees, grasses and shrubs, which are indigenous to the coastal areas….”  This restoration project, encompassing 400 acres surrounding Jamaica Bay, is seen as “critical for the enhancement and protection of the water quality in New York Harbor.”

The Fountain Avenue project is the most recent example of efforts being made by the city to restore native plant habitats. The
Fresh Kills landfill, a 2200-acre dump site for the city’s garbage, was closed in March 2001, although a portion of it was re-opened to accept debris and human remains from the Twin Towers collapse of September 2001. Now it is being returned to nature. The City of New York Department of Sanitation has capped the landfill and planted sumac, shadblow, hackberry, blueberry, blackberry, and beach plum—eighteen species of native shrubs and trees in all. These woody plants were chosen to replicate the scrub forest once found here and still present on parts of Long Island and coastal New Jersey. In time, it will be a 2200-acre park of scrub-type coastal woodland, meadows, and salt marshes.

Forests: What’s Left of Our Trees?

Old-growth native woodlands in New York City are precious few. None date before the Revolutionary War, when trees were cut for fuel. Remnant forests include the Midwood section of Prospect Park, a section of the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, a portion of Hunter’s Island in Pelham Bay Park, Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan, and Alley Pond Park and Forest Park in Queens. All have been degraded to one extent or another, and all have been overgrown by alien species or weed trees. The Parks Department of New York City has undertaken a heroic effort to restore as much as possible the old woodlands on park land. The effort entails uprooting and discouraging alien species like Norway and Sycamore maples while encouraging the growth of native seedlings. Native tree restoration takes a long-term commitment. Hickories, for example, do not transplant well, so their re-establishment depends on the success of seedlings taking root and thriving – a process that takes perhaps fifty years.

Prospect Park, the oldest trees stand in a 20-acre section of Midwood, between Battle Pass and Binnenwater, where oaks, tulip trees, hickories, black birches, and sweet gums shade the woodland floor. During the Revolutionary War, most of the trees were cut for firewood or cleared for crops to provision the British troops who bivouaced here, but it’s possible a few were spared the ax. Native woodland restoration in Prospect Park was implemented in 1995. Directed by Edward Toth, who heads the Parks’ land management office, the goal is to restore 250 acres of woodland.

Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx offers a hike through native woodland beneath towering tulip trees and oaks. The Parks Department has planted a small woodland of native white pine, which has attracted wintering owls such as the short-eared and saw whet.

Alley Pond Park stands a 450-year-old Tulip tree known as the Queens Giant, deemed by the park service the city’s tallest tree – but which stands neglected in an out-of-the-way corner of the park. As of 2002, its girth was measured at 19 feet, and its height at 134 feet; there is a blackened cleft at its base, with an opening large enough for a man to take shelter. This park contains a number of trails that take you through fine examples of oak-hickory, beech and red maple woodlands.

NYC Habitat Restoration Reading List

Anderson, Tom.
This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Barnard, Edward Sibley.
New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area. New York: City of New York Parks Department/Columbia University Press, 2002.

Davis, Mary Byrd.
Eastern Old Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996.

Michaux, F.A.
North American Silva; or, a description of the forest trees of the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia… (1841-1849).

Waldman, John.
Heartbeats in the Muck: A Dramatic Look at the History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999.

NYC Habitat Restoration Useful Links

For information on GRAMP, see the New York City Audubon website:

On grassland preservation by farmers see the Massachusetts Audubon website:

On the New York Natural Heritage Program, a partnership of the American Museum of Natural History's Metropolitan Biodiversity Program, The Nature Conservancy, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation:

On the Natural Areas Initiative of New York City Audubon and New York for Parks:

on the New York Department of Parks's
Forever Wild Program:

on specific parks:
De Korte Park, The Meadowlands
Hempstead Plains Preserve
Hempstead Plains Preserve 
Central Park
credit: Angelo Bucolo
Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan
Alley Pond Park, Queens
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