Climate-resistant restoration announced at NYC ecological treasure

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, NYC
© Margaret Badore

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a favorite spot for the birdwatchers and nature-lovers of New York City, as well as for tourists visiting the city. A slice of wild wetland not far from JFK Airport in Queens, the reserve hosts both freshwater and saltwater habitats, attracting a wide diversity of birds. There are over 320 different bird species that have been spotted at the site, and prior to 2012, the park received about half a million visitors per year.

But when Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, this special place sustained some damage. West Pond, a 45-acre body of brackish water, was breached and is now exposed to a higher flow of salt water. The surrounding water’s edge has changed with the new salinity, and invasive species are choking native trees.

Today, three organizations announced the start of a major restoration project, which not only aims to preserve the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge as a key habitat for migratory birds, but will work to make it more resistant to higher sea levels and a changing climate.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. © Margaret Badore. The West Pond breach.

The project is a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service and the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. The restoration will include weeding out invasive species from a 14-acre area, and planting some 20,000 trees and shrubs over the course of the next two years.

“It’s not possible to remove every single non-native plant,” said Jen Nersesian of the National Parks Service. The restoration process will target invasive species strategically, and ongoing monitoring will determine the efficacy of the program.

The invasive species not only choke out the biodiversity and replace native plants, they also make the area less hospitable to birds in an otherwise densely urban region. On a walking tour of the preserve, Lauren Alleman, an urban conservationist with The Nature Conservancy, pointed out a spot where vines like Asiatic bittersweet are overwhelming a black cherry tree. The invasive plant still offers berries for the birds, but they’re less nutritious. Just like human junk food, the invasive berries are higher in sugar and lower in protein. The restoration process will add plants that offer high nutritional value to birds, such as oak trees, which are also home to caterpillars—another potential food source for birds.

Lauren Alleman, an urban conservationist for The Nature Conservancy© Margaret Badore. Lauren Alleman, an urban conservationist, points out where invasive vines are overwhelming a black cherry tree.

But native plant communities will not only benefit birds. Host plants that benefit pollinators, like milkweed for monarch butterflies, will also be planted.

Without intervention, wildlife may not find high quality habitat—particularly the songbirds that rely on the freshwater offered by the refuge. Everything that’s not a shorebird will be at a disadvantage, because shorebirds can go longer without fresh water, said Doug Adamo from the National Park Service. “There are some species of ducks that prefer freshwater too.”

The restoration will also plant species that are resistant to flooding and can thrive in salty water. “This is a coastal environment, so it has to adapt to sea level rise,” said Alleman.

A small “water feature,” as viewed through a blind, provides freshwater to birds at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. © Margaret Badore. A small “water feature,” as viewed through a blind, provides freshwater to birds at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

“This project will have implications beyond Jamaica Bay by demonstrating how land management strategies on coastal parklands and natural areas can enhance their resilience to climate change,” said Emily Nobel Maxwell, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s New York City Program. “With more frequent flooding, sea level rise and severe storms predicted for New York City, this work has potential applications for the City’s 520 miles of coastline and beyond.”

Since Hurricane Sandy, the number of visitors to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge has dropped. But the restoration effort will also include interpretive materials and other efforts to improve the experience for visitors. “The restoration doesn’t just benefit the birds, although we do love the birds, but will also benefit people as well,” said Jen Nersesian.

Initial funding for the project was donated by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. However, the project will also depend heavily on volunteers, not only for weeding and planting but also for education and monitoring. You can find out how to volunteer here.

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