Adrian Benepe has spent much of his life promoting the outdoors in New York City, moving from park warden in the 1970s to commissioner of parks some 30 years later. Still, he’s stunned by what he’s seen in town lately.
“I grew up in parks,” said Mr. Benepe, now president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “There have never been any red-tailed falcons, peregrines or bald eagles. You didn’t even see any raccoons; there were pigeons, rats and squirrels, that was it. Now there are bald eagles all over town. This winter they were in places you haven’t seen them in generations, and they were hunting in Prospect Park.
Raptors are just the tip of the iceberg.
There have been endangered bats and butterflies, wild and rare native bees; a coyote in Central Park; beavers, salamanders and leopard frogs on Staten Island; a bobcat, mink and several foxes in the Bronx, as well as endangered alewives and American eels crossing fish ladders in the Bronx River while hungry ospreys and egrets lurk nearby; large wild oysters and tiny seahorses at the docks along the Hudson River; baby damselflies, the world’s most endangered sea turtles and a baby seal in Queens; and exotic insects never seen for decades in Brooklyn.
New York City is seeing a surprising return of native wildlife, in numbers and diversity remarkable even to local conservationists and park officials. “You see miraculous occurrences of wild animals right in the middle of town,” Benepe said.
It would be easy to assume that nature flourished and the creatures came out during the New York City lockdown last year. But wildlife needs habitat, and the return of the animals, according to Kathryn Heintz, executive director of the NYC Audubon Society, is due to the city’s 40-year efforts to expand and clean up its parks, rivers, forests and areas. wet. This included planting more trees, wildflowers and herbs native to the area, banning pesticides in parks, and spending billions of dollars to convert old landfills and brownfields into sanctuaries. natural.
New York is now “the greenest large city in the world,” said Ms. Heintz.
But while park officials say they are excited about these ecological breakthroughs, many are concerned about the relatively low budget for the city’s parks, which they say poses a threat to natural habitats due to deteriorated drainage systems and landfills. understaffed maintenance teams.
Funding is more critical than ever, said Ms Heintz, Mr Benepe and other officials.
Last month, the remnants of Hurricane Ida submerged parts of the city, killing at least 13 New Yorkers. “Parks should function like sponges, but instead they experience massive flooding,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks.
Funding for the park has remained at 0.6% of the total budget for decades, while other cities spend 2-4%, Ganser said. Eric Adams, the Democratic mayoral candidate, said he was determined to increase the budget at 1 percent, while Republican candidate Curtis Sliwa said in a debate earlier this month that he would raise it to 2%. Mr Ganser said such a move would be transformative.
“New York City has done a really good job of salvaging and building post-industrial habitats, and we have amazingly pristine wetlands and grasslands,” said Rebecca McMackin, director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “We have to protect them. Under Ms. McMackin’s leadership, the park, built on the piers of the East River, is now home to a growing population of rare bees, moths, pollinating flies, butterflies and birds.
With enclaves like these, the city now boasts 77,580 acres of green space, including wetlands, cemeteries, parks and forests, according to the Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit formed under the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2012. Some 30,000 acres are managed by the city, said Meghan Lalor, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. (Chicago has only 8,800 acres of green space; San Francisco, 5,810.)
For Sarah Charlop-Powers, executive director of conservation, the city’s wetlands and forests deserve to be prioritized, as their benefits go beyond providing wildlife habitat. Wetlands play a crucial role in reducing flooding during major storms, she said, adding that the city had lost 85% of its salt marshes and streams, and 99% of its freshwater wetlands. , since the 1600s.
“The longer we delay investments, the more we risk losing key areas and species forever,” she said. “I have a real sense of urgency.”
According to the city’s Parks Department, it has restored 148 of New York’s 5,650 acres of wetlands since 1993. But due to sea level rise and erosion, the city is losing six acres per. an, said Ms Charlop-Powers. “We have to build swamps to keep pace,” she said.
Stricter regulations to protect wetlands are needed, she said. Currently, a group of Staten Island residents are trying to stop an approved commercial development on a large wetland that has helped prevent flooding from Super Storm Sandy. Commercial development was approved because the wetlands were not eligible for state protection.
Forests are another area of concern. Without more funding, they risk becoming “tangled weed wine lands,” Ms. Charlop-Powers said. “We are losing biodiversity, which means a decrease in stored carbon, in localized cooling and stormwater capture. These things require active management.
The city’s great forests are found in the Bronx, in Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park – the latter sprawls over 2,700 acres including beaches, bike paths, meadows and wetlands built in part on a covered landfill – and in the Staten Island Greenbelt. There are, however, many other forest stands, such as the old-growth canopy of Inwood Park in Manhattan, with tulip trees “as tall as skyscrapers,” said Jennifer Greenfeld, deputy commissioner in charge of forests, horticulture and natural resources.
Another habitat, threatened on a global scale, also inhabits New York City: the prairies. A very large one is on what was once the largest landfill in the world, Fresh Kills, on Staten Island. The 2,200-acre reserve is still under construction but is already home to over 200 species of birds and a thriving fox population. When complete, it will be three times the size of Central Park.
“When you’re there it’s amazing,” Ms. Heintz said. “You could be in Nebraska.”
Despite concerns about funding and maintenance, the city’s network of new and restored parks and the proliferation of green roofs work in symbiosis to support wildlife, Ms. Charlop-Powers said.
Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park are two examples of parks that double as wildlife sanctuaries. Over the past month, their wildflower beds have provided stopovers for hundreds of endangered monarch butterflies as they traveled from Canada to Mexico.
This spring, a rare blueberry digger bee, seen only once in Brooklyn in recent decades, was discovered on one of the New York-native blueberry bushes in Brooklyn Bridge Park; bees have since multiplied. Ms McMackin, the director of horticulture there, encourages residents to plant bushes on decks and rooftops and in yards in order to bring back the blueberry bee (and wild blueberries).
But even that progress, Ms. McMackin said, lasted 40 years. She credits the work of the city’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center, which opened on Staten Island in the 1980s to save and propagate hundreds of local seeds and plants, for providing the native flora essential to attract wildlife. The seeds of the center are currently growing in Prospect Park and Central Park, and its native grasses have been used to restore dunes in the Rockaways, which are near the nesting grounds of endangered shorebirds.
“People see cities as degraded,” Ms. McMackin said. “But cities can provide refuge for animals that cannot survive in rural and suburban areas,” largely because of the heavy use of pesticides on suburban lawns and rural farm fields, he said. she explains.
Mr. Benepe is excited about the return of the animals, but sees it as part of the evolution of the planet. “Wildlife has been forced, by habitat loss, to adapt,” Benepe said.
He continued, “It’s like the wildlife said, ‘You took away our habitat. OK, we’ll live in yours.