In keeping with his goal of making New York City sustainable into the future,
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has approved the preservation of the city's last major
unprotected wetland complex, Arlington Marsh on the northwest shore of Staten
Island. This is a major step forward in protecting a vital harbor ecosystem,
but the marsh still faces threats.
In agreeing to make the 70-acre salt marsh a park instead of holding it in reserve
for possible future expansion of the nearby container port at Howland Hook, the mayor is following
the recommendation of the city Wetlands Transfer Task Force, which was established
in 2005 to determine which city-owned wetland properties should be transferred
to the parks department. The fate of Arlington Marsh was the major point of contention
on the task force.
Arlington Marsh is one of the few pieces left of the once-vast wetlands of northwest
Staten Island, one of the three great marshes of New York Harbor, along with
Jamaica Bay and the New Jersey Meadowlands. "For the longest time Arlington
Marsh has been at the top of most peoples' acquisition and protection lists,
including New York Open Space Plan and the Harbor Estuary Plan," said Bill
Tai, director of the Natural Resources Group at the parks department and co-chairman
of the task force.
The Task Force Recommendations
The decision on Arlington Marsh is part of a broader effort to preserve New York's
The Wetlands Transfer Task Force identified 82 properties, including the march,
to be transferred to the parks department, for a total of 225 acres. Its
report was released in late September.
The task force also determined that an additional 76 small parcels on Staten Island should go to the Department of Environmental Protection for its Bluebelt natural stormwater control program. More than 100 properties throughout
the five boroughs were identified as potentially appropriate parkland, but needing
The parks department made it clear that it could take only a limited number of
properties - those that it could successfully manage, given its budget constraints.
Properties chosen for transfer were typically adjacent to existing parkland or
had a potential local stewardship group. The task force called on the city to
provide an adequate budget for ongoing maintenance of natural areas and wetlands
and for the restoration of degraded wetland sites.
The task force also made a number of recommendations for a comprehensive policy
for protecting and managing smaller city-owned and private wetlands that currently
are not covered by federal or state regulations.
been introduced in City Council to require the city to develop
such a policy; 2030
PlaNYC also sets forth the goal of developing a more systematic approach to wetlands
Nature's Last Stronghold
The northwest corner of Staten Island, where the Arthur Kill merges into the
Kill van Kull, is a site with both heavy industry, past and present, and significant
biodiversity. It was once a thriving maritime and manufacturing center, but as
industry left in the middle of the 20th century, wetland grasses, shellfish and
birds returned and reclaimed the land.
Even amid rotted docks and abandoned industrial sites, Arlington Marsh has a
range of healthy wetland habitats, from mudflats to salt marsh to shrubs to the
freshwater wetlands of the adjacent 107-acre
Marsh Park. More than 100 species of birds feed or nest here. The mudflats
and salt marshes are nurseries for fish, shellfish and other marine organisms.
Plants and animals at the northern end of their range, including a number of
rare and endangered species, flourish in the wetlands and uplands.
The marsh provides prime foraging ground for colonies of herons, ibises and egrets
that returned to nest in the harbor's wetlands and islands in the 1970s. The
for Public Land, the New York City
Audubon Societyand other environmental groups have been working for decades to protect the habitat
for this significant wading bird population, known as the Harbor Herons.
West of the marsh is the 187-acre
New York Container
Terminal, operated under lease from the Port Authority of
New York and New Jersey.
There are also residential areas, including a subsidized low-income apartment
complex, on the eastern side of the marsh. These largely low-income, minority
communities seem more like villages than gritty urban neighborhoods like Hunts
Point, but they have many of the same environmental justice issues, including
toxic contamination and lack of access to parks, recreation and the waterfront. "You
can go all the way back east to Snug Harbor before you come to anything that's
public. Everything is gated," said Tai. "You can barely see the shoreline."
The Future Of The Marsh
Arlington Marsh presents a wonderful opportunity for environmental education
and research, according to Beryl A. Thurman, executive director of the North
Shore Waterfront Conservancy, which has been working to get waterfront access
along the north shore. But she and other local activists are not celebrating
yet. Although the city plans to dedicate most of the properties that make up
the marsh as parkland, it still intends to put a sanitation garage on an eight-acre
Department of Transportation site right in the middle of Arlington Marsh Peninsula,
across the road from Mariner's Marsh Park.
It is generally agreed that the garage needs to be moved from its current location
in a residential area, but local environmentalists say that the city needs to
find a better alternative than the new park. "It breaks the natural connection
between the freshwater and upland side and the salt marsh and coastal waters," said
Richard Lynch, a botanist and president of the Sweetbay Magnolia Conservancy,
whose mission is to study and conserve wild areas in the Arthur Kill area.
Robert Pirani, co-chair of the Wetlands Transfer Task Force and director of environmental
programs at the Regional Plan Association, said, "Locating
a sanitation facility in the middle of a park is a choice of convenience, not
a choice of rational land-use planning."
The sanitation garage would be three blocks from the apartment buildings and
across the street from a site slated for community ballfields. "Would you
put something like that across from Silver Lake or Clove Lakes Park?" Thurman
asked, mentioning two parks in more affluent areas of the island. "Why don't
we build an education center and comfort station for visitors who live nearby
or groups that come to Staten Island who want to do research?"
Local environmental groups are also concerned about the proposed expansion of
the container terminal onto the Port Ivory peninsula next to Arlington Marsh
Cove. The port expansion onto the former site of a huge Proctor and Gamble Ivory
Soap factory would destroy 14 acres of regulated wetlands, four of which form
the western edge of Arlington Marsh Cove. It would also require extending the
bulkhead and channeling the creek that flows through the area, which could affect
the tidal flow to other important wetlands.
Jim Devine, the president and CEO of the container terminal, has said that he
does not foresee that the terminal would need to expand further into Arlington
Marsh Cove, which influenced the city's decision to make the marsh a park, according
to the Staten Island Advance.
In the future, protecting wetlands in the area may become more difficult. According
2020, a recent study by the Center for an Urban Future, the maritime sector offers
one of Staten Island's best opportunities for economic growth and the creation
of well-paying jobs over the next few decades.
There is a reindustrialization effort going on at the same time that we're trying
preserve as much of these large natural features as possible," said Lynch.
Future expansion of the port and related industries calls for careful planning
so that the economy can grow without losing the irreplaceable wildlife value
and ecological services wetlands provide.
Even making Arlington Marsh a city park does not provide it with permanent protection.
In recent years, the Bloomberg administration has persuaded the state legislature
to alienate parkland for other uses, including a
water filtration plant in Van
Cortlandt Park and a
for the New York Yankees in Macombs Dam Park. Without further protection
in place, who can predict what will happen at Arlington Marsh in 20 or 30 years?
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.
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