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The Missing Marshes of Jamaica Bay

Jamaica Bay's marshes are shrinking. According to the Eco-Watchers, a Queens citizens' organization, the Bay's saltwater marshes have shrunk by over 1200 acres (one and one-half times the area of Central Park) over the past seventy-five years. In the last five years, the rate of loss is said to be five times the rate from 1924-1974. Their statistics suggest that by 2024, the salt water marshes of the central bay will cease to exist.

Though the rate of loss is not universally agreed to and the causes for the shrinkage are incompletely understood, there is agreement that such a loss would be catastrophic for the ecology of Jamaica Bay. Dr. John Tanacredi, Natural Resources Chief for the Gateway Unit of the National Park Service states, "salt water marshes are the most productive areas for biomass production, feeding, and breeding for birds and fish". Tanacredi adds "one-fifth of all bird species in North America" migrate via Jamaica Bay each year. The Bay with an area roughly equal to all of Manhattan, though unknown to many New Yorkers, is a critical, probably irreplaceable, stop on the Atlantic flyway.

For the Eco-Watchers and for their chairman Dan Mundy, who calls himself "an environmentalist with sanity", Jamaica Bay is well known. For decades, these citizen naturalists have explored the bay. Over time, they began to share their separate observations of marsh loss. Eventually, they banded to measure the marsh extent and chronicle their loss. With maps in hand, they contacted government agencies and politicians. Their research was corroborated when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation released maps of the Bay's marshes that echoed the Eco-Watchers' estimates.

Fearing annual losses exceeding fifty acres, Mundy and his group asked the United States Department of the Interior to intervene. Though it is not exactly what they wanted, a "blue-ribbon panel" of marsh, weather and coastal scientists will convene in March to assess causation.

Tanacredi notes that sea level rise may be the culprit. He cautions that "marsh accretion and erosion are natural processes and getting in the way of natural phenomenon may not be desirable." He wants to establish a five-year research agenda to establish cause and effect scientifically. He also notes that the National Park Service lacks funding for significant interventions.

Mundy is wary of the study approach. He is also concerned that the Park Service might allow a "Yellowstone" by letting natural causes destroy the marshes he has fished and explored for half a century. Mundy wants immediate action. The Eco-Watchers and their allies believe that sediment deprivation is a likely cause of the marsh erosion. To redress that condition, he advocates experimental sediment restoration efforts (dumping sandy soil onto de-vegetated marsh areas) in selected locations. Mundy urges that "pilot projects should begin now."

For a decade, the Army Corps of Engineers (the federal government's official and best-funded muck-moving entity) has been planning a Jamaica Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project. The Corps recently selected twelve Bay sites for study. Two sites, suggested by the Eco-Watchers were added, but the central bay marshes remain off the list. According to the Corps' Robert Will, "we hope to have funding from Congress in 2002, if they like our sites". He notes that the Army Corps' official position is "we can do nothing immediately to stop the (marsh) erosion problem."

Sounding Off

So will the muck stop here? It is hard to say. Government agencies, no matter how well meaning, move slowly, though perhaps with wise deliberation. The passion of focused citizens can move elected officials to take necessary, though perhaps hasty, positions. Science is often non-conclusive. Nature moves in mysterious ways. Man's action cause problems. Man's reactions cause problems. What is certain is that habitat destruction for animals has been a hallmark of human "progress".

The wildlife refuge in Jamaica Bay centers on the large contiguous marshes of the central bay. This is the place striped bass, turtles, ducks, geese and hundreds of species of birds call home even if just for a day. Their bed and breakfast in the bay is a matter of life or death. For them, why not try a few pilot projects now? If nothing else, such experiments will provide an expanded array of observations for the scientists to consider.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

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