Saving Arlington Marsh

by Anne Schwartz, Oct 30, 2007

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 diminishing wetlands. 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 further review.

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. Legislation has 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 protection.

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 Mariner's 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 Trust 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 to Staten Island 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 new stadium 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?