The State of Natural Areas Under the Care of the Parks Department

Opening Statement

Committee on Parks and Recreation

The State of Natural Areas Under the Care of the Parks Department

December 16, 2014

Good Morning, I am Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Parks & Recreation.  I want to welcome you to our hearing on New York City’s natural areas, in which we’ll be examining the state of these vital resources, the conservancy created to protect them, and the groundbreaking surveys underway to assess and catalogue their ecology.

Much of the outside world--and even a few New Yorkers--think of our city as a concrete jungle.  With 8.4 million people packed into an area of only 305 square miles, it would be easy to assume that every inch of land here must be fully built up.  Yet within the five boroughs there are no less than 10,000 acres of undeveloped parkland, including forests, river systems, fresh-water wetlands, and salt-water marshes.

Every one of the five boroughs includes natural areas, from Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, to the Fresh Creek Nature Preserve in Brooklyn, to Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan, to Alley Pond Park in Queens, to the Evergreen Park Preserve in Staten Island to North Brother Island in the East River.  Together all the natural areas in the city would be enough to cover the island of Manhattan from its southern tip all the way north to 125th street.

The astonishing diversity of life in these ecosystems again defies common perceptions of the big city: our natural areas are home to no fewer than 2,000 species of plants and 350 species of birds.

Our forests and wetlands are also critical environmental infrastructure, helping to improve air and water quality, mitigate extreme temperatures, sequester carbon, absorb storm runoff, and reduce the impacts of UV radiation.

But these vital resources are under threat from misuse and neglect, harmed by illegal recreation, invasive species infestation, and the negative effects of climate change.

The Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group is charged with tackling these challenges. The division is composed of biologists, natural resource managers and restoration ecologists who develop and implement programs for the protection, acquisition, and restoration of the park system’s natural resources.  

In light of the Parks Department’s on-going budget challenges, we’ll be looking to learn today about the resource constraints faced by the NRG, including the decimation of the Park Rangers programs, which today has a head count of only 12 for the entire system.

Complementing the NRG is the newly created Natural Areas Conservancy, or NAC, formed in 2012 by the Parks Department as a vehicle for raising provide funds to bolster fragile green and blue spaces throughout the city.

Today we will be looking to learn about the finances and operations of this hybrid public-private entity, with comparisons to and distinctions from the more common single-park conservancies around the city.

We will also be learning today about the two landmark studies of our city’s ecosystems which NAC and its partners are completing.  This research includes the first-ever comprehensive ecological assessment of all 10,000 acres of the City’s natural areas, providing an inventory of biodiversity and an evaluation of ecological health.  A second study will offer an in-depth analysis of patterns of public use in natural areas, based on thousands of interviews and observations of park goers by the United States Forest Service and NAC.  Together these two projects will provide policy-makers with unprecedented tools for planning and resource allocation.

In our hearing today I hope we’ll be able to address some of the following questions:

  • How do we balance the need for environmental preservation--especially wildlife conservation--with the need to make natural areas accessible to all New Yorkers?

  • Does the usership of these areas match the diversity of our city?  If not how can we make sure that New Yorkers from every community can enjoy these wonderful places?

  • How can we prevent harmful or illegal activity in our natural areas with such a miniscule number of park rangers performing enforcement?

I look forward to hearing from the administration, advocates, and the public on these and other questions in what will be the City Council’s first-ever hearing on this important topic.

And I would like to start by welcoming the administration to present its testimony on this issue.

Thank You.

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