Leaf had taken a summer job as a research assistant for the Natural Resources Group, a small corner of New York City’s municipal bureaucracy that has done more than any other group to change how this city—and urban areas worldwide—thinks about nature. It was founded in 1984 by then–Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. At the time, the job of Parks commissioner had to do with maintaining the city’s parks infrastructure: the ball fields and tennis courts and grounds designed by Olmsted. But with the city slowly coming out of the fog of the fiscal crisis, and with fears that suburban trees might be in jeopardy from gypsy moths hiding somewhere on the edges of the city’s handball courts, there was an interest in exploring what land, exactly, the Parks Department controlled. Stern dispatched a handful of scientists.
The NRG began as a guerrillalike band of young ecologists and naturalists who took up residence in the former birdhouse in Central Park. It was led, for fifteen years, by Marc Matsil, a Brooklyn native who had worked in parks in Alaska and who was interested in applying backcountry wilderness-conservation ideas to the city. To do that, though, he had to discover what wilderness already existed. “The thought was that before you could act on restoration principles and land acquisition, you had to show that there was something to save,” Matsil recalls.
The NRG’s first task was to look at the official parks maps and focus attention on the empty places between ball fields, out past the city beaches. Working off an aerial survey, the team fanned out into the edges of the city—places where few New Yorkers ever went, and those who did took part in the kinds of activities that often included drugs, nudity, cars, and fire. “You learned to be careful interrupting someone doing something illegal in the woods,” says Tim Wenskus, who first worked on a forest crew in Alley Pond Park and is now the NRG’s deputy director.
Over the course of their explorations, the NRG researchers rediscovered the great salt marsh of Pelham Bay in the Bronx, still a quiet place on the western edge of Long Island Sound, and a freshwater wetland hidden between Kissena Lake and the Creedmor branch of the Long Island Railroad in Queens. They found centuries-old woods, called the Northwest Forest, just west of the Major Deegan Expressway, in Van Cortlandt Park (where, as recently as 2006, a strong and healthy American chestnut was found, the last of a species almost killed off in the early 1900s by chestnut blight). They came across lakes in the Greenbelt of Staten Island, and marshes in the string of abandoned coastal industrial sites and illegal dumps. On Prall’s Island, just off Staten Island’s western shore, they found a five-island wading-bird rookery, the largest in the metropolitan area.
By 1990, the NRG had rediscovered ten Central Parks’ worth of land, and it became clear that the Parks Department was an accidental land trust. This was at the dawn of urban environmental awareness, and many conservation groups (not to mention New Yorkers) had a hard time understanding that there really were wild lands in New York City. Richard Pouyat, an early NRG staffer, remembers asking a Nature Conservancy naturalist to visit wilderness sites in the city. “What the hell would I want to do that for?” the naturalist responded. But he finally agreed, and they hiked out to the Bronx to see rare plants like roundhead rush and cattail sedge and the endangered noctuid moth.
It’s no longer strange to hear ecologists talk about urban wilderness. In fact, sometimes it seems that’s all they want to talk about. Recently, the NRG attracted international headlines for its propagation of alewife in the Bronx River. Alewife is a kind of herring that spawns in places like the New York estuary and then heads north, serving along the way as food for the majority of fish from New York to Nova Scotia. When NRG researchers repatriated the alewife in 2006, they imagined themselves planting fish food for the entire Northeast coast; it was far from clear, however, that the fish would return to the Bronx River to spawn. But they arrived last year, right on schedule.
It was an exhilarating demonstration, pioneering and fundamentally optimistic, and it’s contributed to New York City’s appeal to ambitious young ecologists. Leaf, for instance, has studied fish populations in Monterey Bay and the Mendocino coast, but he chose to spend the summer digging for bivalves in urban estuaries. The presence of mussels, he hoped, would be a heartening follow-up to the alewife restoration.
Down on his hands and knees in the banks, Leaf is having trouble finding anything alive among Duracell batteries, used auto parts, beer-bottle tops, and what looked like an old engagement ring. But after about an hour and a half, Leaf stands suddenly. “Mussel,” he says. He gets back down on his knees. “Now I am approaching this with renewed vigor.”