It isn’t long until Leaf finds another and packages them to send to a mussel expert. In a few days, the analysis comes back positive: Eastern floaters—one more sign that the river lives.
It takes only a few steps from the edge of Grand Central Parkway to be deep in 635 acres of woods at Alley Pond, an hourglass-shaped park bordered by the Grand Central to the south and Little Neck Bay to the north. It’s a park with an entire watershed’s worth of ponds, streams, and marshes, and it is known, among natural-resource people, especially for its forest. “For the first fifteen years of my career,” says Tim Wenskus, “my talk at conferences was, ‘Yes, there are forests in New York.’ Now my talk is, ‘Yes, there are forests, and yes, we manage them.’ ”
A quick review of land use in the area of Alley Pond: Native Americans practiced controlled burning of the area but mostly used the creek for fishing; Colonial settlers farmed, leaving a few large trees, which are today among the oldest, biggest examples of oak, beech, and tulip trees in the city. They line the giant “alley” (or mini-valley) that led from the North Shore to the ferries in Brooklyn. The farms were slowly abandoned. In the twenties, Mayor Jimmy Walker bought the area for parks. More trees grew up on formerly cleared farmland. Ball fields and parking lots were constructed under WPA programs, but as budgets wandered, the immense wildness of the park became victorious. The forests were rediscovered by the NRG’s early mapping projects, and in 1991 the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund gave a $6 million grant to support the beginning of the city’s restoration and management.
Five years later, Parks Department employees had extracted 262 abandoned vehicles from parks and installed highway guardrails on the edges of parking lots to prevent continued auto invasion. “We had one site, we called it the Trans Am site ’cause we found a Trans Am in there,” Wenskus recalls. “There was another site with an illegal chop shop.” In one kettle pond in Queens, a car still remains. “It would have disrupted too much to remove it, so we just left it there,” Wenskus says.
In other words, the city’s forests are mostly an accident. “In a lot of ways, they are here because we are lucky,” says Wenskus. “After 300 years of Western man basically doing his thing, we still have these amazing forests that are predominantly intact—or as intact as they can be with 8 million people.” Recently, however, scientists have come to suspect that urban forests have thrived not despite their urban environment but because of it. “The old idea was that urban areas are not ecologically interesting or don’t have ecological processes, and that’s false,” says Richard Pouyat, who studies urban forests for the U.S. Forest Service. “The difference is, it’s been altered.” And altering the natural landscape isn’t always a bad thing.
Take fires. Alley Pond experienced many car fires over the years, and this is now understood to have played an important role in the forest’s ecological health. In some parts of Alley Pond Park, as well as in forests in the Bronx and Staten Island, open forest canopies encouraged sensitive species like upland sandpipers or a threatened suite of plants like purple and green milkweeds. In a 1996 article in Restoration & Management Notes, Marc Matsil and Mike Feller, an early NRG naturalist, called arsonists “New York City’s incidental restorationists.”
Urban forests are healthier than their suburban peers in other ways, too. The flora scene is more diverse. Much of the soil found in places like Alley Pond Park is pristine compared to suburban areas. Perhaps more interesting, from the point of view of the larger urban ecosystem, our forests have evolved to become more productive. According to a study comparing oak-tree stands in rural Connecticut with ones in New York City, city forests carry more of the metals associated with air pollution into the soil.
Our trees, in effect, are not just ornaments in a recreational facility; they are also civic lungs, cleansing and cooling the air and absorbing rain runoff. This has obvious implications from a land-value perspective, as it would cost billions of dollars to build man-made systems that perform as effectively as Alley Pond Park. “These areas are ecological systems that need protection and enhancement,” says Adrian Benepe, the current Parks commissioner, who was director of the NRG in the nineties. “They are infrastructure.”
Understanding nature as infrastructure means thinking about it less as a painting to restore and more as a process to encourage. River-cleanup parties, those classic old-school conservation outings, may help in attracting humans to a restoration site, but they don’t necessarily do much for nature. “It’s fine if they realize that they are doing it for people and not for wildlife,” says Pehek, the NRG ecologist. “Roof material and plywood, for instance, is great for snakes.”