Struggling against a problematic past – Gateway National Recreation Area strives to forge a fresh new beginning
Gateway National Recreation Area can’t escape its past, and that’s the problem.
Its history has left it in the poorest condition of any national park surveyed in a recently released report.
Much work is needed for Gateway, which extends over 26,000 acres, from Jamaica Bay to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, to realize its full potential, according to the report by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
“Letting thousands of acres with great potential for recreation to lie fallow is a sad waste,” said Alexander Brash, NPCA northeast regional director.
Despite some “inspiring elements, such as Sandy Hook, Jamaica Bay’s Wildlife Refuge, and the remnant maritime forest at Fort Tilden, the park’s surrounding waters are still polluted, visitor services are limited, and the loss of native species is widespread,” the report contends.
According to NPCA’s Center for State of the Parks report, available online at http://www.npca.org/stateoftheparks, Gateway’s natural resources score just 53 out of a possible 100, the worst rating of 27 other national parks assessed to date. The park’s cultural resources score just a 46 out of a possible 100.
The subpar conditions are attributed to the historic land uses prior to Gateway’s establishment as a park in 1972, the ongoing pollution of the park’s surrounding waters, and a lack of adequate funding and staffing to protect the park.
The construction of JFK airport, the dredging for a port never built, and hundreds of other development projects around the shores of Jamaica Bay have resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of marshland, according to the report.
Waters surrounding the national park, according to the report, are still fouled by treated and untreated sewage, floating trash, industrial waste, and toxic sediments.
“Salt marshes had long been filled, Jamaica Bay had been repeatedly dredged, and the maritime and deciduous forests had been covered in pavement. Buildings evoking facets of history stood in disrepair, their integrity threatened by decades of neglect,” the report states.
“Now is the time, as the Park Service prepares for its centennial in 2016 and as New Yorkers reach for a greener city by 2030, for our Congress, city, and state, to reinvest in Gateway and create an iconic national park that our region’s residents deserve and were promised,” Brash said.
Lisa Eckert, the superintendent for the park’s Jamaica Bay Unit, said the park’s future is bright. The poor marks are simply reflective of growing pains, she said.
“I would say that Gateway has done a marvelous job in its first 30 years. Just like any new park in its first three decades, it will have struggles and challenges—just like Yellowstone when it was established in 1872,” Eckert said.
She said the plan to carve a national park out of an urban landscape is a “new idea,” and fraught with special obstacles, such as co-existing with an ever-increasing population.
All 391 units of the national parks system are looking forward to the potential of a federal bill that could see increased funding. In the case of Gateway, passage of the bill by 2016 would be an annual increase of $3 million to its annual budget, which is $21 million; Jamaica Bay’s annual budget is $6.2 million, Eckert said.
Funding shortages have hurt, she admitted. “We struggle. The number of seasonal employees have declined.”
“One thing the report may not have addressed, and that’s the heartbeat of Gateway—the dedicated staff,” she said. “We do our best trying to preserve the resources and ensure visitors are satisfied.”
Brash said he remains optimistic. “Gateway has the potential to be a great living museum that teaches visitors about the history of aviation and America’s coastal defenses stretching from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War,” said Brash.
“While much work is still needed, and a compelling vision for its future needs to be defined, Gateway can someday soon realize its full potential. Its natural, cultural, and recreational values are undeniable,” he continued.
Results of a public opinion poll conducted by Zogby International show that the majority of New York area residents desire an iconic national park in the region—but nearly half of them are unaware of and have never visited Gateway.
The park is popular with other animals besides humans. More than 330 species of birds and 71 species of butterflies live within the park or stop over during their seasonal migrations along the Atlantic coast. By Gary Buiso
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