New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 7/22/14
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Jamaica Bay's West Pond:  Restored or Lost?
Seth Ausubel, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the July 2014 issue of NY Birders

UPDATE 7/22/14: The deadline for comments to NPS on the future of the West Pond is July 30, 2014.
The National Park Service is soliciting comments, which
may be submitted online at the NPS website's West Pond trail breach page or mailed to the park at the following address:
    Gateway National Recreation Area
    ATTN:  Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, West Pond EA Comments
    210 New York Avenue
    Staten Island, NY 10305

In addition to submitting comments, sign the online petition.

The breach in the West Pond caused by Hurricane Sandy, National Park Service photo
       The breach in the West Pond caused by Hurricane Sandy
                              National Park Service photo
Hurricane Sandy roared through coastal New York on October 29, 2012, causing widespread destruction. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens and Kings Counties was not spared. Both the East and West Ponds were breached by the storm. The breach in the berm surrounding the East Pond was quickly repaired by the New York City Transit Authority to restore subway service, but a breach more than 100 feet wide in the berm around the West Pond remains unrepaired. The National Park Service, which manages the Gateway National Recreation Area of which the wildlife refuge is a part, is currently considering options for the future of the West Pond. Decisions to be made in the near future will determine whether the pond will be restored to a valuable habitat for birds and wildlife, as it once was, or whether it may be lost forever.

In the 1950s, New York State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses commissioned the creation of two large freshwater ponds in Jamaica Bay: The East Pond (117 acres) and the West Pond (45 acres). Since that time, these two freshwater ponds have provided nesting, foraging, and loafing habitat for many of the 330 species of birds found in Jamaica Bay.

Environmental Context
Today, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is administered by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior. It is the only "wildlife refuge" administered by the National Park Service and is distinct from National Wildlife Refuges administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. As its name suggests, the National Park Service manages the Gateway National Recreation area with an emphasis on recreational uses, often neglecting wildlife and natural habitats.

The West Pond before Sandy, photo by Andrew Baksh
                   The West Pond before Sandy, photo by Andrew Baksh
Yet, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a designated Global Important Bird Area and one of the best places in New York City to observe migrating birds. In fact, it's a birders' paradise, with 332 bird species sighted at the refuge over the last 25 years (38 are accidental and include several New York State records). The freshwater habitats of the West Pond historically supported breeding and use by a variety of regionally rare or uncommon bird species and also included open dune areas used by nesting terns, the endangered Diamondback Terrapin, and other species.

Historically, the Jamaica Bay watershed was rich in freshwater wetlands and ponds, but virtually all of it was lost due to filling in the first half of the 20th Century. Currently, less than 1% of the habitat in Jamaica Bay is freshwater, an amount substantially lower than comparable estuarine systems on Long Island (for example, 9% of the habitat in the Peconic Bay watershed is freshwater). Given the scarcity of freshwater habitat, such areas are critical for the enhanced diversity of birds and other wildlife. Furthermore, while restoration of salt marsh is important due to ongoing marsh loss, the developed state of the Jamaica Bay watershed makes opportunities for restoration of freshwater habitat extremely limited.

June 2014 view of the West Pond, photo by Seth Ausubel
        June 2014 view of the West Pond, photo by Seth Ausubel
The Birders' Coalition for Gateway

Concerned organizations and individuals joined to form the Birders' Coalition for Gateway in 2013, in response to National Park Service proposals to encourage recreation in sensitive habitats including the wildlife refuge, as well as inaction by the Park Service in the restoration of the West Pond, and proposals to restore public access only without addressing habitat values. The Coalition includes New York City Audubon, NYSOA, the Linnaean Society of New York, the Brooklyn Bird Club, the Queens County Bird Club, the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, the American Littoral Society, and a number of committed individuals. It is the position of the Coalition that the West Pond should be restored to the habitat values that existed after its creation. This includes a large freshwater pond and emergent wetlands with water level regulation to encourage seasonal shorebird and waterfowl use and open dune to encourage tern and Diamondback Terrapin nesting. High salt marsh is uncommon in Jamaica Bay and is another habitat element of interest for restoration of the West Pond. Currently, the breach in the dike of the West Pond has turned the pond into a mudflat and caused the destruction of vegetation that is not salt tolerant. The former open dune area, called Terrapin Point, is overgrown into a dense thicket due to years of neglect by the Park Service. Thus, the area has virtually no habitat value and does not contribute to ecosystem diversity

June 2014 view of the West Pond, photo by Seth Ausubel
       June 2014 view of the West Pond, photo by Seth Ausubel
Restoration Process and Options

The National Park Service has moved extremely slowly in the restoration of the West Pond. Two and one-half years after Hurricane Sandy, virtually nothing has been accomplished. The Park Service has hired a contractor to assist with the restoration planning work. Current plans are to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), including scoping of restoration alternatives and public consultation, followed by design and construction of the selected restoration alternative. The latest schedule has public scoping meetings occurring this summer. The EA would be completed in one year. A design and construction contract would then be put out for bid. Thus, work could begin no sooner than fall 2015, with a construction completion date presumably in 2016. This would put the completion date roughly four years after Sandy. Further delays are likely.

Restoration Alternatives
A range of restoration alternatives, including a "no action" alternative, will be evaluated in the Park Service's EA. Other alternatives that may be evaluated include restoration of public access only (i.e., restoring the loop trail around the West Pond by building a bridge over the breach), filling the breach with limited or no habitat improvements, and various combinations of habitat restoration alternatives likely including public access and interpretive features. Cost will be a consideration, and habitat restoration alternatives are likely to be more costly.

The full recommendations for West Pond restoration prepared by New York City Audubon in cooperation with the Birders' Coalition can be found at http://tinyurl.com/NYCAudubonWestPond. The report includes a conceptual plan incorporating a range of habitat restoration features as noted above. This is not meant to be a specific plan, but a menu from which to choose desirable features from a habitat value perspective.

The Next Steps
To ensure a successful outcome for bird and wildlife habitat restoration, it is important that the voice of the birding community be heard as the Park Service makes its decision. The Birders' Coalition is sponsoring an on-line petition that has drawn over 5,300 signatures. The petition can be found at http://tinyurl.com/WestPondPetition. It is also important that the birding community engage in the public scoping meetings expected in Summer 2014. Given the uncertainty of the schedule, we anticipate that the Birders' Coalition will spread the word in the community when public meetings are scheduled.

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