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Posts Tagged ‘department of environmental conservation’

An early pass on our Black River tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The variety of water conditions in northern New York is a continual source of amazement to a visitor. For a water lover who isn’t ready to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but hungers for more of an adrenaline rush than lovely, languid creeks can deliver, there’s the whitewater of the Black River.

Between the drops and twists of this Class IV rapid there are mellower stretches where one can take in the exquisiteness of the Black River Valley. This rift is carved by a flow that on many spring days measures well over 60,000 gallons per second. High, layered walls of granite cocoon you away from the sounds of traffic and medium-sized city life. The canyon is clearly still evolving and deepening, with chunks of stone sometimes calving and falling into the river and tree roots more finely crumbling the rock face.

Pushed up and over rocks. Note the limestone slabs leading toward the deeper canyon. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Leaping out for a swim on a quiter stretch of the Black River. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

You’ll want to paddle with an expert guide (I was fortunate to raft with Alex Atchie, a veteran guide with Adirondack River Outfitters) who’s up to date on new hazards and opportunities for fun. And yes, those are often one in the same!

At one point Alex decided to play in a vortex. Paddlers were allowed to opt out and wait on a limestone ledge — many did.

We spent a few long minutes hurling ourselves from one side of the raft to another to keep from keeling over. At any given moment one of our crew or another was submerged or invisible through spray. At one point when our raft was barraged and seeing that I wasn’t freaked out, Alex decided to strike up a casual conversation with me. “Pretty stupid way to make a living, eh?,” he joked. Absolutely not! “It’s refreshing,” I replied, encompassing both the cool, clear water running over our shoulders and the lifestyle Alex embodied.

In a vortex – Alex, in white helmet, leans forward to chat. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Two front paddlers submerged. One’s girlfriend looks concerned. Author in black shirt toward rear. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Everyone came up with smiles. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Raft or bathtub? (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River, which runs 114 miles from the Adirondacks to Lake Ontario,  probably gets its name from concentrations of dark tannic acid deposited by trees — some oaks are especially rich in it. A bit of trivia for your imagination: If alligators lived as far north as the Black River, they’d be quite dark because their hides pick up the tannic acid.

The Black River nearly turns our raft into a taco shell. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

Apart from hawks a-wing, the biggest predators you’ll likely spot on the Black River are nautiloids. These gorgeous fossils dating to the Ordovician period bulge from limestone at several haul-out points. Unlike the gently spiraled chambered nautiloid of today’s Andaman Sea, many of these invertebrate ancestral hunters had shells shaped like javelin tips. Though the examples I saw on the Black River were measured in inches, one discovery in Arkansas measured eight feet long! You can see in these nautiloids development toward today’s squids, who are also propelled by water jets. An apex predator during an age of high levels of atmospheric CO2, nautiloids ruled warm seas that overflowed the continents as never before or since. That epoch seems to have ended in an Ice Age 443 million years ago.

Ordovician life in an illustration posted by the University of Wisconsin.
Similar nautiloids unearthed in Morocco and exhibited at the Museum Victoria in Australia. (Photo by Simon Hinkley for Museum Victoria)

For me, seeing these fossils was as thrilling as the whitewater that nearly tossed me into them a few times!

Of course gawking at fossils in a strong set of  rapids might be a reliable way of becoming one yourself. When it comes to the Black River, seasoned whitewater paddlers worry most about the Knife’s Edge where water can push overturned paddlers into hollows. Alex has an endearing habit of telling our group about worst case scenarios regarding each rapid after we’d zipped safely by. He did, however, give us repeated and explicit instructions on each approach and wasn’t shy about barking out navigational commands over the roar.

Alex has bonded himself to the Black River for 30 years and knows its ways. He’s also a font of the Black River’s natural and industrial history, and how they’ve intertwined. The river’s admirable present condition is in great part thanks to advocacy from paddlers and diligence from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which maintains a Black River website for salmon, bass, trout, pickerel and pike fishing enthusiasts.

A calmer and verdant end to an exciting tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River is a place of stories — whether your own fish tales and whitewater rafting boasts, local lore or the fossilized life its coursing reveals from deepest time. Looking ahead to next spring, make time to visit and let those stories live through you!

Getting to Watertown is easy, either by Amtrak to Syracuse or the Watertown International Airport.

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by Erik Baard

 

 

One of the stupider “sports” people have come up with is pigeon shooting, where the birds are released from boxes into the line of yahoos’ ready fire. In a 1902 debate over a bill banning the sport from New York, a state senator compared that lack of humanity and sportsman-like behavior to shutting a doe up in a barn and then blasting her as she ran out the open door.

 

As nearby as Pennsylvania the practice persists, and New York City birds are being stolen to supply the madness. Fortunately, In Defense of Animals is part of the vanguard to stop it. This week the group conferred its first $2,500 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person netting pigeons, also known as rock doves, in NYC. The recipient was Desi Stewart, a street sweeper with the Doe Fund. He spotted Brooklyn resident Isaac Gonzalez spreading seed and netting many pigeons on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer arrested Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 26, 2008.

 

It’s a shame Gonzalez didn’t go to prison, if only because we’ll miss the small ironic pleasure of letting him know of his idiocy in trapping for deathly amusement birds whose intelligence might have made them useful allies in alleviating the sufferings of confinement. Kindred criminal spirits in Brazil, at least, were smart enough to attempt to employ the birds as jailhouse smugglers, complete with little pigeon backpacks!

 

Pigeons have a growing fan base outside “the clink” (is my mother the only person who still uses that expression?) too. National Pigeon Day  was Friday the 13th in June, appropriately enough for such a besotted bird. In Defense of Animals, the United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee, the New York Bird Club, and luminaries ate pigeon-shaped cookies…and perhaps scandalously snuck a few crumbs to their avian honorees. The contributions of this species, including astonishing heroics in war, rescue, and acts of touching personal loyalty were recounted.  

 

City Councilman Tony Avella, who’s taken the lead on a number of animal rights issues, shared a moving observation. “They are often a city child’s first contact with nature and an elderly person’s only friends,” he said.

 

One might wonder why there isn’t a greater effort to control pigeon populations, for fear that they might crowd out other, indigenous species. To understand how little worry ecologists have in this regard, here’s a simple exercise: plant your own lush garden or grove of indigenous plants and trees and wait for the pigeons to show up. Or simply visualize the trees on your block being filled with pigeons. It simply won’t happen. The “rock dove” species feeds on the ground and prefers barren areas much like its ancestral cliff sides in Asia Minor. In other words, buildings and asphalt. Not that city life is kind to pigeons. In the wild they live about 14 years, but typically reach only two in urban areas. They do, however, breed a lot more.

 

If you’d like to get involved in the responsible care and control of pigeons in the city, try volunteering for Pigeon Watch. And remember, if you witness a pigeon netting in the five boroughs of New York City, call New York State DEC Officer Joseph Pane at 718-482-4941. If you need help in rescuing a pigeon of any age or condition, please visit New York City Pigeon Rescue Central. For the simple enjoyment of learning more about this species, one great place to start is Andrew Blechman’s book, Pigeons, which he calls “the world’s most revered and reviled bird.”

 

All this brings to mind that we’re at a sad centennial: it was in 1908 that zookeepers posted a $1000 reward (more than $23,000 in today’s dollars) for fertile, wild passenger pigeons. That awakening to the crisis was too late and the reward was never collected. Over-hunting and habitat destruction wiped out that species, which once filled North American skies in flocks of billions. Martha, the last of her kind, died in captivity in 1914. I’ll write more about this missing species of pigeons in coming weeks.

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Clearwater Festival 

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

I’m excitedly anticipating my chance to step sideways into a greener parallel culture this weekend with the Clearwater Festival, and I hope you can join in. I say “sideways” because while many green gatherings in NYC are slick and smart previews of possible sustainable futures, this “Great Hudson River Revival” is an odd amalgamation of innovation and anachronism, of renewable energy and creaky sailboats (and creaky sailors).

 

While continuing to support and enjoy the established festival in Westchester County, might it be time to strike out in new directions here in NYC?

 

Thousands of people gather on the Croton Point Park grounds each June for a weekend of music and other performances, nautical life and lore, and building environmental awareness. Estimates vary, but an attendance high point was reported as 15,000. At root, the campout concert a fundraiser for the sloop Clearwater, which sails the length of the Hudson River carrying educators who preach the environmental gospel and introducing generations of young people to the joys of living with nature. The continuing voyage began with folksinger Pete Seeger, who vowed in the 1960s, to “build a boat to save the river.”

 

Many stretches of the Hudson River were written off as dead at that time, sludged over with sewage where it wasn’t sterilized by toxic industrial releases. Seeger’s quest, despite long odds, wasn’t entirely quixotic. He added his considerable creativity and energy to the environmental movement, which was roused by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Seeger is widely credited with playing a key role in the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. In the past three decades the Hudson River has become cleaner than in anyone’s lifetime.

 

Over that same time, however, folk music has declined in popularity. In a sense, while the Clearwater Festival started as a way for folk musicians to use their popularity to raise environmental awareness, that dynamic has flipped: “green” is so trendy now that it’s subsidizing folk music.

 

New blood, new funding, and a renewed sense of mission could come with an additional Clearwater Festival at Randalls Island.

 

The music would have to appeal to a younger demographic; positive message hip hop, rap, and new rock. The environmental message would resonate strongly if tied to PlaNYC and health issues like asthma, cancers, lead, and stress-related diseases, which stem directly from our urban ecology. 

 

Randalls Island faces three boroughs (Manhattan, to which it belongs, and Queens and the Bronx), and each opposite waterfront is chockablock with lower-income public housing. East Harlem has the highest density of public housing in the U.S., while the Queensbridge Houses complex in Long Island City is the largest in North America.  The South Bronx is famous both as a place of environmental injustice and marvelous community-based green initiatives like Friends of Brook Park and Sustainable South Bronx.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bordering Harlem River and East River (below Hell Gate) are part of the Hudson River estuary, as defined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Dockage for the sloop is viable on the west side. Pedestrian and mass transit links, while not perfect, are extensive. Icahn Stadium is already home to popular concerts, and there are many open areas on the landfill-unified Randalls and Wards Islands for tabling and event tents. If instead of a chlorinated water park, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation now focuses on creating a gorgeous wilderness restoration, we could look proudly upon a new annual mega-destination.

 

Governors Island is an invaluable asset to our city, and on July 26 will be the site of the City of Water Day, a confluence of harbor mavens convened by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. It’s the harbor’s navel, and a splendid place of parkland and historic buildings. But access is everything for a grass-roots event that’s inclusive of the poor as well as the comfortable.

 

Perhaps there couldn’t be camping at the Randalls Island event, but there’s no need to replicate all aspects of the mother festival. Plenty of people would come for a day trip, and because the stadium is enclosed, attendees could choose to pay for major attraction concert tickets or to opt for the free music and entertainment on the open greenswards. Walk-up paddles, planting, crafts, and other public participation activities could be offered for free or at affordable prices.

 

I proposed this to the Clearwater organizers a few years ago, when I was the environmental program manager at Citizens Committee for New York City. While they were concerned about the danger of siphoning off too many visitors to the Croton-on-Hudson festival, they were also quite open to new possibilities. The catch was that we New York City greens would have to put it together for ourselves. Are we up to that yet?

 

 

 

And again, in the meantime, come up to the Clearwater Festival this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

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Yellow warbler at Ridgewood Reservoir. Photo by Steve Nanz.

 

 

 

The graveyard’s a fine and verdant place,

But none, I think, do there play ball or race.

 

…with apologies to Andrew Marvell            

 

 

 

by Erik Baard 

 

City Council District 30 in western Queens boasts some of the widest swaths of green in New York City, but much of that consists of cemeteries. The stony highlands of the terminal moraine make for bad farmland, so elders in preceding generations set those tracts aside for burials. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is now trying to build more ball fields and tracks in the area, but finds itself running into opposition from more restless living residents, including the candidates vying to represent the district in a special election on June 3.

 

The controversy has two key facets. First, the city has chosen a thriving wild space, Ridgewood Reservoir, for its new facilities. Secondly, the agency proposes to use potentially dangerous artificial turf on the new ball fields (and in parks throughout the city – more than 100 sites when installation is complete).

 

The Ridgewood Reservoir hasn’t provided water to residents for five decades and it became a possession of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation in 2004. Basins have grown over with seeded-on forests on the 50-acre site, and it helps sustain more than 120 bird species, including seven classified as endangered.

 

 

 

 

The $46 million NYC Parks plan would bulldoze 20 acres of land for sports while residents complain that similar facilities at nearby Highland Park are falling into disrepair. NYC Audubon has “strongly urged the Parks Department to commit to no net loss of forest cover.”

 

The Natural Resources Defense Council summed up the crisis this way:  

For not yet heeding the call to preserve this unique natural setting in the heart of New York City (but with the understanding that it is not too late for a change of course), we award the Parks Department plans to develop the Ridgewood Reservoir landscape with an Earth Day 2008 Bad Apple designation.

This video, produced by the invaluable Rob “CityBirder” Jett (and including photos by Steve Nanz – the yellow warbler above was taken by Nanz at the reservoir) provides an excellent overview of the imperiled reservoir wilderness area.

Artificial turf, a chief component of which is crumb rubber derived from used tires, poses potential health hazards to children and performs none of the services of plant life. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene acknowledges that the threat demands more testing, but encourages play on the plastic fields as an alternative to obesity. The tradeoff is a false one, or at very least an entirely unjust one to demand citizens accept.

 

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a former Parks commissioner, has called on the agency to halt installation and allow independent testing of the artificial turf. CUNY psychology professor William Crain sent samples over to Rutgers University chemist Junfeng Zhang who found hazardous concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to NY State Department of Environmental Conservation standards. One sample contained highly carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene at more than eight times above levels deemed acceptable for soil.

 

 

The New York Environmental Law Project has also taken up the cause, providing a very informative summary page.

 

 

The reservoir and artificial turf plan was raised at a recent candidate forum hosted by the Historic Districts Council. Each candidate, seated in alphabetical order, commented in turn. Republican Anthony Como has said in the past that some of the land surrounding the reservoir might be built over for recreational use. At the forum he stated that in such a small habitat area it was impossible to eliminate sections of growth without affecting the ecosystem of the rest. Democrat Elizabeth Crowley (for whom I’m doing low-level volunteer work: get-out-the-vote phone banking, carrying literature as she pounds the pavement) often mentions her enjoyment of playing ball with her sons but in this case opposed any recreational development, calling the unofficial refuge an “enchanted land” for visitors. Democrat Charles Ober also railed against the plan, questioning the City’s logic in cutting down “5,000 trees” while asking volunteers to help plant a million trees. Republican Tom Ognibene who that evening announced himself as a skeptic of global warming, has argued before that the reservoir should be maintained as an emergency backup resource. At the forum he focused on the artificial turf aspect of community concerns. He conceded that he supported the introduction of the substitute based on the best information he had available at the time, but asserted that he now believes more testing is needed.

 

As I rode my bike home from the forum, I noodled through the broader implications of the Ridgewood Reservoir issue. It seems our city might be best off if future developments by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation adhered to three principles:

 

 

1) Preservation and restoration of wild spaces is first priority.

 

I don’t need to lecture NYC Parks about the value of green and blue areas. The Forever Wild program is fantastic, and I support transferring public wetlands into its administration. When I find myself disagreeing with NYC Parks so strongly over land use, it pains me.

 

Using hardy indigenous plant species (some are far less prone to invasive species competition than others) and adaptive xeriscaping, natural habitat areas can be created affordably.

 

 

2) New built spaces must incorporate athletic recreation.

 

New developments, especially those sited near residences, should be required to include places for active play and fitness. The declining sport of baseball is very land-intensive. Basketball, roller hockey, water polo, and volleyball are just a few space-efficient team sports – so much so that they can be placed on the rooftops of new stores.

 

3) We must foster a culture change toward outdoor, eco-recreation.

 

Wilderness areas aren’t exclusively for birders. Hiking, rowing, paddling, rock and tree climbing (in designated areas), and other activities can be as physically demanding as any typical weekend sport while also introducing young minds to the science and excitement of exploring nature. And we’ve seen that habitat can thrive in spaces like the reservoir that aren’t amenable to the uniform grass required by ball fields, leaving public servants in the utterly perverse position of destroying green, lush natural spaces so that artificial grass can be installed.

 

There is no park as grand as our harbor. Protected bike paths should be means of bringing green into neighborhoods by using green medians; they should offer access to habitat areas but not slice them up. Bike paths can weave neighborhoods together so that young people are exposed to new foods, cultures, and ways of living. Cycling is civics.

 

 

And so is voting. As the old punchline goes, “Is this a personal fight or can anyone join in?” A habitat like Ridgewood Reservoir is a boon for all New Yorkers, and this most egregious use of artificial turf will only embolden officials to spread it over public spaces in all five boroughs.  

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Black crappie. Credit NYC DEC. 

by Erik Baard

 

This unfortunately named cousin of more celebrated sunfishes might want you to know that its name is derived from “crapet,” a word in the Quebecois dialect of French referring to species of the family Centrarchidae.

 

If I had my way, I’d just entirely rename the species as black scrappie, because you can’t have more moxie than this: one of its chief foods is the young of its own predators, such as northern pike and walleye. That’s right, “You gonna try’n eat me? Well, watch me eat your baby first!”

 

They also eat insects, crustaceans, and zooplankton.

 

If you plan to feast on crappies (apparently that’s more delicious than it sounds), you’ll have to venture outside of NYC. While Kissena Lake, Wolfe’s Pond, Silver Lake, Clove Lake, Prospect Park Lake, Van Cortlandt Lake, and other local freshwater bodies abound with this species, they are governed by “no kill,” catch and release policies. Use either plastic lures or live minnows, and seasoned anglers recommend “spider rigging,” that is arraying fishing poles in a spoke pattern from a single spot. Specialized hooks prevent damage to the fish.

 

Enjoy discovering this crepuscular species (seen in a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation image above) at dawn or dusk when they emerge from marsh grass areas, weed beds, or from under sunken logs and rocky ledges. They’re active all year long, even under a cover of ice (ice fishers love them), but start congregating and spawning in vegetative beds when temperatures reach over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That means this is a prime time to reel in a crappie. 

 

And remember, no laughing at their name. At least not while they’re dangling above the water surface and can hear you.

 

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