Defending the Marsh

Seed by seed, a community bands together to save the lifeblood of New York's Jamaica Bay.

Defending the Marsh

Turn left or right anywhere in Broad Channel, and you’ll be at the water in minutes, peering out at a green-and-aqua patchwork of smaller surrounding islands. It’s predominantly marshland that you see, sweeping across Jamaica Bay in piles of spongy peat.

Wedged between the gray runways of JFK Airport, the housing projects of the Rockaways, and the suburban calm of Howard Beach, the area is but a thin sliver of land in southeastern Queens, measuring just a mile long and four blocks wide. Of the thirteen sizable islands that lie within Jamaica Bay, Broad Channel is the only one that’s inhabited, and it’s one of the few neighborhoods in New York entirely surrounded by water.

For the roughly three thousand residents who live on “the Channel,” as it’s known, much of life revolves around the water. Kayaks and sails are stowed in driveways, while motorboats rock gently in the docks. Many of the homes, which are often spaced so closely together that neighbors can practically touch one another from their kitchen windows, were built right along the tidal line—so a fierce storm or an especially high tide can quickly translate into flooded streets.

For a New York City neighborhood, Broad Channel is also home to an unusual array of non-human life: diamondback terrapins, horseshoe crabs, finfish, and birds—lots of birds. Many zealous birdwatchers make regular migrations to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Broad Channel’s north end, seeking egrets, great blue heron and ibises. They are, to say the least, serious about their pastime.

Don Riepe is director of the northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society, a marine conservation organization, and he’s also a retired National Parks Ranger who used to patrol the wildlife refuge.

Riepe knows the birdwatchers mean business.

He will never forget one day in the ‘80s when, making his usual rounds, he saw a man peering into the distance with binoculars.

“I said, ‘Hi, how you doing? You see anything good?’” Riepe recalls.

“‘I saw the corpse back there,” the birdwatcher replied.

“‘A what?’ I asked. I thought he meant some type of bird, a goose.”

“‘No, no, a person. A corpse—a dead body.’”

“‘Did you report it?’ I asked him.”

“‘No, the light is falling,’ he said. ‘I want to bird.’”

It turned out the man had stumbled upon one of the handful of crime scenes the wildlife refuge would become over the years. It is, after all, still in New York City.

Enthusiastic as they are about this pristine place, splayed at the edge of a gritty metropolis, both the birdwatchers and homeowners of Broad Channel face a looming threat: Jamaica Bay’s marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate. The decades-long impact of pollution and the re-filling of its salt marshes with often-contaminated dredge material, paired with sea-level rise, have led to rapid loss of land. Scientists estimate that more than half of the bay’s marshes disappeared between 1924 and 2001; just 800 acres remain, down from 2,350 in the mid-20th century. And they’re fading at a rate of 44 acres a year.

But the area’s marsh, Riepe says, is vital—“it’s the lifeblood of the bay.” Its decline signals a loss of habitat for many species of bird and wildlife, which have, for generations, paid routine migratory visits. The disappearance of the marsh would also mean a significant lifestyle change for the area’s human residents, who cherish its recreational and aesthetic value. But the people of Broad Channel, a blue-collar bastion of firefighters, cops, teachers and longstanding tradition, are not about to sit back and watch that happen.

“When I grew up, these streets were barely paved, we didn’t own the land, the airport was threatening to throw you out, and there was no library,” Dan Mundy Jr., a tan and muscular local fire battalion chief told me recently in his Broad Channel home, which is next door to his father’s. Mundy Jr., 49, was referring to the Port Authority’s 1968 proposal to expand JFK Airport’s runways into Broad Channel. The previous year, Mayor John V. Lindsay had announced his own plans to raze the homes in Broad Channel, claiming that the community’s sanitary system posed a health hazard and was causing a hepatitis outbreak in Queens.

Dan Mundy Jr. on his boat in Jamaica Bay off Broad Channel
Dan Mundy Jr. on his boat in Jamaica Bay off Broad Channel

It was not the first time city officials had eyed the community for sweeping redevelopment. In the late 1800s, the island was still mostly marshy terrain, and the only people here were fishermen, who set up little shacks and lived off the water’s bounty—much as the Jameco Native Americans and Dutch settlers had before them. In 1878, officials eyed the bay as a place for a commercial port. Contaminated materials were dumped to create landmasses; JFK and Floyd Bennett Field  were built; toxic runoff from planes and sewage seeped into the bay. Later development took over much of the island, making way for a train line that would eventually become part of the Long Island Railroad, the subway, and the main traffic artery, Cross Bay Boulevard.

Robert Moses, New York’s legendary and controversial urban planner, sought to turn the entire place into one huge urban park, with no room for the existing residents. On Ruffle Bar, an island a stone’s throw across the water from Broad Channel, he had squatters’ cabins burned down. Even though Moses has been credited for creating the vision of what would become the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, he is still reviled by some in the community here.

Mayor Ed Koch, on the other hand, is lauded to this day by those on the Channel. In 1982, the city agreed to sell the land here to homeowners at a fire-sale price, putting an end to years of protests against the unpopular plans of Moses, Lindsay and others. In a ceremony, Koch swooped in to Broad Channel by helicopter and presented the first deed. Dan Mundy Sr. was among the first people on the island to buy his land.

“We think we have a million-dollar situation here,” Mundy Jr. told me, referring to both the monetary and sentimental worth of the homes in Broad Channel. His ancestors, who first settled on the island in the early part of the 20th century, seem to have agreed.

Back before the island had any roads, Mundy Jr.’s maternal great-grandfather transported ice by barge from the Rockaways to Broad Channel to sell to the area’s residents. He was among the first to operate a horse-drawn wagon on the island. And Mundy Jr.’s grandfather, Ed Clarity, a New York Daily News photographer, was so smitten with the place that he said its photo-worthy sunsets bested those in Tahiti and Hawaii.

But Mundy Jr.’s Broad Channel ties don’t end there. His paternal grandparents met in a dance hall here during the Prohibition era, when the island was flush with hotels and speakeasies. For them, the proximity to the water was a breezy contrast to the heat of the stuffy German and Irish immigrant enclaves on the Upper East Side. They got married and decided to stay.

Long-timers like the Mundys, after successfully fighting off Mayor Lindsay, Robert Moses, and scores of others in order to preserve their homes, now recognize the more imminent threat posed by their dwindling marshland.

“There was always a struggle for survival for the Broad Channel community,” Mundy Sr. told me. “Moses’ idea was birds and people could not co-exist…And as you can see, this was proved to be completely false, because on Broad Channel the birds are still with us.”

On a sun-drenched September afternoon, a group of volunteers gathered in a lush marsh area in Broad Channel, listening to instructions from both Dan Mundys. The younger was demonstrating how to safely use a sickle to collect seed heads of Spartina alterniflora, a versatile marsh grass that grows up to five feet tall and comprises much of the bay’s salt marsh islands.

Employees of the Littoral Society collect healthy marsh seeds from the Rockaways; Dan Mundy Jr. holds marsh seeds that will be stored for the winter and planted next year
Employees of the Littoral Society collect healthy marsh seeds from the Rockaways; Dan Mundy Jr. holds marsh seeds that will be stored for the winter and planted next year

“What you want to do is look for areas that are real dense,” Mundy, Jr. told the volunteers, myself among them. “You get a handful and grab it, and it takes a couple of shots to get it.” With a swift motion, he demonstrated how to use the instrument. “You don’t want anyone near you. Be careful, it’s sharp…And listen, no matter what you get, it’s gonna be a home run. Fill in the bags and throw them on my lawn.”

After signing a waiver, a dozen or so people set out to collect the seed heads as part of an ambitious project to restore two declining marsh islands in the bay. The lofty task entails recreating marshland by collecting the Spartina seed, growing the grass off-site, and ultimately planting it on Rulers Bar and Black Wall—two marshland sites where the Army Corps of Engineers has already laid some of the required 375,000 cubic yards of foundation sediment. In some places, the seeds will be planted directly into the marshland to see if they take root. They may not.

That same day, over on the other side of the channel, Don Riepe and Elizabeth Manclark, of the American Littoral Society, were heading up their own two-hundred-strong volunteer group. Each year, they come from a local church to help with shore cleanup, but this time many of them were diverted to seed collection. The Society was in charge of much of the logistics that day, as well as procuring the supplies and funding for collection and, later, the planting.

Dylan Edmunds, left, and Elizabeth Stoehl, right, both with the Littoral Society, collect healthy marsh seeds from the bay side of the Rockaways to help replant areas in Jamaica Bay where natural vegetation has died
Dylan Edmunds, left, and Elizabeth Stoehl, right, both with the Littoral Society, collect healthy marsh seeds from the bay side of the Rockaways to help replant areas in Jamaica Bay where natural vegetation has died

The community groups had just a two-week window to work in—Spartina grasses only seed occasionally—and the volunteers needed to gather some 250 pounds of the seed heads if they were to have any shot at cultivating marshland on the man-made areas of the islands.

Mundy Jr., with an electric plant cutter in tow, directed volunteers to an area where the Spartina tips had turned a beautiful golden yellow—a sign that they were ready for harvest. There, he and the volunteers, along with Mundy Jr.’s father, daughter and his daughter’s boyfriend, piled into boats, ready to attack one particularly dense area of the island before the high tide rolled in. On the horizon, seagulls and terns were already perched comfortably on top of newly placed sand mounds, as if the piles had been there forever.

Earlier, in mid-September, bulldozers had slowly crawled across Black Wall. The Army Corps of Engineers had descended on the bay to spread and grade the necessary pre-planting sediment using GPS technology to calculate the appropriate elevation. The sediment came from deep below New York Harbor, was transported a few miles by barge to the nearby Rockaway Inlet, and was then pumped to Broad Channel through an underwater pipeline.

One marsh restoration project already underway in Jamaica Bay, with the Manhattan skyline in the background
One marsh restoration project already underway in Jamaica Bay, with the Manhattan skyline in the background

The complex operation is an example of what environmental remediation specialists call “beneficial use.” The sand is removed from one area—in this case, the Ambrose Channel, several miles off the coast of Breezy Point, Queens—in order to deepen that channel for the gigantic ships that pass through to ports in New York and New Jersey; and then the sand is repurposed for wetland restoration elsewhere, or in Broad Channel, in this case.

The Army Corps and the National Park Service, alongside the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Environmental Conservation, have previously restored several islands in the bay, including Big Egg Marsh, Elders East and West, and most recently, Yellow Bar Hassock. But in this unusual arrangement, the community groups were now engaged in some of the restoration work that contractors normally do themselves.

Wetland restoration, after all, is costly. And because the funding for the Ambrose Channel harbor-deepening program is nearly exhausted—and there are no other islands federally slated for restoration on the bay—the idea for community involvement was borne of necessity. “This is the first time I’ve seen this particular arrangement where we’re marrying federal, city and state effort with a community one,” said Lisa Baron, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, which, in the past, took more of a backseat, advisory role in the process.

If there are no major hitches, future restoration work may rely even more on volunteers and partnerships with community stakeholders.

“If you would have told anyone fifteen years ago that this was going to transpire, they would have told you that you were out of your mind,” Mundy Jr. told me recently. After years of wrangling with governmental agencies, the green light for direct community involvement is widely seen as a victory on Broad Channel, especially among community groups that have long fought for acknowledgment that there is a problem in the first place. Community-based wetland restoration projects like these have taken place elsewhere in the U.S., but this is the first of its kind for New York City.

In a sense, this untraditional partnership can be traced back to the mid-90s, when Mundy Sr., a gray-haired, no-nonsense retired fire captain, began noticing some disturbing changes in the bay. The water had turned a milky brown, algae blooms had formed on the surface, and fish had started to die and float on top of the bay through the summer and early fall. Soon, boaters traveling through “the Cow Path,” a well-traversed section of channel used by many as an island-hopping shortcut, found that parts of the islands themselves had vanished.

Dan Mundy Sr. and Dan Mundy Jr.
Dan Mundy Sr. and Dan Mundy Jr.

Concerned for the bay’s health, Mundy Sr., now 74, founded Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, a citizen environmental advocacy group. Mundy Jr. became interested in the issue largely through his father, and in his free time began to attend meetings, document the marshland’s decline and study the historic data. (He sees a parallel to his job: “In the fire department I’m used to, if you have a problem, you get it done.”)

Soon, a culprit was identified: the amount of nitrogen in the water that was filtering into the bay from the four wastewater treatment plants within a few miles of Broad Channel. Nitrogen is a nutrient and not harmful in and of itself, but in excess it can cause large algae blooms, which consume much of the water’s oxygen. Nitrogen levels spiked in 1992, after the city began to comply with a federal ban on dumping sewage sludge into oceans. Now, instead of heading straight to the ocean, sludge was separated, or “dewatered,” in a process called flocculation; solids were placed in landfills while the treated liquid was released into the bay, which dramatically affected the water quality.

The turning point, according to Mundy Jr., came in 2009 after the Natural Resources Defense Council, representing Ecowatchers and other groups, threatened to sue. By 2011, the city of New York finalized a pact with civic groups and the state to cut the nitrogen discharge in half by 2020, by requiring treatment plants to upgrade their facilities. Then, this year, the city and the National Park Service announced a partnership to “enhance Jamaica Bay as a great urban park” through a joint commitment to build a science center and increase public access.

In truth, wetland restoration is a new frontier. So is the idea of preserving one, for that matter.

Up until the mid-20th century, wetlands generally had a bad rap. The Puritans disliked forests because “savages” and wild beasts hid in them, but swamps, also mysterious—and dank—were not much higher on their list. This despite the fact that the cordgrass found in marshland was used to feed the early colonialists’ livestock and build their homes.

Later, marshes became an obstacle to development, and by the 19th century they were known as places where bad air, or “miasma,” led to diseases (unbeknownst at the time, it was the mosquitoes that caused the disease). Many marshes were drained and cleared to make way for great cities like Boston. Elsewhere, they were used as dumping grounds or obliterated for agricultural purposes. An 1868 Scientific American article called marshes “blotches upon the otherwise fair face of nature.”

What most people didn’t know is that wetlands are actually handy to keep around. In fact, they are one of the most productive habitats in the world, rivaling tropical rain forests in the benefits they provide. Two-thirds of commercially harvested fish spend part of their life cycle in wetlands, and, in some cases, they can act as a buffer to storms by absorbing the energy of strong waves and preventing coastal shoreline erosion. They’re also thought to be natural filters of pollutants.

Even when, in the 1960s and ‘70s, Americans began to realize the importance of marshes and swamps and perception began to evolve, wetlands were still drained to make way for airports and agriculture. (What is now JFK was built on top of marshland beginning in the 1940s, as was LaGuardia a decade earlier.)

Wetland protection eventually got a boost in 1975, when a lawsuit helped to extend the Clean Water Act to include wetlands; and another in 1985, when Congress scratched an incentive that encouraged farmland to be developed on top of marshes.

In 1989 President George H.W. Bush set forth a national policy requiring “no net loss” of wetlands, a measure that, while clearing the way for the remediation of marshes, also excused developers who had destroyed certain marshes as long as they had somehow improved others.  The policy, however, did help usher in an era of wetland awareness and restoration.

The outcome is still somewhat murky. Scientists maintain that it could take centuries before restored wetlands achieve the ecological integrity of a natural marsh.

“Marsh restoration is a very new thing,” says Judith Weis, a professor of biological sciences at Rutgers University and co-author of “Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History.” “I view it as an art that isn’t yet a science. It works by trial and error.” Projects can fail completely if the conditions are not right, if the elevation is not right, or if the new marshlands can’t keep up with rising sea levels—all vital concerns for the people of Broad Channel as they embarked on their mission to defend their marsh.

For the Jamaica Bay projects, much of the restoration, ironically enough, will take place in New Jersey. The Spartina seeds gathered by the volunteers in September have been sent from Broad Channel to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) nursery in Cape May. There, the seed heads will be fed through a combine to separate them from the stems and leaves, and they’ll be cleaned and stored in a fiberglass tub filled with salt water. The tub is kept at a specific temperature to simulate outdoor conditions of the winter months so that the seeds don’t germinate or rot—which, from first-hand experience, smells like a mixture of vomit and fertilizer.

Elizabeth Stoehl of the Littoral Society collects seeds
Elizabeth Stoehl of the Littoral Society collects seeds

The NRCS will be “the keeper of the seeds,” plant manager Chris Miller told me, storing them until late winter or early spring when they will be mixed with potting soil and grown in plastic containers, similar to what you might find in a garden store.Later, they will be submerged in salt water, which is periodically drained to mimic what happens in nature with the ebb and flow of tides. Though Spartina has the ability to get rid of excess salt that it gathers—excreting it through glands underneath its leaves—the plant doesn’t like to be inundated with too much sodium.

Come springtime, the plugs will finally be ready for planting on Rulers Bar and Black Wall by a team of volunteers and hired contractors. Machinery, including a seeder and planter, will likely be brought in by barge to aid in the rigorous work of hand-planting the plugs.

One pleasant late summer afternoon on the bay, a neighbor of Mundy Jr.’s paddled leisurely toward him in a bright neon kayak.

“Hi Carol, how you doin’? The silver snappers are going crazy, huh?” Mundy Jr. said as he stood on his dock. “The bay’s alive.”

“You know, Ricky and I went out, and we saw a gigantic sea turtle,” replied Carol, a youthful-looking great-grandmother clad in a bathing suit, visor and sunglasses. “It was right out here. We stopped and he looked like he had a little bit of buoy around his neck. We tried to scoop it off but [the turtle] was too fast for us.”

Sure enough, if something, large or small, happens on the bay, the Mundys will probably hear about it. Mundy Jr. is also the president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, a seat that his father once held. And in addition to Ecowatchers, he has been involved with a host of other Broad Channel concerns, including projects to raise the level of the streets to prevent flooding and others to install guardrails for biking paths.

Mundy Jr. now lives in the home that once belonged to his grandmother. When he renovated the house, he had his architect install a large picture window that overlooks the bay, with a direct view of the Black Wall and Rulers Bar marshlands—the perfect perch from which to watch over their progress.

From the window, or below on his back porch, Mundy Jr. also has a sweeping sightline of the Manhattan cityscape, along with sections of Brooklyn that his fire battalion oversees. Sometimes, on his days off, he’ll sit and relax and occasionally something will catch his eye beyond Jamaica Bay—like the telltale flashing of emergency lights rushing toward a car accident or a fire scene. Those days Mundy Jr. will call his crew to make sure they’re alright, inevitably surprising them by the fact that he’s even privy to the situation. But on calmer days he’ll just head out in his boat and drift between the marsh islands and among the tall grass stalks he’s known since childhood.

“It’s nice to come back sometimes from a high-intense situation,” Mundy Jr. says, referring to the stresses and problems of life that he, and so many others, leave behind when they return to their quiet enclave by the bay. “While you’re still in the city, you might as well be a thousand miles away.”