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Protecting The Wetlands:
Changing Tides At Idlewild Park


Many Queens residents only experience Idlewild Park, a 160-acre patch of wetlands near JFK Airport, as a smelly swamp strewn with litter and the occasional car abandoned on its shore.

They see the depressing sight as they drive on the famed “Snake Road,” a windy stretch of Brookville Boulevard that cuts a narrow concrete river right though the mud and tall grass.

But things look different a few hundred feet from the road, where the reason why people are fighting to preserve the wetland – an integral part of the 18,000-acre Jamaica Bay and the even larger New York-New Jersey harbor estuary – is as clear as its waters.

A One-Hour Tour

A group of intrepid activists from eastern Queens took to the water last week, paddling around the wetlands of Idlewild Park to get a direct sense of just what it is they’re fighting to save.

Parks Assistant Commissioner for Citywide Services Jack Linn paddled his way through Idlewild on June 21, admiring the clarity of the water
and its mussels. He said this tractor tire (right) was most likely dumped
from the roadside.
PRESS Photo by Shams Tarek

The water is clear enough to see the mussels a foot or two below; the air is fresh; and rare – at least for the eyes of urban New Yorkers – birds like willets and snowy egrets fly freely and lounge on the tall grass.

The area is whisper-quiet except for the calls of birds, the sound of your paddle and the occasional plane taking off from JFK, which used to be called Idlewild Airport.

Members of the Eastern Queens Alliance (EQA), a consortium of civic associations based in this corner of the borough, climbed through a hole in a fence protecting Idlewild along Huxley Avenue on the afternoon of June 21.

It sounds like a renegade act, but the activists had the help of the New York City Parks Department, which hosted the trip.

The city agency provided eight canoes – piloted by Urban Park Rangers, Queens Parks Commissioner Richard Murphy and Assistant Commissioner for Citywide Services Jack Linn – for the one-hour tour, which was organized by Barbara Brown, chair of the EQA.

The Parks guides helped the mostly novice paddlers navigate the waters of Idlewild, which during the high-tide trip ranged from just a couple of inches in the grassier parts to five feet in the more open waters.

The eight community members who went out were all in Idlewild’s waters for the first time and marveled at how clean the water and air were, and how important it is for people to experience Jamaica Bay — a federally protected area that hosts endangered species, filters the borough’s groundwater and keeps the ocean from flooding the southern half of the borough and much of Brooklyn.

“This was really important,” said Cynthia Curtin, president of Queens Village-based Wayanda Civic Association, right after the trip. “We should be bring the kids out here.”

Desktop Activism

Behind the boating and binoculars was an earnest, longtime effort to protect Idlewild and the rest of Jamaica Bay by community activists and city, state and federal agencies alike.

Brown, who has been quietly fighting along with the other members of her consortium, said she’s currently trying to arrange more boat trips in Idlewild and the Bay.  She hopes the trips will drum up more interest in a situation whose out-of-sight nature puts it out-of-mind for a lot of people.

The swamps near JFK Airport may not look like much from your car, but activists on a canoe trip experienced firsthand the pristine and important wetlands and say they are worth preserving.
Map courtesy of NYPIRG Community Mapping Assistance Project

She’s also petitioning the Parks Department to open an environmental center at Idlewild, just like the one at Alley Pond Park.

But that’s a long way off, according to Linn.  In between paddling, one of the Parks Department’s second-highest-ranking officials said that because of the current fiscal crisis, such a center is years away.

In the meantime, Brown is pushing ahead with smaller initiatives, like arranging occasional cleanups and fundraising walks.  She’s also heading a lobby that’s trying to block big developments like Triangle Equities’ Brookville Center, a huge mall and storage facility that would pave over 23 acres of wetlands.

Community Board 13, a highly sympathetic forum for Brown and a source of much support for the protection of the borough’s southern salt marshes, passed a resolution early this year that calls on the City to “immediately cease any planning or review process in this endangered area of Queens” until and unless conditions respecting the environment and local laws are met.

Federal Attention

The federal government seems to agree  that Idlewild and Jamaica Bay are important enough to save.

A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Army Corps of Engineers claimed that Jamaica Bay, along with the city’s Upper Bay, is the New York-New Jersey estuary’s most ecologically diverse section.

The wetlands are also monitored and studied by the Environmental Protection Agency, which designated the area part of an “Estuary of National Significance” in 1988.

The EPA created the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program (HEP) that year, as the local implementation of the 1987 Clean Water Act.  There are 28 such estuary programs nationwide.

One premise of the HEP, a combined effort of federal and local agencies right down to individual activists, is that an ecosystem like the one Idlewild consists of a delicate balance of food chains and water deposit cycles.  Any disruption to any part of the estuary, which ranges from Idlewild to New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Bay to the lower Hudson River valley, can disrupt the entire system.

Local Help

City and state agencies are also casting their attention towards Idlewild and Jamaica Bay.

Besides the recent boat tour, the Parks Department, with the Departments of Transportation and Sanitation, has also done some cleanup work in the area.

The agencies ran a cleanup of Snake Road this spring, picking up a lot of the construction debris, bottles and commercial waste left by illegal dumpers.

Last year the Parks Department lifted two abandoned cars out of Idlewild that had been there for two decades.  But at least one such car remains in the marsh off Snake Road right now.

Linn said that the Parks Department installed 29 miles of fencing around Idlewild to help stave off dumpers, but nature knows no boundaries: storms and tides, he said, can bring hulking pieces of debris like tractor tires and entire boats over to the wetlands.

Linn said that while roadside cleanups continue, the Parks Department currently doesn’t boat out to the borough’s wetlands to pick up debris.

The tiny boats needed to navigate the shallow waters couldn’t carry off the bigger debris, he said, though he and other Parks employees did photograph whatever debris they saw during last week’s trip.

In the meantime, State Senator Malcolm Smith, who sent representatives to last week’s boat tour, has promised to send state money down to help preserve Idlewild.

And City Councilman Joseph Addabbo, chair of the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, held a hearing on June 20 calling for the protection of city-owned properties that are currently outside the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.

Addabbo would like the land, including Jamaica Bay, transferred to the Parks Department, he said, noting that the borough’s wetlands are important not only to the harbor, but to the entire country.

To Get Involved . . .  

For more information on the fight to preserve Idlewild, or to get involved, contact Barbara Brown, the chair of the Eastern Queens Alliance.

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