Monday, August 06, 2012

Draft General Management Plan for Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bay

Yesterday the Star-Ledger reported that Gateway National Recreation Area is in the midst of drafting a new general management plan. This is the first I can remember hearing about this, although it is possible that I heard something about it previously and did not recognize its significance. The plan will set priorities for programs and maintenance at all the parks within Gateway. These include Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Fort Tilden, Floyd Bennett Field, Fort Wadsworth, and Great Kills in New York, along with several smaller units. You can read the general management plan and its various alternatives and submit comments on Gateway's website.

Many of these parks were once part of New York City's harbor defenses, a role they played as recently as the Cold War. The remaining coastal fortifications are a unique historic resource that deserves to be protected and as open to the public as possible. Because these areas were involved in harbor defense, much of the land remains minimally developed, in contrast to adjacent parts of the metropolitan area's coastline. This means that the various parts of Gateway are also important wildlife areas. Finally, Gateway provides public access for the metropolitan area's beachgoers and related recreational activities.

Each of these elements is important. However, the first two are what make Gateway unique within the metropolitan area so they should get special emphasis in any future management plan. New Jersey has relatively few areas along its Atlantic Coast where natural dune communities and related ecosystems may flourish: Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, the Two Mile Beach division of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and the complex formed by Cape May Point State Park and the Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. Sandy Hook's beachfront, saltmarshes, and maritime forest make it an important stop for migratory birds during both spring and fall migration. They serve as breeding grounds for endangered Piping Plovers and other beach nesters and host numerous waterbirds in the winter months. Dense development of the rest of the state's coastline makes the few remaining natural areas all the more critical. Likewise, the historic structures of Fort Hancock (and elsewhere in Gateway) are a unique resource that should be maintained for future generations and as open to the public as possible. Some of the structures are in very poor condition, and I worry that if something isn't done to preserve them soon, that they will pass a point of no return and eventually be gone forever. For that reason, my preference is that the National Park Service adopt Alternative C: Experiencing Preserved Places as the basis for future management at Sandy Hook and elsewhere within Gateway.

There are some good elements within Alternative B and Alternative D that ought to be considered regardless of which alternative the National Park Service chooses. Under Alternative B, the park's historic structures would see the most adaptive reuse, something that could probably be done under any of the three action alternatives. This means that the buildings would retain their historic appearance but would be renovated for use as restaurants, lodging, or offices. Buildings that are actively in use are more likely to be maintained, so adaptive reuse could further the goal of maintaining Sandy Hook's historic character. Expanding transportation options is also an excellent idea. In particular, a shuttle linking points on Sandy Hook, the ferry terminal, and the closest NJ Transit train station could reduce traffic congestion and provide alternative ways for people to visit the park. Kayaking facilities could enhance the recreational experience as well as provide a vehicle for environmental education if naturalists led kayak tours around Sandy Hook. The hiker/biker trail on Sandy Hook is often very crowded (sometimes with packs of birders) so widening the existing trail or adding other trails could make it easier to get around the park.

However, such recreational facilities should not be expanded at the expense of Sandy Hook's natural ecosystems. I would not want to see expanded camping areas eat away at the unique maritime forest on Sandy Hook. I would not want to see expanded boating activities adversely affect the saltmarshes and coves along the bayside. Both Spermaceti Cove and the inlets at Plum Island (across from Lot B) are heavily used by waterfowl and other birds as migratory stopovers and throughout the winter. Any expansion of beach facilities, particularly at North Beach and including the addition of shade structures and concessions, should take care not to disrupt the breeding activities of endangered Piping Plovers and other beach-nesting birds.

The combination of natural ecosystems and historic structures make Sandy Hook unique, both in New Jersey and in the wider metropolitan area. I hope that the National Park Service will take care to preserve and enhance these resources. This post is based on a comment I submitted to the National Park Service yesterday. I encourage any birders that visit one or more of Gateway's park units to submit comments of their own. Comments do not necessarily need to be long or address every aspect of the alternative plans, but I do think it is important that the National Park Service hear from us.