Camping in the Wilds of New York City

I’ve camped in a lot of places—the steppes of Mongolia, the East African bush, the Amazon, countless U.S. national parks and forests—but until recently I had never camped in a city, much less one with nearly nine million people.

This summer the National Park Service announced it was expanding its campgrounds in the Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes 38 campsites in and around New York City. Located in the coastal dunes of New Jersey, on Staten Island and in Jamaica Bay, these campgrounds might seem like novelties. But as the world’s population grows to nine billion this century and as more and more people flock to cities, outdoor experiences such as hiking, biking and even camping are critical for city dwellers looking for connections to the natural world. And so, this past Veteran’s Day weekend, I set out to experience a night camping in the urban jungle.

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To Make New York City Safer, Nature Matters

In a climate changing world, it is hard to know which is worse: the certainty or the uncertainty. The certainty is that the number of climate-related catastrophes nationally and worldwide is increasing, and their cost is growing dramatically.

In the United States, the number of climate-related disasters that inflicted greater than a $1 billion in damages has been growing steadily in recent decades, and already 12 occurred this year. And the individual costs of those events have been growing from hundreds of millions of dollars — even a few billion – to the nearly $70 billion wrought by Hurricane Sandy, which also took hundreds of lives.

Keep reading on Live Science

Empowering the Next Generation

This week, a summer rite of passage takes place.  118 students from environmental high schools across the country head out for their Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program summer jobs on Nature Conservancy preserves in places like Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Wyoming.  What is so exciting is that all of these students reflect the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of our nation’s largest cities.

 By 2050 the world’s population will swell to nine billion, with seven billion living in cities — as many people as there are on the earth today.  Historically, conservationists and organizations like The Nature Conservancy focused their conservation efforts on rural and wilderness areas. Places far away from cities.
LEAF helps turns that history on its head.  And it’s about time.  The students, through paid summer jobs, will learn about land management and stewardship; ecosystem restoration; and the use of natural defenses like dunes, wetlands, oyster reefs and forests to protect us in a changing climate.  They will come back informed, energized and eager to lead. They will have a new appreciation for the nature that surrounds them right at home, whether that’s New York City, Chicago or Atlanta. Nearly 35 percent of LEAF alumni choose a science or conservation major in college, as compared to the national average of 5 percent. This is essential if conservation is going to succeed in the 21st century.  Our challenges will increasingly be urban, and our leadership must understand cities.
Last week I had the chance to spend a day at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, NY, with this year’s class of LEAF interns. They learned about the natural history of the area and how Hurricane Sandy forever changed the refuge. We then spent time removing debris from the beach, allowing the students to play a role in this important place for people and nature. As I worked alongside the students with such varied backgrounds — Asian, Caucasian, Latino, African American, Middle Eastern -– I wondered if anyone of them might become the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in New York? Or even CEO of the Conservancy? Just being able to ask that question shows how important the LEAF program is.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Having recently spent time out West, in a region stricken by drought and fire, I was reminded of my conflicted relationship with Smokey Bear. That’s right, you read correctly — not “Smokey the Bear.” As a child growing up in in the 1970s in Washington, DC I would regularly visit Smokey at the National Zoo after he’d been rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico. Smokey received so much fan mail the Postal Service gave him his own zip code. His message, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” was seared into our collective consciousness.

Pine Cone

A pine cone release its seeds following a fire in the Pine Barrens © The Nature Conservancy

It was, and still is, an important message – don’t be careless with fire. Protecting lives and property is a priority. But we went too far. We forgot that many of our natural habitats depend on fire for their health and survival. Fire is needed to open the cones of the majestic Ponderosa pines so they can reproduce. Fire allows new grasses to emerge where our prairies have become decadent, and in many places fire helps keep non-native species from invading.

A century of fire suppression has caused many forests to become unhealthy and contain too much natural fuel, like logs, accumulated leaf litter and other natural materials that burn too hot or too long when ignited.

We need more fire to fight fire. Putting controlled fires back into fire-dependent ecosystems can keep natural fuels from accumulating to dangerous levels, allow fire-dependent species like Ponderosa pines to thrive, and help prevent catastrophic fires. When conditions are right we can prescribe fire by lighting it ourselves or allow naturally ignited fires caused by lightning to burn while taking appropriate steps to contain it.

Across the country many cities depend on fire-dependent forests for their drinking water. For example, here in New York City we are close to the pine barrens of Long Island and New Jersey, where the fire-dependent pine forests capture water for millions of people. There are plant and animal species in nearly every part of the country that depend on fire for their survival. And yes, humans count as an animal species, including urban dwellers, that depend upon it too.

The good news is Smokey has changed his tune. He now is spreading the news about the role of fire in fire-dependent ecosystems. As I write this column 54 wildfires are burning across the West. My hope is that as we better appreciate the importance of fire we will use it as a tool to prevent the big blow up fires like many of those raging today. This would allow us to keep our natural areas healthy, our drinking water clean, our property safe and our families and friends out of harm’s way. That would be something that both Smokey and I, as an urban conservationist, could be proud of.

Sky Islands

Rick Cook knew he had something special when, out the corner of his eye, he saw a cloud of feathers. A peregrine falcon had just seized a small bird from the rooftop terrace that his architectural firm, Cook + Fox, built on their nearly hundred-year-old office building in Manhattan. Cook + Fox, who also worked on the first LEED Platinum skyscraper in New York City, had created not only a green roof, but a living roof.

There are many kinds of roofs that are good for both people and nature. They come in a variety of colors — black, white, blue and green.

Butterfly on the Highline © Theo Morrison

Butterfly on the Highline © Theo Morrison

Black roofs have the potential to hold solar panels. They can generate abundant, clean, renewable energy. White roofs cool their buildings and reducing energy consumption. In urban areas like New York City, roofs that are painted white reflect the sun’s heat, rather than absorbing it, as conventional black roofs do. Blue roofs catch rain water. Buildings like One Bryant Park in Manhattan, Cook + Fox’s first LEED skyscraper project, cycle rain water into the building for use in cooling systems and bathrooms. Other buildings channel water to irrigate vegetation or store it for later use.

But green roofs are the most exciting for The Nature Conservancy. These roofs, like Cook’s, are about restoring nature and bringing things to life. These roofs can grow food, host garden parties, and even help restore wildlife habitats in cities.

Once you plant a roof green, the first wildlife to arrive are the insects. Important pollinators like beetles, butterflies and bees begin buzzing around their new oasis. The birds follow, feasting on the buffet of insects. And then, just as the birds are getting comfortable, the predators — much like the falcon on Cook’s roof — swoop in, completing the cycle of life in the heart of the city that never sleeps.

We have big parks here in New York City like Riverside, Pelham Bay and Central Park. We can connect them for wildlife by dotting the city with mini parks on top of our buildings. These green roofs will allow our urban wildlife to fly or be carried among them, pollinating crops and flowers, producing honey and serving as prey to predators like hawks and falcons.

We have 14,000 acres of rooftops in New York City. That’s plenty of room to generate electricity, reduce energy consumption, capture rainwater, grow food—and restore nature.

And we can have fun along the way. My family and I recently went to a party held on a large, living terrace 16 stories high with beautiful grasses, bushes and 20-foot-tall trees. My 8-year-old daughter approached me with a sheepish look and said, “Daddy, my clothes are a mess. I’ve been playing in the dirt all afternoon.” Let’s add people to the list of species who will thrive on urban sky islands.

Urban Promise


Highline Park © Theo Morrison

Highline Park © Theo Morrison

I am an unabashed city kid. I grew up in Washington, DC, where urban parks—no matter how small—were my nature. That is why my column is called “Urban Conservationist.” It sounds like an oxymoron: Urban centers are beyond conservation, right? Wrong. Urban conservationists are exactly what the world needs. Lots of urban conservationists. Billions of urban conservationists.

When I began working for The Nature Conservancy after graduate school, I had the opportunity to see some wondrous places through my work—the Amazon rain forest, the high peaks of the Andes, the grasslands of the Mongolian steppe, the reefs of the Caribbean and the majestic forests and prairies of the Rocky Mountain West.

But now I am living in New York City and I am, once again, a city kid. And as a conservationist, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I believe cities are civilization’s greatest invention to address the conservation challenges of our time. Scientists project that global population will reach nine, perhaps 10 billion people this century. Two thirds to three quarters of the world’s population will live in cities. That means that by 2100, there will be nearly as many people living in cities, as there are people on Earth today.

Cities are where we are most innovative, most diverse, most egalitarian. In cities our children get better educations, and our communities live more sustainably. Cities have the most efficient energy and transportation systems, smaller carbon footprints, more expansive recycling programs, and the opportunity—nay the imperative—to provide clean air and clean water for billions of people.

And our cities have nature. New York City has more kinds of plants and animals than Yellowstone National Park. While Yellowstone may have bison, wolves, elk and grizzlies, New York City has humpback whales, sharks, seals, world-class migratory bird sites, species found nowhere else, and the fastest animal on earth—the peregrine falcon.

Urban conservation is about harnessing the potential of our greatest invention, the modern city, and using it to connect urban people to nature. That might mean wild nature, rural nature, or suburban nature, but it can and should also mean urban nature. There is nature right here in our backyards and our parks; even the green strips running down big avenues like Broadway contain natural value. By harnessing this potential we connect people to nature—and nature to people. In doing so, we will conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.

The Nature Conservancy has been around for more than 60 years, working in places like the Amazon, the Coral Triangle and the Adirondacks. We’ve intentionally steered clear of cities. That won’t work for us anymore. It’s time we became urban conservationists. It’s time we all became urban conservationists.

Why I Run In Nature

Bill Ulfelder

2010 ING New York City Marathon

Of course I run for many of the reasons we’re told to run. Running helps keeps me fit, and for someone who loves to eat in general but who particularly loves ice cream with hot fudge (and passes Ben & Jerry’s on the way home every night) I need all the calorie-burning help I can get. Running helps manage my stress—my family and my colleagues at the Conservancy can tell the days when I’ve exercised and the days I haven’t.

But another reason I love to run is it is great way to see world, including the natural world. I have had the chance to run in some remarkable places over the years—including the Eastern Steppe of Mongolia, the largest intact grassland in the world, where I saw huge herds of Mongolian gazelles and the first wolves I ever saw in the wild. I’ve run in the Peruvian Amazon, where I could see the dramatic impacts that a new road from the city of Iquitos to the town of Nauta is having on the tropical forest (I do recommend running before sunup in the Amazon, as I didn’t quite make it back by sunrise and as a result wasn’t sure I was going to make it back at all, as my water bottles were drained). And I’ve run through the Ecuadorian Andes, where condors were flying over mountain passes that were so high half my run was ascending, the other half descending (I took a bus back).

Mashomack Preserve

A boardwalk trail at the Mashomack Preserve

Here in New York I’ve run through the woods around Boreas Pond in the Adirondacks, part of a 175,000 acre project, the largest ever undertaken by the Conservancy in New York; I’ve run on the Mashomack Preserve, where the Conservancy has protected a third of Shelter Island from development and helped restore shellfish in the Peconic Estuary; and I run right here in New York City, where I saw my first bald eagle in New York, flying a few feet above the Hudson River along Riverside Park as ice floes passed downstream beneath its wings. Running gets me out into the world, wherever I am. It’s a way to see and experience the natural world in a more intimate way.

For someone who had only lived in New York City a little over a year at the time, running the ING New York City Marathon last year was a remarkable experience. Starting over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and running through all five boroughs, to the cheers of more than two million spectators, it was a way to experience the City in a way that few do. So I will run again this year. By running the marathon I stay fit and manage my stress, but I also support The Nature Conservancy. And by supporting the Conservancy I help keep all those special places where I run in New York and around the world as they are, for people and nature.