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.

The Future is Bright

LEAF interns in Keene Valley, New York © Amy Deputy

The other day I saw a glimpse of The Nature Conservancy’s future – and it didn’t look like the present, but it was bright.

The Nature Conservancy in New York, as part of a larger overall Conservancy effort, is looking for ways to broaden our base of support for conservation and environmental sustainability for all life on earth. The Nature Conservancy has a million dedicated members who are primarily white, college-educated Baby Boomers. They have historically been the backbone of the organization and their support has helped us for the past 60 years become the largest conservation organization in the world and the eighth-largest charity in the United States. Our members are deeply passionate about and fervently committed to conservation. Without them, the Conservancy could not do what we do.

As the world sees a rapid change in national and global demographics, we need that passion and commitment to blossom and grow a new generation of conservationists like never before. We must seek to create a larger conservation consciousness that resonates in the 21st Century as New York, the United States and the world become increasingly young, urban, and more diverse.

New York City skyline © IslesPunkFan / Creative Commons

By 2050, the median age of the world’s population is projected to be 37 years old and 68 percent of us will live in cities. In the United States, people of color are projected to represent 54 percent of the population by 2050. Even with the Conservancy’s tremendous track record of success conserving lands, freshwater and oceans we run the risk of becoming quaint and irrelevant in the next 40 years if we don’t connect with younger audiences, people of color, and youth. This isn’t just about growing the membership of the Conservancy. This is about building a consciousness — in America and throughout the world — that appreciates the importance of conservation, wildlife and nature for economic prosperity and human well-being. It’s about inspiring people who refuse to allow the U.S. Congress to reject critical climate-change legislation. A people who insist we use public resources to protect our lands and waters for the benefit of people and nature.

In New York City we are launching an effort to look at ways that the Conservancy can bring its strengths (science, collaboration, partnerships, non-partisanship and a solutions-oriented approach) to a place we have too long ignored. We have some valuable contributions, including the Leaders for Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) a 15-year-old program that puts urban (and predominantly New York City) public high school juniors on Conservancy preserves all across the country. The experience is often the students’ first paid job, and I believe, a powerful combination of Fresh Air Fund, Outward Bound and Civilian Conservation Corps. We have also created a Young Professionals Group with more than 300 active members. But given New York City’s role as a global capital, it has, for too long, been the Conservancy’s “hole in the doughnut.”

Young Professionals Group canoing at Great Swamp © TNC

For decades, we’ve worked around New York City, but not in it—conserving lands and waters on Long Island, in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and around the Finger Lakes. These are all critically important regions and great work, but it’s not enough anymore. It’s time we found ways to better reach out and resonate with New York City. We need to set and achieve urban conservation goals, to influence conservation policy, to engage young adults and the broader audience who will become the conservation leaders of today and tomorrow. There are many successful organizations working in the City and we approach this knowing that partnerships are the way to go, working with others who know the socio-political and physical landscapes, bringing the Conservancy’s scientific expertise, financial resources and collaborative approach.

Not too long ago we held a meeting of New York Conservancy staff and trustees. Victor Medina, a LEAF alum, spoke to the gathering. He told the group how he was so inspired by his summer in nature that he lost 60 pounds and has spent the last several years climbing as many high peaks as he can find, including Pico Duarte in his native Dominican Republic. He spoke about his LEAF experience, his passion for conservation and how his LEAF summer internship helped him become the leader he is today. After he closed his remarks, Victor headed to his seat. As he walked past, someone shouted, “Bill, you’d better look out—here comes the next New York Director of The Nature Conservancy!”

Got that right.