Driving down the West Side Highway in Manhattan nearly every day can have its ups and downs. On Friday, I found myself in the midst of heavy traffic as I exited the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway, en route to Rockland County, NY. I listened every ten minutes to the traffic report, trying to plot my best escape from the city. If you’ve ever driven in the NYC Metro area on a Friday afternoon, you understand; if you haven’t, just know that it takes a great deal of patience. As I was waiting to enter the Lincoln Tunnel on Tenth Avenue, a group of construction workers shouted out to me, “Hey! How are you saving the planet?” referring to the large magnet on the outside of the car that reads “I Serve the Planet” with the SCA logo. I shouted out a quick “I lead a team restoring parks at Gateway National Recreation Area that were affected by Superstorm Sandy!” They hesitated, maybe not expecting that response, and then nodded in appreciation.
Not everyone is familiar with recovery work. This type of work was a new experience for me as well – and for most of my Leader Crew. One thing all of us have learned in the past few weeks is that you never really know exactly how long a given project is going to take, or what it will entail. This week we worked mostly on fence removal along the beach at Great Kills Park in Staten Island. The paths that lead to the ocean beaches had sand fencing lining them, but Sandy’s storm surge buried all but some of the fencing. We didn’t quite know how deep the fence was buried until we started to pull the fencing up. We got our shovels, pruners, and wire cutters ready. My co-leader Eric and I walked away for a moment for a quick meeting... and the next thing we knew, we looked back to see the leader team members were at least three feet deep into sand pits. We approached to find the fence was buried further than any of us imagined – but there was a huge amount of determination to remove it as a team, and we did. Upon completion, the volunteer coordinator we work closely with, Keith White, told us that there had been doubters as to our success on this fence removal, but we had proved them wrong. A group of runners ran by us on one of the trails on Friday and shouted out, “Hey, thanks so much for your help!”
On Wednesday, we went on our promised whale watching tour on the American Princess, the ship whose pier we had helped to restore. We explored for nearly an hour and a half until the first sighting… dolphins! We hung around and watched them for a few minutes, and as the boat started back up and we moved on, we looked back to find at least four dolphins jumping the waves from the boat’s wake! It was beautiful! Everyone on the team was thrilled – some were seeing dolphins for the first time, for others it was a familiar sight, but we all experienced it together as a team. A naturalist on board explained the ecology of the shoreline and ocean, and the biology of the Baleen whales, specifically Humpback whales. The ship captain and naturalist thanked the SCA on the loud speaker for our hard work, and people clapped. This experience was a great way to connect with the people affected by our work.
On Thursday a Gateway park biologist, a Gateway operations manager, and a project manager from the NPS Denver Service Center came out to join us at Miller Field and Great Kills Parks in Staten Island. They came to talk to us about construction plans for the fence that would surround the damaged dunes in hopes of protecting them from foot traffic, thus allowing plants to re-grow and sand to build back up. A goal of the project will be to share concepts of resource management and conservation with the high school students on our summer crews. Education is really a key to success in restoration projects like this. In my experience, conservation projects are always more widely accepted when there is education as to why they are occuring. When we start leading our high school crews, we will be focusing not just on conservation but on education. In the meantime, the more we can spread the word about the work we are doing – to park patrons, to the people affected, even to construction workers on the street in Manhattan – the greater impact our projects will have.