When nature gets a second chance

Degraded landscapes can be returned to natural beauty and usefulness.

Aiming high: An artist's rendering of proposed Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., shows the ambitious plan for the former El Toro Marine Air Base.
Courtesy Steven Handel
Rutgers University professor, Steven Handel, and his team of graduate students helped turn a former landfill in Kearny, N.J., into viable ecosystems and parks by planting trees and flowers where trash once stood. The Kearny experiment has led him and his team to restore sites ranging from a former Air Force base in southern California to an area in Paterson, N.J.

Nearly two decades ago, Steven Handel was asked to help breathe new life into a former landfill in Kearny, N.J. The barren tract – bounded by highways, salt marshes, and railroad yards – had been closed and covered for 20 years. But it was an ecological desert, supporting no birds or mammals and home to only two plant species, both of which were alien to northern New Jersey.

After studying the site, its history, and the native flora and fauna of the area, the Rutgers University professor and his team of graduate students began installing groups of native trees in hopes of creating a dynamic, healthy ecosystem on top of the old landfill.

The addition of soil and smaller plants came later. As time passed, researchers studied the changes at the site. Among their observations: Fruiting trees and shrubs attracted birds, which then dispersed seeds over the area. The original plantings matured, and the number of species on the site increased. It had once again become a viable ecosystem.

The Kearny experiment led to an even larger project at the former Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. It also launched Dr. Handel on a succession of far-flung restoration projects, which, in turn, advanced the young discipline of urban restoration ecology.

Now, it’s a discipline whose time has come, Handel says. As the world becomes more urbanized, people have become increasingly estranged from nature.

A majority of Earth’s population now live in metropolitan areas, many of which contain ecologically depleted tracts that can’t support the plants, wildlife, and insects that provide what Handel calls “environmental services” – cleaning air and water, pollinating crops, cooling overheated cities, preventing erosion, and improving the quality of human life.

A renewed public awareness of environmental issues has caused many urban planners, scientists, and even city dwellers themselves to recognize the high cost of neglecting land stewardship.

This awareness has also provided Handel and his team with opportunities to restore sites ranging from a former Air Force base in southern California to the area surrounding picturesque Great Falls in Paterson, N.J.

Handel is “one of the real pioneers of exploring the urban environment,” says Edward Toth, director of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center. He adds that the urban ecologist is known for having “brought rigor and intuitive questioning” to his urban environmental work.

It’s only fitting, Handel believes, that the northeastern United States, the first American region to become urbanized, has become home to the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint venture between Rutgers and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. Handel, a professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers, is also director of CURE. The nine-year-old organization describes itself as “the first scientific initiative in the US established specifically to advance the study and practice of ecological restoration on human-dominated lands."

Although former landfills, such as those at Kearny and Fresh Kills, are dramatic examples of environmental degradation that have been transformed into new habitats, Handel says that the quest to improve the quality of human life through biodiversity should not be restricted to such manifestly “ugly places.”

Asphalt, he points out, is not the only surface that creates a boundary between people and the environment. “Mowed lawns surround most factories, schools, churches, and other buildings,” he says, “and they give nothing back to people or the environment.”

Even on a small scale, meadows and open wooded areas do much more than lawns to improve the quality of human life, he says. They are also cheaper to maintain, a concept that has special appeal in hard economic times.

Every ecological restoration project, Handel says, begins with the question, “What parts of nature can be restored?” The answer often depends on how the land has been used.

Sometimes sites slated for ecological restoration can be returned to a habitat that resembles what was there originally. But that isn’t always possible.

The Fresh Kills landfill, for example, was originally a wetland. Because it had been filled in with millions of tons of garbage over the years, it couldn’t be returned to wetland status. The 4.6-square-mile tract could, however, be planted with species native to the surrounding area, creating habitats for various animals, birds, and insects, and creating a viable ecosystem. In time it will become a public park.

Fresh Kills is just one of many restoration sites that have become parks. The professor believes that intelligently designed parks – encompassing meadows, woodlands, and other natural areas – are essential for reuniting people with nature, restoring those important environmental “services,” and reducing the stresses of urban living.

Other projects have provided Handel and his colleagues with opportunities to re-create the ecosystems that existed before human habitation.
One of these was a 90-acre site near Long Island’s Great South Bay. The property, formerly home to commercial duck farms, was acquired by the county and designated as parkland. The restoration process included transforming a former duck pond into a freshwater habitat and a cornfield into a wildflower meadow.

The park now provides wildlife habitats, resting places for migratory birds, and an oasis for Long Island residents. The project, says Handel, “gave us a chance to add back the natural heritage.”

Restoration ecology is spreading around the world. Handel worked with urban and landscape architect/planners Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., to restore a site on the north side of Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. They consulted with Chinese plant experts and ecologists to create a wooded park to be used by residents after the Olympics.

The work of the ecologists isn’t over when a piece of land has become a new habitat, though.

Because restored public lands are often maintained by employees of cash-strapped government agencies, postrestoration maintenance plans must be fairly simple and inexpensive.

And regular monitoring of the greatest enemy of restoration ecology – invasive nonnative plants – is essential. That problem, says Handel, “is getting worse and worse every year.”

Invasive plants can be controlled partly by natural means, including the use of trees such as white pines to create a shady buffer zone that’s inhospitable to the invasives. Workers in parks and other naturalized spaces also have to be vigilant, identifying small clumps of nonnatives and destroying them promptly.

Other enemies of restored lands have two legs. The same people who benefit most from projects can also jeopardize them. Attractive parks are popular with local people, who may visit in large numbers. This overuse can jeopardize the ecosystems created when the parks were designed, especially if the designers didn’t give enough thought to the effective siting of paths or trails, parking lots, etc. (Thousands of pairs of walking feet compact the soil, destroy smaller plants, and more.)

If a park is insufficiently supervised, overuse and misuse can eventually make it uninviting to the population it was intended to serve.

It’s important to have appropriately placed and sized paths as well as proper signage, Handel says. Vulnerable native plants can also
be protected by dense, prickly shrub borders and even the occasional fence.

In Handel’s view, restoration ecology begins and ends with education. Since its founding nine years ago, CURE has graduated 12 PhDs and educated at least a hundred undergraduates.

The professor lectures widely and also conducts one-day programs for the US Environmental Protection Agency and for public officials.

Ultimately, Handel hopes that his efforts will help cement the bond between people and the natural world and establish lasting environmental awareness. His goal is for stewardship of the land to be a part of citizenship.

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