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Jamaica Bay: Wilderness in the City

Created so people could "experience nature in the midst of crowds," New York's Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge embodies the characteristics of all modern national parks: abundant, welcoming, and threatened.
August 27, 2016, 5am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Jamaica Bay lies just south of JFK airport.
Jeffrey Bary

Hidden in plain view, the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Queens plays host to abundant waterfowl in a tidal marsh. Brandon Keim writes, "My cab drivers, most of them born and raised in Queens, often don't know where the refuge is. More New Yorkers have seen Jamaica Bay through an airplane window than from their feet. That's part of its beauty. There, still within a city of 8.4 million tightly packed people, is a place where you can not see anyone for long stretches of time. Or at least not anyone human." 

This century's challenges will inevitably affect the refuge. "As Earth's carbon-choked climate continues to warm and its seas rise, the bay's beloved and ecologically vital features will be inundated, submerging marsh islands where bird colonies breed and tidal wetlands that shelter baby fish until they're ready for the open ocean." 

On top of climate change, development near the park can erode the tidal buffer zone. Keim writes, "Too many people have already forgotten Hurricane Sandy's harsh lessons about the importance of wetlands and dunes for absorbing storms."

There's also the eternal paradox: how do you visit and enjoy a nature preserve when the best thing would be to leave it alone? "In a less-populated time, it might have seemed like the national parks didn't need our help, that they could thrive with benign neglect and the stewardship of a few people in uniform. If that was ever true before, it's certainly not true now."

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Published on Tuesday, August 23, 2016 in Grist
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