There is a 26,000-acre national park on the edge of New York City, its nearest point less than an hour from Times Square. But not many New Yorkers know it is there. Though about two million people visit parts of it every year, the park is forlorn and in need of help — from the federal government, from Albany and from the city.
The park is the Gateway National Recreation Area, one of the more discombobulated units in the national park system but one with great potential. Created in 1972, exactly one century after Yellowstone, it encompasses uplands, wetlands and estuaries in three segments connected by water: Jamaica Bay, Staten Island and Sandy Hook in New Jersey.
The great expanses of salt marsh and remnant woodland tracts at Jamaica Bay, and the beaches at Sandy Hook, provide habitat for 330 species of birds and 71 species of butterflies. Three species that live there — piping plovers, least terns and diamondback terrapins — are on the endangered or threatened list.
Earlier this year, the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that fights for improvements throughout the park system and annually rates the most distressed parks, gave Gateway the lowest marks for the condition of its natural and cultural (meaning educational) resources of any of the 28 parks and federally protected areas it surveyed.
The marshes are eroding, the beaches are not as clean as they should be, the trails and walkways are merely mediocre, the restrooms and other public facilities leave much to be desired. And a few more rangers to explain what people are looking at would always be helpful, though this is a problem throughout the park system. As the association put it:
“New habitats, restored marshes and modern recreation facilities are needed to create an environment that is suitable for park visitors, native wildlife and plants.”
This state of affairs is partly the result of a bad break long ago: the $92 million that was authorized to rebuild Gateway in 1972 was never appropriated. It is partly the result of the chronic underfinancing of the National Park Service, which the present secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne, is trying hard to correct. And because Gateway is disconnected, and without a unifying personality, ordinary citizens have not attained the kind of critical mass required to force change.
About a year ago, however, the parks association and other friends of Gateway began organizing a lobbying campaign to improve matters. The association also started a competition aimed at creating a master plan to unify the three main units, and the top designs — at least 150 have been submitted — will be presented to the National Park Service for possible inclusion in Gateway’s next general management plan in 2009.
One thing that would definitely help is a reliable waterborne transportation system, and this is where the city, the state and even the Port Authority could help. Gateway has many private friends, and one of them, the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, has been seeking ways to integrate Gateway’s three units with 22 other national parklands in and around New York Harbor, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
One of the things the conservancy has in a mind is a water taxi or ferry system that could whisk visitors from one site to the other and then back home again. This is a splendid idea. Each of Gateway’s units is, in a way, an orphan. Fixed up, and knitted together, they could make Gateway the vital urban park it was meant to be.