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Native wetlands need greater protection

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The newly barren banks of Glen Cove Creek lie just down shore from RXR’s Garvies Point project, on what was once a lush stretch of marsh grass and green trees. Now these wetlands have all but disappeared.

Glen Cove City Council members wrote a letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation last month asking if the project developer was permitted to dredge the wetlands at the creek, as it did, adding that such action would have a “devastating impact on the vegetation and wildlife” there.

The DEC told Newsday that the project complies with the approved plans, which require the excavation of a portion of the slope leading down to the waterfront at Captain’s Cove. The paper also reported that existing asphalt, debris and invasive species would be removed and replaced with new soil and fringe marsh with native species.

The $1 billion Garvies Point development includes a number of amenities along Glen Cove Creek, including 1.1 miles of waterfront esplanade, three marinas with 120 boat slips, access to Glen Cove’s ferry terminal and an ecology pier, which is to serve as an educational tool.

No doubt, the Garvies Point waterfront will never be the same, for reasons both good and bad. The project will annually add millions of dollars to the local economy, but from an environmental standpoint, clearly there is a price to be paid, as the project has brought the loss of precious natural habitat.

The World Wildlife Foundation defines a wetland as a place where the land is covered by water, either salt, fresh or somewhere in between. Marshes and ponds, the edge of a lake or ocean, the delta at the mouth of a river and low-lying areas that frequently flood are all considered wetlands.

Wetlands support high concentrations of mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates — and serve as nurseries for many of these species. They also provide services that benefit humans, including water filtration, storm protection, flood control and recreation. Without wetlands, cities spend more money to treat drinking water, floods are more devastating to nearby communities, storm surges penetrate farther inland, animals are displaced or die out, and livelihoods are disrupted.

New York state passed the Freshwater Wetlands Act in 1975, which identifies wetlands on the basis of vegetation. The act provides protection to wetlands 12.4 acres or larger in size. Wetlands smaller than this may be protected if they are considered of unusual local importance. Around every wetland is an “adjacent area” of 100 feet that is also regulated. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers protects wetlands, irrespective of size, under the Clean Water Act.

For almost 50 years, the WWF, governments and local environmental organizations have worked to conserve and protect the world’s wetlands under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Under this treaty, more than 476,000 acres of wetland have been preserved for future generations.

Similarly, local governments and organizations have pushed for conservation of Glen Cove’s wetlands. Back in 2016, the Town of Oyster Bay wrote to the City of Glen Cove that the RXR project’s impact on water quality was inadequately addressed.

The nonprofit Committee for a Sustainable Waterfront, based on the North Shore, expressed concern over RXR’s “cursory treatment” of environmental issues at the site, and sought a supplemental environmental impact statement to study the potential dangers to natural habitats posed by the project.

The North Shore has a long legacy of environmental conservation. In the 1960s, former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff sought to preserve coastal wetlands after then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller approved legislation to build an 8.5-mile causeway across the Long Island Sound in order to connect Oyster Bay and Rye. Wolff said he believed the proposal would “despoil” the natural beauty of the coastline, and he condemned the project.

He proposed the creation of a wetland restoration site in place of the proposed bridge. In 1968, his efforts were rewarded. In the 50 years since its establishment, the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge has provided a place for people to explore and observe the natural world, while protecting the region’s shoreline.

Once a wetland is gone, it’s gone. An “ecology pier” is but a band-aid to cover a larger wound left by the permanent degradation of native wetlands. RXR cleaned up the formerly contaminated area on which the Garvies Point development sits. It should make every effort possible to restore the once-thriving wetlands of Glen Cove Creek.