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A "perfect" environmental vision

College Professors Advocate NY Metropolitan Area Biosphere Reserve

International attention would focus on wetlands

By Carol W. LaGrasse
June 2001

A group of university scientists proposed on May 23 that the entire greater New York metropolitan area stretching from Connecticut through lower New York to New Jersey would become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, according to Associated Press.

If the region were named as a Biosphere Reserve, the internationally designated area would include 21 million people and would reach north into Ulster County in upstate New York and extend as far south as Ocean County in New Jersey.

The scientists, from Columbia University and Montclair campus of New Jersey State University, pointed out the importance of the Biosphere Reserve status to protect the wetlands in the area, especially Jamaica Bay within the city limits on the south shore of Long Island, the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey, and the Hackensack Meadowlands in New Jersey.

The report of the Biosphere Reserve recommendation gave little perspective about the history of protection and exploitation of the wetlands on which the scientists focused. It did not mention that Jamaica Bay, which is the most pristine of the three large wetlands areas mentioned, is already protected by its National Park status as Gateway National Recreation Area. Residents are being squeezed off these picturesque tidal marshlands. At the same time, the promised function of the area as a metropolitan park for the refreshment of urban people is gradually diminishing as the National Park Service cuts back on access to the park for events and other public uses.

No mention was made, either, of the twentieth century history of use of much of the tidal area called Arthur Kill for a mountain of New York City's garbage. Much of the 26,000-plus tons of garbage generated daily within the city was barged to the Staten Island side of the Arthur Kill, which gradually became one of the world's largest dumps. Because of the City's virtual exemption from the State's recycling law and its aversion to incineration, little is left of the historically beautiful marshlands, which were appreciated by vacationers even into the turn of the twentieth century as peaceful boating areas where nature was untarnished.

Turning to New Jersey, the Hackensack marshes are notorious in environmental circles for their pollution levels from the last century's unbridled industrial waste discharge and dumping. In their polluted state, significant portions of these meadowlands remain, crisscrossed by superhighways serving the Northeast-mid-Atlantic corridor for decades, as well as being populated with a wide range of industrial activity.

So what's up, that such a seemingly asinine proposal could come out of university halls?

Sarcasm aside, perhaps the professors are such wetlands fanatics (which is not uncommon these days) that they hope for wetlands penance for the New York metropolitan area-untold billions of dollars spent on a project that would be an exercise in how to dump society's much-needed resources into the eternal environmentalist rat-hole, to no practical purpose.

That goal accepted, another complementary goal that is being repeated across the nation would fit right in, and be exquisitely cultivatable through negative public works projects of such nearly infinite duration. This is the goal of involving local people in environmental projects, even ones that persecute their own neighbors and negatively affect themselves.

While environmental enforcement agencies destroy rural communities and cultures, wipe out lifetime savings of individuals, and ruin families, the environmental fanatics also come to town with smiles and tailored suits purveying "visions" of visitor centers, with beautiful publications about some local wildlife feature. Using funds from their comparatively limitless reserves, they precisely dole out money for projects to sweeten the local population for extreme environmental preservation.

The constant stream of news that they could generate in the New York metropolitan area about how they are restoring the wetlands desecrated by the people of the region would be a refined exercise in mass catharsis, with a large number of people from that 21 million psychologically participating. At the same time, environmental agencies would bring their weight down on relatively few local property owners, so that the internationally designated Biosphere Reserve would seem benign, and no sympathy for rural victims in, say, the Adirondacks, would be generated.

The love-fest between the environmental ghouls and environmentally gullible city and suburban people over metropolitan wetlands restoration would indeed have excellent application. Certainly it would harden millions of hearts, forestalling sympathetic action if news of a family whose world came crumbling down because of a wetland enforcement did reach the mainstream news. At the same time, New York City people would feel that they are "doing their part," and the massive eco-colonialism of rural USA to ship away the city's garbage, to suck the Catskill watershed communities dry for the city's water supply, and to move power generation outside to avoid polluting the city, to list the weightiest areas where the city's needs are becoming ever more heavily felt, would pale into insignificance because, after all, City people are so very good.

A giant "internationally significant," multi-generation public works project in the world's greatest metropolitan area with completely manipulable criteria for "completion" is the perfect environmental public relations piece. The university professors are a lot shrewder that one would first guess.

- Carol W. LaGrasse, June 2001

Complete New York Metropolitan Area Biosphere Reserve proposal by Cynthia Rosenzweig and William D. Solecki, International Conference on Biodiversity and Society, sponsored by UNESCO and Columbia University Earth Institute, May 23, 2001

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