Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

Landfills into Forests: An Ecologist's Plan

Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

Landfills into Forests: An Ecologist's Plan

Article excerpt

NEW YORK (ANS) -- While Steve Handel's colleagues are busy studying pristine sites in South American rain forests or the wild beauty of America's national parks, he's tramping over acres of garbage.

Handel, an ecologist from Rutgers University, is pursuing an unlikely dream: to turn the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island into a forest teeming with birds, animals and plant life. The task, like the landfill itself, is enormous. Fresh Kills is one of the few artificial structures on Earth that can be seen from space.

It's here, in the heart of one of New York's five boroughs, that Handel is digging holes and planting trees on the grassy slopes that now cover a sea of garbage. He began the project by asking himself a simple question: Why do abandoned farm fields go to seed and give rise to saplings and young forests while former landfills retain their big, grassy knoll appearance? It seems to be nature's pattern -- after landfills are closed, capped and covered with soil, the big green humps remain big green humps.

It's not that grassy meadows aren't healthy for the environment. But forests can house a more diverse community of plants and animals, Handel said, which makes for a healthier ecosystem.

His curiosity led him first to a smaller landfill in East Brunswick, N.J. It was there he noticed that previous research plantings had led to the successful introduction of an entirely different species of plant. What he found was that birds would nest in the little forested oasis in the sea of landfill grass. Those birds would eat fruit from another location and drop the undigested seeds and natural fertilizer nearby. Those seeds would sprout and grow.

That led to Handel's idea -- a landfill may only need small groups of "starter stands" to get a forest going in the barren grassland.

He's faced two roadblocks: Municipalities generally don't have the budget to reforest whole landfill sites, and some critics are worried that the new tree roots could puncture the landfill's protective cap and allow toxic waste to seep out, although previous research studies have indicated the tree roots don't grow deep enough to cause any damage. …

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