Hot Cars & Hardwoods: Restoring Forests in the Big Apple Isn't Your Typical Silvicultural Exercise

By Nixon, Will | American Forests, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Hot Cars & Hardwoods: Restoring Forests in the Big Apple Isn't Your Typical Silvicultural Exercise


Nixon, Will, American Forests


The morning begins with the smell of ashes, a scent familiar to the foresters in the New York City Parks Foundation's five-year, $6.2 million campaign to protect and restore 5,000 acres of hardwoods. Anthony Emmerich, project director, and Mark Busciano, his deputy project manager, pull over at the bottom of a City park hill in northern Manhattan to inspect a burned Mazda parked on its wheel rims on the sidewalk.

The headlights and windshield have melted. The wreck smells like last night's campfire.

The two foresters know stolen cars almost as well as they know trees. "They were only kids out joyriding, not professionals. They didn't strip anything," Busciano says. They even left the tires - steel radial wires lay like mats under the wheel rims, the rubber melted away.

Now he notices the natural damage. A cherry sapling that grows like a crooked flagpole out of the roadcut rocks overhead still wears its green leaves, but they are curled and singed - it's dead, he says. Flames from burning cars can reach 20 feet, frying the living cambium layer under the bark. On top of the roadcut, the trees all show gaps in their bark like opened shirts, scars from earlier fires.

At least the car burned on the sidewalk, rather than among the forest trees 40 feet down a nearby path. Several years ago, workers from the restoration project here planted a big wooden stake cut from a railroad tie in the middle of the path to block traffic. It has been rammed twice and burned once, but it still holds. One of the major goals of the restoration campaign is simply to force vandals to torch cars out on the streets instead of in the woods. The city will ultimately erect 20 miles of steel guardrails to protect the perimeters of its parks. For now, the crews plant wooden stakes or dig four-foot-deep "tank trap" trenches. These skills may not be taught in forestry school, but New York City doesn't offer the typical forest ecosystem.

From the Great Depression until the mid-1980s, New York City largely ignored the 5,000 acres of hardwoods growing in almost two dozen parks across the five boroughs, from large Pelham Bay and Van Cortland parks in the Bronx through the hills of northern Manhattan to the Staten Island Greenbelt.

"These are central hardwood forests like you would find in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, Missouri, and West Virginia," Emmerich says. These same species grew when the Indians lived here: oaks, hickories, maples, ashes, cherries, sweetgums, and tuliptrees. In places the towering trees date back 150 to 200 years, surpassing many of their country cousins that have grown up on former farmland in this century.

But the Indians didn't incinerate cars, introduce exotic trees and vines, or cause the other troubles that now beset the city's forests. In 1990, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation donated the money for a major restoration campaign. The City Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group created by the Parks Department and funded by philanthropies, now manages the campaign, employing 20 professional foresters and others with backgrounds as landscapers or park rangers. (In the past, the Parks Department employed only arborists, who planted and pruned the street trees.)

"We introduced silviculture to New York City," says Emmerich, who earned his master's degree at the Yale School of Forestry and relaxes by reading academic ecology journals. "What's conventional in other places is innovative here."

When the restoration work is completed next year, the Parks Foundation will have planted 130,000 tree seedlings, cleared choking vines from upwards of 600 acres, removed hundreds of rusty car hulks from the forests, and employed 30 high-school interns.

The educational branch of the campaign, run by Mary Leou, has published a beautiful coffee-table guidebook to the city's Woodlands, Wetlands, and Wildlife, built an Urban Forest Ecology Center in Van Cortland Park that draws 10,000 people a year, and sponsored school programs and teacher workshops. …

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