Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003


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Re-greening the Big Apple

Re-greening the Big Apple
Alex Brash ´81

Rebuild hundreds of acres of salt marshes. Develop a dozen or so freshwater wetlands. Nurture a colony of endangered piping plovers. Restore birds of prey to their natural habitats.

This is not a job description for the head of some remote wilderness but work in progress in the Natural Resource Group (NRG) of the City of New York, headed by Alex Brash ’81. The salt marshes lie mainly in Long Island and Brooklyn. The wetlands are in Staten Island and elsewhere. The piping plovers nest on a beach in Queens. And the birds of prey? Seasonal residents of Central Park, major bridges, apartment building roofs and the banks of the Hudson River. Brash took the helm of the NRG in 2002 after 10-plus years as chief of New York City’s Urban Park Service. The organization oversees 1,680 parks — 27,000 acres — in the New York City area. A zoology major at Connecticut College, he focused on ornithology. But William Niering’s course in salt marsh ecology oriented him more toward conservation, reinforcing the notion of grasping entire ecological systems in order to preserve them. He recalls spending day after day on Great Gull Island “marveling at the inherent beauty of a salt marsh system simple enough to give me a handle on more complex ecological issues.”

After earning his M.F.S. from Yale School of Forestry, Brash entered a Ph.D. program at Rutgers University. When a hurricane cut short his research on the forest population at the Fire Island National Seashore, he saw that rebuilding the data would take two to three years. “At that point,” he explains, “I answered an ad in The New York Times to work in the finance department with the City Parks Department.” His combined ecological and quantitative background made an ideal match, leading to his appointment to head the Urban Park Service and ultimately to his current position. It was Brash who led the Park Rangers’ support of evacuation and rescue efforts, including the rescue of 1,017 neighborhood pets, after the September 11 World Trade Center attacks.

Today, salt marsh reconstruction figures prominently among the $92 million worth of design and construction projects Brash oversees. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the NRG is removing debris and landfill thrown along tidal marshes a century ago to stop erosion, replanting the area with spartina grasses. The agency is also working with other city departments to rebuild freshwater wetlands in parks to absorb clean excess storm water that sewer lines would otherwise dump into the river.
As Brash describes an ongoing project to reintroduce once-native plants and animals citywide, it becomes clear that birds remain dear to his heart. Screech owls, barn owls and even peregrine falcons — whose diet includes pigeons — have already been restored to city habitats. With any luck bald eagles, which once nested around the mouth of the Hudson, are next. Each year, the NRG and the New York State Department of Conservation introduce a few eaglets into the newly restored forested slopes, rebuilt salt marshes and Hudson backwaters of Inwood Hill Park. The hope is that they will remember the area as adults and return to breed.

Public education and community involvement are just as important as any of these projects. Brash has instituted annual events like the fall Birds of Prey Extravaganza in Central Park, where thousands come to learn about hawks, falcons and now bald eagles.

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