Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Progress on Great South Bay Plan

New York State is close to having an “ecosystem based management plan” for the Great South Bay.  The plan is intended to be a guide for balancing ecosystem protection and restoration with economic sustainability.  It’s goals are to make recommendations for better alignment of federal, state and local programs, provide direction for implementing future actions and identify research and monitoring needs to better protect and use the ecosystem wisely. 

The plan grew out of a 2006 state law – the “New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Act” – that authorized the ecosystem-based approach.  A draft plan, which was prepared by the Long Island Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, was the subject of a series of recent public “stakeholder” meetings that were organized by Ecologic, a consulting firm working on the project.  The most recent meeting was held last week at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, where more than fifty people, including various bayman’s groups and conservation organizations, gathered to voice concerns about the plan.

One of the more interesting issues raised at the meeting was the inherent difficulty in trying to “restore” such a dynamic system.  What do you restore it to?  The entire system has been in a constant state of transition since the barrier islands were formed 4,000 years ago or so – which is not even a blink on a geological scale.  Even in the past several hundred years the bay has undergone dramatic changes. 

And looming in the not-so-distant future is the question of climate-change-induced sea level rise.  Steps taken today to improve the bay, such as wetland restoration projects, may be rendered moot within the century by higher water levels.  This question of conservation in the face of sea level rise was recently the topic of a New York Times article and slide show (the article is already archived).

The forecast for our vitally important coastal marshes – of which only 20% remain – seems especially unclear.  These marshes provide critical habitat for countless marine species, act as the engine that drives much of the bay’s biological systems, and provide important storm protection for coastal residents.  In a natural system, these marshes would “migrate” upland to keep up with sea level rise.  But take a look around the next time you drive along the South Shore – how many of our remaining marshes have room to move inland?  In far too many places the marsh is squeezed-in by roads or development. 

There are many difficult issues to tackle in undertaking something as ambitious as trying to manage and restore ecosystems.  But at least New York is trying.  The draft plan will be revised and presented to various advisory groups for review in the coming weeks. It will then be refined over the summer and forwarded to the New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council for consideration as part of their November 2008 report to the Governor and Legislature.

More information can be found at the Council's website or by contacting Ecologic.

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