Busman’s Holiday at Udalls Cove Preservation Committee

By Walter Mugdan

My day job is managing the toxic waste cleanup programs for US EPA Region 2.  Alas, these cleanups are complicated and expensive, and can take years — even decades – to be completed.   Consequently job satisfaction, while high, is generally pretty slow in coming.

So what to do for a quicker fix?  Answer: take a “busman’s holiday.”  I spend much of my own time working to clean up and restore one little remnant of the natural world remaining in a corner of our huge metropolis.

For the past 10 years I’ve been the president of the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee (UCPC), a local conservation group in northeastern Queens County.   UCPC was founded in 1969 with the mission of preserving, conserving and restoring the last undeveloped wetlands and woodlands of the Udalls Cove watershed.

The product of UCPC’s labors is Udalls Cove Park, a small New York City nature preserve nestled between several densely settled bedroom communities.  Udalls Cove is the eastern arm of Little Neck Bay, part of Long Island Sound.  At the head of the cove, where the park begins, is a thriving salt marsh.  The park is long and narrow, extending south over a mile along the valley of a small creek.  The creek runs down a steep-sided, wooded ravine, into a freshwater pond and out through the marsh to the open waters of the cove.

For the first 20 years of UCPC’s existence our primary focus was to preserve these 100+ undeveloped acres and protect them from further filling.  There were plans to fill in much of the area for residential and commercial development.  The salt marsh was to be turned into a golf course.  Streets were mapped and a sewer was installed along the length of the ravine.  Indeed, six acres of the ravine were filled with concrete rubble to enable construction of a planned mini-mall before UCPC could stop the dumping and have the area included in the newly designated park.

Starting in the early 1990s, UCPC volunteers began to focus on restoration.  It started with reforestation of that six acre parcel in the ravine.  The young trees – all native species appropriate for the area — were lovingly cared for and now make up a beautiful forest standing 20-30 feet tall, just a stone’s throw from Northern Boulevard, a major thoroughfare.

Since 2003, UCPC has invested over $185,000 in a series of increasingly ambitious cleanup and restoration projects.  Nearly 1.5 million pounds of concrete rubble were removed from a section of the ravine and the area was replanted with native trees and shrubs.  A successful erosion control project now protects another hillside and the creek below.  Attractive wooden railings have been installed along park boundaries, reminding residents these are not just “vacant lots.”

Annual cleanups enlist scores of volunteers to remove the plastic litter that washes up on the shorelines.  Nearly 40 osprey chicks have fledged from two nesting platforms built by UCPC. Four thousand linear feet of foot paths have been restored by removing fallen trees blocking the trails and covering the trails with wood chips.  And the perpetual battle against invasive species continues to be waged year after year.

Much of this work has been done by volunteers; larger jobs are done by paid contractors.  Of course, we have to get permits from the city and state for many of our projects; we have to apply for grants to pay for the more expensive projects; and we have to manage any contractors we hire.  Because of my day job, I’m the UCPC member most familiar with environmental permits, government grants and contract management … so these tasks make up a lot of my busman’s holiday.

Frankly, it’s probably a good thing that a government bureaucrat like me sometimes has to go through the process of applying for grants and permits and trying to comply with them.  This way I learn firsthand how burdensome these obligations can be.

That said, it’s all worthwhile when I get to see a project finished in a few weeks or months instead of years or decades.  Find out more here.

About the Author: Since 2008 Walter has served as Superfund director for U.S. EPA Region 2, managing the region’s toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  For the previous six years he was director of the region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs.  He joined Region 2 in 1975 as a staff attorney doing air pollution enforcement work.  From 1991 to 2002 he held various supervisory positions in the region’s legal office, culminating as Regional Counsel.  In his private life he heads a small, local conservation group in northeast Queens.  He enjoys bicycling, kayaking and hiking; and since 2010 he has been moonlighting as an Executive Producer (read: source of funding) for his daughter’s nascent career as an independent film maker.

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