Grassland Restoration and Management Project (GRAMP)
A Brief History
Against a distant backdrop of skyscrapers, Northern Harriers glide gracefully over the diverse vegetation of the Floyd Bennett Field area of Gateway National Park. Kestrels hover over the grassland infields during spring and fall migrations, Short-eared owls spend their winters there, and Savannah sparrows nest in substantial numbers. This wonderfully diverse grassland habitat exists through the persistent advocacy and enduring physical efforts of The Grassland Restoration and Management Project (GRAMP), the first conservation project that engaged the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society (NYCAS) when it was founded in 1979.
The project originated with the Citizen's Liaison Committee for the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge encouraged by Dr. Peter Post's NPS-sponsored study of the grassland birds in Gateway NP in 1979. It was clear that at Floyd Bennett Field, no longer an active airfield, trees and shrubs would soon invade the open grasslands in the process of natural plant succession. Nesting grasshopper sparrows, meadow larks and the grassland-dependent American kestrels and northern harriers would soon have no protected breeding grounds in the New York City metropolitan area.
It was the dream of Jean and Ron Bourque that if the grasslands could be preserved for these birds, the upland sandpipers that were then breeding at JFK International Airport might return to breeding at Floyd Bennett Field. Jean Bourque wrote a proposal to the Gateway administration to continue mowing to maintain the existing grassland habitat for these open country birds. No action was taken by Gateway.
At the suggestion of Sheila Rosenberg, a founding member of NYCAS, Jean and Ron engaged the help of Al Appleton, the chapter's Conservation Committee chairman. After four years of persistent letter writing, cajoling, and many meetings with the changing personnel at Gateway, Al Appleton was able to obtain an informal agreement to allow the New York City Audubon Society (NYCAS) to begin the job of grassland restoration.
Before restoration could begin, a base line field study was conducted by the Seatuck Research Program. With the scientific data corroborating the premise for the restoration, work finally began in 1985.
In the intervening years, trees and shrubs had invaded the grasslands, making restoration of the 140 acres far more difficult than it would have been five years before. The Park Service used a brush-cutting machine to clear briers and smaller woody vegetation. NYCAS and other volunteers helped remove all the trees and shrubs manually, and hauled the cut trees and shrubs off the restored grasslands onto the runway edges where it was eventually chipped. All work was done from October to March each year to avoid disturbing birds during the breeding season. The clearing began in October of 1985 and was completed in March of 1990.
In the third year of clearing, Gateway biologist Bob Cook provided chain saws, large wood chipping machines, trucks, and even a bulldozer. Without the assistance of Bob Cook, Dave Taft and many of the Gateway staff who generously gave their own time to help on weekends, the project would have taken another two or three years. When the clearing was completed, signs were posted around the restored grasslands informing visitors that " In an effort to stem the decline of open country birds, this cooperative project will restore and maintain the grassland habitat with its diverse flora."
Although this project has restored and maintained the grasslands, many species of grassland birds continue to decline precipitously to the point where the only grassland-nesting bird that now breeds in Floyd Bennett Field is the savannah sparrow. NYCAS believes the main reason for this decline lies with the depletion and fragmentation of grassland habitat as it is destroyed by continued intensive development in surrounding areas. The resulting regional decline of open space affects not only New York City, but also suburban New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and beyond. NYCAS has been active in our efforts to protect existing areas through our "Buffer the Bay" project. Unfortunately, developments such as Vandalia Dunes have been approved and built despite their dire environmental consequences.
Nevertheless, these managed grasslands provide crucial feeding and roosting habitat for migrating grassland birds, and a welcome respite from the city for birders and other recreationists. The Northern harriers have been breeding successfully in Floyd Bennett Field in recent years and can often be sighted gliding over the grasslands, as can hovering kestrels during spring and fall migration. Short-eared owls have been using the grasslands as wintering grounds. The GRAMP sign mentions a diverse flora that is one of the outstanding characteristics of this area. A botanist who surveyed some of the grassland infields was astonished and delighted by the diversity of grasses, forbs and woody vegetation he recorded there.
Jean and Ron Bourque and David Burg continue GRAMP's work, actively participating in an advisory committee that meets with Gateway Natural Resource Management people to work out ongoing management decisions. But the fate of grassland birds lies beyond Gateway and is affected by urban and suburban sprawl in the entire northeast region of this country and by changes in farming practices.