Hempstead Lake State Park – Human Exceptionalism, When Nature Loses Its Battle, We All Lose
By Linda Lombardo, LI Sierra Club Group Executive Committee Board Member
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As a newly member-elected Executive Committee Board member, I was filled with the intent to do good for both people and Nature. The Living with the Bay Resiliency Project, which I’ll describe in detail in just a moment, was already an issue when I took my seat on the Executive Committee and immediately, I felt I was here to serve the rights of Nature in this $125 million dollar project, initiated by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery for the area that we know and love as Hempstead Lake State Park and the surrounding communities, some of which are considered environmental justice communities.
A good place to start is what is an environmental justice community? One of Sierra Club's intentions is that “... we [the club] intend that … the natural and human environment should be restored to the benefit of all people and for other living things, and their future generations; and that no community should bear disproportionate risks of harm because of their demographic characteristics or economic condition.” An environmental justice community is one that is disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution. It is a community where both environmental and socioeconomic stressors may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment. As for Hempstead Lake State Park, the South Shore Audubon Society defines it in the following way:
“Hempstead Lake State Park, one of only two NYS-designated Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Nassau County, and the only one consisting of woodlands and freshwater wetlands, is critical to the survival of bird populations.”
"This park is one of the most important sites on Long Island for wintering waterfowl. At peak times, the numbers run into the many thousands with the following species present: Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, and Ruddy Duck. Of these, the most numerous are the American Black Duck, Mallard, and Lesser Scaup. While the American Black Ducks and Mallards move in and out all day, the Lesser Scaup (which in some years have totaled several thousand) stay on the lake continuously.”
“It is also one of the most important sites for migrant land birds on Long Island. A normal day reveals 50 to 75 species of birds during a leisurely morning stroll. In addition, approximately 17 species of shorebirds have been observed foraging at the north end of the lake when water levels go down. Large numbers of Common Terns and some Forster’s Terns use the area as a feeding and bathing site in late summer.”
For the past three years, this Long Island ecosystem has also been at the center of an intense battle between New York State’s $125 million Living with the Bay Resiliency Project and local environmental groups like Long Island Sierra Club and South Shore Audubon who understand Hempstead Lake State Park’s vital role in the environment.
What is the Living with the Bay Resiliency Project? With a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the project called the Living with the Bay Resiliency Project, began in 2014 to make South Shore communities along Mill River more resistant to future storms. Mill River runs from Hempstead Lake south to Hewlett Bay. As a result of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it left behind, the project was launched to revitalize the 521-acre park’s northwest and northeast ponds with a watershed approach that would create new areas for treating storm water runoff and collecting pollutants. As part of the project, additional work included improvements to Hempstead Lake’s dam and the construction of an 8,000-square-foot Environmental Education and Resiliency Center that would monitor the lake’s water levels and serve as a community educational and emergency-response facility.
Sounds good, right? Living with the Bay’s Vision Statement was “To improve community resiliency in the program area by mitigating local flood risk from storm water and storm surge as well as implementing ecological marshland restoration and enhancing public access to the waterfront.”
Much to the shock of the public and local environmental groups, these plans included the removal of some 2,500 trees at the park. This project was further tied up with a big red bow; an informal environmental assessment statement that read, "the project would have no significant impact.” You might ask, how can removing 2,500 trees have no significant impact? What groups were assessed for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery to make such a sweeping statement? Certainly, no assessment of the non-humans who call the park home was ever done by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, nor an assessment of how this might impact the local south shore communities, many of which fall into that environmental justice community category.
This is one of the reasons why the Long Island Sierra Club testified at public hearings and submitted written comments at several stages of the regulatory process, ultimately creating an Article 78 proceeding, a legal challenge, against New York State, to appeal the decision to impact this area in such a devastating way; to stop the destruction of this valuable land, opposing the decision by the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery to forego an environmental impact statement for the Hempstead Lake State Park project, which would not only remove roughly those 2,500 trees but also destroy 2.76 acres of wetlands, damage bird habitat, and release lead and other toxins from contaminated soil due to flooding into the adjacent environmental justice community of Lakeview. The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s refusal to require and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement is a violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, according to one of many affidavits filed by Sierra Club executive board members.
The Article 78 action was further justified with the revelation of financial maneuvering, done without input from the public, that moved available money from the highest impact communities to those that did not score as high. In an affidavit, former LI Sierra Club chairperson, Charles Bevington, writes that “The HLSP Resiliency Project, off course from Living with the Bay, may be now considered a design of Environmental Racism.” This affidavit is available to the public at https://www.lisierraclub.org/affidavits.
The Long Island Sierra Club Group made a very significant financial investment in order to stall and fight this project; hiring legal defense, asking for further studies into the impact the project would have. Further, the Long Island group's executive committee members surveyed the proposed tree cutting sites bringing in an expert arborist, a professor of biology at Adelphi University, a civil engineer and ecologist, who all called the park’s woodland area a unique ecosystem; valuable, highly productive habitat that should not be disturbed. I was one of the board members on that walk, taking photos of specific trees, the understory, or ground plants. I felt a deep sense of purpose, knowing we were standing for the rights of Nature, and Long Island residents, providing valuable information that could help all the beings in this ecosystem.
Some of the most alarming statements from these experts were about how the project will impact the flow of the Mill River and actually make less room for the river; how the dam on Lakeside Drive will take on additional burden as a result. This is the dam that protects local communities from flooding. It’s clear that the cumulative impact of the river system has not been addressed by the project. Another alarming finding was the plan to put down concrete walkways that would interrupt wetland drainage. This shows that there is no deference to what this area requires to stay a healthy environment by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery or the Living with the Bay Resiliency Project.
As a result, this seven-minute video was created, to explain the scope of the project to the public, as well as the unique environment that is endangered.
LI Sierra Club didn’t do this alone. Concerned Citizens of Mill River Flood Plain, South Shore Audubon Society, and more, all joined forces to fight for the trees and wildlife. In one of the original articles about the project, published in 2018 in the Long Island Herald, and written by Christina Daly, she quotes a member of the Nassau Hiking and Outdoor Club, Guy Jacob of Elmont, as saying, “The elimination of established trees from the dam wall could threaten the structural integrity of Long Island’s only high-hazard dam. Funds intended to mitigate flooding could actually exacerbate it. We should be considering a net gain of trees, not a net loss of trees.”
Now to the present. We learned recently that we lost this fight to stay work for further study of the area and the impact of this project on both humans and Nature. In fact, as I understand it, work began in the park even before the court’s decision was made that the project may move forward as planned. Now that we've lost this battle for Nature, our communities in the area, and Long Island’s environment, how do we bear witness to these trees and all the wildlife in these wetlands and woodlands areas that will be destroyed and displaced? What happens when ecosystems are cut off from one another?
First of all, let’s stop calling them ‘trees’. They are individual species that together create a healthy habitat for the environment, wildlife, and humans. Some of those individuals we saw on our walk include: Scarlett Oak, White Oak, Red Oak, Pin Oak, Chestnut Oak, Black Oak, Red Swamp Maple, Sassafras, Wild Black Cherry, Sour Gum, Sweet Gum, Dogwood, American Beech, Cottonwood, Mulberry, Sumac, Black Walnut, Ash, Mockernut Hickory, Black Birch, and Black Locust.
On the forest floor, we saw: Sweet Pepper, Canada Mayflower, Huckleberry, Sheep Laurel, Foxgrapes, multiple grasses/ i.e., Panicum, Blueberry lowbush, Coastal Dewberry, Poison Ivy, Solomon's Seal – a native Wildflower, Blackberry, Green Cat Briar, Tea Viburnum, Maple Leaf Viburnum, and Milkweed.
And we also saw some invasive (non-native) plants: Norway Maple, Virginia Creeper, Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, Japanese Knotweed, Rose Multiflora, and Honeysuckle.
Such an incredibly diverse area! Sounds like "impact," doesn’t it?
As a member of the Executive Committee, as a resident of Long Island, I have to add my disappointment at the court’s decision to allow this project to move forward. I can only conclude that once the 2,500 trees are gone and ground breaks for the construction of the 8,000-square-foot Environmental Education and Resiliency Center; as wildlife scatters, desperately seeking shelter and food (don’t be surprised to find unusual wildlife in your back yard as a result), there is also a bigger picture at work here: Human exceptionalism, or the lack of recognition of the personhood of all beings. This is the idea that humans are somehow more deserving of the wealth and services of the Earth, than other species. And, even then, that some humans are more deserving than others.