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Norton Basin Natural Resource Area

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Norton Basin locator map

Norton Basin Natural Resource Area encompasses approximately 11 acres of land within the Borough of Queens at the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula. The site is bounded to the west by Norton Basin, a tributary of Jamaica Bay; to the east by a new development of multi-family homes facing Bay 32nd Street; to the north by the western terminus of Healy Avenue, and to the south by Michaelis-Bayswater Park which is operated by New York City Parks.

Many activities are frequently enjoyed within this attractive natural site, including hiking, bird watching, nature viewing and picnicking.

History

Jamaica Bay:

The Rockaway Peninsula was inhabited by Native Americans before European settlers came to America. In 1934, archaeologist and engineer Reginald Bolton identified thirteen sites in Brooklyn and Queens as being original Native American sites. The sites in Queens were mainly along the north side of the Bay, near what is presently known as Howard Beach. Unfortunately, professional archaeological field work was not conducted on any of these sites before all were destroyed by construction and filling that occurred across much of Jamaica Bay. However, using evidence from archaeological sites elsewhere in coastal New York, a model of Native American culture at the time of European contact has been produced (Black, 1981).

The cultural pattern of the Native Americans of Western Long Island at the end of the sixteenth century has been classified by archaeologists as Late Woodland − East River Aspect − Clasons Point Phase, and was probably part of the Metoac Confederacy (Black, 1981). One of the most central elements of that cultural pattern was permanent settlements, which typically occupied approximately one acre and were located near tidal streams and bays (Black, 1981).

View from Norton Basin Natural Resource Area

In Jamaica Bay, there were two closely related Native American groups, the Canarsie and the Rockaway. The western and northern shores of the Bay were within the territory of the Canarsie, and the eastern shores belonged to the Rockaway. Between 1636 and 1667, the Native American title to practically all land in Kings and Queens Counties, including the shores of Jamaica Bay, was terminated (Black, 1981). By the late 1660s, only three families remained near the Bay, evidence that Native Americans no longer played a significant role in the activity around Jamaica Bay.

Prior to the mid 1860s, the Dutch settlers who inhabited the land around the Bay heavily pursued agricultural practices. A variety of crops and livestock were raised on small farms for both subsistence and profit, and the meadows and salt marshes surrounding the farms in the Bay were critical foraging grounds for horses and cattle.

In addition to agriculture, Jamaica Bay was rapidly becoming popular for the abundance, variety, and quality of finfish and shellfish found. However, prior to 1865, the bulk of the population on or near the shores of the Bay engaged primarily in farming and fished only occasionally either for recreation or to supplement the food supply of their families.

After that time, the fishing and shell fishing industries began to flourish in Jamaica Bay especially on Barren Island, where horse-rendering, fertilizer, and fish oil plants prospered. In fact, by the late 1800s, Jamaica Bay had become an extremely popular fishing area for many small-time fishermen as well as for the commercial fishing industry, which prospered through focusing primarily on shellfish. Perhaps most famous for the number and quality of its oysters and clams, the industry only prospered until the early 1920s when growing pollution problems in the Bay finally forced the closure of the shellfish industry.

As the industrialization of the Bay continued to increased, ships in greater sizes and quantities came to the bay transporting materials. Slowly and steadily agriculture declined in importance as increasingly larger portions of the population turned to non-agrarian occupations (Black, 1981). This brought with it an increase in pollution, population, and waste which necessitated the growth of yet another industry, albeit less popular, refuse processing. These factors would all later contribute to the devastating condition of the Bay area and the need for intense clean-up.

Thankfully, in 1938, under the leadership of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, efforts were initiated to protect the Bay from further development and overexploitation (Tanacredi, 1995). Ten years later the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was created, procuring and transferring the uplands of the Bay to the City Parks Department. When Congress enacted Public Law 95-592 in 1972, legislation was created which established and gave authority to the Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA), which now manages and controls Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden, and Breezy Point on the Rockaway Peninsula. Much of the underwater lands and shoreline of Jamaica Bay, including the Wildlife Refuge, are maintained by the National Park Service. The rest of the shoreline of Jamaica Bay is privately owned and managed by City and State agencies, including the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Norton Basin Natural Resource Area

Originally intended for residential development in the early 1970s, the project to convert the privately owned Norton Basin property came to an abrupt halt due to neighborhood opposition. In 1974 New York City developed a map which depicted the land as a municipal park to be added to the Michaelis-Bayswater Park. A study conducted by the City concluded that the land should be used to expand the park, and although the property went through the hearing process, it was not acquired at that time. The parcel remained privately owned from 1975 to the mid 1980s, yet continued to be mapped as municipal parkland.

Although the owner of the Norton Basin property received approvals to build residential condominiums in 1988, no construction was started and in 1995 New York State agreed to purchase 11 acres from the property owners for 2.95 million dollars, leaving 2.5 acres for multi-family homes to be built under terms of a conservation easement which limited building height to 40 feet. The purchase was funded through the Jamaica Bay Damages Account, and approximately $400,000 was invested into the site for restoration and renovation following the purchase.

Jamaica Bay Damages Account

The Jamaica Bay Damages Account (JBDA) is a fund administered by the NYSDEC for the purpose of, "restoring, replacing, or acquiring the equivalent of any natural resources determined to have been injured, destroyed, or lost as a result of the release of hazardous substances" from five municipal landfills owned and operated by New York City. Three of these landfills, Edgemere, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Fountain Avenue, are located along the shoreline of Jamaica Bay.

As a trusted steward of natural resources within New York State, the DEC Bureau of Marine Resources Habitat Protection Unit has developed and is carrying out a plan to mitigate damages to the natural resources within Norton Basin and restore an incredible community asset that might otherwise have been lost.

Although vast amounts of wetlands and other habitats were severely damaged by the establishment and use of the landfills, the program seeks to offset the significant loss of natural resources within Norton Basin Natural Resource Area through the creation of new wetlands and enhancement of existing habitats.

The program consists of three phases: Reconnaissance, Planning, and Implementation. The Reconnaissance Phase Report identified and prioritized potential restoration and acquisition sites within the vicinity of the landfills. During this process, an 11-acre parcel of land that had been used as a coastal landfill site and fell on the border of the Edgemere landfill was identified as a prime project site for JBDA funding. Through the Planning and Implementation Phases, acquisition and restoration of sensitive habitats would be completed.

Now known as Norton Basin Natural Resource Area, that 11-acre parcel of land was supporting a maritime beach-dune community dominated by salt-tolerant grasses and low shrubs that had amazingly developed from dredged sand which had been used as landfill there. A fringing intertidal marsh bordered part of its shoreline, and an upland plant community grew where coarser rubble fill had been used. Although a dilapidated bulkhead was providing some protection for the uplands at the time, they were regularly disturbed from construction activities and significant erosion that altered the bluff.

Although quite fragile, the site exhibited high restoration potential. Because of this, as well as the fact that it was in danger of imminent development and adjacent to an existing natural area in the City-owned Bayswater-Michaelis Park, the parcel was rated as a high-priority acquisition and restoration site and subsequently was purchased by NYSDEC in the spring of 1996.

View from Norton Basin Natural Resource Area

Field Notes

In the summer of 1997 the construction phase began with the planting of the marsh and wetlands within the property. To more completely restore the tidal wetlands, several important steps still needed to be completed. First of all, the bulkhead was to be removed and the majority of the fill material and soil would be excavated. Once removed, it was discovered that this material was mostly clean sand and soil with the exception of some large concrete chunks. As a result, the material was sifted to remove the concrete and then the clean sand and soil was recycled back into the land by creating a low rolling dune immediately landward of the salt marsh.

Once the excavation was completed, a one-acre area of land was created upon which salt marsh grasses and shrubs, including salt-marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), salt-meadow hay (Spartina patens), spike grass (Distichlis spicata), and groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia) could be planted to help restore and protect the natural habitat, as well as provide better coverage and security for wildlife.

Within the upland areas, native and exotic grasses, along with natural stands of northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), and black cherry (Prunus serotina) dominate, beautifully balancing the sandy shorelines with wooded landscape.

To intensify the beauty and diversity of the habitat, the dune was established with native shrubs and trees, including beach plum (Prunus maritima), Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata), along with jute (coconut fiber) matting were also planted to further stabilize the face of the dune, and prevent more serious erosion from occurring in the future. Several rare sedges, including crowfoot cyperus (Cyperus schweinitzii) and silver hair grass (Aira caryophyllea), which is not native to New York City, are also thriving on top of the dune.

As a result of the wetland and dune creation and subsequent restoration, many varieties of birds, fish, and other plant and wildlife have flourished within Norton Basin Natural Resource Area.

The area has become an excellent foraging ground for the American black duck, brant goose, red-tail hawk, shorebirds and many species of egret, and the marsh is now a protective nursery for many young fish spawned in Jamaica Bay, such as the winter flounder and fluke. Many varieties of crabs, such as the blue-claw, fiddler, and horseshoe, can also be spotted scurrying along the shoreline.

Along with incredible opportunities for nature viewing and photography, the area allows visitors to enjoy hours of hiking through the many trails or fishing from the newly constructed pier. Norton Basin Natural Resource Area has certainly become a peaceful paradise for many local residents and visitors, and serves as a silent testament of the many benefits provided by our precious wetlands and salt marshes.

Trails

Over 1700 feet of wonderfully winding trails transect the property providing all visitors with exciting opportunities for awesome adventures and endless exploration. The primary trail route begins near Bayswater Park and runs northerly towards the terminus of Healy Avenue. The trails are somewhat primitive in nature, which serves to enhance the incredibly natural experience and allows you to completely immerse yourself in the sounds and scents of the Basin.

***Stay Safe- Bring A Friend When Out On The Trails***

Directions:

Take Rockaway Blvd. to Bay 32nd St. and turn left onto Healy Ave. The Norton Basin Natural Resource Area entrance is located at the end of Healy Ave.

State Forest Regulations

For your safety and protection of the property, the following regulations are in place:

  • All state forests are carry in - carry out facilities
  • Unauthorized cutting of live trees or new trail building is prohibited
  • No hunting is allowed on any Region 2 NYSDEC properties
  • Fishing is allowed in compliance with State regulations
  • No camping is allowed
  • Keep pets under control and on leash while other forest users are around
  • Unauthorized use of off-road motorized vehicles is prohibited. This includes cars, trucks, ATVs, and motorcycles.

Important Numbers:

State Forest Office (M-F 8 am - 4 pm): 718 482 4942
Emergencies: 911


More about Norton Basin Natural Resource Area:

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