What JFK fliers owe Jamaica Bay wildlife

If we want to build resilience for the human and natural economy, we need to pay back what we’ve taken. That could start with a $1 tax on JFK flights.

via Shutterstock

By Eric Sanderson and John Waldman

The world needs John F. Kennedy International Airport — now set for a major overhaul, if Gov. Cuomo gets his way — but the considerable environmental costs of the airport are largely loaded on a single place: the much-loved and much-abused reaches of Jamaica Bay. It’s time that the world pays back what it owes, via a “fair fare for nature.”

At the dawn of commercial aviation 80 years ago, dry land for new infrastructure was already hard to find. So, in New York and elsewhere, coastal cities built airports on tidal wetlands at the urban edge.

New York City’s first major airport was Floyd Bennett Field, constructed by pouring garbage into marshes and bulldozing maritime forests on the Brooklyn-side of Jamaica Bay. The second was LaGuardia Airport, constructed in the grassy shallows of Flushing Bay. JFK got its start as Idlewild Airport in 1942 by filling in the tidal marshlands around a golf course also constructed on fill.

Back then, the field of ecology was still in its infancy and nature’s benefits to humanity largely unappreciated. Tidal wetlands were thought of as wastelands. Now we know that marshes slow down the waves that come with surges from major storms and give the water a place to go after hitting the shore, increasing resilience from damage.

Salt marshes also provide a nursery for fish, including many kinds that people like to catch and eat and thus creating jobs. They help blunt climate change by sequestering carbon in deep layers of peat.

The marshes also offer important habitat for hundreds of species, including vulnerable diamondback terrapins and saltmarsh sparrows, while offering terrific opportunities to see wildlife from the A train.

These valuable ecosystems have suffered terribly for us and our airport. Landfill was just the beginning. The fill had to come from somewhere — and most was euphemistically “borrowed” from the bottom of the bay, leaving large, deep, noxious holes that slow circulation and impair water quality. The latest research suggests these holes may also worsen flooding of neighboring communities by allowing more water to enter Jamaica Bay — as occurred during Hurricane Sandy.

The bay is further burdened by four sewage treatment plants that release their treated effluent, and over 26,000 pounds of nitrogen per day, into its waters. Ninety-nine percent of the fresh water entering Jamaica Bay today comes via a pipe, not a stream.

The airport, and the development in and around the bay, certainly has harmed wildlife populations, both by covering a vast area of habitat with asphalt and by creating the necessity to kill thousands of birds each year — including some protected species — for aircraft safety reasons.

Of course, JFK Airport is invaluable to New Yorkers, and to the world. Some 60 million passengers and 1.4 million tons of cargo and mail moved through it last year, and — by the Port Authority’s accounting — the economic benefits to our region total over $37 billion annually. However, considering JFK’s environmental impact, couldn’t some modicum of this value be channeled to protect and restore Jamaica Bay?

Imagine if we added a small fee — just a dollar — for every passenger ticket in or out of JFK, and for every 100 kilograms of air cargo. It would mean practically nothing to passengers, who already pay an excise tax of 7.5% on domestic travel plus a variety of other fees that can easily add $40 or more per ticket. But this “fair fare for nature” would mean a great deal for local restoration efforts.

It could generate revenues of $73 million every year, which could be used to restore the salt marshes and maritime forests of Jamaica Bay and fill in the borrow pits with clean sand. Bird-friendly places not in the airport’s flight zone could be restored to make up for the lost habitat and thousands of birds “managed” each year to avoid air strikes. New Yorkers would see diminished flood risk, improved water quality, more green jobs and better nature for all.

Nature is both too humble to ask and too unpredictable when provoked. If we want to build resilience for both the human and natural economy, we need to pay back what we’ve taken.

Sanderson is a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Waldman is a professor at Queens College. The writers are editors of a new collection of essays, “Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

Originally published January 7, 2017 in New York Daily News.