THE PHRAGMITE DILEMMA: Piermont Marsh Activists and the DEC Confront

BY JANIE ROSMAN

Though a common sight in wetlands, phragmites are often considered to be an invasive plant species by ecologists Photo credit: www.invasiveplants.net
Though a common sight in wetlands, phragmites are often considered to be an invasive plant species by ecologists
Photo credit: www.invasiveplants.net

A packed Village Hall greeted Betsy Blair of the DEC and Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Ed McGowan of the NYS Parks-PIPC last week when residents confronted them about the state’s plans for environmental remediation projects in the Piermont Marsh.

During the two-and-one half hour meeting, they described how the marsh changed during the past several decades, why the state considers it a high conservation priority — it’s one of the state’s only large, brackish tidal wetlands — and some rare species that declined or disappeared from it as phragmites increased.

Some residents questioned why the project was needed relative to the bridge replacement project, with remarks limited to five minutes each. Many also were concerned about the potential use of herbicides to remove phragmites.

“The DEC recognizes there are many tools for controlling phragmites and is committed to exploring alternatives methods, in addition to herbicides, for controlling phragmites,” spokesperson Wendy Rosenbach said via email.

As they did at the December meeting, many people wore “No Herbicide” stickers — large red circles with a slash through them over the word ‘herbicide’ — Piermont Marsh Alliance member Marthe Schulwolf said.

John VandenOever of the Piermont Marsh Conservancy group, was among those who would consider supporting the “judicious use” of herbicides “if necessary.” He said, “We’re concerned with having a reasoned decision based on the best science.”

The financing behind the project has also been a topic of conversation.

“It’s misleading to…link the Piermont project to $11.5 million in funding,” Sacha Spector, Ph.D., director of Conservation Science, said. “In the permit, there is $8 million allocated to three projects (Piermont Marsh, Oyster bed restoration, and secondary channel restoration at Gay’s Point), an additional $2 million to a mitigation project to be identified later, and $1.5 million for the Community Related Benefits.”

Any project that’s designed will have to define its goals carefully, with measures for monitoring, and an adaptive management structure. If the DEC’s project isn’t successful, Rosenbach said, then its permit obligates the New York State Thruway Authority to carry out a host of mitigation and net conservation benefit actions.

Blair indicated there would be no diversion of funds applied to recreational or other projects, other than this project. One resident suggested the issue relates directly to contamination from the Sparkill Creek and Orangetown’s sewage treatment.

Presenters also mentioned the salinity is lower, not because of tidal flow changes, but because the marsh is located higher in the estuary. It can, eventually, rise as sea level rise will push salt water further up the river.

“Scenic Hudson believes it’s really important for the community of Piermont to have the opportunity to participate and comment and influence the design of any restoration project that the state is contemplating,” Spector said. “The state needs to listen and consider the concerns of the community. We feel it’s critical that whatever happens is based on really sound science and the best science available and best practices.”

“They made clear we were straddling Steps 2 and 3 in a process of about 10 steps and seven years, and that most of the questions collected during the evening would be answered in future steps, often by experts in specific areas,” VandenOever said.

Hudson Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay felt the meeting was a good opportunity for people to speak their minds about the mitigation project and its concerns.

“All the issues — herbicides, storm protection, Phragmites, sea level rise, well water quality — were known ahead of last week’s meeting,” Gallay said. “It’s time to turn from back and forth to a real dialogue in which facts are placed on the table by the DEC and Parks, and the community can look at specifics, ask questions and put their own concerns on the table, and get very direct answers.”

Riverkeeper is eager to participate in the process, he said. “We volunteered for it, and until it takes place, there won’t be confidence in whatever the state puts forward. I’m optimistic about what will happen when the state does (share its plan).”

The state will formulate technical responses to the community during the next two months, Rosenbach said.

“Perhaps what can be learned from (the meeting) was that we ALL share that passion and all opinions are valid, from the new comers (those from the last 20 years) to the old-timers here in Piermont,” resident Matthew Smith said. “The us versus them is still quite strong, and from that comes no progress.”

Comments can be sent to Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve at hrnerr@gw.dec.state.ny.us.

CORRECTION – The April 17 article was inaccurate in suggesting Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper are fighting to implement a proposed DEC marsh remediation plan. The two groups had entered into a general agreement with the DEC last year regarding environmental remediation projects in the Hudson River basin in trade-off for not filing lawsuits against the new TZ Bridge project, but they both stated they are not acting as activists for the DEC’s plans in Piermont.