Waterfront Revitalization

Protecting and Restoring Habitats

New York's coasts and waterways have a great variety of fish and wildlife habitats that are critical to the health of broader ecosystems on which we all depend. These habitats include salt and freshwater marshes, swamps, mud and sand flats, beaches, rocky shores, riverine wetlands and riparian corridors, stream, bay and harbor bottoms, submerged aquatic vegetation beds, dunes, grasslands and woodlands. Each provides support for critical life stages of fish and wildlife, including breeding, nursery, feeding, migration, and wintering. Maintaining ample, high quality habitat along the State's coasts and waterways is key to having abundant and diverse fish and wildlife resources.

As development pressure mounts, many habitats are degraded or lost. Preserving our valuable fish and wildlife resources is not only an essential element of environmental quality but also has important recreational, economic, and community benefits. Recreational or commercial fishing is a major economic activity in many waterfront communities. Hunting and wildlife observation along the shore provide enjoyment for many residents and visitors.

A habitat can be broadly defined as a geographic area inhabited or otherwise used by a particular species or collection of species. Animals may spend all or parts of their lives in a habitat; a particular species can be dependent on several different kinds of habitats. For example, a bird may feed in one habitat, but nest and raise young in a different habitat. The Atlantic striped bass lives much of its adult life offshore in the open water habitat of the Atlantic Ocean, but breeds in the Hudson River.

Throughout the State's coastal area 250 Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats (SCFWH) (link!) have been designated by the New York State Department of State Division of Coastal Resources. Under the SCFWH program, a site is considered significant if it serves one or more of the following functions:

  • is essential to the survival of a large portion of a particular fish or wildlife population

  • supports populations of species which are endangered, threatened or of special concern

  • supports populations having significant commercial, recreational, or educational value

  • exemplifies a habitat type which is not commonly found in the State or in a coastal region

The significance of a habitat increases to the extent it could not be replaced if destroyed.

For each designated site a habitat map and narrative are created. The narrative constitutes a record of the basis for the significant coastal fish and wildlife habitat's designation and provides specific information regarding the fish and wildlife resources that depend on this area. General information is also provided to assist in evaluating impacts of proposed activities on characteristics of the habitat which are essential to the habitat's values. This information is used in conjunction with the habitat impairment test found in the impact assessment section to determine whether the proposed activities are consistent with the significant habitats policy.

New York State agencies use the information provided for each designated habitat in the State and federal consistency review process. In addition, communities that prepare Local Waterfront Revitalization Programs are required to protect designated significant habitats and are encouraged to use local land use controls for habitat protection.

In identifying the important habitats along your waterfront you are aided by several systematic inventories that have been undertaken by the State and federal government. You should consult the following to see if important habitats exist on your waterfront:

In addition to these inventories many federal, State, county and regional planning agencies have inventoried habitats and other important natural areas as part of various resource management plans, such as National Estuary Programs, watershed plans, and regional coastal management plans. Universities and nonprofit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society of New York, land trusts, and the Open Space Institute may have also identified important habitats in your area.

There may also be areas along your shore that, while not identified in any of the above inventories, are nevertheless significant to the community. People who regularly use and are familiar with the waterfront will know where these special places are. Keep in mind that maintaining the natural character of the water's edge throughout your community can be particularly important for many species.

When you have identified the upland and in-water areas that are important animal or plant habitat you will need to assemble the following information about them:

  • What is their condition? Are they relatively pristine, significantly impaired, or threatened by pollution, development, or overuse?

  • What are the significant species that utilize the habitat? How has the population changed over time?

  • Is the habitat rare or common?

  • What value does the community place on the habitat?

  • What significant human uses are made of the habitat - fishing , hunting, wildlife observation, plant harvesting, educational programs?

  • Is the habitat replaceable or irreplaceable?

  • Is the habitat actively managed, by whom, for what purpose?

  • What level of protection does the habitat have? Is it publicly owned or owned by a conservation organization? Is it protected by government regulation? Is there a community stewardship program?

  • Who in the community is knowledgeable about the natural areas of your waterfront?

Some of this information will be included in the State and federal inventories referenced above or can be obtained from staff of the respective agencies, educational institutions, or nonprofit organizations.

When you know where habitats are, how they are used by both the animals and by people, what their condition is, what their value is, what threatens them, and who is knowledgeable about them, you can then consider what you need to do to protect and enhance them. Among the activities you should consider are:

  • Identification of areas that should be acquired by the public or conservation organization.

  • Land or water use regulations that protect natural areas by limiting the location of land or water uses; requiring buffer areas, particularly along waterways and wetlands; restricting the clearing of vegetation; controlling the siting of development to preserve wildlife corridors; managing the timing of development; and other similar requirements.

  • Educational programs that acquaint people with the value and function of habitats in their community.

  • Wetland regulations that complement and supplement the State and federal regulations.

  • Cooperative management agreements with large land owners whose property contains valuable habitat.

  • Elimination or reduction of the sources of pollution that threaten habitats.

  • Projects to restore habitats, such as a wetland restoration project.

  • Support for citizen groups to become involved in, or initiate, stewardship programs for a natural area.

Enhancing these natural resources should be based on principles of:

  • preserving diversity of native plant and animal species

  • protecting wetlands and significant habitats

  • restoring native plant and animal populations and biological productivity

  • safeguarding vulnerable species and rare or exemplary communities

  • managing potentially imperiled natural areas

As you examine your natural resources, you should look for opportunities to restore degraded habitats to pre-disturbance conditions. Restoration can reverse habitat degradation and loss, and reestablish valuable ecological functions. Restored habitats also support New York's economy and tourism industry by helping to sustain commercial and recreational fisheries and by providing places for outdoor recreation and enjoyment. Restoration activities are varied, including many habitat types and restoration methodologies. For example:

  • Salt marsh restoration through invasive plant species control, reestablishment of tidal flow, and surface elevation manipulation.

  • Freshwater wetland restoration through native species plantings, surface water and groundwater level control, and invasive plant species control.

  • Forested upland slope restoration through installation of bioengineered erosion control methods, native species plantings, invasive plant species control.

To assist local governments, state agencies, other institutions, organizations and community groups in implementing coastal restoration projects, the Division of Coastal Resources and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation collaborated to develop guidelines for salt marsh restoration and monitoring that provide a framework for these activities. The primary causes of salt marsh degradation and corresponding methods for their remediation are characterized in the document to assist in identifying potential salt marsh restoration projects and developing conceptual plans. The Guidelines also provide a standard monitoring protocol to increase data collection and improve project evaluation, helping to ensure the success of state funded habitat restoration projects. The Division is currently developing similar guidelines for stream corridor restoration.

Among other water quality and development issues, habitat loss and the identification of restoration opportunities have been a key part of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans (CCMPs) prepared for the three National Estuaries in New York State: the Long Island Sound Study, New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program and the Peconic Estuary Program. The Division of Coastal Resources assisted the South Shore Estuary Reserve Council with development of the Comprehensive Management Plan for the South Shore Estuary Reserve. The plan provides a blueprint for the long-term health of the Reserve's bays and tributaries, its tidal wetlands and wildlife, and its tourism and economy. These Management Plans can help you identify opportunities for habitat restoration in your community.

Partners and Links

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) administers a wide variety of programs and activities designed to conserve, improve, and protect the State's natural resources and environment, and control water, land and air pollution. Natural resource related activities include fish and wildlife management and permit programs under the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources; water quality permitting and watershed planning and protection under the Division of Water; and acquisition and management of public lands and outdoor recreation under the Division of Lands and Forests.

If you are located on the Hudson River, you may be able to seek assistance and funding from the Hudson River Estuary Program. The Hudson River Estuary Program is a unique regional partnership designed to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the estuary. The heart of the Hudson River Estuary Program is the Hudson River Estuary Action Plan, a set of twenty commitments intended to protect and conserve the estuary's natural resources and ecosystem health, clean up pollution and other impairments, and promote public use and enjoyment of the river. Grants are available from the Environmental Protection Fund to enable communities to help implement the Action Plan and protect and enhance the Hudson River Estuary.

The Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, established in 1982, protects four exemplary wetland sites on the estuary. Spaced along the river from the brackish Tappan Zee to tidal freshwater shallows north of the City of Hudson, these sites provide ideal settings for education and comparative research. The reserve is managed in partnership by NYS DEC, as part of their Hudson River Programs, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Westchester County Department of Planning is an important partner in protecting and restoring natural resources and water quality in Long Island Sound watersheds.  Since 1998, more than two dozen projects have been completed or are currently being planned, designed or constructed.

The National Sea Grant College Program encourages the wise stewardship of marine resources through research, education, outreach and technology transfer. Sea Grant can provide assistance with research, education and outreach relevant to coastal issues ranging from fisheries, environmental quality, coastal processes and development. A cooperative program of SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, New York Sea Grant has 10 offices throughout the State that work with partners "bringing science to the shore".

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducts a wide array of research, mapping, and management programs related to weather, oceans, remote sensing, fisheries, climate, and coastal resources. The agency is responsible for the nation's marine and anadromous protected species. NOAA's Restoration Center also sponsors a number of useful funding programs fostering community-based fisheries restoration.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) administers most of the nation's fish and wildlife management programs, including terrestrial and freshwater endangered species protection and migratory bird management. USFWS manages public lands and outdoor recreation as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. USFWS also offers several funding programs, including Coastal Wetland Conservation Grants and North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) works to protect environmental quality through a variety of air, water, pollution, and toxics and chemicals management programs. The agency works along waterfronts primarily through its Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. USEPA also administers the National Estuary Program, which includes three estuaries in New York: the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program, Long Island Sound Study, and Peconic Estuary Program.