By Clint Williams
Green Right Now

Horseshoe crabs – believe it or not – scuttle about in Jamaica Bay, a 20,000-acre maze of marshland, islands and water that forms the southern boundary of Brooklyn. There would be more if they could find a place to breed.

Decades of debris have piled up on the bay’s beaches, blocking the path to egg-laying sites for the prehistoric-looking crabs. But things will soon get better for horseshoe crabs in New York City – and blue-winged warblers in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and marbled godwits along the Mendocino Coast of northern California – because of TogetherGreen, an initiative of the National Audubon Society paid for by Toyota.

The program awarded TogetherGreen Conservation Innovation Grants totaling $1.4 million this fall. The grants, ranging from $5,000 to $68,000, will fund 41 projects in 24 states. As you might expect from Audubon, many of the funded projects benefit birds.

Jamaica Bay, New York

What’s good for horseshoe crabs, it turns out, is good for semi palmated plovers, ruddy turnstones and other birds that feast on horseshoe crab eggs when they migrate through Jamaica Bay. Declines in crab populations over the past two decades have been accompanied by falling bird populations.

“Jamaica Bay is this incredible resource for wildlife right in the shadow of JFK Airport,” says Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon.  While the water is cleaner than in years past, the flotsam and jetsam of decades does incredible damage to the beaches and marshes, Phillips says.

Lumber, chunks of broken fiberglass boats, industrial plastic, “anything you can imagine, including the kitchen sink, winds up on those beaches,” says Phillips.

About 80 percent of the junk, Phillips explains, is “perennial debris” that is moved from beach to beach by storms that churn the waters of the narrow-neck bay. Haul it off once and the problem is largely solved.

“The hardest part is getting the bodies there to clean it up,” Phillips says.

Part of the $58,000 grant will be used to hire buses and boats to get volunteers to clean up sites in the spring. Most of the grant will be used to hire someone to cut through the red tape. Jamaica Bay is managed by 27 agencies – federal, state and local. That makes organizing volunteer efforts complicated, Phillips says.

(For more information on the Jamaica Bay estuary, see the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.)

Lehigh Valley Restoration Project, Philadelphia

A $7,800 TogetherGreen grant will pay for plants used in the continuing restoration of Kittatinny Ridge in the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge northwest of Philadelphia, a project of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society.

The air pollution from more than 80 years of zinc smelting denuded Kittatinny Ridge, an important flyway for tens of thousands of raptors. The Lehigh Gap Nature Center was been working to restore the 400-acre landscape.

“We’ve created a grassland where there once was a moonscape,” says Dan Kunkle, director of the  Lehigh Gap Nature Center. (See before restoration photo, top, 2002; and after, below, 2006.)

The grant will allow volunteers to give nature a boost by planting native wildflowers such as sunflowers and asters, as well as forbs, or herbaceous flowering plants.

The project is a bit of an experiment, Kunkle says, to determine what plants can flourish in the soil contaminated by zinc, cadmium, and lead deposited by the smelting operation. The new vegetation will also be planted inside and outside fenced areas to learn which plants withstand heavy browsing by hungry deer.

The projects awarded grants are designed to “achieve measurable results in energy, land or water conservation,” says Brenda Timm of Audubon.

Toyota is a company that is based on efficiency and measurable goals, says Dan Sieger, spokesman for Toyota North America. The automobile maker wanted to work with the National Audubon Society because of its long history and its effective network of 500 chapters across the country.

“These innovation grants we’re funding are going to pay dividends for years and years,” Sieger says.

The grants are just part of a five-year, $20 million gift from Toyota. Other money is being used for a fellowship program designed to develop conservation leaders and mentors. Forty fellowships – each with a $10,000 stipend – were awarded in November. Recipients include professors and Ph.D. candidates, an artist, ecologists and representatives of wide-ranging community organizations.

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