Take the A train to a national park


Release date: Week of June 3, 2022

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Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the Gateway National Recreation Area. (Photo: Peter Roan, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Gateway National Recreation Area offers green spaces, beaches and recreation just a short transit ride from the urban jungle of New York. Don Riepe is caretaker for the Jamaica Bay portion of Gateway and joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the value of affordable and accessible sites in nature.


CURWOOD: It’s that time of year when some people start hitting the US national parks for the fun, the sun, and the benefits of nature. But in many places, including New York, you don’t need to have a car and buy expensive gas to be in nature, because public transit costs are enough. The Gateway National Recreation Area spans three New York City boroughs and extends into Monmouth County, New Jersey. Since 1972, this land, managed by the National Park Service, has provided green spaces, beaches and recreational opportunities for the inhabitants of the nearby urban jungle. So there’s the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn and Queens, Great Kills Park on Staten Island with swimming, boating and hiking, and Sandy Hook with seven beaches on the New Jersey side. Don Riepe has been Jamaica Bay’s Guardian since 2004 and he says one choice for getting to the bay in transit is to take….

RIEPE: The A train or you can even take the Q 53 bus to Rockaway and get off right at the entrance. Another way to get there from Manhattan is to take the ferry from Wall Street to Rockaway on 108th Street, and it’s right on the bay. And from there you can take a short bus ride to the Refuge Visitor Center.

CURWOOD: Don, you can tell me what’s your favorite part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, where if you really want to impress people on how wonderful it is to have this National Park Service area near Brooklyn, the Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island and the Jersey Shore. What’s your favorite place to show people what we’re talking about?

RIEPE: Well, of course, it’s the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. I lead tours there every month. In fact, this Saturday, we’re having a horseshoe crab festival at 11 a.m., and we’re inviting families, especially with kids, to come. It’s a big event.

CURWOOD: I understand that along the beaches there at this time of year you are likely to encounter horseshoe crabs.

RIEPE: Right. Especially during new moon or full moon. Thousands of horseshoe crabs land, as they have done for hundreds of thousands of years to lay their eggs. Large females land and burrow just outside the high tide zone. And they lay big clutches of little greenish blue eggs and males assist them. When she lays her eggs, she emits a pheromone, like a scent, which stimulates the males to deposit sperm and fertilize them. We can pick up the crabs, we can show them, turn them over and show the children that they are harmless, show the difference between the male and the female and then we talk about their ecological and medical value. They also have great medical value, as they are made from bluish copper. Blood contains a clotting factor that coagulates when exposed to tiny traces of pathogens, more sensitive than any instrument we have. And if you get a vaccine or a blood transfusion, you want it to be pure. They test it with this element of the horseshoe crab. So who knew?

Several public transit options will get you to the Gateway National Recreation Area, including the A train. (Photo: MTAEnthusiast10, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

CURWOOD: Who knew? I mean, these creatures literally go back millions of years.

RIEPE: Yes, some people say up to 400 million years in the fossil record. In fact, they predate the dinosaurs.

CURWOOD: So what am I going to see when I get there? What, if this is a national recreation area, how am I going to have recreation?

RIEPE: Well, there are two ponds on either side of Cross Bay Boulevard. One is around 45 acres and the other is over 100 acres. And there are trails around them. And you’ll see lots of waterfowl: egrets, herons, ibises, waders, terns, all the birds of Jamaica Bay.

CURWOOD: A major neighbor of Gateway National Recreation Area is a major airport.

RIEPE: Right.

CURWOOD: Kennedy Airport.

RIEPE: Exactly.

CURWOOD: So some might say there are a lot of metallic birds as well as feathered ones.

RIEPE: Right.

CURWOOD: So how do you get the two to co-exist?

RIEPE: It’s not easy. So at the airport, the US Department of Agriculture has biologists patrolling the runway, and they will scare away any birds that are on the runway. If a pilot takes off and he sees something on the runway, he calls him and they do a, you know, a patrol and they scare everything. But they also have a filming schedule. So they have permits from the New York State Fish and Wildlife Service and DEC to shoot offending gulls or geese or anything that crosses the airspace that they deem to be a threat to aircraft.

Lucky visitors may spot horseshoe crabs on the beaches of Gateway. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: What kind of creatures are in the water?

RIEPE: So we have over 100 finfish species that have been identified in the bay. A lot of them are fish that people know we eat like striped bass and black fish and blue fish and flounder and so on.

CURWOOD: Wait, can I grab a rod and reel and try to catch something?

RIEPE: Of course, fishing is allowed. Kudos to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for upgrading the sewage treatment plants. So it also made the water cleaner here.

CURWOOD: In other words, if you fall in, you don’t have to run fast and take a shower.

RIEPE: Not quickly, but eventually. And you know, you can just go offshore, you can take a boat out of Sheepshead Bay and see whales right off our coast here now, which you couldn’t do 30 years ago. And I now see seals in Jamaica Bay in winter, as well as dolphins. So not only are the waters cleaner, but there are many more fish in the water that attract these large mammals.

CURWOOD: Now, what about you know, a beach where you could put a towel down and go for a swim?

RIEPE: Yes, it would be at Riis Park. So Riis Park is also just across the bridge from the Marine Park on the Rockaway side. And it’s near the communities of Neponsit and Breezy Point. And these beautiful large beaches are open all year round for recreation. And if you are in Brooklyn and Queens, you can go to different areas around Jamaica Bay like Plumb Beach or Canarsie Pier if you want to fish, or Jamaica Bay Refuge if you want passive recreation and bird watching while enjoying great views we have here.

CURWOOD: Don, before you go, tell me how important it is to have a national recreation area just a short subway, bus, or boat ride from a major city like New York.

RIEPE: Well, you think of 8 million people grilling around the city today with all this heat looking for an outlet, and getting in the water is definitely one of the best ways. So get out to one of the local beaches or parks around there. You know, New York City Parks also has a pretty good network of parks, as does Gateway. There are many different aspects of Gateway. If you’re in Staten Island, there’s Miller Field, which is kind of a big recreational field, and Great Kills Harbor. If you’re in Sandy Hook, there’s Sandy Hook National Seashore. So these are all former military bases. They therefore also have historical value.

CURWOOD: And affordable, not necessarily places along Central Park or Prospect Park, for example, where rents are a bit higher these days.

RIEPE: Right. And the mission of the Park Service, why they created Gateway, was to bring parks to people. For people who can’t afford to go to Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, they at least have a local place they can go and experience the park as well.

CURWOOD: Don Riepe is the Jamaica Bay Guardian telling us about the Gateway National Recreation Area in the New York New Jersey area. Thank you very much Don for taking the time.

RIEPE: Thanks, that was fun.


Learn more about the Gateway National Recreation Area


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