Kristy King and NYC Forest Restoration: Dreaming Big for the City’s Natural Areas

Kristy King on a trip to India.
Kristy King on a trip to India.

Kristy King is the Director of Forest Restoration for the Natural Resources Group of NYC Parks. Here we get to know Kristy and the work that her department does to bring degraded land back to life in the surprisingly diverse range of natural areas of New York City.

Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in forest restoration work? 
Kristy King: I’ve always been interested in biology and used to explore the woods and streams behind my house in Columbia, SC. I can’t say that I was on track to work in forest restoration from a young age, but I’ve always been fascinated by the outdoors and felt that nature is an important part of the human experience. When studying biology in high school, ecology fascinated me the most due to the profound interconnectedness of life and the environment. I was so blown away by the complexity of it all and knew I wanted to dig deeper.

Can you tell us about your educational and career trajectory?
King: I studied Biology (focus on botany and ecology) at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and graduated in 2003. At that point I felt unsure about my trajectory and worked for some months as a florist and a field assistant performing vegetation surveys in the cypress swamps of Francis Marion National Forest, north of Charleston.

I then scored an entry level job with NOAA/National Ocean Service as a marine biologist (basically a lab technician) studying the ecological impacts of harmful algal blooms. I did that for three years and while it was very cool, I didn’t feel personally invested in the field and didn’t want to work as a laboratory scientist for my entire career.

I started independently exploring subfields in ecology and was quite taken by urban ecology both because I personally wanted to live in a big city and because I felt excited about the potential impacts of performing science and management where so many people live!

I went to graduate school at Columbia’s Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology program and graduated with an MA in Conservation Biology in 2008. I always tell people that I didn’t move to New York to go to Columbia; I went to Columbia so I could get to New York! I knew that I wanted to work here. In between my two years at Columbia I both worked on my Master’s thesis (title: Insect Diversity in Manhattan Community Gardens) and had an internship at NYC Parks collecting data for the first young street tree mortality study. I ended up helping write and publish that manuscript later in my career, which was cool—coming full circle is always a fun thing.

I started as a street tree planting forester in the Central Forestry division of NYC Parks in 2008. In 2010, I moved laterally to be the Research Forester at the NYC Urban Field Station, where I helped manage the burgeoning facility at Fort Totten Park and worked directly with USDA Forest Service scientists to research and publish on the benefits of our urban forest. It was very cool. In 2012, I applied for and was promoted to be Senior Forester at the Natural Resources Group, managing the capital forest restoration program (this is the position that NYSUFC President David Moore has now). In late 2014, I applied for and was promoted to be Director of Forest Restoration. So it’s been about a year since I’ve been in this role.

forest restoration team 1M tree planting

Above: The NYC Forest Restoration team, posing with the MillionTreesNYC millionth tree at its planting event in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx in December, 2015.  Photos Courtesy NYC Parks

In your current position, what are your key responsibilities, and what’s something you wish you had more time for?
King: Some of my key responsibilities are staff supervision and development, planning and budgeting forest restoration work on a long time horizon including allocating funds and staff to specific projects, advising other Parks’ divisions and agencies when their work intersects with forested natural areas in NYC, improving best practices, maintaining our business license with the State for pesticide application, collaborating with our stewardship division to engage the public in forest restoration, applying for and reporting on grants, representing the program at conferences, facilitating academic research on forest restoration and within forested natural areas, and working with the Natural Areas Conservancy (our non-profit partner in natural areas management and restoration). I really wish I had more time to spend in the field exploring NYC’s forests and helping staff work through site-specific management issues.

Your team manages 5,000 acres of forested natural areas across the five boroughs of NYC. How many staff members are there on your team, and how do you prioritize projects? 
King: There are around 20 people on my team (it fluctuates by two to four people depending on grant funding). The team is divided into two types of work: capital contracts and their management, and in-house field crews. I’m currently working with the Natural Areas Conservancy on a new model for project prioritization using data from their ecological assessment, but in the meantime I generally prioritize projects based on ecological landscape connectivity and prior investment. I don’t want anything that we’ve already restored to revert back to fully invaded, and I think it’s important to take on projects in large areas with “core” forest (forest parcels that are as far as possible from the forest/nonforest boundary). Core forest restoration is more likely to be successful because the land isn’t as extensively ridden with invasive plants the way that the forest/nonforest interface tends to be.

Alley after

Above: A view of the restored Alley Pond Park, the second-largest public park in Queens, that was planted by volunteers in spring of 2011. Kristy King says, “You can see the young trees in the photo, as well as many of the wildflowers that Forest Restoration staff actively seeded into the site. This could be considered an ‘after’ photo and is an example of what a young but thriving urban forest looks like. This area was formerly a vineland.”

Which do you find to be the most unusual natural area?
King: That’s a really hard question to answer! There are SO many unique places, but I think that North Brother Island is the most unique. It’s home to a former quarantine hospital and a series of dilapidated buildings in various states of disrepair, so the history is really interesting. When the island was abandoned in the 1960s, it slowly became a forested landscape with valuable habitat for harbor herons and shorebirds. The island is off-limits to the public due to the hazards posed by the crumbling buildings and the sensitivity of the birds. Working there always feels like a special privilege and offers a singular perspective (and view!) of New York City.

picture of the type of place where we work – one that really needed our help. This is Hunter Island in Pelham Bay Park. Could give people an idea of what sorts of sites we work in, or what a degraded urban forest can look like.

Above: Hunter Island in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. “This ‘before’ shot shows an urban forest area that is degraded and could really use our help,” King says.

Which one gets the most usage by the public and how do you manage the impact on the land?
King: Almost all of our natural area forests see high levels of use. We’ve been working on an effort to map and manage over 300 miles of hiking trails in our parks, with the ultimate goal of formalizing official trails and closing desire lines (unplanned paths created by people) that lead to fragmentation. Working on trail management has really shown me just how heavy use could be—I think that Marine Park in Brooklyn is a good example of this. It’s really popular for off-road vehicles (which are illegal in NYC, and especially in parks), and they’ve done a lot of damage to the unique maritime forest in this park. The Natural Areas Conservancy is currently working on a project, which I am advising on, to close some trails through ecological restoration and attempt to increase positive park uses and reduce ATV access. It’s incredibly challenging, and the jury’s still out on how well it will work. Community involvement is key.

What are some things that Council members might be surprised to learn about the natural areas and forest restoration work of NYC Parks?  
King: I think that people are surprised to learn that there are forests in New York City at all! And that these forests are public spaces intended for New Yorkers to enjoy the benefits of nature, and that people are managing these spaces. The history of “unprogrammed” parkland in NYC includes a lot of illegal activities like dumping and crime, and many people often feel unsafe and won’t go near the woods. This is something that we’re working very hard to change through civic engagement and stewardship, and really just education.

It may be interesting to know that we’ve planted over 575,000 trees in natural areas over the past eight years. Our work represents more than half of the million trees planted as part of the MillionTreesNYC initiative. Maybe more surprising to readers will be that over 85% of these trees have survived!

We plant over one hundred species of native trees and shrubs, with native seeds sourced from within 200 miles of each planting site. Native genetic diversity is very important to us!

the forest restoration team unloading a large delivery of native trees in Alley Pond Park, Queens.

Above: The Forest Restoration team unloading a large delivery of native trees in Alley Pond Park, Queens.

What is your big dream or highest ambition for the forests of NYC?
King: That all forested areas are dominated by native species and that invasive species have been managed to the point that natural forest regeneration is occurring and that the public holistically values the natural resources in their area.

Can you share something noteworthy or surprising that you learned?  
King: Superstorm Sandy definitely impacted many of our projects in unanticipated ways. In a general sense, Sandy taught us what a 100-year-flood looks like and how we should plan for installing salt tolerant plants in a wider range of parks than we originally thought. We also learned just what is considered “floatable debris.” Our coastal forests became littered with debris of all shapes and sizes, including vehicles, boats, pieces of piers and buoys, and we had to spend a lot of time and money dealing with these impacts. Much of our canopy is still broken from Sandy and other recent severe storms, and in urban areas canopy gaps are NOT a good thing— they facilitate the spread of our sun-loving invasive species and basically just give us more and more work to do. I think I gained a real and scary understanding of the range of impacts of climate change and sea level rise on our urban forest and I’m always thinking and planning now with that in mind.

Is there anything else you want to be sure to share about your program?
King: We need more funding! We’ve been lucky to benefit from a robust capital allocation during the ten years of MillionTreesNYC, but that funding runs out in a couple of years while our forests are still in dire need of management.

What are your interests in your free time?
King: Camping, hiking, cooking/baking, yoga, karaoke, reading (novels mostly), travel, film.

 

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