Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh Introduced Bill to Ban MTA’s Usage of Tropical Hardwoods for Subway Tracks
Chief Engineer for NYC Parks Dept. Vowed to End Agency’s Use of Amazon Wood for the Coney Island Boardwalk
DOT Launches $10 Million Study to Explore Alternative Materials for Construction of Staten Island Ferry

ALBANY, NY and CONEY ISLAND, BROOKLYN — Historic legislation was introduced today by Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh that, if passed, would put an end to the practice of using hardwoods logged from endangered tropical forests for subway track ties. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state public benefit corporation, currently uses a wood called ekki, logged from West African rainforests, for ties on almost all renovations. The practice may go back as far as the early 1900s and has likely contributed heavily to deforestation in the tropics.

The bill would also mandate the use of recycled plastic lumber for track ties throughout the state, including those installed by New York City Transit Authority, a division of MTA.

Controversy around the use of tropical hardwoods by New York City and state agencies has been generated over the last 15 years, largely by Rainforest Relief, a NYC-based conservation organization. In 1995, the group began a campaign to end the use of these woods by city agencies. They were recently joined by a grassroots organization, New York Climate Action Group (NYCAG), due to the link between tropical deforestation and climate change. Rainforest Relief has demonstrated in front of Parks Department and DOT offices and in parks around the city, repeatedly met with agency officials and staff and organized letter-writing campaigns.

After more than 12 years, in December of 2007 at the Bali Climate Change talks, the administration finally agreed, as Mayor Bloomberg announced a need for the city to reduce its use of tropical hardwoods. In February of 2008 at the United Nations, he announced the release of the city’s Tropical Hardwood Reduction Plan, drafted by his Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.

Since then, some agencies have taken the call seriously. In a meeting with the activists in early 2008, Parks Commissioner Benepe disclosed an end to the use of tropical hardwoods for new park benches and for any new boardwalks. The Parks Department has consumed more rainforest timber than any other public agency in the United States since at least the 1980s.

Recently a New York City Parks Department insider publicly stated an end to any further use of tropical hardwoods for the Coney Island Boardwalk. “You’ve seen the last shipment of hardwood that you’re ever going to see [on the Boardwalk],” said John Natoli, Parks Department’s Chief Engineer. Natoli made the unscripted statement during a presentation on November 16th, 2010, held at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island and organized by Rainforest Relief and NYCAG (see http://www.rainforestrelief.org ).

Beginning in the 1960s, the Parks Department has primarily used ipê and cumaru, woods logged from the Amazon, and greenheart, logged from Guyana, to construct and renovate more than 10 miles of city boardwalks. The ipê tree grows throughout the Amazon at a rate of one to two trees per acre — which means that an elaborate network of roads must be built to access these scattered trees. Growth rates are similar for cumaru.

Mr. Natoli’s announcement comes on the heels of a tangible, recent shift in City policies. Throughout the latter half of 2010, a growing number of elected officials and agency engineers have been transitioning away from the procurement of rainforest wood for the construction of public infrastructure. City and state agencies have used rainforest wood to construct and renovate benches, boardwalks, subway tracks, the decking of the Brooklyn Bridge and South Street Seaport, and the docks of the Staten Island Ferry.

Only eight months ago, for Earth Day, 2010, two activists from Rainforest Relief scaled the flagpoles at City Hall Park and unfurled a banner to demand that Mayor Bloomberg keep his promise to end the city’s consumption of tropical hardwoods.

“At the beginning of the year, we were seeing broken promises everywhere,” said Tim Doody, one of the climbers. “At the on-going renovations of Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and the miles of new construction along Hudson River Park, every new bench slat and plank of decking has been gutted from the Amazon. And we also saw Amazon wood being placed on the Coney Island Boardwalk, on concrete slabs that we’d been told would be used to accommodate recycled plastic lumber.”

However, as the City learns to build infrastructure without deforesting the tropics, agencies have sometimes made controversial choices. Seeking to replace the ipê and cumaru on the Coney Island Boardwalk, the Parks Department plans to install concrete decking on the Boardwalk, which has catalyzed strong community opposition. There were a number of contentious moments at the Nov. 16 Coney Island forum, which offered local residents and community board representatives information on sustainable materials for boardwalk renovation and construction.

“We’re so glad they’re not destroying the Amazon for the Boardwalk that many of us walk and run on every day,” said Rob Burstein, who began the Coney-Brighton Boardwalk Alliance to oppose the proposal for a concrete Boardwalk. “But the idea that the Parks Dept. wants to use concrete — that’s an affront to local residents. We were entirely shut out of the decision-making process, and that’s just unacceptable, and we intend to hold our elected officials accountable for convincing Parks to use an alternative material and to maintain a true boardwalk, not a sidewalk!”

Environmentalists also have strong concerns about Parks’ move towards concrete, given the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production of the material. But their main concern about climate change is from deforestation.

“It’s essential that we stop the destruction of tropical forests, but it’s also important that we not be won over by false remedies,” said JK Canepa, co-founder of NYCAG, a grassroots organization working to address New York City’s contribution to climate change. “Quite simply, concrete isn’t a sustainable solution.”

Rainforest Relief has long advocated for white oak and black locust for benches, Kebony and recycled plastic lumber for boardwalk planks and recycled plastic lumber for the understructure of boardwalks. “We are encouraged by the Parks Department’s commitment to a more sustainable future,” said Tim Keating, Executive Director of Rainforest Relief. “We want them to know that we remain willing to share with them a host of cost-effective, durable and aesthetically pleasing materials that can replace rainforest wood. We have access to engineers and suppliers with whom we’ve worked for years.”

During the months following the groups’ aerial action at City Hall, other substantial changes to New York City’s procurement policies have been made public.

One of the most significant steps has come from the Department of Transportation, which launched a $10 million study to explore how the docks of the Staten Island Ferry might be reconstructed without the use of rainforest wood. The docks consist of more than 10,000 pilings; each piling is comprised of a single greenheart tree logged from Guyana, which contains the largest contiguous rainforest in the Western hemisphere. Due to the brutal impacts on the docks made by each crossing of the enormous Kennedy Class ferries, the pilings need continuous

Additionally, after a series of protests by members of Rainforest Relief and NYCAG, several meetings took place with Friends of the High Line. That public benefit corporation has recently stated that they are attempting to find reclaimed tropical hardwoods for Phase II of the highly-acclaimed elevated park–instead of continuing to use ipê, logged from the Amazon.