George Robinson spent his sabbatical as a visiting scientist for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation combing through a comprehensive database on the status and location of the state’s rare plants, animals and ecosystems.
His goal, he said, was to learn more about New York’s rare species, and the role the state’s park system plays in protecting them. What he concluded is that the state parks are “major stewards of biodiversity,” and that even though New York’s parks comprise less than 1 percent of the state’s land area, they provide crucial habitat for rare animals, plants and ecosystems.
According to Robinson’s study, 43 percent of New York’s rare species are found in at least one state park, and 30 species are fully or primarily dependent on the state park system. The parks average 3.57 rare species, the study found.
“I wanted to determine whether the state parks are significant, and the answer is, yes, they’re significant,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s findings were published in the fall issue of Natural Areas Journal, a quarterly publication.
Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, an advocacy group for the state parks, said Robinson’s research reinforced the value of preserving state parkland. She said the park system has two missions: to provide recreation and to protect plants, animals and ecosystems.
“The stewardship is just as important as the recreational aspect,” Dropkin said.
The database Robinson used is a project of the New York Natural Heritage Program, a partnership of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.
According to DEC, the database monitors 174 natural community types, 727 rare plant species and 432 rare animals species throughout New York, keeping track of more than 11,900 places where these species and communities are found.
Robinson said that the database is a “gold mine of really interesting information.”
The New York Natural Heritage Program’s mission is to facilitate the conservation of rare plants, animals and ecosystems, which are commonly referred to as “natural communities.”
Robinson’s study makes use of a new theory, stewardship responsibility, for assessing the importance of protecting a specific species in a specific place.
According to this theory, if a high percentage of a particular species lives in a particular region, that region has a greater responsibility to protect that species than species that aren’t as well-represented.
In their recent newsletter, Parks & Trails New York provides the following explanation of stewardship responsibility: “If a species has 70 percent of its population in New York, it would merit more conservation efforts here than a species with only 5 percent of its population in the state. Thus, NY would have a higher stewardship responsibility for that species.”
Because New York’s parks play such a significant role in protecting the state’s rare species, the state has a relatively high stewardship responsibility, Robinson said.
Robinson examined rare species populations in New York’s 11 state park regions.
He found that the Capital Region had the second lowest stewardship responsibility, with only New York City ranking lower. The region with the highest stewardship responsibility was the Niagara Frontier.
The Capital Region and New York City have fewer rare species because they’re more urbanized than many of the other regions, Robinson said.
“Once you get to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, you have more unique environments,” Robinson said.
He said that even the most urban places are home to interesting species, however.
“Staten Island, in particular, has really nice habitat that’s still protected,” he said. “But we’ve lost a lot. One hundred and fifty years ago, naturalists would take the ferry to Staten Island to study plants and animals.”
Dropkin said that the stewardship responsibility theory provides an interesting framework for thinking about the value of state parks.
“All of these places have their ecological communities that make them unique,” she said.
New York has 219 state parks and historic sites.