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Great Outdoors in the Big City : Rangers Teach About Urban Wildlife

Associated Press

With the roar of cars from Interstate 87 behind him, Richard DeSimone had 25 city sixth-graders bend over to look in the mud for traffic of a quieter kind.

“A muskrat’s been here,” he told them, pointing out a paw print with a line through it, evidence of a muskrat dragging its tail. DeSimone then showed them footprints made by a raccoon. The children jockeyed for views.

In Van Cortlandt Park, an oasis in the Bronx that has been home to animals ranging from snapping turtles to two white-tailed deer spotted last year, DeSimone taught the children to be nature detectives and park stewards.

He is one of New York City’s 68 urban park rangers, a group of good-will ambassadors that has educated tens of thousands of city dwellers about the nature around them.

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The program in the nation’s largest city, now in its 10th year, has become a model. Park ranger programs have started in about 15 cities, including Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland.

“Park rangers are such a welcome and comforting force in any park,” said Mary Kimmitt, deputy director of the Philadelphia Ranger Corps, which started a year ago.

In some areas, the presence of rangers helps keep down the crime rate. In New York’s Central Park, for instance, the number of felonies dropped 28% in the last four years; robberies fell 40%.

“We’re trying to get people back in the parks,” said Therese Braddick, director of New York’s urban rangers. “Some people believe they’re not safe, and at night many areas aren’t.”

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Still, while law enforcement in New York’s parks is handled by police and a 180-member park patrol squad, Braddick said, “We provide a sense of security for people.”

Besides, rangers show New Yorkers that their back yard is not all concrete. Last year, 84,000 people attended 2,618 educational programs held by the rangers.

“When you think of Manhattan, the picture of beautiful park land doesn’t come to mind,” Braddick said.

And yet in this city of 8 million people there are 26,000 acres of parks.

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There are 30 species of ducks, 10 species of owls, 15 types of hawks and falcons, red foxes, snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks and, occasionally, deer from Westchester County to the north. The areas have about 30 types of endangered plants, including the winged monkey flower.

New York’s first park, Bowling Green, was created in 1733. The city set aside land for Central Park in the mid-1850s, created the Department of Parks in 1870 and during commissioner Robert Moses’ tenure from 1934 to 1960 doubled park acreage.

There is little left to put aside now. “The city has filled its borders,” said park historian Jonathan Kuhn.

One place Braddick loves to visit is Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, with its salt marsh, mud flats, 13 miles of rocky shoreline and 520 acres of forest.

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Herman Barrocales, 33, fished in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park when he was a boy. Now he is a park ranger stationed there. One of his jobs is to lead hawk watches.

On a crisp morning recently, he passed around binoculars on a second story terrace in Prospect Park’s boathouse. He told the dozen people who came by that New York was a choice location to see hawks as it is on their fly path from Canada to warmer spots.

In an hour, five birds of prey were sighted, including the rare peregrine falcon. The falcon took its time in passing. Barrocales, normally talkative, barely said a word as he watched.

The children from P.S. 122 who visited Van Cortlandt Park also were impressed by the wildlife around them.

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After listening to DeSimone’s message that they should take care of the parks--underscored as he picked up a plastic six-pack holder and broke its rings, which can strangle ducks--11 year-old Lanette Romero said she had learned a lesson:

“You should keep your eyes open, make sure you don’t harm animals and look for clues like footprints.”


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