Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who is behind the Brooklyn Bridge Forest? Has New York City approved the project?

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest is a joint project of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Municipal Art Society, the Natural Areas Conservancy, and Pilot Projects Design Collective.

 

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is a 115-year old organization with deep New York City roots and a global reach: In addition to running the entire system of zoos and the New York Aquarium, WCS manages about 500 conservation programs in 60 countries, collaborating with local people and institutions to protect wildlife and the ecosystems that support them. WCS has been working in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (the proposed location for the Brooklyn Bridge Forest) for two decades.

 

The Municipal Art Society (MAS) is a 120-year old NYC organization dedicated to protecting the best of New York City's landscape, including landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge. MAS encourages design, planning, and architecture that promote resilience and the livability of New York City.

The Natural Areas Conservancy was established in 2012 to work in partnership with NYC Parks in restoring and protecting the more than 10,000 acres of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other natural areas within the five boroughs.

 

Pilot Projects Design Collective is a NYC-based organization with expertise in urban planning, architecture, and sustainability. Pilot Projects initiates, incubates, and designs projects linking culture and infrastructure to create beautiful, productive, and resilient environments.

We are working on securing the support of New York City officials for the project. Until the project is approved, we can't accept sponsorship, but we are always open to opportunities for collaboration. Please contact us if you are interested.

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2. How would New York City benefit from this project?

The most direct benefit to New York City would be a new boardwalk for the Brooklyn Bridge, paid for through plank sponsorship. This would save the City about $2 million. In addition, the City could avoid the kind of controversy it has faced over its plans to renovate the Coney Island Boardwalk. (One group recently sued the City over its plans to try out concrete instead of wood in one section.)

Perhaps more importantly, the project would reinforce New York City's position as a center of culture, international cooperation, and innovation in sustainability. Educational programs developed around the project would involve thousands of New York City students, helping create a better-educated workforce that understands the interconnectedness of places around the world as well as the global nature of our most challenging environmental issues. Project funds would also support the conservation and restoration of natural areas within New York City.

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3. Where would the Brooklyn Bridge Forest be located? How large would it be?

Our proposed site is a forest surrounding the community of Uaxactún (pronounced "wa-shuck-TOON") in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve. The forest is located within the Multiple-Use Zone of the reserve—the portion designated for economic activities like limited and well-regulated timber harvesting.

The Uaxactún community forest covers approximately 200,000 acres of the reserve, about the size of all five boroughs of New York City combined. The reserve as a whole covers about 6 million acres, which is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

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4. Why is the Uaxactún community forest important?

The 200,000-acre Uaxactún community forest is a critical part of Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected area covering 6 million acres. The reserve is a stronghold for a huge variety of wildlife, including jaguars, pumas, scarlet macaws, and howler monkeys, as well as millions of migratory birds from North America that spend winters there. As the center of the ancient Maya civilization from 350 B.C. to 900 A.D, the area is also home to hundreds of archeological sites.

The forest is also an important source of income, food, medicine, and cultural value to the community of Uaxactún, which was founded about a century ago by people seeking chicle, a tree resin used to make chewing gum. Community members still harvest chicle, and also benefit from the sustainable harvest of timber, fruits, and a palm frond called xate (pronounced "SHA-tay") that they export to florists in other countries. To maintain their way of life and to fulfill their conservation obligations under their agreement with the Guatemalan government, the community protects the forest against illegal settlements, cattle ranchers, and fires that outsiders set while trying to clear the forest. All timber harvesting in Uaxactún follows strict FSC certification procedures and a management plan created specifically for this sensitive forest area.

For every board sponsored on the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade, approximately 18 acres of this unique forest area will be protected, through conservation work carried out by the community, reserve officials, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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5. Who would own the Brooklyn Bridge Forest?

The Uaxactún forest is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which belongs to the people of Guatemala. Since the Peace Accords of the mid-1990s, the community of Uaxactún has held a "community concession" in the forest—the legal right to harvest food, medicines, and timber pursuant to long-term management plans and subject to Guatemalan law and strict international standards. Other communities have similar rights over other portions of the reserve.

Rather than buying and controlling land, the Brooklyn Bridge Forest project aims to support the community of Uaxactún and the Guatemalan government in strengthening the protection of this established but threatened reserve.

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6. What threats does the forest face? How would this project help protect it?

Forest fires, illegal logging and hunting, and looting of archaeological sites threaten the forest and the people who live there. In addition, climate change is making forest fires more frequent and harder to control. The biggest threat, however, is cattle ranching. Cattle ranchers from outside the reserve want to clear the forest for pasture. They are often well-funded and even armed.

The people of Uaxactún depend on the forest for their livelihoods, and they have a big stake in keeping out cattle and putting out fires. Under a long-term plan (and with careful monitoring by outside groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society) the community harvests trees from a different portion of the forest each year. Rather than clearing the forest, the community practices low-impact timber harvesting, using small-scale equipment to remove just a few trees from each area they harvest. They replant thousands of seedlings in harvest areas and on temporary roads. Once an area has been selectively harvested it is left untouched for 40 years.

These activities provide employment to individual community members and support community resources like medical facilities and schools. Under Guatemalan law, if too many trees are cut down or outsiders begin to move in, the community loses its right to live in and benefit from the forest. That means the community has a big stake in making sure everyone follows the rules.

But they can't protect the forest alone. A few hundred community members and a handful of guards have to keep watch over an area the size of all of New York City.

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest project would provide vital support to Uaxactún and local authorities in their fight to protect the forest. Money from board sponsorship would pay for more forest patrols, fire fighting, and satellite monitoring within Uaxactún and also in other areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It would support the on-the-ground research that helps the Wildlife Conservation Society and Guatemalan officials understand better how to protect the animals and plants of the reserve. And it would fund educational programs in New York City to make sure the next generation understands the importance of rainforests.

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7. Doesn't cutting down even a few trees harm wildlife?

Extensive research by the Wildlife Conservation Society (PDF) has shown that the limited logging practiced by Uaxactún and other communities in the Multiple-Use Zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has very little effect on wildlife populations. Researchers there actually found that there are more species of birds and butterflies in the harvest areas than in other areas, because selectively removing a few trees provides a more diverse range of habitat types—small clearings, patches of light, and a more varied canopy height.

Larger animals like jaguars may move away from areas during human activity but return soon afterward. Wildlife Conservation Society researchers monitor the jaguar population in Uaxactún through motion-sensing cameras that take pictures of the cats as they walk, play, and hunt. They have found that the population remains healthy in the Uaxactún forest.

 

Funds from the Brooklyn Bridge Forest project would support further research on the effects of timber harvesting in Uaxactún. To add to the research that has already been carried out there, we hope to attract university research teams interested in establishing long-term studies that would generate information that the people of Uaxactún and other forest communities could use to adapt their management over time.

 

Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.

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8. What's the timeline for replacing the boards on the Brooklyn Bridge?

By most estimates a new wooden boardwalk will need to be installed by 2017. We are working on securing the support of New York City for the Brooklyn Bridge Forest so as to be able to provide the 11,000 durable, beautiful, and sustainably sourced boards that the Bridge will require at that time.

If the project works well the first time, we would hope to repeat it thirty years from now with a new generation of sponsors when the boards will once again need to be replaced.

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9. If the City approves the project, what would it cost to be a plank sponsor?

Our goal is to make this project accessible to as many people as possible while raising enough money to protect the forest. To do this we believe that the average plank sponsorship would need to be approximately $1000. We are exploring a graduated sponsorship model, which would allow for a range of contributions from as little as $400 to as much as $5000.

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10. How would you get the signatures onto the planks? What would they look like? How long would the signatures last?

We are currently experimenting with several methods of etching and wood-burning the signatures into the hardwood planks. One method involves using a laser-etching device. The other uses local artisans to render the signatures by hand. In either case the signatures would be collected as a PDF file with the sponsorship package, then burned into each board at one end. The goal is that the signature is visible for the life of the plank, for approximately 30 years.

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11. What type of wood is currently used for the Brooklyn Bridge promenade boardwalk?

The last time the Promenade boardwalk was replaced, the Department of Transportation used a wood called Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei), which grows in northern South America. No one seems to know exactly where the current wood was sourced from, but a lot of tropical hardwood is not sourced sustainably. By creating a fully transparent model, the Brooklyn Bridge Forest project would complement NYC's efforts to eliminate the purchase of unsustainably sourced materials and would serve an example for other cities and companies that want to improve the outlook for threatened tropical forests.

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12. What is NYC currently planning to do when the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade needs to be replaced in 2017?

The City is concerned about the ethical issues involved with using tropical hardwood as it is currently obtained, and has been investigating possibilities for change. One report from the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability outlines the municipal plan to reduce the use of tropical hardwoods from NYC public spaces and infrastructure.

People who have followed the controversy over the renovation of the Coney Island Boardwalk know that we need to find a better solution for the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade, but as of right now, it is not clear what NYC will do when the boards need to be replaced.

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13. Why use wood? Why not replace the Promenade boardwalk with plastic lumber or a wood composite?

Although other materials have been explored for the Promenade, wood is unique in its environmental, aesthetic, and engineering qualities. Wood feels special under the feet, to the touch and the eye not to mention that wood is the material chosen by John A. Roebling and his son, Washington, in their original design. Wood is also one of the planet's few truly renewable building materials, and as trees grow they sequester carbon, produce oxygen, and provide animal habitat. If wood is harvested responsibly, it can bring all of these benefits to our biosphere while providing one of the most beautiful and durable materials ever known.

 

In addition, researchers have raised questions about the durability and environmental impact of plastic lumber. Plastic lumber may not last long in harsh outdoor settings, and in many cases manufacturing it puts more carbon in the atmosphere than using wood does.

Finally, using a plastic lumber or a resin-based product would likely require that the promenade structure be re-engineered and rebuilt. This would be very costly and may violate the National Historic Landmark status of the Brooklyn Bridge. Continuing to use wood would avoid this problem and ensure that the authenticity of the bridge is maintained.

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14. Why use tropical hardwood? Why not use a domestic hardwood like Black Locust?

Many tropical hardwoods have exceptional strength and resistance to wear and decay. They can last as long as 30 years in the harsh high-traffic environment of the Promenade.

While a domestic hardwood could be an option for the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade, most domestic hardwoods are not as durable or strong as tropical hardwoods. Black Locust is one domestic hardwood similar in durability and strength to tropical hardwood, and we are excited about what our friends are doing in this growing industry. But Black Locust tends not to grow as large or as straight as tropical hardwood, producing lumber that is shorter than the lengths needed for the boardwalk.

 

More importantly, the Brooklyn Bridge Forest is conceived of as a way for the people of New York City to reach out to people living in threatened tropical forests and help maintain both their way of life and the rainforest that they are protecting for all of us. Much of the world's deforestation comes from the fact that in economic terms, rainforest land is often worth more cleared for agriculture or pasture than maintained as standing forest. The Brooklyn Bridge Forest aims to break the pattern of rainforest destruction by supporting a place that has found a sustainable alternative. We see this as a model that can be repeated for many public spaces that use wood and also aim to protect the environment.

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15. Who would be able to visit the Brooklyn Bridge Forest?

In addition to being a rich tropical rainforest of 200,000 acres, the Uaxactún forest is home to several renowned archeological sites. The world-famous complex of temples at Tikal is located a short drive away. We expect that many people would like to visit these places.

Our goal would be to work with the community to provide facilities for a range of visitors each year, from tourists to university research teams. The community of Uaxactún has some limited ecotourism facilities and is interested in receiving more visitors.

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16. Why doesn't NYC just buy wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)??

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent non-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world's forests. Primarily, the FSC provides an internationally recognized certification system that supports responsible forestry. In order to be FSC-certified, a forest manager or a timber company must comply with certain social and environmental standards.

Timber from the Uaxactún community forest is FSC-certified, but merely buying FSC-certified wood for the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade would not create the long-term connection between New York City and the source community that we hope to build. Procuring FSC-certified wood also may not be an option if the City has to purchase the wood itself. FSC-certified wood tends to be slightly more expensive than non-certified wood, and the City's procurement policies bar it from paying the premium.

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17. Could companies support the project?

We would work with New York City to find appropriate roles for companies. Because the project is envisioned primarily as an opportunity for citizen engagement, sponsorships would probably be reserved only for people.

However, we are currently looking to partner with companies that would like to underwrite some of the start-up costs for the project. Please contact us if you would like to get involved in this way.

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18. Which organizations has Brooklyn Bridge Forest been working with?

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest Steering Committee consists of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Municipal Art Society, and Pilot Projects Design Collective. In developing the project, we have consulted with many organizations, including:

United Nations Forum on Forests
New York Botanical Garden
Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
The Pinchot Institute for Conservation

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19. Are there any precedents for the Brooklyn Bridge Forest model?

We are not currently aware of a partnership model exactly like the Brooklyn Bridge Forest. But there are many examples of partnerships between individual sponsors and larger causes, as well as efforts to balance forest conservation with sustainable timber harvesting.

Sponsorship programs:

Many non-profit organizations in New York City have programs where individuals can sponsor a brick, a bench or a tree to show support for their cause. For example, there has been an Adopt-a-Bench program since 1986 to support Central Park, and the newly opened Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center has a seat naming gift program. Another example is the widespread Adopt-a-Highway program, through which sponsoring organizations keep sections of highway free from litter.

 

Sustainable timber and endowed forests:

One historic model is the dedicated forest for the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. The Ise Shrine is famously rebuilt every 20 years, exactly the same, in a sacred ceremony of purification and renewal. Originally founded about 2,000 years ago, this rebuilding ceremony - "sengu" - has been taking place regularly for the past 1,300 years. Each sengu requires an enormous amount of mature cedar: from 8,500 to 10,000 cubic meters, or about 10,000 logs. In order to provide the lumber for this cyclical reconstruction, a dedicated shrine forest was established. These local trees supplied all the cedar necessary for sengu until the late 14th century, when the source of lumber had to be transferred to another area in Japan (also famous for cedar). In 1923, a reforestation program was implemented at the Ise Shrine forest, planting cedar to be harvested in 200 years for the temple, and simultaneously protecting the headwaters of the nearby Isuzu River.

 

Another historic model is the oak forests planted in Sweden in the early 1800s to provide timber in the future for the country's navy. In the first ten years of the project, more than 300,000 trees were planted. When the trees reached suitable size in 1975, Sweden was no longer building wooden ships, but the country now enjoys a majestic oak forest covering 900 acres. Similarly, we may not be able to predict precisely what the Brooklyn Bridge will need 150 years from now, but we can be sure that Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, which sustains countless species of animals and plants and nourishes a rich local culture, is worth protecting for the future.

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David McCullough

"It climbed up and out of the city like something seen in dreams. It was a highway people just naturally wanted to travel...into the open air."