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Queens Chronicle

Gateway, volunteers forced to clean litter left on shores after rituals

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Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2008 12:00 am

At the southern end of Howard Beach’s Addabbo Bridge sit two quiet parking lots fronting a beach, one on each side of the road. People from all over the borough visit the lots, which are part of Gateway National Park, to fish, birdwatch and enjoy the view of Jamaica Bay.

That experience has been spoiled for both visitors and Gateway staff and volunteers: greeting them on the shores at the start of every week are discarded coconut shells, candles, rotten fruit and flowers, pieces of paper and plastic, soiled rags and garments, religious statues, flags, broken glass, rats and sometimes body parts of slaughtered animals.

One would have a difficult time imagining that prior to their decomposed, algae-encrusted, sand-covered condition, these items were new and clean — and used in religious rituals honoring Hindu gods and goddesses, according to area residents, local fishermen and Gateway staff who have witnessed the ceremonies.

Those performing the rituals are members of the large Guyanese Hindu community of Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, said Don Riepe, a local preservationist and the director of the Jamaica Bay Guardian program. Every week, dozens of them congregate on the shores of the national park to worship the deities, one of whom is Ganga Mata (Mother Ganges), according to Ina Brennan, a Gateway volunteer who does beach cleanups every Thursday.

Several calls to religious leaders in the local Guyanese Hindu community were not returned as of press time.

While the Gateway administration believes people have a right to practice their religions on its property, it does not believe they have a right to pollute there. “We want them to be part of the park,” spokesman Brian Feeney said of the messy guests. “And we respect their First Amendment rights, but what we want from all our park visitors is to respect the land and to not litter.”

Dispelling rumors that Gateway has not addressed the problem because it fears controversy, Feeney explained the park’s message clearly: “We’re not telling you how to conduct yourself in the sense of your religious beliefs, but do not litter in a national park. … If you are there, take away whatever you have there.”

The problem is not new, and Gateway has been dealing with it for many years, according to Feeney, who said: “We are trying to do our best to address it with community outreach, with additional maintenance crews and with enforcement.”

Riepe said Gateway simply isn’t doing enough — particularly in the area of enforcement. If the National Park Service would dispatch rangers or park police to the parking lots in the late-night or early-morning hours, when most rituals take place, they could confront participants and issue “courtesy” or warning summonses. The presence of authority figures alone can dissuade people from leaving behind garbage or breaking park rules.

But this is a difficult approach for the park service. While park police are aware of what takes place and they do patrol the area, they have to cover more than 12 miles of shoreline there: “You can’t patrol the whole area every minute of every day. It’s just impossible,” Feeney said. Additionally, most of the rituals take place at night, when rangers are not on duty, leaving park police to patrol alone.

A better approach — and one that may get more results — is community outreach: “We feel that’s what is going to be most effective,” Feeney said. Breaking down cultural barriers and educating people about the effects of their actions can probably accomplish more than punitive action. Gateway wants to convey the message that it welcomes the Guyanese Hindu community, but not its trash.

Gateway has already attempted to reach out to the community and worked with volunteers to educate and spread awareness about the issue. “We’ve tried to be creative,” Feeney noted. A while back the park service attempted a recycling program in which it placed storage bins in the parking lots and encouraged visitors to store items there for future use instead of discarding or casting them off into the water. Unfortunately, Feeney said, the program “didn’t work out.”

The problem is that “this is a very large, varied community that has grown a lot over the last 20 years,” according to Feeney. As a result, not only have rituals become more frequent, but it has become more difficult to reach the entire community. Still, he said, Gateway will “redouble” its community outreach efforts. “Anything it takes, we will try.”

Riepe and Gateway volunteer Barbara Toborg said it’s no longer enough to send maintenance crews to clean twice a week or to rely on community volunteer clean-up projects. The park service must do something more drastic than “redouble” outreach efforts, according to Toborg, who, along with several other volunteers, cleans the shores every Thursday.

Echoing their sentiments, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Queens and Brooklyn) called for an education regimen and more enforcement. After meeting Friday with Riepe, Toborg, maintenance staff and Park Ranger Edgardo Castillo to learn more about the situation on the shores of Jamaica Bay, Weiner said this is a “structural” problem.

“The people are not the issues. The issue is the activity. Even if the activity is permitted, leaving behind trash cannot be,” Weiner said. “We cannot have a situation where people are leaving behind ceremonial pines … leaving shrines of their garbage.”

After Castillo, a Gateway ranger for 27 years, explained the efforts of the park service and the way it has handled the situation, the congressman said he understood why regulating small ad-hoc groups of people is difficult. But, he added, “We can’t keep chasing our tail on this.”

Welcome to the discussion.