However, Pralls Island has been on the brink of extinction for decades: Proposals for a waste removal site in the late 1970s, an Exxon oil spill in 1990 that killed hundreds of birds and destroyed their feeding grounds, an infestation of the Asian longhorned beetle in 2007, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 -- and generally polluted waters from cargo ships and tankers passing through New York Harbor.
Pralls Island was once a major farming center, used primarily to grow salt hay, a cash crop, according to the Parks Department which now owns the site. In the 1930s, Pralls Island was expanded to its current size when dredged material from the Arthur Kill Channel was deposited there.
There was little activity on Pralls Island, except when the military anchored surplus ships off its shores during World War I and World War II, the Parks Department notes.
Development ideas were proposed for Pralls Island in the 1970s, including a waste removal site, but the plans were quickly disbanded as bird watchers discovered herons, egrets and ibis breeding in the area.
“These discoveries put an end to any discussion of developing the island,” according to the Parks Department.
The Department of General Services assigned Pralls Island to the Parks Department in 1984 for its preservation as a wildlife sanctuary. The New York Audubon Society, along with the Manoment Observatory in Massachusetts, monitored the nesting sites and studied the habits and diets of the migratory birds.
At one point, the New York Audubon Society documented 400 pairs of nesting birds on Pralls Island, including the glossy ibis, the black-crowned night heron, the little blue heron, the snowy egret, the cattle egret and the great egret.
“Although these species are not rare or endangered, their presence in an urban area in such large numbers is unusual,” the Parks Department notes.
And, it remained quiet on Pralls Island, save for the occasional shipwreck nearby, until oil spilled from a ruptured underwater pipeline at an Exxon fuel refinery in Linden on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1990. The spill released approximately 567,000 gallons of oil into the Arthur Kill. In total, about 700 birds died.
“Conservation experts said birds returning north in the spring could face serious harm, because the spill is likely to kill the food they find in the wetlands along the waterway,” the Times reported a few days later.
The conservationists were correct in their assumption: A year later, research suggested that the rupture of the pipeline was “continuing to disturb the wading birds’ habitat and interfering with the reproduction of some species of egrets and ibises,” the Times reported on Aug. 24, 1991, in a story with this headline: “Prall’s Island Journal: To Colony Of Herons, Foul Marsh Is Home.”
Exxon pleaded guilty to criminal charges resulting from the oil spill and paid $15 million in criminal and civil penalties to a combination of New York, New Jersey and the federal government.
As part of the settlement, NYC Mayor David N. Dinkins “agreed to package several pieces of city property in and around Staten Island into the Harbor Herons wildlife refuge,” according to the Times. Among the properties included in the refuge was Pralls Island.
More than a decade later, Pralls Island was under attack again: This time when the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive species, was detected by United States Department of Agriculture tree-climbers in a maple tree on a private, wooded lot in Bloomfield in March 2007, according to the Parks Department. Inspections intensified and a “significant infestation” was discovered in trees on Pralls Island. As a result, more than 3,000 trees met the chainsaw.
Hurricane Sandy also caused another blow -- the storm surge and winds swept debris onto the island and destroyed trees and shrubs that were replanted once the beetle infestation was contained.
Birds have since been spotted on Pralls Island as the Parks Department and the New York Audubon Society host volunteer planting and clean-up days in the hopes of drawing back the nesting colonies and creating a wildlife sanctuary once more.
(Photo: A waterfront view with Pralls Island in the top half of the photo in 1997, courtesy of the Staten Island Advance/Rob Sollett)