By Mark Hallum
Civic leader Walter Mugdan received the state’s highest honor last Friday for his work preserving wetlands in northeast Queens.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) presented the State Liberty Medal to the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee president for restoring and expanding the protected wetlands since he took up the position in 2002.
Mugdan said Avella’s support for his organization goes back to his time in City Council prior to 2011, when he was elected to the state Senate.
“We’ve had occasion to work with Senator Avella, and back before that when he was Councilman Avella,” Mugdan said. “I’ve spent my whole life – my whole career – working in the environmental field… This is an avocation and I really love the work I do with the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee.”
The mostly Parks Department-owned land in northeast Queens, which is pieced together from donations and purchases, has operated since the 1970s, going from shipyard to wildlife haven with the help of volunteers and advocates. Industrial waste and invasive species of vines and other plant life are constantly being cleared from the waters in the area to support a healthy, mostly-indigenous ecosystem.
“There’s about four or five parcels that total around three acres that still have to be acquired, and then a parcel that’s not within the designated boundary of the park – the park designation was made decades ago – but there is an opportunity that has presented itself that the community and a number of other organizations, including my own, are interested in,” Mugdan said.
Mugdan began his career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1975 and serves as acting deputy regional administrator apart from his regular position as director of Region 2’s hazardous waste cleanup and emergency response programs.
Some of his work with the EPA has put him in charge of cleanup at toxic sites ranging from the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, the Passaic River and the Hudson River.
“Two years ago, I was able after a number of years of complaining to the state to have some of the environmental protection fund, which is used upstate to acquire additional parkland, to actually be used to acquire more parkland in the preserve from private hands,” Avella said. “Why shouldn’t the city get the same amount of funding for new acquisitions that upstate does?”
This isn’t the only time Mugdan has been recognized for his work. In 2015, Mugdan was awarded the Presidential Rank Distinguished Service Award, which is one of the highest levels of acknowledgement a federal civilian employee can receive.
Udalls Cove is a small strip of land that stretches just a little over a mile from Northern Boulevard to the open water of Long Island Sound and has woodlands that gradually turn into fresh water wetlands and then to saltwater wetlands.
The cove supports many different kinds of life, including a family of foxes and an osprey nest. In 2016, the osprey were the target of vandals who lit the nest near the water on fire, sending the birds into a frenzy over the offspring which were inside. Mugdan expressed concern at the time of the incident that the osprey might not return, but reported at the medal ceremony they were still making Udalls Cove their home for part of the year.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall