The Long Island Expressway is generally not a place where people linger, unless they are stuck in traffic.
But during the summer, Robyn Elman can often be found walking alone near the shoulder of the highway, inspecting patches of overgrown milkweed. The plant is the only source of nutrition for monarch caterpillars before they turn into butterflies.
For several years, Ms. Elman, 47, has sought to help save monarchs, which are under consideration for inclusion on the endangered species list. She does this by preventing the milkweed, which grows wild in New York, from being razed.
“I feel like we’re taking away a lot of wildlife, we’re not even giving it a chance to exist anymore,” Ms. Elman said of monarchs. Habitat loss and climate change have reduced the monarch population by more than 80% over the past 20 years, experts say.
Until this year, Ms. Elman’s quest was solitary. But this summer, she met two like-minded people, forming an unlikely trio who managed, in humble victory, to protect around 20 monarch habitats in Queens and the Bronx.
Ms. Elman began thinking about wild milkweed four years ago, when she began raising monarchs in her garden in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens. She collected eggs from plants growing along highways in nearby northern Queens, but often found the plants reduced to stumps.
It was devastating, she said, to find hundreds of caterpillars and eggs destroyed.
Immediately, Ms. Elman began talking to other environmentalists and local leaders, imploring anyone with even the slightest interest in biodiversity to direct her to the lawnmowers in charge.
She went through three city council members, an indifferent city employee and a liaison assigned to her case by the council. She even sent a presentation to the sanitation department and spoke to someone there. But it all came to nothing.
Until she was introduced to Frank Coniglio, New York City’s director of highway maintenance.
Mr. Coniglio, 58, who has worked at the Department of Transportation for 37 years, handles everything from roadside emergencies to pothole repairs. After 9/11, he helped lead cleanup efforts. He’s a football dad, a Yankees fan, an old car enthusiast and not really a Greenpeace type.
Ms. Elman showed Mr. Coniglio a map of all her milkweed spots, and he nodded. He already knew about this kind of thing.
Six years ago, there was this old man from Brooklyn who asked Mr. Coniglio to stop mowing the milkweed under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge for the sake of the butterflies. And a few years later, a nonprofit near the Westchester border advocated for its lawn mowers to cease to exist for the same reason.
Additionally, in recent weeks, another woman had also persistently called his office about the milkweed, Mr. Coniglio said. He told Ms. Elman, “’I have this lady in the Bronx and she’s driving my staff crazy,’” Ms. Elman recalled.
Her name was Patti Cooper. She had found some razed milkweed along the Hutchinson River Parkway and she wanted him to do something about it.
After all, Mrs. Elman was not so alone.
Throughout June, the two women worked to persuade Mr. Coniglio to let the plant grow wild.
“At first I was a little skeptical,” he says, “because they were authoritarian. »
But he was convinced by their lobbying, which included sending him YouTube videos about the importance of the plant and the plight of monarch butterflies. “It shows you how great a pollinator they are and how much they do for the environment,” he said.
Ms. Cooper, 59, remembers him asking her during one of his site visits: “‘What happens to the butterflies will happen to us, won’t it?’ » »
Ms. Elman asked Mr. Coniglio if he knew of any other milkweed areas. He mentioned several, including places near Utopia Parkway and Kissena Boulevard, and “the guys hadn’t cut that as well over the summer,” he said.
By late summer, about 20 milkweed patches — some near big-box stores, dental offices and body-piercing salons, and all near highways — were protected.
As small as victory may be in an era of raging wildfires and warming oceans, these New Yorkers achieved it.
“It was really good for everyone,” Mr. Coniglio said. “Like we’re doing something positive.”
According to many, climate change is the existential crisis of our time. And as New Yorkers watch their leaders rush to decarbonize buildings and build sea walls, it’s hard to know what to do, how to help.
Urooj Raja, assistant professor of environmental advocacy and social change at Loyola University Chicago, interviewed 33 environmentalists for a recently published study on what motivates them.
“Some people talked about feeling overwhelmed, like they were drowning,” she said. “But when they engaged in civic actions, like calling congressional representatives or teaching others about climate change or conservation, those kinds of things helped them feel like they had some kind of modest control over the situation .”
Dr. Raja said Ms. Elman’s DIY approach to conservation in her corner of Queens could “help her think about the magnitude of this problem.”
In late summer, Elman leads tagging sessions, during which monarchs bound for Mexico as part of their annual migration are given numbered stickers before being released.
In September, Ms. Cooper showed up at one o’clock, not knowing that Ms. Elman was managing her. “We had a good laugh,” she said.
But the marking has serious intentions, Ms Cooper said. This – and “citizen science” efforts in general, right down to recording and sharing caterpillar sightings – can help monitor the monarch population. “It’s a way for us to be a part of their story,” she said, “and hopefully their story of survival.”