Pictured Above: Tankers stay well offshore from Hallock State Park in Northville, which was saved from development due to the efforts of generations of North Fork environmentalists.

Throughout its 50 year history, it’s been the grassroots volunteer spirit that has bound together members of the North Fork Environmental Council, which has been at the forefront of efforts to save what’s left of the pastoral nature of the North Fork.

The organization was formed by the merging of two dedicated groups of community activists in 1972, the same year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed, by such legendary North Fork environmentalists as Paul Stoutenburgh, Ruth Oliva, Ronnie Wacker, Howard Meinke and Anne Lowry.

Members of the NFEC and many other environmental organizations that work in collaboration with the NFEC, took the evening of Jan. 19 to reflect, via the pandemic-friendly format of Zoom, on the successes and failures of the past 50 years, and on what the future holds. 

Past NFEC Executive Director and current Program Director Debbie O’Kane began the session by reading an excerpt from an account of the group’s 30th Anniversary in 2003, written by one of the group’s founders, Ronnie Wacker.

“It seems like only yesterday — was it really 30 years ago, that a little band of concerned Southolders met in Paul Stoutenburgh’s living room to see what they could do to protect our fragile wetlands from further development,” wrote Ms. Wacker of the first meeting of what was then called the Eastern Long Island Wetlands Preservation Association. 

“Meanwhile, across town in Mattituck,” she wrote, their neighbors were battling a multimillion dollar industrial proposal for Riverhead that was to include a deepwater port, a motel, marinas, an aircraft assembly factory, a nuclear-powered desalination plant and some other insanely hi-tech enterprises.”

“What was really going on was a full-fledged sand mine operation,” she added. “Cubic yards of the Jamesport hills were being shipped by barge to Connecticut,” she added. The company had installed jetties along the Long Island Sound shore that were threatening the integrity of the cliffs of Mattituck.

That group at first named itself the North Fork Preservation Society.

“Recognizing the enormity of their plight,” these two groups joined forces, becoming the North Fork Environmental Council.

In the years since, said Ms. Wacker, one hustler after another — from an oil refinery to “even at one point eight nuclear power plants” — attempted to put down roots here.

“So began the assault on the natural resources of the North Fork, which is still going on 30 years later.”

“As we know, it’s still going on 50 years later,” said Ms. O’Kane. 

Today, the land that had been slated for that monstrous industrial development is now Hallock State Park, while the NFEC’s signature slogan, “Save What’s Left,” has served as a rallying cry throughout the North Fork for decades.

“It takes a band of committed people who are willing to work together to make things happen,” said Ms. O’Kane, who said one of the biggest environmental successes of the past several decades has been the Community Preservation Fund, which has preserved thousands of acres of land, much of it farmland, on the East End.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of land preservation,” she said. “I would love to see more open spaces preserved. We need to protect habitat and critical open space.”

Ms. O’Kane said one of the biggest disappointments over the past several decades was losing the battle over the construction of the Tanger Mall in Riverhead.

“We knew it was going to open the floodgates, and it literally did,” she said. “We knew it would affect mom and pop stores downtown. It’s going through a revitalization now, but we could have kept that downtown with its vitality all along.”

Gwynn Schroeder, who worked for the North Fork Environmental Council for nine years and is now the Vice President of the North Fork Audubon Society and Legislative Aide to Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, agreed in the importance of community involvement.

“When you get a bunch of people who care about an issue and they go to the mat, things happen,” she said. “Coalitions work. Organizing works. Getting involved works.”

“In the time we’re in now, which is such a strange time, it’s so important that the average citizen gets involved,” she added. “There are so many pressing issues, and climate change is the issue of our time, maybe of any time.”

“When you’re an advocate, you have to take a long view,” she added, pointing out that it took years to install fish ladders to enable native fish to swim upstream here to spawn, but it did happen. “I’m still not completely optimistic about the future, but I am hopeful because of you.”

Louise Harrison, a conservation biologist who serves as the New York Natural Areas Coordinator for the Connecticut-based non-profit Save The Sound, said she’s “truly humbled by the magnitude of the worldwide crisis of climate change.”

“It will overwhelm all systems, and have cascading effects,” she said. “I wish my 42 years on Long Island had equipped me to make a difference in that realm, but the difference now is we are all trying.”

“There are passions that run high in human beings — self-serving passions, political passions, passions of greed,” she said. “I’m wondering if we need to find more empathy for the people we are opposing, because the jig is up and we need to make changes really fast.”

One way to open peoples’ eyes, she said, was to help people of all ages to connect with nature.

“When you get them to connect, their heart opens, and that is what I have found most satisfying in my life,” she said.

“One of the things that has distressed me most about the environmental movement is how we turn on each other,” she added. “There is no room for this. We need every single one of us.”

Dr. Joyce Novak, who is the director of the Peconic Estuary Partnership, which is now housed at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said she believes the Clean Water Act of 1972 is “one of the most influential pieces of legislation, environmentally, that has shaped the future for all of us.”

“I have no memory of direct illegal discharges to water, because they were on their way to being handled (when I was born),” she said. “But would the Clean Water Act have passed today? I don’t think it would have.”

“I don’t think it’s all bad news,” she said of the current political and environmental situation. “People are starting to come together, more and more, small groups merging into bigger groups, and learning how to use legal tools to make challenges. All of those are evolutions of a movement. We don’t stand alone, ever…. I think we’ll get there. Whether I’ll see it in my lifetime, I don’t know.”

Kevin McAllister, the Executive Director of Defend H2O, who has a background in coastal zone management said that “if the sky is falling, it is the encapsulation of our estuaries with seawalls.” 

“Are we willing to surrender public resources and the public trust doctrine for private interests? I say not,” he said. “A financial push has affected political thinking. We’re often not dealing with the facts and science.”

Alison Branco, who serves as the Acting Director of Climate Adaptation at The Nature Conservancy, said she believes past preservation efforts were designed to protect nature from people, but in the future it’s important to look “at nature and people as a more wholistic system, and work with people to take care of nature going forward.”

“The number of people who can explain to me how their septic system works now is phenomenal,” she said of the public education effort around getting East Enders to upgrade their septic systems.

“All of this can’t happen if it’s not backed up by really good science,” she added. “We can’t forget that when we get wrapped up in the advocacy stuff.”

Wading River Civic Association President Sid Bail said his community activism began when he realized that waiting for someone else to solve environmental problems wouldn’t resolve them.

“Being an ex-social studies teacher, I like to keep my members informed and do it in a fairly accurate manner,” he said. 

Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Richard Amper said he fell into environmental activism in a similar manner — when one of his neighbors told him about some development efforts afoot in his community near Lake Panamoka in Ridge.

“Most of the land in the core preservation area of the pine barrens was under siege,” he said, adding that the NFEC and about 230 other groups agreed to wage the fight to preserve the pine barrens together.

“We had dozens of volunteers moving into Brookhaven Town Hall and working there night and day, and we began to win legal battles, one at a time,” he said. 

There’s still more land to preserve, he said, and still more challenges facing the pine barrens, which stand atop much of Long Island’s drinking water and have been threatened by the southern pine beetle, and by wildfires, which foresters are working to tame through the use of controlled burns.

“The public is absolutely, enormously supportive,” said Mr. Amper. “The NFEC has been stalwart in saying ‘this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it right.’”

The North Fork Environmental Council is looking for new members and volunteers as it continues to engage in community efforts, including a collaboration with Drawdown East End on a festival of solutions to climate change, a Repair Café launching at Greenport’s Floyd Memorial Library on March 26, activism with regard to Riverhead’s Comprehensive Plan, a food waste reduction pilot program with Southold Town and efforts to spur local townships to become Climate Smart Communities.

The NFEC will also be holding its annual Earth Day 5K on Sunday, April 24 at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead.

For more details on how to get involved, visit nfec1.org


Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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