Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: What good is it?”
–Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

November 25th, 1983 marked the beginning of a new era for Long Island, its rare and threatened wildlife, and perhaps most importantly, for the people who call it home. On that date, I, along with my two closest friends, John Cryan and John Turner (the “bushwhackers” to our friends), took documents we had painstakingly typed on a Smith-Corona typewriter to a local drugstore in Commack. We needed the Certificate of Incorporation for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society to be notarized. Notary Public Jo-Ann Davino signed the document and affixed her notary stamp. The Society was now official; it would go on to become the most influential and effective environmental organization on Long Island.

Prior to this we had spent many years “bushwhacking” around the Pine Barrens. Long days in the field collecting Buck Moth caterpillars and looking for those ever-illusive carnivorous plants, rare ferns, and orchids that Long Island naturalist Roy Latham first discovered some 60 years earlier. Alas, that was some 45 years ago!

Where has the time gone? Yes, it was a time when the only things we worried about were having enough rolls of Kodachrome 25 for our cameras, and enough money for gas. I often reflect on that time in our lives as a period when I learned a true respect for the natural world in which we live. It was a time when we learned the value of the natural ecosystem that surrounds us and why people so desperately needed to understand that humanity is as much a part of it as the Buck Moth, Northern Pitcher Plant and Dragon’s Mouth Orchid.

The Society and its three “bushwhacker” executive directors realized many singular victories, beginning with helping to preserve the Radio Corporation of America’s holdings in Rocky Point and Riverhead in 1978. Next was the curtailing of illegal golf courses in Calverton (we were too late to halt the construction of one illegal course, which now serves as a primary point source of nitrogen pollution to the Peconic River watershed!). Next came the successful relocation of a proposed free trade zone in the southeast quadrant of the Dwarf Pine Plains, but not before the developers illegally bulldozed forty acres when they recognized that there was dwindling support for their project at this location. These successes were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Society’s crowning achievement: the Pine Barrens Preservation Initiative, which began in 1989.

During the first dozen years, we fought tirelessly for the preservation of key properties. The Oakbrush Plains at Edgewood, the Bishop tract, Maple Swamp, and Hampton Hills, all priority acquisitions at the time. I often think of those victories with shear astonishment. Three young “bushwhackers,” John Turner as President, John Cryan as Vice President, and me as Secretary and Treasurer. Heck our address was John Turner’s post office box in Smithtown! Truth be told I was just out of high school and seventeen when we had our first thousand sheets of stationery printed by my future father-in-law for a whopping $13.00! It was quite humorous when nobody seemed to be able to figure out which way our logo (a Buck Moth) was flying, or what it was, for that matter. And yet, we as the officers of the Society, have never lost sight of our goal.

Yes, those truly were the days!! Long days in the field when we loaded up John Turner’s Volkswagen Beetle with bug nets, our cameras and plant presses and stayed out “in the field” from dusk till dawn. Back then, nobody paid attention to us. After all, how can you take someone seriously when they bring a buck moth with them when testifying at a congressional hearing in Southampton? Yes, we absolutely were different, but I am proud to say that the three of us are still here. You can’t say the same for self-proclaimed Pine Barrens political preservationists like Steve Levy, Bob Gaffney, Peter Cohalan and Steve Bellone.

FIT TO PRINT: New York Times announces environmentalists’ lawsuit, blocking development in the Pine Barrens.

It was these hard-fought battles that led us to change environmental policy in New York State. The date was November 21, 1989, when our little-known environmental organization, one with grit, conviction, integrity, and soul brought the largest lawsuit of its kind in the nation against local government in an effort to safeguard our environment and its natural resources from future degradation.

To say we caught the media, local government, and the development community completely off guard was an understatement. “Who are these people?”, I overheard many reporters asking as they milled about waiting for the press conference to begin at the Middle Island Country Club. “After all no environmental group could possibly be this well organized,” they could be heard mumbling amongst themselves. We had a three-dimensional map identifying the priority properties of critical concern, a podium emblazoned with our logo (which we had now changed from a buck moth to an outline of Long Island with the Pine Barrens strategically placed), and yes, we even served Danish and coffee. So befuddled were the media covering the event that the first question one of them asked was, “Who paid for all this?” A Pulitzer award winning reporter if ever there was one, I thought to myself!

That eventful day led to a ruling handed down by the Appellate Court in March 1992 that required cumulative impact studies if development threatened the integrity of the Pine Barrens. These studies were to be conducted before any further development took place. While the ruling was overturned by the following November, it set in motion a series of events which culminated with the now famous “Why Can’t Long Island” campaign” on April 12, 1992.

This led to a “meeting of the minds” at the Long Island Association in Commack on April 25th where, as President of the Society, I first introduced our dog-eared map to the masses of politicians, businessmen and developers. This was the map we had used for every political meeting, slide show, hike, or hearing we had ever attended. This map, which we so painstakingly colored in with colored pencils was our “vision,” if you will, of what a Pine Barrens Preserve should look like.

Personally, I thought the meeting was a pathetic demonstration of arrogance on the part of the invited politicians and the developers. Even some allegedly “environmentally minded” people were playing politics. Still, after over three hours, they agreed that something needed to be done to end the “war of the woods,” as our campaign had been called by the press. Within ten weeks we secured a path to preservation – our dream was realized. Today, we can look back and be grateful.

Reflections such these are what I turn to when anyone, be it a developer or fellow environmentalist, asks me, “what is the Long Island Pine Barrens Society?” I guess, plainly and simply, we are nothing more than a group of devoted individuals who care about Long Island’s future. Given all the politics, personalities, economics, and egos that have come into play where the Pine Barrens is concerned, it impresses me that the Society has survived since the 1970’s. And yet somehow it has, and we are on the verge, with our newly introduced “The Best of the Rest” campaign, of making certain that adequate amounts of this fragile and wondrous landscape remain forever wild for future generations to enjoy and discover.

So, to bring this piece full circle, I titled it “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” Anyone who has ever read one of my articles knows I always include a musical quote. The title of this one comes from songwriter Sandy Denny and made famous by American folk singer Judy Collins.

Across the evening sky
All the birds are leaving
But how can they know
It’s time for them to go?

Before the winter fire
I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?

By Bob McGrath, Long Island Pine Barrens Society Founder