Six Decades of Environmentalism on the East End

Hither Hills State Park, Photo: David Taylor
Hither Hills State Park, Photo: David Taylor

The East End has long been a place of natural beauty, with sparkling beaches, verdant woods and incredibly diverse wildlife on land and in our waters. However, it has been no simple feat to maintain this status. After years of dedicated environmentalism, there’s still much more work to be done to ensure that Hamptons and North Fork ecosystems stay healthy for the next 60 summers and beyond, and the Earth-conscious people at Peconic Baykeeper, Group for the East End, Hampton Wildlife Removal & Rescue, North Fork Environmental Council and other organizations are on the frontlines. They weigh in on the past, present and future of East End environmentalism.

What do you consider the major milestones of East End environmentalism?

Pete Topping, Baykeeper at Peconic Baykeeper: One of the biggest milestones in East End environmentalism has been the voter-approved Community Preservation Fund (CPF), which was established in 1998. This allows the five East End towns to collect 2% on each real estate transfer to use for buying and preserving properties that meet certain criteria. More recently (2016), voters have allowed these towns to invest up to 20% of this revenue for water quality improvement projects. With real estate transactions happening on the East End frequently and prices being high, this provides our towns with the revenue needed to take action.

Bob DeLuca, Group for the East End President: Clearly the CPF and its recent expansion for clean water projects has been the most far-reaching environmental accomplishment over the last 50 years…Before the CPF, the Pine Barrens Protection Act—and major land use reforms largely reducing overall density and requiring the protection of prime farmlands and watershed areas—has been a major achievement through the region. This remains to be the best hope for sensitive properties that cannot be protected through the CPF.

In addition to land and water protection strategies, south side communities like East Hampton and Southampton Town have also made progress on the issue of maintaining our shorelines and reducing the installation of hard structures that can destroy the beach and eliminate public access over time.

Replacement sand for South Edison Beach, Photo: David Taylor
Replacement sand for South Edison Beach, Photo: David Taylor

Dell Cullum, Professional Photographer and Owner of Hampton Wildlife Removal & Rescue: The Division of Fish and Wildlife does good work on the East End in regards to our environment, particularly our wildlife. The plover program, although a headache to some, is proving quite successful. The bunkers’ return has brought both seals, dolphins and whales back to our waters in abundance.

The North Fork Environmental Council (NFEC): There have been difficult and trying times in our history which brought us together as never before, resulting in such positive milestones as Pine Barrens protection legislation to protect our sole source aquifer and the East End CPF, which has preserved thousands of acres of farmland and open space—we are in one of those times again.

How do you see the state of the East End’s oceans, landscapes and wildlife today?

Pete Topping: The East End’s waterways and wildlife today hang in a precarious state. With respect to wildlife, to me, the biggest threat is loss of habitat. Every time we choose to remove a native plant and replace it with something else or put up a fence, we change the ecology of our landscape to only support those species that can live in a man-made environment. In addition to supporting native species, natural landscapes also act as sponges and filters for storm-water events, keeping pollutants and sediments out of our waterways. Naturalized areas don’t need pesticides or fertilizers. We’re now seeing an explosion of deer and ticks while we have lost an alarming number of other species such as our native amphibians and reptiles.

My early childhood was marked by the first intensive brown tide algal blooms on the East End and my first memory of something being wrong with the local environment. While our bays are far from recovered, in my personal experience, they are in better shape than they were for much of my early life. That being said, we’re seeing new forms of harmful algal blooms in our bays and beyond. From researchers, to local environmental groups, as well as local governments, there has been ongoing awareness and collaboration to understand and address the causes of these events.

Bob DeLuca: I can say with certainty that environmental protection and conservation-based zoning was not welcomed by all when the ideas were first pushed into the public agenda. Through the years the open hostility toward environmental concerns has dropped off, and elected officials have increasingly embraced the need for conservation as a fundamental community interest and an interest that is vital to our traditional industries like fishing and farming, as well as our local tourist and second-home economy.

Despite decades of concerted effort and some remarkable success stories, like Group for the East End’s work to help restore the local osprey, which is a species on the threatened list with regional extinction that is now rebuilding its population, the region’s primary natural resources including our drinking water, our coastal ponds, harbors and bays and our contiguous forests are in real trouble. Decades of inadequate sewage treatment, erosion, mining, runoff, garbage and overdevelopment in general, has stressed our fragile landscape and left a deep footprint of environmental damage that will take decades to restore even if we all put our collective shoulder into the efforts.

Dell Cullum with a local raccoon, Photo" Courtesy Cullum
Dell Cullum with a local raccoon, Photo: Courtesy Cullum

Dell Cullum: The oceans belong to Mother Nature, as do the shorelines. Any attempt to change what she has served, will only remind us of how ignorant we were to try. Still, that doesn’t stop us from polluting our waters, whether the filth comes from land, sea vessels or rains from the sky—balloons are the worst. And if potentially dangerous trash isn’t enough in our oceans, we have cut and discarded fishing nets, as well as improperly placed working nets trapping our marine mammals, like seals, dolphins and whales.

Our landscapes are in jeopardy of running out of landscape. Every year, more and more houses fill once empty lands. There is no end in sight and no planning in place to know when it’s too many. Even worse is the lack of knowledge necessary to bring all the other departments up to compliance to accommodate the increasing population (trash, recyclables, waste water, schools, etc.). For every house that goes up, another vital habitat is lost to dozens of species, not to mention those that are destroyed during the initial process of clearing.

NFEC: Three inches doesn’t sound like a lot of sea level rise, but coupled with tidal surge and erosion, those three vertical inches spread out to three to ten feet of encroachment on our public beaches and personal properties during normal daytime tidal changes. This in turn blurs the lines between public and private in not just ownership and use but in the responsibilities of landowner and municipality in maintaining things “as they are” and repairing things “as they have become.” The economic implications are staggering.

It’s not just our oceans and property at risk, it is also our farms and overall habitat which are suffering. Without a healthy habitat there are not enough pollinators and without sufficient pollinators our food products are at extreme risk. We are responsible for the most productive farmland in the entire state of New York, and all of our residents and visitors value the gift of healthy and nutritious food to be had within minutes of our homes. Disruptive weather puts this quality of life in jeopardy and it is the responsibility of every one of us to decrease our negative impact on the land, air and water upon which every one of us depends.

Busy and better organized than an airport terminal, the opening of the bee hive has it's gatherers coming and going, gathering pollen and making honey.
Some of our friendly local pollinators, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

What work is being done to preserve the East End for future generations, and how do you see local environmentalism evolving?

Pete Topping: As an organization focused on the health of our waterways, Peconic Baykeeper is hopeful that East End environmentalism will focus more on holistic approaches to protecting our environment and waterways. This means that we must start looking at our environment as the delicate and integrated system that it is. What we do on land affects our waters.

We need to stop pointing our fingers at the big house with the big lawn and saying that they’re the problem. Sure, they’re part of the problem but unless we all make the necessary changes to reduce our impacts by upgrading our outdated septic systems, we all continue to pollute our groundwater and ultimately, our waterways. With current county, state and town rebates, this is an increasingly solvable problem for those willing to do their part.

Bob DeLuca: Group for the East End and our fellow conservation organizations across the region, often in concert with their elected representatives, are pressing hard for better wastewater technology, improved land use requirements, more sustainable landscape practices, alternative energy investment, increased land preservation, water conservation and even practical climate action plans, to do what must be done to protect and restore the ecological health of the region and in turn protect the local economy that thrives on environmental health.

There is now a much greater need to focus on reducing the impacts of the already-built environment like septic waste, habitat fragmentation, landscaping practices, traffic, garbage, vegetative waste and the rising tide of drinking water contamination. To make this change we will need to maximize funding and incentives to essentially re-engineer our water supply and wastewater management infrastructure.

Meep, an ambassador for the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez
Meep, an ambassador for the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

Dell Cullum: Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O, Colleen Henn of [Surfrider’s] Blue Water Task Force, all the folks at the Surfrider Foundation’s Eastern Long Island Chapter and, my favorite, Mike Bottini, wildlife biologist and conservationist—these are the folks making a positive impact on our environmental future. I will add myself for starting and keeping alive the annual Shoreline Sweep, the largest volunteer beach clean up on Long Island and beyond. Each year we clean spotless about 50 miles of shoreline (north and south sides) in about four hours, with over 100 volunteers and dozens of sponsors.

Places like the South Fork Natural History Museum, Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, East Hampton Group for Wildlife—these are the folks looking out for the best interest of our wildlife, through education and hands-on help, these folks are the positive trend for our wildlife and their future.

NFEC: The North Fork Environmental Council realizes the enormity of our situation and is doing everything it can to encourage people to use less water and chemicals on their lawns, drive only when necessary, carpool and use mass transit when possible, to increase the amount of native perennial trees, bushes and plants on the lands for which they are responsible, and to open up dialogues between what may seem like disparate groups at first glance, but whose members all have one basic desire—for a healthy environment, healthy economy and healthy people.  We need to redefine the term “progress” to include the concept of sustainability. We must do this for our grandchildren, and their children, long after we’re gone.

More from Our Sister Sites