Longtime North Fork environmentalist Paul Stoutenburgh, 92, dies

07/14/2014 2:31 PM |
Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh being interviewed in their Cutchogue home in 2011. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh being interviewed in their Cutchogue home in 2011. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

When Paul Stoutenburgh was a boy roaming the fields of Cutchogue and fishing in its creeks, it would have been impossible to imagine the impact he’d one day have on the region’s precious natural resources.

But given the gift of hindsight last year, at a ceremony renaming Arshamomaque Pond Preserve in Mr. Stoutenburgh’s honor, county Legislator Al Krupski did his part to put it in perspective.

“He helped change the culture of the town,” Mr. Krupski said of the longtime environmentalist. “He really had a vision of the town going into the future.”

Mr. Stoutenburgh, a longtime Cutchogue resident, died at his home Sunday surrounded by family members. He was 92.

His body was donated to Stony Brook University for medical research. The family has made no plans for a ceremony at this time.

“Paul was the one we all looked to for knowledge and insight,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. When he first met Mr. Stoutenburgh, the supervisor was a high school student representative on the board of directors of the North Fork Environmental Council. “His knowledge of the natural environment around us and his passion for protecting it was inspiring,” Mr. Russell said. “If the preservation movement in Southold has a forefather, his name would be Paul Stoutenburgh.”

Mr. Stoutenburgh was a shop teacher at Greenport High School until he retired in 1978 at the relatively young age of 55. But nature was his true passion, evolving from his childhood days in Depression-era Cutchogue, where he spent his time walking the fields and woodlands and fishing, clamming and scalloping in the open water.

Even before his retirement, he dedicated much of his time to environmental causes, becoming an environmentalist before the term was ever invented.

Along with his wife, Barbara, he wrote the “Focus on Nature” column published in the Riverhead News-Review — and later The Suffolk Times — for 50 years.

The Stoutenburghs retired from writing their column in 2011 — they’d written the first one in 1961, while John F. Kennedy was in the White House — and the newspaper retired the iconic column along with them. Even after it became difficult for Mr. Stoutenburgh to keep a journal, he would dictate the column to his wife, who would type it up and send it to the newspaper.

But much of Mr. Stoutenburgh’s work was accomplished not behind a desk or in front of a computer but in the natural world he and his wife fought so actively to protect from the same destructive development that forever changed the rest of Long Island.

 

Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh wrote the Focus on Nature column in the Riverhead News Review (and later The Suffolk Times) for 50 years between 1961 and 2011. (Credit: Barbara Stoutenburgh, courtesy)

Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh wrote the Focus on Nature column in the Riverhead News Review (and later The Suffolk Times) for 50 years between 1961 and 2011. (Credit: Barbara Stoutenburgh, courtesy)

The Stoutenburghs were among the environmental pioneers who started the Eastern Long Island Wetlands Association — which later joined several other groups to become the North Fork Environmental Council – in the 1970s, with Mr. Stoutenburgh serving as president. The group successfully opposed the former Long Island Lighting Company’s plans to construct twin nuclear power generators along the Sound bluffs in Northville.

Much of the success of that effort hinged upon a strategy to oppose two groins that had been proposed to line a new man-made inlet, drawing water from the Sound into the proposed nuclear complex to cool the reactors. The state rejected that project and eventually took title to the land, some of which was sold to local farmers.

The Stoutenburghs were also among the activists who rallied Southold into adopting its first wetlands code. Mr. Stoutenburgh himself ventured into politics, serving three terms as a Southold Town Trustee, including one year as board president, and four years as a town councilman championing environmental causes. He had also served as president of Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library.

The Stoutenburghs once served a six-year stint as summertime rangers/naturalists at the Fire Island National Seashore.

Other environmental affiliations on Mr. Stoutenburgh’s résumé include, but are not limited to, The Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Land Trust, which he served as trustee and director, respectively.

“Paul was an amazing conservationist, networker and problem-solver who leaves an incredible legacy that will be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come,” said Peconic Land Trust president John Halsey.

PLT vice president Tim Caufield’s relationship with Mr. Stoutenburgh dates back to his days as a student at Greenport High School.

“We remember him as a friend, a mentor and a teacher,” Mr. Caufield said. “Among many lessons, he taught us not only the value of the natural world and our environment, but also to speak up and work hard to protect the land and resources that we love and cherish. Paul did just that, eloquently and effectively, for many years.”

Among the many environmental awards Mr. Stoutenburgh received over the years is The Nature Conservancy’s highest honor for volunteer service, the National Oak Leaf Award. In 2012, the North Fork Environmental Council renamed its leadership award after Mr. Stoutenburgh.

NFEC president Bill Toedter called him “one of the guiding lights” in environmental activism, saying he had a gift for taking what he taught in the classroom and sharing it with people through his articles in the two newspapers.

“He took participation in doing good for the community and protecting the environment to a whole different level,” Mr. Toedter said. “He loved the North Fork so much and he wanted to pass along his love of it to everybody — to his students, to his readers, to the NFEC — so that what he loved could continue on.”

Nancy Kelley, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy, called Mr. Stoutenburgh “one of Long Island’s greatest naturalists and educators.”

“Paul set the tone for conservation in the Town of Southold and his legacy continues to this day, she said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh grew up locally. Although both attended Southold High School, they did not meet until 1949 when they worked together at L.I. Produce in Riverhead. They had their first date at a cranberry bog in Riverhead in March 1950 and were married on Thanksgiving Day that same year.

In 1955, the Stoutenburghs purchased their seven-acre homestead off Skunk Lane in Cutchogue, where they raised their three children: Peter, Peggy and Roger. Mr. Stoutenburgh is survived by his wife and children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

At last June’s naming ceremony for the Paul Stoutenburgh Preserve, his wife read one of her husband’s poems, entitled “Looking Back.”

“I know where the largest rock on the island lies and how the warm sandy beach was formed,” he wrote. “I have seen the wonders of two boys and a girl … and so with it that a sense of place was found and I a part of it …”

gparpan@timesreview.com

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