The day the paving stopped in the L.I. Pine Barrens

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island's oldest forests.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A reproduction of a painting of a forest fire in the Long Island Pine Barrens is featured in an exhibit detailing the history of the island’s oldest forests.

On the Fourth of July in 1993, the “War of the Woods” was coming to a head, and Long Island Pine Barrens Society co-founder John Turner was on the front lines.

Mr. Turner sat upstairs in the chambers of the New York State Senate and Assembly in Albany, tracking the progress of a landmark bill that would protect the Long Island Central Pine Barrens.

On that day, in the closing moments of the year’s legislative session, the act passed unanimously in both houses.

“That was a euphoric moment,” Mr. Turner said.

Senator Ken LaValle, a sponsor of the legislation, recalled seeing environmental activists and developers celebrate as the act was approved.

“People who were combatants in the ‘War of the Woods’ were literally embracing one another, jumping up and down like little kids,” he said.

Pine Barrens wild fire
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Life flourishing in charred forest in Manorville in April, a year the Wildfire of 2012 burned over 1,000 acres of pine barrens.

On July 14, 1993, the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act was signed into law by Gov. Mario Cuomo, creating one of the largest comprehensive land management plans in state history.

Now, more than 20 years later, those who helped drum up support for the legislation say the act — and the cooperation of environmentalists, state politicians and land developers — helped to save more than 100,000 acres of Long Island’s last remaining wilderness and change the future of Long Island.

“It was as though Long Islanders just got up one day and said, ‘The pavement stops here.’ ” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society. “If it hadn’t been for litigation and the Pine Barrens Act, [development] would have turned the Pine Barrens into a piece of swiss cheese.”

The Pine Barrens — named by Native Americans and early colonists for the abundance of pine trees and the infertility of its porous, sandy soil — were born after the last glaciers retreated from Long Island, roughly 12,000 years ago. The Pine Barrens sit atop Long Island’s designated sole source aquifer, recharging a section of its drinking water supply.

At one time, the Pine Barrens covered a quarter of Long Island, or about 250,000 acres. But much of the forest was cut down during the late 19th century to be used as cordwood for a growing New York City. In the 1970s, about 125,000 acres remained untouched. By the 1980s, however, nearly 5,000 acres of forest were being lost to development each year.

Preservation efforts began in earnest with the Pine Barrens Society, founded in 1977 by John Cryan, Robert McGrath and Mr. Turner.

“We would give talks to anybody who would listen,” Mr. Turner said. “It was just a tireless campaign by the society to get the word out.”

The group pushed back against pressure to develop the land and filed a lawsuit in 1989 against Suffolk County and the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton to stop development.

Ken LaValle
Ken LaValle

The society ultimately lost the case in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which said a law would need to be adopted to protect the land. The group appealed to local politicians to take up the cause and Mr. LaValle and then-assemblyman Tom DiNapoli became involved, meeting one night at an Italian restaurant to discuss how to engineer support for legislation to protect the forest.

“He and I sat down over a spaghetti dinner as two Italian boys and we talked about our strategy,” Mr. LaValle said.

Their solution was simple: Get everyone — environmentalists and developers alike — together at the same table.

“We began to talk about this word by word, line by line, even where we were putting commas and periods,” Mr. LaValle said. “The stakeholders actually sat around the table and wrote [the law].”

Ultimately they reached a “grand bargain” to keep a core area of about 53,000 acres safe from development while opening the remaining 45,000 acres to “compatible growth” that would be subject to environmental safeguards.

The act sailed through the state Legislature, but faced another test: ratification by the three affected towns, any of which could have vetoed the plan.

“We weren’t out of the woods yet,” Mr. Turner said. “If the plan in 1995 had not been adopted this whole thing would have fallen apart.”

Though Brookhaven and Southampton towns quickly came on board, the Town of Riverhead resisted, citing concerns over development at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

“The Town of Riverhead was being, how we say, difficult,” Mr. Turner said. “But ultimately things worked out.”

Since then, the Pine Barrens Protection Act and the subsequent ratification of land acquisitions across the region have served as a model for policy scholars.

“We’ve gotten offers to lecture at law schools across the country,” Mr. LaValle said.

On the anniversary of the act’s passage last month, co-sponsor Mr. DiNapoli — now the state comptroller — said his legislative legacy was defined by the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

“Of all the issues I’ve been involved with, the Pine Barrens really stands out as the one I’m most proud of,” he said in a video interview the Pine Barrens Society created for this year’s anniversary. “We achieved something for the environment and for economic development and for public health.”

Advocates say much of the credit for the act’s success belongs to Long Island residents who supported the legislation.

“The people of Long Island did a remarkable thing in the name of water preservation and habitat protection,” Mr. Amper said.

But politicians and activists alike say more can still be done to protect the Pine Barrens and its water supply.

The Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was formed through the act, and is tasked with stewardship of the land regulated by the act. It’s made up of representatives from the state, local towns and environmental organizations.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter is one of its members.

“It’s been a wonderful success, but I think it’s imperative that the supervisors keep taking their roles as commission members seriously,” he said, adding that in recent years the commission has included more direct participation from stakeholders.

“We have to be vigilant in what our original mission is, which is protecting the Pine Barrens, but not … adding on another layer of government bureaucracy,” Mr. Walter said. “It’s a difficult balance but I think the Pine Barrens Commission has done a good job of keeping that balance.”

Mr. Turner said politicians and the commission will both have to tackle managing the wildlife and forest to keep the Pine Barrens safe from invasive species and out-of-control wildfires, one of which burned more than 1,000 acres of the Pine Barrens in April 2012.

“Those lands are a gift to all Long Islanders,” he said.

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To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, an exhibit has been installed at the Suffolk County Center in Riverside on the history of the Pine Barrens.

It will be on display in the lobby of the Evans K. Griffing building through Sept. 30.