Karl Grossman: Paving paradise

I’ve been giving presentations on my experiences of 50 years as a journalist on Long Island. Recently I spoke before a business-linked group — the Environmental/Green Industries Committee of the Hauppauge Industrial Association-Long Island. I opened by telling them something they didn’t know; the home base for their organization was a key to the hugely successful preservation of the Long Island Pine Barrens.


In 1978, Steve Englebright had gotten a job as curator of geological collections at Stony Brook University where he set up the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences. As a scientist, Mr. Englebright was aware of the purity and thus vital signifi cance of the water beneath the Long Island Pine Barrens.

Their sandy porous soil allows rainwater to migrate cleanly down to the aquifer below, which all Long Islanders depend on for their potable water. Underneath the Pine Barrens, Mr. Englebright understood, is the fi nest of Long Island’s water supply. Also, he comprehended the ecological importance of the Pine Barrens habitat, which includes many rare plants, birds and animals.

Back then hardly anyone else on Long Island understood any of this. The Pine Barrens were considered “scrub” — not “important” like the land along the shoreline or farmland — and were earmarked in various development plans for industrial development.

That’s where the Hauppauge Industrial Park was built, on top of the Pine Barrens. And that’s where Mr. Englebright made what happened there a fi rst exhibit at his new museum. “I had watched it, basically a complete ecosystem, wiped away and transformed into buildings and parking lots,” he recalled the other day.

Then came an epiphany. “I thought it was basically unethical to simply document the passing of the ecosystem,” he said. “So I put together a traveling show and went on the road and before any group that would listen I spoke and gave a slide show about how important the Long Island Pine Barrens are and how they were being destroyed,”

A year before, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society was founded by naturalists John Cryan, Ro b e r t Mc G ra t h and John Turner, all committed to saving the Long Island Pine Barrens.

Mr. Englebright further decided he needed to get into politics to push the campaign forward. He ran for a seat on the Suffolk County Legislature, was elected and served between 1983 and 1992, advancing Pine Barrens preservation as a government offi cial.

He taught me and many others about something then barely known on Long Island. He would take people, one at a time, up a hill in Manorville. From the top of the hill were views of Long Island Sound to the north, the bay system and Atlantic Ocean to the south and to the west and east great stretches of Pine Barrens. Here we were, explained Mr. Englebright, looking at “Long Island’s reservoir.”

He ran for and won a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1992 and was critical to the passage of the New York State Pine Barrens Preservation Act of 1993, which has saved tens of thousands of acres, and has become a national environmental success story.

Mr. Englebright was also instrumental in getting an experienced and extraordinarily articulate public relations man, Richard Amper, to become executive director of the Pine Barrens Society.

Back in 1988, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society had 34 members, Mr. Amper said. The society is now one of the major environmental organizations on Long Island with thousands of members.

Mr. Englebright, as a Suffolk legislator and a state assemblyman, has been in the forefront of getting other environmental initiatives passed. A strong opponent of the Shoreham nuclear power plant, he has also led in safe-energy legislation.

I’d never been to the Hauppauge Industrial Park until my talk. It’s not much to see: basically many buildings and parking lots. But what happened there was crucial in saving the remaining Long Island Pine Barrens.