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Celebrating 50 years, North Fork Environmental Council looks to the future

When John Rooney joined the North Fork Environmental Council in the late 1990s, he and his wife were still looking for a full-time home in Southold.

“I still was not a full-time resident out on the North Fork yet, but we were out just about every weekend,” Mr. Rooney said. “I became very involved because we began to feel we were North Forkers in our hearts, even though we weren’t full timers.”

Shortly after he joined, he was promoted to the organization’s board and has remained on it to this day. The North Fork Environmental Council celebrated its 50th anniversary this month. The council was founded in 1972 when concerned residents from Southold, Riverhead and Mattituck joined together to fight a 500-acre Long Island Sound front dredging project and to advocate for a range of environmental and preservation measures across the North Fork. 

There are currently about 100 members of the council, according to board member Mark Haubner, who said the organization adjusted quickly to virtual meetings during the pandemic.

In its 50 years, the council has fought to defeat the construction of nuclear plants in Jamesport; helped preserve Robins Island off New Suffolk from development; helped preserve Fort Corchaug, a historic Indigenous site in Cut-ch-ogue; worked with residents to block a proposed wind turbine at the ecologically sensitive Laurel Lake Preserve, and much more, according to its website.

Board member Debbie O’Kane has been with the council for 25 years. She said the successful campaigning for the Community Preservation Fund legislation was one of the most impactful accomplishments of the organization. The legislation, passed in 1998, led to over $1 billion for open space preservation, according to the website. 

“The 2% transfer tax actually allowed for a vast amount of farmland and open space to be preserved on the East End, especially in Southold Town, and also in Riverhead Town … So without that tool, we probably would have lost an awful lot of prime farmland that would have been developed, lost to residential development,” Ms. O’Kane said. “We probably would have looked like the rest of Long Island and not been able to save this very special place out here on the East End.”

One of the larger achievements Mr. Rooney attributes to the council is its role in saving what is now the Hallock State Park preserve near the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead. There had been proposals for power plants in the area in the 1970s, according to the Hallockville Museum Farm’s website. Hallockville’s website mentions that, in 2002, the Peconic Land Trust worked with the owner of the land, KeySpan, as well as The Trust for Public Land and New York State to protect the property.

The Trust for Public Land purchased the property in 2003 and later sold 228 acres to New York State for use as parkland, which today is the Hallock State Park preserve.

“We were part of that battle, which wound up very creatively setting a situation where the state set up a state park and then the farmland was leased out to farmers and kept in production … I think that was one of the big things that we helped take part in,” Mr. Rooney said.

Mr. Haubner said the council’s partnerships with other North Fork entities played a pivotal role in these environmental success stories. 

“The other thing is getting partnerships lined up, and alliances formed with all the enviros, the civics, government, expanding our reach out to incorporate more of social, economic and environmental and governmental agencies,” he said.

Mr. Haubner said the council plans to expand those partnerships by growing the council’s presence on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

“We’re going to create more of a social media presence and get more involved in alliances and partnerships,” Mr. Haubner said.

Looking forward, the group sees residential food waste, light pollution and water quality as among the issues the council plans to attack. 

Having reached this milestone anniversary, Ms. O’Kane recognizes the role the community has played in the North Fork Environmental Council’s success.

“I think that’s the role that we played, just getting people to understand what an incredibly special place we have on the North Fork, and you know, that we have to work towards keeping it that way, you know, it just doesn’t happen on its own,” she said.