20 years later, all sides embrace Pine Barrens

John Turner, right, co-founder of the Long Island John Turner, right, co-founder of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, looks for a bird through his binoculars as he leads a hike through the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. The guided hike was held in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act. (July 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Preserving Long Island's Pine Barrens wasn't easy.

Environmentalists and developers predictably had been on opposing sides two decades ago, at the height of the so-called "War of the Woods," state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said Monday.

But a bipartisan effort by lawmakers from Suffolk and Nassau counties, joined by environmental activists and builders, crafted the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, which preserves more than 100,000 acres of undeveloped land from suburban sprawl -- and improves drinking water quality, LaValle said.

"We started with people who couldn't even speak to one another, couldn't even be in the same room," LaValle said at a news conference at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, marking the 20th anniversary of the day then-Gov. Mario Cuomo signed the act into law.

Then LaValle recalled the unlikely sight of Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, and the late Edwin "Buzz" Schwenk, the powerful Republican leader and executive director of the Long Island Builders Institute, "in an embrace, jumping up and down," when the state Assembly unanimously approved the legislation on July 4, 1993.

Cuomo signed the bill 10 days later, in Southaven County Park in Brookhaven hamlet.

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Former foes reminisced Monday, several of them saying the law was among their proudest achievements.

Robert Weiboldt, former executive director of the New York State Builders Association, said he savors seeing a swath of pine trees "as far as the eye can see" when he drives on the East End. "It's a good feeling," he said.

Pine Barrens Society co-founder John Cryan said protection of the woods was "90 percent done," because there remain undeveloped parcels that must be purchased by the state or county before they are developed. "We have a large job ahead of us," he said.

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