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Stewards of the land: LIers share how to become environmental advocates

These environmental advocates share how they were inspired and how citizens can become involved. 

Louise Harrison, conservation biologist and Plum Island coalition

Louise Harrison, conservation biologist and Plum Island coalition member, at podium, is joined by representatives of other environmental groups at a news conference at Orient Point County Park Point on July 8, 2016. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Louise Harrison was 5 years old when she figured out what she wanted to do when she grew up.

It was then that she was stuck in traffic with her dad and watched in horror as seemingly enormous machines toppled large swaths of trees on a nearby hill to make way for the interstate in Putnam County.

“What will happen to the animals?” she recalls asking her father, who she describes as a surgeon, naturalist — and practical realist. He didn’t sugarcoat the answer: Without a place to live, the animals would die.

“I’ve been looking for ways to protect and preserve the natural world ever since,” Harrison says. Today, the 63-year-old Peconic resident is on the front lines of environmental advocacy, pushing to protect Long Island’s remaining open spaces and waters for fish, wildlife, plants and generations to come.

Many of Long Island’s environmental advocates, like Harrison, have felt an affinity for the environment from a young age. Most have carved niches for themselves in the environmental landscape, especially in helping to protect Long Island’s bays, groundwater and aquifers.

Some, like Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which has been instrumental in everything from the recent plastic bag bans to improving sewage treatment and preventing pesticides from reaching the groundwater, are often in the public eye. Many other environmentalists toil behind the scenes.

“Speaking up,” Esposito says, “is the only thing that really makes a difference.”  

With the approach of Earth Day on Monday, these  environmental advocates share how they were inspired and how citizens can become involved. 

Louise Harrison

New York Natural Areas coordinator, Connecticut Fund for the Environment / Save the Sound (savethesound.org) 

An environmental professional for more than 40 years, Louise Harrison’s current work for Connecticut Fund for the Environment / Save the Sound, an organization serving New York and Connecticut, is coordinating efforts on Long Island to save Plum Island, off the tip of the North Fork. The General Services Administration, which manages U.S. government-owned property, and the Department of Homeland Security plan to sell the island at public auction by the time the Animal Disease Center there vacates the premises to move to a facility in Kansas, around 2023.

If Plum Island is sold to the highest bidder, Harrison says, those who would like to see it preserved as open space or parkland will be priced out by cash-rich corporate developers. Plum Island, she notes, hosts at least 111 species of conservation concern, more than 220 bird species, and a variety of rare habitats that could be lost if the island is developed.

Harrison is working with a coalition of 109 organizations that want to see most of the storied island forever preserved. If the federal government won't set aside 80 percent of the island as a refuge, the coalition wants the government to transfer it to New York State. That makes sense, she says, because the state has listed the island in its open-space conservation plan.

Harrison has a long and distinguished career working for the environment, although not always as a direct advocate. Over the years she has held numerous government and nonprofit positions. She has served with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of State, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a conservation biologist. One of her most biggest successes, she says, was helping to create a new planning category for areas needing special management attention — called Regionally Important Natural Areas — across the North Shore of Long Island. The new areas were incorporated into the state’s coastal management program.

“As environmental advocates, we speak for those who have no voice — the plants and animals who can’t vote or buy their own homes,” Harrison says. “Ultimately, they are our customers, as are future generations of people who will depend on the natural world, as we all do, whether we recognize it or not.”

Carl LoBue

New York Oceans program director, The Nature Conservancy (nature.org)

A scientist by training, Carl LoBue, 50, is the son of a commercial fisherman. A resident of Huntington, he grew up in Massapequa fishing, boating and watching Jacques Cousteau on television.

After graduating from college in 1996 with a degree in oceanography, LoBue worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation for eight years. When the conservancy purchased the former Blue Point Oyster grounds on Great South Bay, he took a pay cut and jumped ship, hoping to use his skills to help turn around the bay, which was suffering from poor water quality. His team was among the first to link nitrogen runoff to algae blooms in Long Island waters.

Sixteen years later, LoBue is the Conservancy’s New York oceans program director.

“Our team does a lot of science, and we work hard to get the word out and interpret what we learn for elected officials, businesses and other public advocacy groups,” he explains. “The top issues we face include water quality, degrading habitat in the bays, vanishing eelgrass, and protecting forage fish like menhaden.”

Climate change is also a focus. Both winter flounder and lobster, notes LoBue, have nearly vanished from Long Island waters. Warming seas, he believes, are at least partly to blame. “A switch to offshore wind energy is likely to help in regards to climate change,” says LoBue. “It’s renewable and will reduce CO2 emissions. We are working to make sure that gets done in an environmentally friendly way.”

Peter Topping

Peconic Baykeeper (peconicbaykeeper.org)

Recently hired by Peconic Baykeeper, Peter Topping is 39 years old and lives in Southampton, the community where he grew up. He has a background in environmental education and has worked for marine science education programs in the Florida Keys, as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service, and as a bay management specialist for East Hampton Town’s Shellfish Hatchery.

He realized he wanted to be an environmental activist at age 5, when he set a goal of solving Long Island’s brown-tide problem after seeing it from the beaches of Little Peconic Bay. (He’s still working on finding solutions to stop harmful algal blooms as part of the Peconic Baykeeper team.) 

“The mission of Peconic Baykeeper is to advocate for clean, fishable, swimmable, drinkable water, and to get that message out to the public in a variety of ways,” explains Topping. To that end, the organization reaches out to kids with its “Day in the Life of” programs that focus on aquatic ecosystems throughout Long Island. To reach and educate adults on preserving Long Island’s bays and protecting the groundwater, Topping attends an assortment of meetings and events ranging from fish workshops to citizen advisory committee meetings held by East End towns.

“Right now,” Topping says, “we’re heavily involved in getting East End homeowners on board with septic tank updates because many current systems leach nitrogen into our groundwaters, which eventually carry it to our bays.”

The group is also licensing a plot of Great Peconic Bay to oyster growers to create viable shellfish farms. “It really is a win-win proposition,” notes Topping, “because a single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a per day and the shellfish farmers serve as extra stewards on the water.”

Kelsey Leonard

Natural Resources Committee, Keep Paumanok Beautiful (indigenouswaters.com)

A citizen of the Shinnecock Indian Nation on the South Fork, Kelsey Leonard says being a Shinnecock laid the basis for her environmental advocacy. “The name ‘Shinnecock,’ ” she says, “means ‘people of the stony shore,’ so integral with our identity as humans on this planet is to be shore protectors and ocean protectors.”

In addition to being a member of the Shinnecock's Natural Resources Committee, Leonard, 30, sits on the Mid-Atlantic Committee on the Ocean, which engages stakeholders and fosters collaboration among states, federal agencies, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and federally recognized tribes.

With undergraduate degrees in sociology and anthropology from Harvard University, graduate degrees in water science from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and law from Duquesne, Leonard’s working on her doctorate in water policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Her studies have prepared her for most any challenge — yet she stresses the impact of everyday actions.

The Shinnecock Nation’s Keep Paumanok Beautiful Campaign is a perfect example. Numbering 4.5 trillion annually by government estimates, cigarette butts are the single most littered item across the globe — and Leonard notes they are toxic to marine life and the environment. The campaign, which she started, as a recipient of the Dreamstarters program sponsored by the nonprofit organization Running Strong for American Indian Youth, partners with tribal smoke shops to raise awareness about the danger of such marine debris, and it collects pledges and distributes minimal-waste receptacles. Its goal is to mobilize Long Island’s indigenous youth to protect the environment and foster a cultural identity as ocean stewards. Those who join the campaign pledge to not toss cigarette butts into the water, pick up butts they find, and encourage others to do the same.

“We hope to expand the program outside the Shinnecock Nation to the rest of Long Island, the country and the world,” Leonard says, adding that the campaign’s partners also include Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Eric Swenson

Executive director, Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee (hempsteadharbor.org)

Oyster Bay’s Eric Swenson, 64, says his “a-ha moment” came on the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, when he was a senior at Oyster Bay High School.

“The whole idea just piqued my interest, and I decided I wanted to protect the environment,” he says.

After studying political science and sociology in college, Swenson worked briefly for an environmental company before getting a job with the Town of Oyster Bay, where he would eventually become superintendent of environmental control and executive director of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee. He has retired from his town position, but kept his committee post.

Swenson says that the committee represents nine government entities — Nassau County, City of Glen Cove, Town of North Hempstead, Town of Oyster Bay, and the villages of Flower Hill, Roslyn, Roslyn Harbor, Sands Point and Sea Cliff — that surround Hempstead Harbor, but invites collaboration with the public sector as well. “Working together, we can come up with some great solutions to water quality and waterfront development issues.”

As evidence, Swenson points to 2011, when 2,500 acres of the harbor previously closed to shellfishing because of high bacteria counts were reopened to shellfishing after 45 years. “That was the first major reopening of shellfish grounds in New York State in decades,” he states proudly.

Swenson explains that it’s his job to keep everyone focused and working together. “It’s important to build trust among your members and the agencies you interact with in order to work effectively,” he says. “You also need to focus time on funding, and establishing dual partnerships with other government, community and environmental protection groups because there is strength in numbers.

"One village can’t protect the entire harbor," he says. "A lot more gets done when responsibilities are spread out.”

Right now, Swenson says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at how to protect New York City from future storm surges, with one option being massive tidal gates around the Throgs Neck Bridge. "But," Swenson points out, “when those gates close, they may cause flooding in our harbors. So, we’re working to ensure the Army Corp adequately studies that possible impact before going forward.”

Top tips for citizen advocates

“Take a child out to a natural area right here on Long Island. All children are born naturalists, so let their sense of wonder and curiosity lead your walk. Spending quality time together outdoors in a park or open space is a wonderful way to encourage the next generation of nature’s advocates.” — Louise Harrison, Save the Sound

“Water quality, climate change — whatever the topic, dig in and learn the facts before speaking out. It’s also important to recognize who makes the decisions. It’s not always your local congressman … it could be someone at the city, state, or local level.” — Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy

“Take time to learn about the indigenous nations across Long Island. A better understanding of the connection between indigenous peoples and their lands and waters can help foster smarter environmental choices for a shared, sustainable future.” — Kelsey Leonard: Shinnecock Indian Nation

"Citizen advocates lead by example. Fertilize lawns a little later in the season and use slow release nitrogen; pursue getting a new septic system installed. We are each responsible for the environment, but it takes working together to make a real difference. So join organizations, attend meetings and ask an advocacy group for help or information.” — Peter Topping, Peconic Baykeeper

"Change takes longer than you might expect. Keep at it and it will get done. Also, get to know the people in the field by volunteering or working as an intern. You need real-world experience, not just book smarts to be an effective advocate." — Eric Swenson, Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee

— Tom Schlichter

Get involved

These groups offer a variety of opportunities — for aspiring and seasoned environmentalists — ranging from lectures and films to cleanups and other advocacy work.

Concerned Citizens of Montauk, 631-238-5720

Friends of Connetquot, friendsofconnetquot.org

Friends of Hempstead Plains, 516-572-7575

Friends of the Bay in Oyster Bay, 516-922-6666

Great South Bay Audubon Society in Sayville,631-563-7716

Group for the East End in Southold, 631-765-6450

Long Island Planning Council in Wantagh, 516-826-5748

Long Island Sierra Club in Syosset, 631-600-3324

New York Public Interest Research Group at Nassau Community College, 516-222-0086

Operation SPLASH in Freeport, 516-378-4770

Pine Barrens Society in Riverhead, 631-369-3300
Preserve Plum Island Coalition, 203-787-0646

Save the Great South Bay in Sayville, 646-827-0733

South Shore Audubon Society in Freeport

— Tom Schlichter

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