On the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act Sunday, a group of hikers and preservationists trekked through a mix of swamps, ponds and sturdy pines while learning about the importance of one of Long Island's last untapped stretches of wilderness.
"This is sacred ground," said Mike Plumer, 81, of Huntington, who was with members of his family for the morning trip into the Pine Barrens forest.
Plumer was among a group of 25 that met to pay tribute to the act, which set aside 105,000 acres of woodlands in eastern Long Island when it was signed by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1993.
That state law protected more than 50,000 acres as the "core preservation area." It was sponsored by state State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle and Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli also restricted how the remaining land could be developed.
The Pine Barrens Society sponsored the hike, led by Dick Amper, executive director of the organization, past president John Turner and others affiliated with the Riverhead-based nonprofit.
The gathering was held a day before a larger event set for noon today along the 10-mile Carmans River at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley.
Amper said before the law was signed the Pine Barrens Society had targeted several building developments planned for the area. They filed a lawsuit decades ago and Amper said it helped in the creation and passing of the act. The area once spanned about 250,000 acres but development and Long Islanders moving east had sliced it by more than half by the early 1990s, society officials said at the time.
"There was unbridled development that swept across Long Island from west to east for 50 years," Amper said Sunday "Finally, we stood up and said, 'the pavement stops here.' "
But it's not just for hikers and bird watchers, he said. It also protects Long Island's aquifers, he said. The Pine Barrens sit atop the largest quantity of pure, drinking water for Long Island residents, according to the society's website.
"You live above the water you drink," Amper said. "That's the whole point of the act. To keep the water pristine."
John Turner, a co-founder of the Pine Barrens Society in 1977, who helped lead yesterday's hike, pointed out native plants and animals -- an osprey circled overhead, red wing blackbirds, swallows, a bluebird. Four large snapping turtles congregated over a bridge.
Linda Suntup, of Coram, came out to hike and said she marveled at the diversity of wildlife there. Looking around the Pine Barrens, she said, "What a wonderful resource."
Turner looked back on the trail with obvious satisfaction.
"What's most marvelous is that on Long Island, most of which is so densely developed, where most people think we live cheek to jowl, you can still get lost going hiking. It's an enduring gift to Long Island, in perpetuity."