Nearly 30 years ago, the state Pine Barrens Protection Act set the goal of acquiring and saving a huge swath of pristine Suffolk County land from development, for the good of current and future generations.
We now know that effort succeeded.
The New York State Pine Barrens Commission found this year that more than 100,000 acres have been safeguarded across an area stretching from Farmingville to Hampton Bays.
There are several victories to celebrate in that hard-fought 1993 compromise among environmentalists, legislators and business leaders.
Start with the benefits to our water. Long Island depends on clean and safe groundwater to drink. The central pine barrens region covers an underground aquifer called a “deep recharge area.” Limiting activity up top keeps away waste from septic systems and fertilizers that can endanger water quality. New York protects its water in reservoirs upstate, but the groundwater needs attention, too.
The pine barrens area provides an increasingly rare home to plants and animals, an open-air botanical garden and menagerie. That includes disparate species like bald eagles, eastern tiger salamanders and the eastern box turtle. Other exquisite animals like migratory songbirds and great horned owls abound. Within the expanse are habitats such as dwarf pine planes, a globally rare ecosystem. It's right here on Long Island, reachable by drive. That drive is well worth taking. The pine barrens region is a special place for hiking, canoeing, or just wandering and taking in the miracle of fresh air.
There are lessons in the politics of the pine barrens: the importance of dogged supporters like Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, plus the perseverance of politicians who did the right thing. Many of them, from Kenneth LaValle to Thomas DiNapoli to Steve Englebright to Mario Cuomo, are still familiar names today. Developer Wilbur Breslin spent years in dramatic opposition but ultimately came into the fold to celebrate the 1993 act. That’s a happy ending: Smart development is necessary for the future of Long Island, but it can’t come at the expense of our treasured natural spaces, one of the region’s real draws.
That is another, less tangible benefit that the pine barrens preservation has carried into modernity: the sanctuary offered by a forest that has brightened and sustained this part of New York, one whose creation was prompted by the retreat of an ice age glacier.
It is a “wilderness that is good for the soul and the mind,” Amper says today. When you visit the pine barrens, you leave behind overdevelopment, traffic and noise. You escape some of the modern world’s ills.
We are lucky to have it, and the zeal to preserve must not end here.