The War of the Woods: Saving Long Island’s Premier Ecosystem


Walk lane in Long Island’s Pine Barrens
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Richard Amper addressing a rally to preserve the Pine Barrens.
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Map provided by Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Governor Cuomo signing the Pine Barrens Protection Act.
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

View of Long Island’s Pine Barrens
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Dick Amper, President, Pine Barrens Society addressing audience with then-Governor Pataki in attendance
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Sunrise in the Pine Barrens.
Photo: Long Island Pine Barrens Society.


The gifts of nature, once lost, are gone forever. In the case of the Long Island Pine Barrens, the loss would be monumental.

Formed by a unique set of geological conditions over the past 15,000 years, the Pine Barrens is one of the Northeast’s greatest natural treasures. It overlies the greatest quantities of pure drinking water anywhere on Long Island and boasts the greatest diversity of plants and animals anywhere in New York State.

Virtually all of Long Island’s drinking water is drawn from a single system of underground reservoirs, known as aquifers. This dependence led the federal Environmental Protection Agency to designate our aquifer system as the nation’s first “sole source aquifer” requiring special protection.

The threat to water quality lies on the land above the aquifers. Any contaminants which the rainwater collects will be carried with it into our drinking supply. Common contaminants include household sewage; stormwater runoff; fertilizers and pesticides used on lawns, farmland, and golf courses; solid waste, including toxic chemicals, in landfills; and industrial wastewater and chemical wastes from laboratories and manufacturing.

The quality of our drinking water depends, therefore, on how Long Island’s land is used. The more land used for homes, lawns, agriculture, business, and industry, the greater the contamination of our aquifers. A recent scientific study reported an increase in nitrogen contamination of our aquifers of 50-200 percent since the last study in 1987, a fourfold increase in the presence of volatile organic compounds in drinking water and a precipitous decline in surface waters – ponds and lakes, streams and rivers, Great South Bay and Long Island Sound.

Two hundred years ago, the Pine Barrens blanketed one-fourth of Long Island, assuring a plentiful supply of pure water. Today, much of that land has been developed, and our water supply has been diminished. As a result of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society’s work, a vast swath of this ecologically sensitive land has been permanently preserved, as well as the drinking water supplies below, leaving Long Island with a permanent, pure supply for our children and grandchildren.


When John Cryan, Robert McGrath, and John Turner created the Society a quarter century ago, they were young, scholarly, and enthusiastic. They studied the history of Pine Barrens literature, from the Native Americans, to Timothy Dwight’s report of his visit in 1804, to Nathaniel Prime’s first map in 1845; to Roland Harper’s 1917 treatise on Pine Barrens vegetation.

They identified with Roy Latham, Leroy Wilcox, and Robert Cushman Murphy, the Pine Barrens champions of the early twentieth century. They vowed to educate Long Islanders about the special place the Pine Barrens are and they created the Society in 1977 to do just that.

A funny thing happened on the way to preservation – real estate development. As Long Island found itself being paved over from west to east, our founders and heroes watched in horror as over-development overtook these precious woodlands and made Long Island a national model of suburban sprawl.

By the late 1980s, Long Island was losing Pine Barrens at the rate of nearly 5,000 acres per year. An ecosystem that once covered 250,000 acres – 25 percent of Long Island – was down to 125,000 acres. The Society vowed to stop development before the Pine Barrens ceased to be a viable ecosystem, and to win sufficient public support to pay private property owners full market value, so that the Pine Barrens could be saved.

Bringing the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of New York State and winning millions of dollars in public funds by referendum, the Society emerged as tireless fighters for drinking water protection and habitat preservation. The founders recruited a communications professional and community education specialist, Richard Amper, as their first professional staff. They taught him everything about the Pine Barrens and charged him with designing, implementing, and executing a campaign to save the ecosystem.

Throughout the campaign, the Society grew to be one of the most visible and effective environmental groups in the state, and succeeded in winning the protection of some 55,000 acres of Pine Barrens through landmark legislation, the Pine Barrens Protection Act, which has become a land use model for the nation. Mr. Amper and the Society won numerous awards for their efforts and received regional and national news coverage about the preservation campaign. Almost always, the interviewer’s first question was: “How did you do it?”

The Challenge

As the 1980s drew to a close, there were 234 development projects proposed in the remaining Pine Barrens. Their development would have so fragmented the ecosystem as to make it dysfunctional both in terms of habitat and drinking water protection.

On November 21, 1989, the Pine Barrens Society filed the largest environmental lawsuit – then or now – in the history of New York State. It asked the New York State Supreme Court to require a cumulative environmental review of all the projects in this critical region under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

At the same time, the Society commenced a huge public information campaign to educate Long Islanders on the importance of an ecosystem known at the time to only three percent of the population. With limited resources, the Pine Barrens Society depended almost exclusively on “earned media” – print, radio, television, and increasingly the Internet – to inform Long Islanders about the importance of protecting the Island’s purest source of drinking water and most important habitat.

The Society obtained a yearly average of 200 major daily newspaper and television stories about the “War of the Woods,” and hundreds of local news accounts, for five consecutive years. The public began supporting land preservation, especially in Suffolk, voting with majorities as high as 84 percent to purchase key watershed lands for preservation and groundwater protection.

The Society recruited more than 100 community organizations, from small civic groups to the Long Island Association – the Island’s leading business group – to encourage their membership to join the campaign. The LIA and the Suffolk County Water Authority convened meetings of all stakeholder groups from the Pine Barrens Society who were advocating for the protection with the Long Island Builders Institute, whose members were advancing scores of development projects on these lands.

In late 1990, the Society lost its case in the lower court, only to win it on appeal in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. All the while, Long Islanders grew in understanding and appreciation of the Pine Barrens and a rising drumbeat for preservation began to change the political landscape on a town, county, and soon thereafter, state level.

When, in 1992 the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, finally dismissed the Society’s lawsuit, it did so by admonishing the New York State Legislature to craft a solution to the huge environmental challenge. The court opinion said, “in view of the risk of irreversible harm to the environment, as well as the urgency of the problem…a leisurely pace is clearly counter-productive, particularly in light of the protective values long espoused by the Legislature…The solution must be devised by the Legislature.”

With the court’s having rejected a cumulative approach to Pine Barrens preservation, the Society began bringing legal challenges against the largest of the proposed developments even as stakeholders sat down with state lawmakers in an effort to fashion a solution that would balance development and environmental interests for the benefit of the people of Long Island.

Over a period of six months, stakeholders hammered out a creative solution that would result in the preservation of a 55,000-acre Core Preservation Area where development was prohibited, and instead directed development to a less-sensitive 47,000-acre Compatible Growth Area (CGA) where building was permitted under strict guidelines.

The landmark Pine Barrens Protection Act was enacted in July 1993 by a unanimous vote of the New York State Legislature. Over the next two years, the former foes developed a Comprehensive Land Use Plan that established standards and guidelines for development in the CGA and created a Transfer of Development Rights program that has saved 2,000 acres of Core Pine Barrens by transferring the right to develop to less sensitive areas on the perimeter of the Pine Barrens. The Land Use Plan was adopted in 1995. Amendments to the Plan are proposed as needed, and are reviewed by the Pine Barrens Advisory Committee, which is composed of stakeholders from the environmental and development communities, many of whom were involved in the original negotiations.

Land acquisition in the Pine Barrens progressed to an average of more than 2,000 acres per year, a total unmatched since the early 1990s. Today, fewer than 2,000 acres of Core Preservation Area remain in private hands and thousands of acres in the CGA have also been saved.

The Pine Barrens Preservation Initiative has won numerous awards from planners, environmental champions, and those engaged in alternate dispute resolution. The initiative is taught at prominent educational institutions around the country and is considered a model for resolving complicated and high-stakes conflict between economic and environmental interests. As Long Island moves toward final build-out – when all vacant land is committed to either preservation or development – efforts are underway to save half of the remaining 60,000 acres still up for grabs before all of the remaining land is spoken for. The priority remains protection of lands located above groundwater recharge areas, to stem the decline in drinking water and surface water quality caused by wastewater, fertilizers, pesticides, and other products of human activity on the lands’ surface. This is expected to be the Island’s largest environmental challenge over the next decade.

Here’s hoping that the lessons of the Pine Barrens Protection Initiative will be applied to Long Island’s current environmental challenges. Today, the Society remains one of the top champions of drinking water protection and open space preservation.