Nature Notes: The Great Woods

Ecologically it has run the gamut from tundra to heathland to oak hickory forest to grassland to savannah and back to oak hickory forest

    Hither Woods was hither to what? To mainland East Hampton, with respect to the Point Woods just east of the Lighthouse? While much of Montauk has changed, Hither Woods has stayed the same; it’s never been developed.

    Ecologically it has run the gamut from tundra to heathland to oak hickory forest to grassland to savannah and back to oak hickory forest with a smattering of American beech, American holly, and a very large smattering of mountain laurel. In pre-Columbian days it was most likely an important hunting-gathering area for the Montauketts.

    When the Town of East Hampton came into being, the governing body, or town trustees, had the “proprietors” caretake Hither Woods, first for lumber and firewood, secondly as a grazing land for most of the town’s livestock. After it was de-wooded, it became perhaps the largest grassland on the South Fork for a time. Sheep, cattle and the like would be led out to Hither Hills across Napeague in the spring to graze and led back to winter quarters on the mainland in the fall.

    Grazing petered out in the early 20th century as East Hampton and Montauk underwent modernization, and the woods began to grow back. By the time Norman Taylor published his monograph, “The Vegetation of Montauk,” in 1923, Hither Hills was half grasslands, half woodland. Decaying trunks of fallen eastern red cedars, one of the pioneer species leading the way to woody regrowth, still dot that landscape today, but you would be hard pressed to find a living one.

    Twenty-five thousand years ago there were no Hither Woods, no Hither Hills. Then the glacier came down and dumped a lot of debris on the sea bottom, creating the Montauk peninsula before it began to recede 5,000 years later. If you Google the satellite image for Hither Woods you will see a series of east-west parallel lines of vegetation. They represent the tops of ridges and the bottoms of troughs. As the glacier rode up on the debris that it dropped, it continued south in fits and starts, creating so-called high spots and low spots in an alternating array, creating the “push moraine” described by Myron Fuller in his pioneering study, “Geology of Long Island, New York,” published in 1913. Such a formation is unique to Montauk and part of western Suffolk County. Thus, the name “Hither Hills,” rather than “Hither Hill.”

    After Arthur Benson purchased Montauk from the town trustees in 1885, the land lay fallow except for a house built here and there next to the ocean. Robert Moses, the father of New York’s state park system on Long Island, took interest in the western part of Hither Hills, including the ocean and dunes on its southwest, and it was purchased from heirs of the Benson Estate in 1926 to become Hither Hills State Park, the cornerstone of the Montauk State Parks array.

    Two-thirds of Hither Woods remained in private hands. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation owned a large chunk of it. In the early 1980s just about all of Montauk excluding parklands was up for development. When the East Hampton Town Board re-established the Planning Department eliminated in 1982, it set to work under the aegis of the planning board analyzing the various Montauk development plans. It accelerated its efforts in 1984, when the new town board led by Supervisor Judith Hope came into power. At that juncture, developmental plans for Hither Woods, Culloden Point, West Neck, Shadmoor, and the Sanctuary, more than 1,500 acres of raw, unsullied land in Montauk were all on the drafting table at the same time.

    Then-Councilman Randy Parsons led the effort to put the lands into parklands while Suffolk County and New York State pitched in, and the northeastern part of Hither Woods was purchased cooperatively by all three governing bodies in a precedent-setting action. Within the following two decades, the rest of Hither Woods became the Lee Koppelman County Preserve, the Sanctuary became a new state park, most of Culloden Point became a town nature preserve, West Neck was purchased by Suffolk County, and finally, Shadmoor became Shadmoor Park, a nature preserve purchased by the state, county, and town in another three-way collaboration.

    Hither Woods was largely burned over during a drought in the spring of 1986, when sparks from a passing Long Island Rail Road train set off a fire that killed two-thirds of the standing trees, the ones that had starting growing about the time Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders were quarantined in Montauk in the first years of the 20th century.

    It’s been growing back in the 27 years since then. Some of the new trees have reached heights of 40 to 50 feet. It appears tranquil from the highway or vantage points on its many trails, but there is a mighty internecine struggle in progress, with one group of trees trying to usurp another. The American beeches are beginning to get the upper hand, turning what was formerly mostly an oaken woods into a beechy one. Beeches spread by sucker roots and sucker shoots, the way quaking aspens do. They also secrete chemicals that inhibit the growth of many tree and sub-shrub species. Where the beeches have taken over, the ground — save for a coating of beech leaves — is bare. American hollies are also gaining a toehold.

    One large section of up-and-down land in the northeast area of the woods that is laden with gray lichen-covered erratics, some as big as a bus, is almost completely vegetated with mountain laurel, some standing 15 feet high. They are extremely healthy, almost 100 percent green with very few viral or fungal blotches. On Saturday in the waning hours of the afternoon, Vicki Bustamante and I were lost in Rod’s Valley, where the laurels are predominant. It was getting dark and becoming quite eerie. Great-horned owls were calling, the wind was rattling the branches. I began to conjure up a scenario with a crazed Jack Nicholson carrying an ax, jumping out on the trail in front of us yelling, “Here’s Johnny!” No wonder that Dan Rattiner, in one of his early local maps, referred to Hither Woods as the “Great Spooky Woods.”

    Of great interest was Ram Level, a grassy opening in the middle of the woods where the rams used to be pastured separately from the ewes. It hinted at what Hither Woods looked like throughout most of the 1800s. What used to be a couple hundred acres of prairie had been reduced to less than an acre. It was about five times smaller than when I last visited it in late 1999. It was, and hopefully still is, home to some of New York State’s rarest plants, including the bushy frostweed for which Montauk is famous. A few very large white oaks very much alive, with canopies 50 feet or more in diameter, presided over the grasses and forbs. Vicki had never been to Ram Level before and made a vow to return in the spring when the bushy frostweed and other rarities would be holding forth.

    I also came upon several individuals of a rare-to-Long Island rhododendron species that someone had reported in Hither Woods many years ago but which had eluded my grasp until Saturday. I had found this species on Mashomack on Shelter Island with Jean Held while studying at the Nature Conservancy preserve for the Museum of Long Island Natural Science in 1980. Pinxter is the name — it blooms pink in late May. In another 50 years or so Hither Woods will have taken on a totally different appearance, as the old-growth trees begin to predominate and pitch pines begin sneaking in from the west. They are already well established in the Walking Dunes on the west edge of Hither Hills. One thing won’t change in the remainder of this century, however. The woods that only 30 years ago were to be cleared and covered with hundreds of houses will now stay forever wild.

    Huzzahs to the East Hampton Town Board of 1984 and the friends of Montauk, who started the land preservation push. Otherwise, the black knights of the “Reign of Terror” would have prevailed and we would have become just another part of Long Island.