Nature Notes: The Common Good

The Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac is famous for its ospreys, wild turkeys, small birds, and chipmunks
At the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac Durell Godfrey

Down the road a piece from where I live is a wonderful nature Shangri-La overseen by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge. It once was a farm and now it is a place known by almost everyone on eastern Long Island and elsewhere for its wildlife and geological uniqueness. 

Its old name, Jessup’s Neck, credits its early owners and the fact that it is a needle-shaped peninsula jutting north out into Peconic Bay, almost reaching Southold on the North Fork, and paralleling a similarly pointed peninsula — Nassau Point — running south from the North Fork to the west. These two-mile-long spits cordon off Little Peconic Bay from Noyac Bay to the east and Great Peconic to the west, all part of the National Peconic Estuary, one of 28 such national estuaries throughout coastal America.

There are no fewer than 562 national wildlife refuges all told. The first, Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge, was established in 1903 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. All told they comprise more than 150 million acres. The South Fork has three, the other two being in Amagansett’s ocean dunes and at Conscience Point on the west side of North Sea Harbor in Southampton Town. 

The Morton refuge is famous for its ospreys, wild turkeys, and small birds and chipmunks, and the latter two thrill visitors who feed them throughout the year with seeds and other natural foodstuffs. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and downy woodpeckers come to outstretched hands to partake of the goodies.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, his interior secretary, James Watt, decided that there were too many of these refuges — they cost too much to care for — and began making plans to sell them to the private sector. For several weeks, Morton Wildlife Refuge was on the chopping block, along with several others. There was a hew and cry from the public and many conservation and land preservation organizations and that idea came to a quick end.

In the mid-1980s a piece of naturally vegetated land on the west side of North Sea Harbor, the Conscience Point Fish and Wildlife Refuge, was to be traded for a piece of land on Peconic Bay once owned by the president of Standard Oil to accommodate the construction of waterfront condominiums. Local environmentalists, especially Ceal Havemeyer, late wife of a former Southampton Town trustee, discovered that the refuge deeded to the national government was to remain “forever wild” and teamed up with then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato to quash that deal. Today that refuge remains as wild as ever and is home to at least one pair of ospreys, but also has one of Long Island’s largest collection of native prickly pear cactus, Opuntia humifusa.

In the mid-1990s when Bill Clinton was president, a group of Republican congressmen led by Newt Gingrich tried to do away with the Federal Endangered Species Act, ironically enacted during Republican President Richard Nixon’s tenure. Our then-congressman, Michael Forbes, also a Republican, worked with Democrats to stop the move. 

Now, as the late Yogi Berra was reputed to have said, “It seems like déja vu all over again.” There are 129 national monuments throughout the United States and there is a move afoot by President Trump and his secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, to eliminate several of them and shave the land areas of others. 

This move is now under fire from several quarters: private citizens, citizen groups, members of Congress, as well as a majority of U.S. governors, are opposing such an unwarranted move and are fighting back.

The Peconic Estuary was mentioned above. There is yet no word from Washington that the Trump administration has plans to do away with any of the national estuaries. The Peconic one would not be here if it weren’t for the efforts of another of our congressmen, George J. Hochbrueckner, a Democrat. He joined forces with another Long Island congressman, the late Norman Lent, a Republican, to push through the act that created it.

However, another local national estuary, the Long Island Sound National Estuary — much bigger than the Peconic Estuary and created before it — is about to receive millions of tons of putrid dredge spoil from the mouths of Connecticut rivers, according to a recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers. That is the same government agency that gave us the sandbags on Montauk’s downtown ocean beach — the bags that have been exposed by northeasters over and over again. 

Again, our current congressman, Lee Zeldin, and most Long Island state senators and representatives have been working vigorously to prevent that deposition of spoil on the bottom of Long Island Sound north of Fishers Island.

So readers, be on your guard, and get your Republican and Democratic representatives to work together for the environment and the common good whenever possible. 

Larry Penny can be reached via email at