Nature Notes: Center Without a Home

It isn’t hard to start an organization, but it is hard to keep one going
On a visit to the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton this fall, young members of a nature club sponsored by Third House Nature Center posed with sculptures by Yue Min Jun. Vicki Bustamante

   Across the face of the world thousands of new organizations are spawned every day. Just take a look on the Internet and you will find millions of groups and associations that have an e-mail address ending in .org. It isn’t hard to start an organization, but it is hard to keep one going.
    When an organization is a few months from turning 20 years old, and when such an organization is still doing the things it used to do, plus adding others with each new year, that organization is said to be on the road to a long future. Even when the organization is evicted from its headquarters under the shabbiest of pretenses, but continues to carry on without a home base or address of its own, one begins to think that such an organization has a spirited cause and plays a legitimate and needed role in the community in which it toils, be it global, national, state, county, or local.
    The Third House Nature Center of Montauk is such an organization. Its “Center” is the hamlet of Montauk and its purview is the vast panoply of nature and natural history that this great hamlet packs into such a small space. You name it; Montauk has it all. It has the ocean, bays, harbor, streams, and ponds including the second largest freshwater lake on Long Island, Fort Pond. It has more wetlands than you can shake a stick at and they come in all sizes and kinds, from tidal to brackish to fresh, from salt marshes to red maple tupelo swamps to cranberry bogs and ferny swales.
    It is rich topographically, with the highest elevation east of Southampton, “interdunal fossae” as in Hither Woods, the only bluffs along the entire Atlantic Coast south of New England, the Walking Dunes and dune plains, stony shores, sandy shores, and a magnificent rocky intertidal area, again the only one along the entire coast south of New England.
    Floristically, it has one of the three New York plant species on the Federal Endangered list, the sandplain gerardia, and more than 50 species considered rare to New York State. In terms of its fauna, it has the state’s only blue-spotted salamander population, Long Island’s only significant spotted turtle population, and, if we can only find them again, the state’s only population of southern leopard frogs, not to mention Long Island’s only breeding turkey vultures. It also has gray foxes, one beaver, and more than 75 fish species, both freshwater and marine. In terms of size, number, and variety, it may be the most important spot for fishing in the state. And, oh, yes, clams, scallops, and oysters.
    So what better place to start a nature club that serves children and adults alike? That’s just what the redoubtable Carol Morrison of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk did with the help of Dick Johnson and Stephanie Krusa way back in 1994. Ms. Morrison passed away a few years back, Mr. Johnson is in assisted living, and Ms. Krusa is still in there almost two decades later pitching away with as much vigor and enthusiasm as ever.
    The nature center really burgeoned seven years back during a kinder and gentler East Hampton administration, when it leased Fort Pond House, purchased by the town in 2003 when Jay Schneiderman was supervisor. Weekly lectures, workshops, reading, writing, and student projects such as a pheasant-raising coop, supplemented the weekly field trips during the day and at night examining not only Montauk’s natural history, but also looking at interesting stuff to the west in Amagansett, East Hampton Village, Springs, and Wainscott on occasion. From 2005 through 2009, the five years for which I could find records covering such varying happenings, more than 200 took place.
    On many a night the Fort Pond House served as a lecture hall where the likes of Tom Clavin, John Strong, Judith Weiss, and Scott Weidensaul discussed their recent books with both the adult and children attendees. And the nature center staged events for other groups and organizations including the Nature Conservancy, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. The Fort Pond House was the perfect venue as it was a short distance from the Montauk School, which provided the center with numerous students engaged in a myriad of eye-opening events. Vicki Bustamante, who is one of the current principals in the center’s day-to-day activities, reckons that as many as 500 Montauk School students have participated since 2005.
    When the nature center was expulsed from the Fort Pond House after a five-year occupancy by the Bill Wilkinson administration, Ms. Krusa, Ms. Bustamante, the current president, Ed Johann, and the others keeping the show going had to remove all of the facility’s equipment, teaching tools, library, and the like. It was disheartening, to say the least. But they couldn’t let Montauk’s children and their parents down, so they continued the activities, but without a roof over their heads.
    Their former headquarters, a building and four acres on Fort Pond, were put up for sale. Two years later, there have been no takers. Meanwhile, the center continues to grow and expand its programs, even without a home. A chief focus for 2013 is Big Reed Pond in Montauk County Park, a few hundred feet from Block Island Sound. Very little has been documented about the pond’s creation and its natural and geologic history. To help with this project, the prestigious East Hampton Garden Club, through its longstanding annual sponsorship, has provided the Third House Nature Center with two interns, Jacqueline Smudzinski and Andrew Dixon.
    On Sunday, the interns, accompanied by Ms. Krusa and Ms. Bustamante, toured the Big Reed Pond area with a focus on the various tree species surrounding the pond. According to Ms. Krusa, herself a lifelong teacher and educator, they identified more than 15 different species, everything from sassafras to red maple. They learned quickly, even though trees in winter without their leaves, flowers, or fruit are not easy to identify.
    This column is being written on Martin Luther King Day. And like Mr. King, I, too, have a dream, although it is much less ambitious and much more local than his. I am dreaming that the town board will vote to remove Fort Pond House from the “to sell” list and lease it back to the Third House Nature Center, with whom it will serve the greatest good.