Protector of the Natural World

Posted on 16 May 2010

Not mentioned in any media following the recent death of former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall—including in the obituaries in Newsday and New York Times—was Mr. Udall’s central role in the creation of a Long Island treasure: the Fire Island National Seashore.

 “Stewart Udall was critical,” says Murray Barbash, who was chairman of the organization that spearheaded  the effort, the Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore.

Later, the strategy in the Fire Island fight was utilized—in reverse—in the also successful battle to stop the Long Island Lighting Company’s plans to build Shoreham and other nuclear plants on Long Island, a struggle in which Mr. Barbash was also a leader.

The year was 1962 and New York State public works czar Robert Moses announced that a four-lane highway would be built on roadless Fire Island. It would “anchor” Fire Island, he claimed. This was my first major story as a reporter on Long Island. Quickly, John Maher, my editor at the Babylon Town Leader, and I found that Mr. Moses’ Jones Beach State Parkway Authority used bulldozers with regularity to dump sand along the Jones Beach highway to keep it in place.

The highway Mr. Moses would build on Fire Island—wider at some points than Fire Island—wouldn’t “anchor” it, and, moreover, would destroy a string of unique communities and devastate an extraordinary natural environment including the Sunken Forest. It is one of the few remaining maritime forests on the Atlantic coast, a magical place featuring bushes and trees, some more than 200 years old, shaped by the salt spray.

But how to stop Mr. Moses, enormously powerful in New York State?

The strategy was to try to involve the federal government. Mr. Barbash’s brother-in-law, attorney Irving Like, had read an “an Interior Department publication that described Fire Island as having the characteristics of a national seashore,” Mr. Barbash was recounting the other day.

But there was no national seashore so close to a major population center. A delegation from Mr. Barbash’s committee went to Washington to meet with Mr. Udall. Mr. Barbash  remembers it vividly: of Mr. Udall “sitting in a rocking chair JFK had given him.” The proposal for a Fire Island National Seashore was advanced to Mr. Udall “and he said, yes.” He liked the idea—and fought for it.  “He was steadfast and never wavered,” recalls Mr. Barbash.

Fire Island National Seashore became a reality in 1964.

A decade later, LILCO was building its Shoreham nuclear plant and planning two more on that site, four more at Jamesport and yet four more in between. Long Island was to be turned into, in the parlance of federal nuclear policy, a “nuclear park.”

How to stop that considering that U.S. nuclear officials never denied a license (they still haven’t) to build a nuclear plant?  The Fire Island strategy was turned around. Mr. Barbash became chairman of Citizens to Replace LILCO—to use state power to stop the federal juggernaut. The state could form a Long Island Power Authority and say no to the nuclear scheme.

That happened, with Mr. Like, who was counsel to the Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore, counsel to the new group, and an original LIPA trustee.

I spoke to Mr. Udall in 1999 when he received the Nuclear-Free Future Award at a ceremony in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The award is given annually to people from around the world leading the challenge to nuclear technology. I’ve been among the judges. Mr. Udall, back in the 1960s, was pro-nuclear, but he learned about the lethal dangers of the technology and became a crusader against it and, as a lawyer, represented uranium miners, atomic plant workers, downwinders and other nuclear victims. He would describe the nuclear industry as “an industry willing to kill our own people.”

We talked about the Fire Island fight and he spoke about a meeting he had with Mr. Moses at which he encountered his “arrogance.”

Stewart Udall died at 90, of “natural causes,” as the obituaries put it—after a life of working to protect the natural world including here on Long Island.

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