OP-ED

Another environmental treasure taken from the South Shore of Long Island due to the failure of local and state environmental policy

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On the day of Christmas Eve, 2021, I sat quietly in the forested wetland located at the mouth of the Brown’s River in Sayville NY.  For a chilly winter’s day, there was a remarkable amount of activity.  I observed chickadees, Carolina wrens, juncos, cardinals, and blue jays flittering about, searching for seed heads from last year’s plant growth, or an insect hidden beneath the leaf litter.  As I sat, the primal call of a great blue heron rang out across the forest, and gulls squawked noisily in the distance.  A few moments later, a cooper’s hawk flew silently amongst the trees, gracefully dodging the tree trunks while searching for a meal.  A recent dusting of snow added to the beauty and the sense of place was palpable.  Unfortunately, this beautiful and wild corner of the Great South Bay ecosystem is slated for destruction.  

The reason for the deforestation is to accommodate dredge spoils from locations including Browns River, Timber Point Marina, Green’s Creek, the LI Maritime Museum, and Brick Kiln Creek.  The dredging has become increasingly pressing due to the sediment clogging our waterways, which in turn has pressed upon the local authorities to find a place to dispose of the spoils.  Issues like these seldom have “easy” or “perfect” answers, but that does not mean that there aren’t possibilities for  “right answers,” ”ethical answers,” and ”environmentally informed answers.”

Despite public working groups designed to identify alternative dredge spoil dewatering sites, Suffolk County, working in conjunction with the Town of Islip, have begun work to destroy this beautiful wildlife and eco-critical haven in Sayville, N.Y.  In the public meetings that I attended, the yay-sayers cited alleged water quality benefits of dredging.  The truth is that research has consistently shown dredging for the purpose of enhancing navigational (boating) channels has little water quality benefit and actually moves and frees sediments and pollutants into the water column.   The urgent economic and boating safety implications of the dredging are clear.  What is not clear is why local and state authorities refused to consider workable alternatives to destroying a roughly 8-acre healthy and functional forested wetland ecosystem. 

Some stakeholders noted that the site was “always” a dredge spoil site and that the forest somehow didn’t belong there.  Notably,  as determined by a review of historic aerial photos, the county-owned parcel to be cleared  began to undergo ecological succession (i.e., the process by which natural communities develop and change over time) sometime after 1984; it was previously used to deposit some dredge spoils at some point prior to 1962.   Pioneer black cherries (Prunus serotina), likely among some of the first woody plants to naturally revegetate the site, had begun to die back as is typical in wetland environments.  As is also typical, the falling cherry trees were slowly starting to be replaced by a red maple-black gum forested wetland, despite statements from officials to the contrary. 

I completed my own recent direct field observations; you can tell a lot about a place by the plants that are present there.  The species on this site: red maple (Acer rubrum), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), arrowood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) and common winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are all indicative that this area is a red maple-blackgum swamp.  If I had the pleasure of being there during the growing season (leaves on), I am confident that even more species characteristic of this ecological community type would have been found.  You might ask yourself, Why is that so important? Red maple-black gum swamps were once common across Suffolk County, but are now increasingly rare in the area due to water mismanagement and clearing associated with human land use. The presence of this reborn forest here is evidence of the incredible “ecological memory” of the land.  Needlessly destroying this forest will have long-term deleterious consequences on the health of Browns River and the Great South Bay.  What could be done? 

Well, we took the time to identify some alternative sites, very nearby and unregulated under the NYS Freshwater or Tidal Wetlands Law.  The suggested sites consisted largely of invasive phragmites and are of limited ecological value, unlike the 8-acre wetland on the chopping block.  Unfortunately, our evidenced-based, and passionate pleads were met largely with silence.  Would the permit have to be modified in order to save this forest? Yes, and that would slow down the process of getting these channels back in shape for boating this summer. Were your county officials willing to do that in order to preserve this ecological treasure? Sadly, no.  The county officials were gracious in accepting suggestions, patiently listening to our concerns and showing good faith.  In the end, however,  this unfortunate outcome for nature and the community is a direct result of a fundamental flaw in the Freshwater Wetlands Act. 

Destruction of an increasingly rare forested wetland in Sayville perpetuates the exact cycle it is intending to “fix.” Forested wetlands, such as this one in Sayville,  reduce soil loss from uplands into navigable waters (thereby reducing the need to dredge in the first place); they sequester carbon; provide wildlife habitat, buffer floodwaters; and, reduce water pollution.  Unfortunately, this forest did not receive any protection or permit under the Freshwater Wetlands Act, simply because an inaccurate 29-year old map was relied upon by state and county officials during the permitting process.  Even with the up-to-date evidence we provided, even with the explanations of why and how this was a poor choice, the desire to complete the dredging quickly overruled logic, science, and the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. You might be wondering how this could happen?

Under the NYS Freshwater Wetlands Act, state jurisdiction extends to freshwater wetlands that are over 12.4 acres or deemed to be of “unusual importance.”  The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is the agency charged with administration of the Freshwater Wetlands Act, and it typically relies on wetland maps.  These maps are time-consuming and expensive to make and steward, so many of them are outdated and inaccurate.  This, in turn, clouds the ability to determine “unusual importance” leading to wetlands “falling through the cracks” and the continued destruction, fragmentation, and degradation of New York’s imperiled freshwater wetlands.  The forest being destroyed by the county and town in Sayville is a perfect illustration of this issue. 

Fortunately, efforts are underway to amend the Freshwater Wetlands Act to help avoid situations like this in the future.  Under various proposals, wetlands maps would not be the sole factor determining freshwater wetlands jurisdiction, and the definition of “unusual importance” would be clarified to include wetlands such as the now destroyed forested wetland in Sayville.  All hope isn’t lost for future wetland preservation; an expansion of NYS Freshwater Wetland Laws cannot come soon enough.  But as for that 8-acre slice of Long Island still-existing in Sayville, “hope” is just a four-letter word.   

Submitted on Behalf of:

Save the Great South Bay, Inc.

The Long Island Conservancy, Inc.

The Greater Sayville Chamber of Commerce

The Greater Sayville Civic Association

The Bayport Civic Association

The Blue Point Civic Association

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