A River’s Place: High School Student Activism and Environmental Protection on Long Island, New York, 1956-1974 ____________________________________________________________________ Abstract: This article sheds light on the contributions of high school student activists in the environmental movement of the 1970s. Specifically, it focuses on Students for Environmental Quality (SEQ), a Long Island-based environmental group consisting of students from Bellport Senior High School, whose members committed themselves to environmental protection in and around their community. Throughout the early 1970s, SEQ members hosted eco-friendly informational sessions, advocated for the reduction and recycling of waste, and lobbied local and state representatives for environmental protection bills. SEQ members’ lobbying efforts proved most fruitful when they successfully attained protection for the Carmans River, which flowed through their suburban community. Their efforts resulted in the rivers’ inclusion under the state’s 1972 Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act. However, not only does this piece highlight the contributions of high school environmentalists, it also emphasizes the ecological, aesthetic and recreational value ascribed to the Carmans River and its environs. ____________________________________________________________________ Introduction In April 1973 John Sailor and Michael Butler, two juniors from Bellport Senior High School (BSHS) on Long Island, New York, set off on their bicycles for the state capital in Albany. With saddle bags containing all the necessary amenities, including camping supplies, snacks, and clothing, the two young men took on the roughly 250 mile trip not for recreation, but for political purposes. In the spring of 1973, their purpose and political cause was the protection of the local Carmans River and its immediate environs. Their high school environmental action group, Students for Environmental Quality (SEQ), had been studying and advocating for the river’s protection from development since 1970. The more immediate goal of the students’ bicycle trek was the delivery of a bottle containing Carmans River water, and a petition with over two hundred signatures, to their assemblyman, Democrat I. William (Bill) Bianchi, on the steps of the State Capitol. As they had hoped, after meeting with Bianchi and other members of the Assembly, representatives of the local news media were there to capture photographs of them as they rode their bicycles down the steps of the Capitol Building to begin their trip home. For Sailor and Butler, their adventure had been a success. They had reached Albany unscathed in roughly four days, delivered the bottle of water and their petition, lobbied their representatives, and peddled the river’s story onto the pages of local newspapers. By the following summer, their trip, and the various activities undertaken by their fellow SEQ members, had drawn sufficient attention to warrant state-mandated protection of the Carmans River. In just four years, between 1970 and 1974, a group of ten to twenty-five environmentally-conscious students at BSHS organized themselves into SEQ, through which they hosted eco-friendly informational sessions, advocated for the reduction and recycling of waste, lobbied local and state representatives for environmental protection bills, and were directly involved in the passage of state legislation not only related to the Carmans River in 1974, but also state protection of marine mammals in 1972. With the guidance of Arthur (Art) P. Cooley, a BSHS Biology teacher and co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), members of the SEQ had access to significant actors and activities within the budding environmental movement, which had been growing throughout the 1960s, and that became nationally recognized and prominent in the decade that followed. With Cooley serving as their advisor, along with his mentor, friend and fellow EDF co-founder, local naturalist Dennis Puleston, SEQ members and their organization were guaranteed a level of respect and credibility within the environmental movement before they had officially organized. Yet, even with Cooley and Puleston’s assistance, SEQ members were still the primary movers and shakers within the organization. Students had created the group and were responsible for deciding the programs and initiatives on which to work. As SEQ member Elizabeth Shreeve recalled thirty-four years after the group’s success with the Carmans River, “Art was really inspirational without being manipulative or anything,” and he “never proselytize[d] at all.” This is not to say, however, that SEQ members were left to their own devices without professional oversight. Rather, advisors and advisees collaborated equally to effect positive environmental change, beginning with SEQ’s formation in the spring of 1970. The protection of the Carmans River, though, was the most important and successful initiative SEQ worked on during its first four years. In that time, group members spent countless hours laboring on various activities pertaining to the river, including: conducting studies of its unique plant and animal communities; drafting their findings into environmental reports for use by state agencies; publishing histories of the river for local readership; hosting canoe races and other recreational activities to draw public attention to the river; and meeting with local residents to gather signatures on petitions sent to Albany. SEQ’s goal was to compel the state legislature to include the Carmans River under the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, which had been enacted in 1972 to prevent development along rivers deemed worthy of preservation. The question at hand throughout 1973 and 1974 was whether this particular river met the specifications that would allow for its inclusion under the 1972 law. During that two-year period the ensuing legal battle made the river a contested place, which was valued differently by students, property owners, and state legislators. Throughout their lives, SEQ members had developed an affinity for and an emotional connection to the local waterway. For the students, the river had served as an educational place where they could study local ecosystems, watch birds, and experience nature first hand. At the same time, the river was understood as recreational space which could be experienced in boats and canoes, with a fishing pole along the riverbank, or as a quiet place of retreat and reflection. The Carmans River, however, was not understood as a natural or “wild” place located “out there,” far from where they lived, but as a natural place to study and to enjoy, literally, in their own suburban back yards. Unlike their parents and adult neighbors, these young environmentalists were neither homeowners nor taxpayers. This allowed SEQ members to develop their own environmental consciousness, which was unhindered by questions of property rights and tax assessments. This meant that students were able to look beyond the financial anxieties that plagued their adult neighbors, and concern themselves more with environmental protection, especially when the fruits of their labor would place restrictions on local land-use. Ultimately, this infectious youth idealism inspired the adults in their midst, including those in positions of power, to support the environmental agendas they espoused. The same can be said of student environmentalists nationwide, who like SEQ, successfully altered the adult world around them through the environmental campaigns they waged. What makes the high school student environmentalists’ story so fascinating, however, is not so much what they were able to accomplish, but how they managed to do so at such a young age. It was these students’ adolescence itself which provided a clear avenue from which to foment the social and political change they desired – an avenue upon which their adult contemporaries could no longer tread. While teenaged environmentalists often took on projects that mirrored those of their adult counterparts, the students’ youth, as well as their perceived inexperience and naivety, often garnered them, and their projects, a level of support that adult organizations would have found more difficult to achieve. For example, teen environmentalists received significant media coverage throughout the early 1970s, much of which highlighted not only their activism, but their status as concerned high school students who had taken a keen interest in their community. In turn, this expanded media coverage led to heightened public support from not only their teachers, parents, and neighbors, but also from local and state politicians who the students often lobbied in support of ecologically-friendly legislation. From their elders’ perspective, these students were using their free time constructively, and in a manner that utilized traditional legal and political avenues. In many cases, with such support, these student activists, and SEQ members particularly, were able to make more headway in less time than their adult contemporaries. That did not mean, however, that high school environmentalists managed to cull the support of every man, woman and child in their respective communities. For SEQ, their enthusiasm for state protection of the Carmans River was not shared by all. Indeed, while the Carmans’ natural beauty and recreational prospects were not lost on property owners, they had developed a different type of relationship with the river. These individuals understood the river from the perspective of homeowners who desired to maintain the right to improve or sell their land without state interference. In 1973 and 1974, this would bring them into conflict with these nascent environmentalists from BSHS. Having benefited from post World War II consumer culture, millions of Americans from various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, purchased suburban homes, which for many was the ultimate realization of a new “American Dream.” For those homeowners who had realized that dream along the Carmans River, the state intervention proposed by SEQ would jeopardize the property rights which had originally drawn them to suburbia. In addition to the local contests over place, the river’s future was also contested two hundred miles north in Albany. Throughout 1973 and 1974, Democratic Assemblyman William Bianchi was repeatedly rebuffed by the Republican majority each time he introduced legislation in favor of the river’s protection. Rather than recognizing the river as a material place that should be debated for its ecological value, politicians in Albany understood the Carmans as a series of abstract lines on a map to be employed for partisan purposes. Therefore, this article will not only examine the process which led to the river’s protection, but also the competing notions of the Carmans River as a place in nature: a preserve of a “natural” habitat for an eclectic array of flora and fauna, a place for reflection and recreation, a place for expanded suburban development, and an abstract place to be wielded as a partisan issue between Republicans and Democrats in Albany. Until recently, high school student political activists have received scant attention by historians and other scholars. Unfortunately, high school student environmentalism has received the least. With Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest, Historian Gael Graham has provided the most expansive examination of high school student activism to date. In her study, Graham highlights the various issues that engaged students in post World War II America, which included fights for individual and minority rights, freedom of speech, dress, and the press, as well as involvement in the Anti-War Movement. Graham’s piece, however, lacks any real analysis of students’ participation in the budding Environmental Movement, except for a brief reference to their celebration of Earth Day in 1970. Unfortunately, such a limited treatment of youth environmentalism only begins to scratch the surface of high school students’ commitment to local ecology and environmental protection in the years which followed. For thousands of student environmentalists, the first Earth Day marked only the beginning of their involvement in what was to become a nationwide, if not international, phenomenon throughout the early 1970s. In fact, high school students across the United States who had been inspired by Earth Day formed a variety of student-led environmental action organizations. While many of these groups targeted their activism to in-school programs such as school yard clean-ups and school-wide recycling programs, others, such as SEQ, focused their efforts on the natural areas in and around the communities they inhabited by preserving open spaces, tackling water and air pollution, as well as defending endangered flora and fauna. Often, such activities thrust student environmentalists into the typically adult domains of the legal and political, as they routinely conducted ecological studies, and presented their findings to local political and environmental bodies, which, in turn, played a significant role in the passage of ecologically-friendly legislation on both the local and state levels. Without the inclusion of post youth environmentalism to the larger narrative on high school student activism, the history of the post World War II high school activist, will remain incomplete. The history of SEQ will begin to fill this unfortunate void in the literature. The current literature on the twentieth century Environmental Movement has also failed to acknowledge the contributions of high school students. Most published accounts focus upon the national Environmental Movement and concentrate their analysis on the various established, mainstream environmental organizations, collectively known as “the group of ten.” This group includes organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Nature Conservancy. At the same time, those accounts that highlight grassroots environmentalism and environmental justice also neglect activist groups like the SEQ. Whatever the reason may be, either their youth, their perceived inexperience, or the fact that their organizations are overseen and controlled by the state-sponsored school system, scholars who have studied the environmental movement have not recorded the contributions of high school student activists. As the story of the SEQ illustrates, these possible explanations for their future exclusion from historical inquiry did not halt their success once their goals were set. Nevertheless, scholars have shed light upon the rise of the modern environmental movement, particularly on those Americans who were afforded the opportunity to more actively participate in the postwar consumer economy. Historian Samuel Hays’ Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 and Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism are two of the most instructive analyses of this modern environmental movement. In his study, Hays asserts that “evolving environmental values were closely associated with rising standards of living and levels of education.” As incomes rapidly increased, so did Americans’ desire for the new “conveniences” and “amenities” which their new-found affluence could provide. This affluence, however, not only included private homeownership and leisurely pursuits, such as outdoor recreation, but also included the desire for “environmental quality” which was “an integral part of this new search for a higher standard of living.” Rome also attributes the beginning of the modern movement to Americans’ yearning for an improved “quality of life,” which, by the late 1960s, had been achieved by the millions who had relocated to the suburbs. Rome illustrates the rise of a suburban environmental consciousness which developed at the same time that residents recognized the threat of environmental degradation that was posed by the very development that had cleared the land upon which their suburban homes were built. Despite their absence from the historical record, SEQ members and their counterparts in schools across the United States were similarly inspired. Birds, Trips and Inspiration In order to fully appreciate the impetus which led to SEQ’s formation in 1970, it is important that one understand the preceding fourteen years, beginning with Art Cooley’s first year teaching Biology at BSHS. It was in his first year that Cooley met local naturalist and scientist Dennis Puleston who was thirty years his senior. Learning that in his spare time Cooley was, like Puleston, an avid bird-watcher, several of his new colleagues and friends suggested that the two meet. Within a few weeks, the two met and quickly became close friends. Soon thereafter, the two were birding together regularly on the weekends. While on one of these early bird-watching trips, Cooley remembers that Puleston asked whether it would be possible to invite some students to accompany them: “he said, ‘it’s kind of a shame, we have all this room in the car, we should take some kids along.’” Cooley agreed, made the offer to his classes, and found that he “didn’t have any trouble filling a car.” Within a few weeks the two men were chaperoning “two or three cars filled with students every weekend for about a half a day.” In the years that followed, the sites visited included several local favorites, including Montauk Point, Jones Beach, Yaphank Woods, the Carmans River, and Moriches Inlet. Such trips were not restricted to destinations on Long Island, however. Cooley and Puleston also took students on several field trips to Canada, as well as to various places in the U.S., most notably to properties they owned in New Hampshire and Florida. These trips almost always included some educational component, including bird-watching, bird banding, and ecological studies of the area’s flora and fauna, which students would chart, map and detail in scientific reports and journals. The students who were brought on these trips tended to be those who had expressed some sort of interest in nature, had a forte for the physical sciences, excelled academically, and hailed from families associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory. In many ways, these students, who over time became known as the “Cooley Kids,” were some of the best and the brightest that BSHS had to offer. In fact, most, if not all of them, had worked with Cooley in the classroom, taking various courses such as Advanced Biology, and, after participating in a National Science Foundation Marine Science program in 1962, Marine Biology. Through their interaction in the classroom, which was reinforced by Cooley and Puleston in the field, relationships that would one day lead to the formation of the SEQ began to develop. When BSHS closed for summer vacations, most “Cooley Kids” opted to spend their time in his summer Maine Biology course, which entailed morning in-class lectures and field work in the afternoons. As former student and SEQ member Nancy Sailor recalled, “it was very hands on…you know, I’ll never forget this…we would wade out into the bay and you know grab a mussel or grab a scallop and eat it, whatever.” Such experiences, according to Sailor, were “inspiring,” and Cooley “just inspired the kids around him to, you know, love nature and to want to do something about protecting the environment.” This inspiration to protect the environment, not only stemmed from their experiences with Cooley as a teacher, but also from Cooley’s and Puleston’s positions as environmentalists and co-founders of the EDF. Throughout the 1960s, students knew that Cooley and Puleston were becoming key figures in the budding environmental movement, both on the local and on the national levels. It was no secret that their two mentors were key participants in the founding of and in the projects undertaken by the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee (BTNRC), a local environmental organization founded in 1965, composed of community members, students, and academics. By 1967, the BTNRC evolved into the EDF, which eventually grew in size and importance, becoming what many scholars have labeled one of the “group of ten” mainstream environmental organizations. Throughout the 1960s, however, both incarnations of the organization worked on various environmental projects across Long Island, including (among others) wetlands protection, reduction of duck farm pollutants, and forcing a successful ban on the use of DDT. For the students, the realization that Cooley and Puleston had been involved in such activities fueled their own desires to become active as well. As one SEQ founder noted, EDF activities were sometimes discussed in class, and “it was exciting for the high school kids to read that stuff in the paper and realize that someone who was standing in front of your class was actually involved in it.” For many, this realization was one of the catalysts which inspired them to begin thinking about what they could do for the environment in their own lives as citizens and students. The students, however, were not only influenced by what they learned in school, on bird-watching expeditions, or by what they learned about the BTNRC and the EDF. Those who were in high school in 1970 had lived through the 1960s, which have been dubbed by sociologist Todd Gitlin years of hope and days of rage. They had witnessed the anti-war movement, civil rights movements, student rebellions, and the emergence of an environmental consciousness. Coupled with their experiences with Cooley and Puleston, the students who formed SEQ in 1970 were inspired by the changing world in which they were raised. As former SEQ member Linda Jensen noted, “we all got interested in the environment and also in the greater world at the same time…and there was a lot going on in the world at that time.” Organizing, Oil, and Seals Depending on who is asked, the genesis of SEQ varies, from alumni who remember an informal organizing meeting in the back of a bus in the summer of 1970, to those, including Cooley, who remember it as one of his suggestions. To the impartial observer, it would not be unreasonable to believe that both recollections could in some way be accurate. Ron Rozsa, founder of the group, recalled discussing the possibility of a student club while on a field trip in Cooley’s summer Marine Biology course. Rozsa explained: “The very last trip was to Montauk Point and on the return trip a small group of us sitting in the back of the bus devised the concept for the Students for Environmental Quality”: So its origins lie in that return trip, probably August of 1970. So, when classes resumed in September, and I was a senior then, I set up the first meeting and I guess by default I became the first president. Not that we had elections or any such back then, you know, it was the initial organization. So, that was the first time that SEQ ever met. However, Cooley remembers the group’s beginnings springing from Rozsa’s concern for Swan Lake in East Patchogue, in which he noticed oil drainage from a nearby Dodge dealership. Hoping to stop the drainage, Cooley, Rozsa and interested students opted to write a letter to the dealership and inform management of what Rozsa had discovered. For Cooley and the students, forming an organization seemed obvious, believing that it would give the letter more credibility. He explained, “I mean, one student didn’t like to be just one student, so we thought, okay, we’ll make an organization.” In some sense, Cooley envisioned that SEQ would be modeled after the EDF, as he noted, “if we can make up EDF then we can make up another organization.” From 1970 forward, the “Cooley Kids” were organized as a genuine environmental action group within which they were able to employ what they had learned over the years both in the classroom and out in the field. Beginning the 1970-1971 academic year with ten official members, SEQ achieved its first organizational success that fall when members learned that the Dodge dealership had halted its pollution of Swan Lake. Rozsa recently related that “back in those days the dealership had a floor drain that drained into Swan Lake.” Yet, regardless of how the oil made its way into the water, the management of the dealership refused to acknowledge SEQ’s repeated requests to fix the problem. Taking the group’s concerns to the next level, Rozsa allegedly reported their activities to the dealership’s regional franchiser. To this day, Cooley believes that the franchiser applied enough pressure to force them to “clean up their act” in order to avoid negative publicity for the company. Rozsa, however, remembers that SEQ members began looking into area oil recycling companies and found that the dealership had in fact begun recycling on its own. Still, SEQ’s efforts had drawn attention to the problem, it was solved, and according to Cooley, they “had a real lesson.” Within a few weeks of their success with the Dodge dealership, SEQ members learned of several harbor seals that had been shot in Moriches Inlet. When students brought up the issue in Cooley’s Advanced Biology class, he relegated it to SEQ so as to, as he explained, not politicize the classroom. This way, students could decide “what ought to be done about it” in a forum where “they had their own agenda, and they discussed what issues they wanted to work on.” In the spring of 1971, SEQ members looked into ways they could lobby state legislators to protect seals in all New York State waterways. After some initial investigating, the group learned that a 1965 bill intended to protect marine life had been introduced in the state legislature, but ultimately failed due to a lack of support. Six years later, State Senator Bernard Smith introduced a similar bill, and SEQ members pledged their support. The group prepared informational packets to be sent to over one hundred organizations throughout the state hoping to enlist them to join the cause. In a cover letter signed by Rozsa and fellow member, John Jensen, SEQ asserted the sensibility of protecting seals: Seals are no threat to the commercial fishing industry since their numbers are low. There is no sport in hunting them since they may be approached easily within close shooting range. The harbor seal cannot damage or be caught in modern fish traps since the mouths of the traps are too small. Along with the letter, the students enclosed petitions for the target organizations to distribute to their members, local residents, and other interested parties. Their efforts paid off, leading to the passage of Smith’s bill in the State Senate in 1971. The Assembly bill, however, did not make it through the legislative process. Undeterred, SEQ, Smith, and newly elected Assemblyman Bianchi applied more pressure the following year, leading to passage of a state law banning the killing of harbor seals. As Cooley explained, “that was the first time that students had largely recognized the problem, proposed a piece of legislation and got it signed.” The federal government passed the Marine Mammals Protection Act later that same year, possibly in response to similar actions on the state level. By 1972, SEQ had successfully lobbied for state legislation, and quite possibly influenced the federal government’s environmental agenda as well. Most importantly, as their advisor noted, SEQ members “learned a hell of a lot about government.” During the following two years, the political lessons they had learned proved useful in their battle to preserve the Carmans River. Canoes, Bicycles, and Ecological Studies The same year that New York State passed legislation to protect marine mammals, the state amended its 1970 Environmental Conservation Law to preserve rivers that possessed “outstanding natural, scenic, historic, ecological and recreational values.” Under what became knows as the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act (WSRRA), such rivers were to “be preserved in free-flowing condition” so that “their immediate environs…be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.” In other words, the rivers and the land along their banks were to be kept in their natural state, free from human manipulation and commercial development. Without approval of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), created in 1970, homeowners would no longer be free to improve or develop those properties that ran along protected rivers. A clause in the amendment allowed for the inclusion of future rivers if they were deemed to have met specific requirements, including: specific length, water quality, distance from roadways, free flowing condition, and in a natural state. Believing the Carmans River to meet the requirements set down in the law, Cooley and his students were eager to lobby for its protection. As humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has argued, “what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place [emphasis added] as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” Over the years, the ten-mile long river, which flowed past many of their homes and through many of their neighborhoods, had become an important place for Cooley and his students. Certainly, their proximity to the river allowed easy access for them to ascribe value upon it and to develop a relationship with its environs. Throughout their respective childhoods, SEQ members, as well as other youth, had used the waterway recreationally, for boating, canoeing, fishing, and swimming. Moreover, Cooley and Dennis Puleston had routinely “used the Carmans as an outdoor laboratory,” having brought students to the riverbank on field trips to watch birds, band birds, and to study the unique flora and fauna. At the same time, it was not uncommon for the “Cooley Kids” to assist Puleston with his annual bird count that charted bird migration patterns. This usually took place on Puleston’s riverside property, where he had overseen a bird banding station for several years. As former SEQ member Pamela Borg noted, “Elizabeth [Shreeve] and I would get up, pre-dawn, during most of eleventh and mostly twelfth grade, and go to Dennis’ house, and he had these big nets out to catch the birds in the marshes, and we were very devoted.” Through their work on Puleston’s farm, and by studying the river’s ecology with Cooley, students came to understand the Carmans River as a natural place which needed to be protected from future development. By the early 1970s, the students’ fear of development along the river was well-founded. In the years following World War II, the population of American suburbs had grown significantly, from 27 million in 1940 to over 76 million by 1970. Locally, in Suffolk County, the population had risen to over one million, while the population in Yaphank, Patchogue, North Patchogue, East Patchogue, Bellport Village, and North Bellport, villages near the river, had increased by roughly 6,000, 3,000, 3,000, 2000, 600, 1500 (respectively) between 1960 and 1970. Despite this phenomenal suburban growth, by the early 1970s, the lands bordering the Carmans River had only experienced sporadic and small-scale development, and were still considered to be in their natural state. Nevertheless, speculative interest in riverside property was allegedly growing around the same time that the state passed the WSRRA. According to an article in Senior Scholastic, the possibility of private and commercial growth was real, given that land speculators had begun lobbying town supervisors to allow for construction. After roughly twenty-five years of suburban growth and development on Long Island, there was no guarantee the river’s environs would be spared without some form of state intervention. Movements for state intervention, however, were not limited to the SEQ, the Carmans River, or to Long Island. On the state and national levels, environmentally-conscious organizations had been lobbying for government-mandated land-use regulations throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Rome has argued, “land-use programs were responses to a variety of concerns” including “the far-reaching environmental effects of power plants, airports, strip mines, and oil refineries.” Yet, the most destructive force upon the environment had been suburban sprawl with its “construction of subdivisions and shopping centers” which replaced the natural vegetation that had once blanketed rural America. By the early 1970s, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California, Vermont, Maine, Florida, Oregon and New York had passed legislation which gave state governments more authority to control state and local land-uses. From 1968 to 1973, the members of Congress debated the importance of and possibilities for a federal land-use law, but failed to pass any such legislation. Nevertheless, during various Senate hearings on the subject, witnesses repeatedly warned legislators “about the impact of uncontrolled suburban development.” Living in suburban Long Island, SEQ members were also cognizant of the danger that future development would pose to the Carmans River. Intent on saving the river, SEQ members enthusiastically researched the WSRRA, though they realized rather quickly that that their goal would not be easily achieved. According to the relatively new law, in order for the river to be considered for inclusion, new legislation had to be adopted designating the Carmans as a “study river.” SEQ members realized they would need support within the state legislature to force a bill to be passed and once again turned to Assemblyman Bianchi, who, like them, lived near the river. Unlike with the Marine Mammals Protection Act, however, Bianchi did not believe enough popular support existed for their new cause. Without it, Bianchi knew his best efforts in the Republican-controlled Assembly would fail. The students did not have to wait long before the South Brookhaven chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) learned of their new project and gave them some tips on how to get the public’s attention. The LWV offered the students a twofold plan of action. First, LWV president Regina David publicly challenged SEQ to a canoe race, which would take place on the Carmans River. Second, a public meeting was scheduled for the following week, at which Puleston, and members of both the SEQ and the LWV would be able to inform the community of the river’s importance. Both organizations hoped for a large local turn-out. As they had hoped, the March 18th race garnered significant attention, drawing hundreds of local residents who stood along the banks to watch the race through a light snow. As the spectators cheered them on, SEQ members Mike Butler, Elizabeth Shreeve and Gail Miller crossed the finish line first, beating their LWV competitors, and garnering the necessary public support Bianchi had wanted. Even with public support, Bianchi was repeatedly stonewalled in his attempts to define the Carmans as a “study river.” He attributed this to partisan politics on the part of the Republican Majority, particularly Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea. According to Bianchi: The Republicans ran a very tight ship and they didn’t let any Democratic bills get out, and they didn’t let us do anything at all. And it was my first time doing all of this. So, I put in the bill, and it went to the Environmental Committee, and the Chairman of the Environmental Committee, a good friend of Duryea, that’s why he was there, and I knew I’d have a hard time getting the bill out of committee. In early April, however, Republican Clarence D. Lane, Chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee (ECC), offered Bianchi the chance to present his case to fellow committee members, with the understanding that if voted upon, his bill would surely fail to pass. As Bianchi recalled, the chairman explained that it could not pass, since it was sponsored by the Democratic Party: So, one of the guys from the committee, Peter Berle…said, ‘look, you can’t just let this bill come up and explain it, you [have to] make sure Newsday is here.’ So, like a half an hour before the meeting, I called Newsday, and they had a reporter free, he came over, and listened to the meeting, and that meant another story. So I was able to get up, show my map of the river, tell everybody why they should vote for it, do my little pitch, and then that was all in the newspaper the next day. In the following day’s edition of Newsday, Berle and Bianchi were quoted as labeling the bill’s failure to reach a committee vote as an example of “’unabashed politics,’” which they asserted was “’consistent with Republican attempts to politicize the environment.’” Before the meeting adjourned, the two assemblymen had urged a vote, but “Lane adamantly refused.” For Lane and his fellow Republicans, the bill’s defeat had been a foregone conclusion, and by curbing a final vote he was simply “’trying to be nice’” to its sponsors. In an April 19th meeting with SEQ, Bianchi relayed this information to the students, noting that if the legislation was not passed by May, he would need to reintroduce the bill in the next legislative session. SEQ members immediately recognized the implications of such a delay. In an interview with Senior Scholastic in 1975, John Sailor recalled that the organization was aware that something had to be done “’before land developers had a chance to build.’” It was also clear that the students would need to dramatize their cause once again to force the legislature to act. Bianchi suggested that a bicycle trip to the state capital might draw media attention: So, I said to the kids, ‘look, we have the bill, but we have to embarrass them into doing something. The only thing we can do is to do something that the papers might follow’…So, I said, ‘look, we’ll have a press conference down at the river…and why don’t two of you take a bottle of water from the river, and you can bike it all the way to Albany.’ They had to take the ferry, and go up there and meet me and that would be an excuse for another press conference. And you know that’s what it was all about, biking all the way from Long Island with the water to protect the river. As predicted, early on Saturday, April 21, members of the local press met Sailor and Butler at Squassux Landing on the Carmans River to photograph them collecting the river water which they planned to present to the Republican leadership when they reached the capital. Over the next four days, the two teenagers traveled primarily on side roads, taking Long Island’s Orient Point Ferry to New London, Connecticut, biking north through the state, and then through Massachusetts. Once they reached Albany, the two met Bianchi on the steps of the State Capitol, and while handing him the bottle of river water, they posed for yet another round of photographs. During their stay in Albany, Sailor and Butler discussed the importance of the Carmans River with Duryea, representatives from the Conservation Committee and the Environmental Conservation Committee, and key Republicans and Democrats. More importantly, their trip, along with the LWV/SEQ canoe race and their other media successes, attracted enough attention to the issue, that Duryea and the Republicans could no longer ignore the Carmans River. In May, Assemblyman John Cochrane, a Republican from Bay Shore, reintroduced the legislation as a Republican-sponsored bill, which Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the following month. With the Governor’s signature, the Carmans was designated a “study river,” meaning that the DEC could begin the necessary ecological studies necessary prior to the being protected by the WSRRA. The DEC, however, did not have the resources or man-power to conduct the study. As Anthony Taormina, the DEC’s Regional Supervisor of Fish and Wildlife on Long Island, explained to the Cooley and SEQ members, he would need them to shoulder the responsibility. Cooley explained: “Tony came and asked us to get some students together and we met at Dennis’…and Tony explained what the law did, and said, ‘I don’t have enough staff to do the study that is required, are your students interested?’” The students were interested, having already gained an intimate knowledge of the river and its environs during studies conducted in Cooley’s Advanced Biology course in 1970. In the spring of that year, each of Cooley’s twenty-two students had chosen to study a particular characteristic of the river’s ecosystem, after which each of them had been required to write a detailed report as their final assignment. Their projects covered a variety of topics, including a description and general history of the river, the effects of duck farm pollution on the local ecology, and the myriad plant and animal life within the Carmans River basin. Their reports also included maps and diagrams that were hand-drawn to illustrate their findings. Little did these students know that just three years later, their findings would play an important role in the movement for the river’s preservation. That did not mean, however, that SEQ, which by 1973 comprised twenty students, was finished with the study. Over the next six months, members worked closely with Cooley and Puleston to condense the wealth of ecological information found in the 1970 study into a format which the DEC would be able to use in their final submission to the legislature. In January 1974, the SEQ sent its final report, The Carmans River Study: Recommendations for the Inclusion of the River in the New York State Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act, to Taormina and to Democratic State Senator, Leon E. Giuffreda, who was sponsoring the bill in that chamber. The nearly thirty page report included a detailed description of the river, the properties that bordered it, and its flora and fauna. The summary also included species lists which highlighted the various types of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, mollusks, and plants whose ecosystem would be jeopardized, if not eliminated, with commercial or residential development. In its concluding remarks, SEQ noted that by 1974, little if any of the natural ecosystem had been surrendered for subdivisions or strip malls; however, they stressed that preservation was “vital to provide permanent protection to the entire riverine ecosystem.” For SEQ, the threat of future development, “with its resultant pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat,” was “looming” in sections of the river which, by that time, were not protected by local statute. With their report, SEQ hoped to influence legislation “to improve [these] important resources for the benefit of future generations in terms of recreation, aesthetics, and wildlife.” Over time, the students had recognized the significant value of these three attributes. For them, the undeveloped land along the riverbanks was not simply a place pregnant with profitable possibilities. From their perspective, the river represented a natural ecosystem which countless fish, birds, plants, animals, and micro-organisms had called home. At the same time, the students had also developed a relationship with the river through recreation. Indeed, many of them had spent their formative years paddling along its shoreline, swimming in its waters, and fishing along its banks. For most SEQ members, more than just a few childhood memories were bound to the local waterway, which often fueled their desire to preserve the landscape in its natural state. As such a relationship suggests, SEQ members were not alienated from the Carmans River, a reality which had altered relations between humans and nature, specifically rivers, throughout the twentieth century United States. The amount of labor SEQ members contributed to both their ecological studies and their lobbying efforts confirm the value they recognized in nature, and in the Carmans River as an important and meaningful place. To illustrate that importance, Elizabeth Shreeve and Pamela Borg, two SEQ members slated to graduate in 1974, spent most of their senior year researching and writing a short book about the Carmans River. In The Carmans River Story: A Natural and Human History, Shreeve and Borg detailed the ever-evolving relationships that existed among local residents and the river between the early seventeenth and twentieth centuries. This included Native American tribes and English settlers, both of whom traveled down river for easy access to the Great South Bay usually for fishing, whaling, clamming, oystering, and eeling. In addition, the authors noted the river’s importance for duck hunting, ice harvesting, salt haying, and as waterpower for grain, textile, and saw mills built along its banks. Their sixty-three page book also illustrated the river’s natural history, which included information garnered from SEQ’s 1970 and 1973 ecological studies cited in the organization’s report that was sent to the DEC. As Shreeve noted in 2006, “really, the book came out of the species surveys that Art was doing…and the species surveys are in the book as appendices or something I guess.” Borg and Shreeve noted that the project, which began as only a senior year independent study, was written without the aid of modern technologies. As Borg recalled, it was written prior to the invention of the personal computer, which meant that the two teenagers had to put the booklet together completely by hand. Shreeve concurred, recalling that the project “involve[d] everything…research, assembling the materials, doing the drawings, doing the layout of the book, and interviewing.” Ultimately, their commitment to the project paid off, when, after publication, local bookstores stocked their shelves with copies. Borg admitted, however, that profit had never been the original intent. The book’s display in bookstores happened to be a “natural by-product” which “helped keep the consciousness of the local history alive.” At the same time, Shreeve and Borg periodically received small royalty checks, which they gave back to SEQ and other environmentalist organizations such as the Audubon Society. With the book’s second printing, the authors signed over their ownership rights to Post-Morrow, a local Long Island conservation foundation. And “A River Runs Through It” On June 10, 1974, six months after SEQ submitted its report to the DEC, New York’s Republican Governor Malcolm Wilson signed the Carmans River Protection Act, which had been reintroduced as a Republican-sponsored bill to ensure its passage. For the students, their movement to protect the river had come full circle, which was cause for celebration. To “complete the cycle,” members of SEQ along with Cooley, Puleston, Bianchi and several local residents, met at Squassux Landing to witness John Sailor and Mike Butler return the river water they had bottled for their trip to Albany the year before. Keeping with the celebratory mood, LWV president Regina David paddled by in her kayak with a bottle of champagne, as Bianchi lifted the state flag, noting that the Carmans was finally “a state-protected river.” However, the river’s inclusion in the WSRRA would alter land-owners’ relationships with the waterway and their property that ran along its banks. According to the WSRRA, once a river was protected, “existing land uses within the respective classified river areas may continue, but may not be altered or expanded except as permitted by the respective classifications, unless the commissioner or agency orders the discontinuance of such existing land use.” In other words, property rights under the WSRRA could be circumvented by the DEC if existing or future land use projects were harmful to the Carmans River. For sections designated as “scenic” or “recreational,” clustered residence were permissible under the law, albeit with restrictions, while residences in sections deemed “wild” were to be maintained in their natural state, with “no new structures or improvements, no development of any kind and no access by motor vehicles other than forest management.” By 1974, there were too many residential properties along the Carmans for it to be designated wild river, which limited its inclusion within the system to only scenic and recreational. Nevertheless, these designations would certainly limit the autonomy of homeowners who had previously enjoyed unregulated property rights. Local residents such as Nora Mize and James Gamaldi, who owned homes along the northern end of the river in Yaphank, recognized the need for environmental conservation, but feared what that would mean for them as property owners. In a 1974 interview, Mize explained that she believed most homeowners did “’want to preserve the area” but, at the same time queried why she should “have to petition Albany to put up a shed’” in her back yard. Mize’s teenage daughter, Joy, echoed her mother’s concerns, arguing that she did not “think it’s right for the state to come in and tell us we can’t do something.” For millions of Americans who, like Mize and her family, lived in postwar suburbia, home ownership and unfettered property rights had become the bedrock of the “American Dream,” and a physical manifestation of their economic success and independence. For these individuals, an unchecked activist state government could jeopardize the very rights which they had moved to the suburbs to obtain. Yaphank residents, such as James Gamaldi, had certainly not purchased their homes along the Carmans with the knowledge that one day it would become a state-protected river. In 2006, Gamaldi, a life-long Yaphank resident recalled the neighborhood reaction to the state’s initial survey of the riverbank, which followed the 1974 act: The only thing that was happening back then was they had people come in and surveyed the whole area and then they put up stakes and all they were saying [was] they were going to fence off the lake to the residents. Now, we had, we owned to the lake and so those people were very upset. I know of everyone that had property that bordered the lake, they tore up the stakes and said ‘this is ridiculous,’ and that kind of thing. Paralleling Mize’s assessment of land restrictions, Gamaldi recognized the need for the river’s protection but, at the same time, was also opposed to the construction of a fence across his backyard. He asserted, “You just can’t do that to me, or the rest of the people.” Interestingly enough, though unbeknownst to Gamaldi, by removing the stakes, he and his neighbors were engaging in a form of civil disobedience which had been all too common throughout the history of American Conservation. As environmental historian Karl Jacoby has illustrated in his research on the Adirondack Park in northern New York, area residents sought “vengeance” for their state-sponsored “displacement and disempowerment” from the forests they had traditionally farmed, hunted, and logged. In retaliation, locals not only continued these activities, which were redefined by the state as poaching and theft, but also set forest fires which symbolized their displeasure with the state’s interference in their lives. Similarly, in Yellowstone National Park, locals continued to use parkland and its natural bounty, in what they had always believed to be a “natural right to subsistence.” This belief, however, not only offered locals the rationalization they needed to continue hunting on state lands, but led to other forms of resistance as well, which included random fence-cutting and the killing of animals that park authorities had placed in pens. In the case of Yellowstone, fences and animal pens were physical manifestations of the state’s newly asserted authority in the region. For Mize, Gamaldi and their neighbors, the river’s protection and the possibility of a fence across their backyards represented a similar form of state authority. Nevertheless, with the stroke of his pen, Governor Wilson had given Tony Taormina the authority to do what was necessary to protect the Carmans River. Despite the fact that no fence was constructed, waterfront property rights were restricted by the 1974 act. Included in the WSRRA, the Carmans River would be under the purview of state law, to be mapped, charted, and debated over within the offices of the DEC. In essence, the Carmans was, in the words of political theorist James C. Scott, “simplified” and made “legible.” However, unlike the populations which Scott focused on in Seeing Like a State, Brookhaven residents were not unwillingly acted upon by a high modernist state. As the grassroots activism of SEQ members, their mentors, and their fellow community residents illustrate, not only was state action invited, but local knowledge and experience were both appreciated. “They all graduate and then you have to get some new ones.” In the final chapters of Bulldozer in the Countryside, Rome noted the degree to which rural plant and animal communities were undermined by mid-twentieth century suburban sprawl. Rome explained: The construction of tract housing worked havoc on wildlife communities. The bulldozed landscape offered little nourishment or shelter to birds. Though a residential subdivision eventually would support a new population of birds adapted to human settlement, the overall diversity of species often declined. By clearing away vegetation and by filling or channeling streams, builders also eliminated habitat for turtles, snakes, salamanders, frogs, and fish. When construction sediments and septic-tank effluents polluted nearby streams, the threat to wildlife populations increased. By the mid to late 1960s, the threat of such ecological devastation had spurred grassroots activism in communities throughout rural America. Indeed, as Hays has argued, “environmentalists scoured the countryside to determine the precise locations of wetlands, wild and scenic rivers, high-quality streams, undeveloped barrier islands and dunes, and other natural areas” which “represented biological systems on the point of extinction.” By the early 1970s, the Carmans River certainly represented a natural ecosystem on the verge of ecological disaster, as the threat of residential and commercial development dramatically increased along with suburban population totals. Over the course of two years, SEQ labored tirelessly to draw local and official attention, not only to the dangers posed to the Carmans River, but to the waterway’s importance as a unique natural and recreational place which, they believed, needed to be preserved. By June of 1974, SEQ’s efforts had convinced the state legislature to include the Carmans under the protection of the WSRRA. Their success, however, had not been easily achieved, and was only the result of the students’ hard work and dedication to the cause. For years, Art Cooley’s biology students had studied the flora and fauna along the riverbank, and the findings from these studies had been drafted into environmental reports for the DEC. Moreover, throughout 1973 and 1974, SEQ members had employed various tactics to force the legislature to act in the river’s favor, which included: lobbying state legislators; sponsoring petitions; hosting public events, such as the LWV-SEQ canoe race and Sailor and Butler’s bicycle trek to Albany; and the publication of Shreeve and Borg’s history of the river. Without such dedication, it is clear that the Carmans would not have become a state-protected waterway and, more than likely, would have been further developed for residential and commercial use. Rewarding SEQ’s success, the Ecology Council of America and Keep America Beautiful Inc awarded the student group top honors just one week after Governor Wilson signed the Carmans River Protection Act into law. Since John Sailor had served as the chairman of the river project, he and Cooley were flown to Washington, D.C. to receive the award at ECO America’s Youth Environmental Seminar in June 1974. According to an article in The Long Island Advance, competition for the youth award had been considerable, roughly 160 ecology clubs from across the country had been considered for the honor, which included over 60,000 students. Yet, even though the ECO award was truly appreciated, it was still merely an unexpected byproduct of the students’ efforts to protect the river they had known through childhood and adolescence. For them, it had been a place to study, a place to spend leisure time, and a place to enjoy for its natural beauty. The Carmans River also held special meaning for residents who owned homes along its banks. Unlike members of SEQ, these individuals’ relationship with the waterway had been grounded within the language of personal autonomy and the right to own and manage private property, which would be restricted after the state’s intervention. Local homeowners understood that if the river and its environs were preserved, any plans for future development or improvement of their waterfront properties would fall under the purview of the DEC. Since SEQ members were neither property owners nor taxpayers, their vision was unhindered by such economic concerns; rather, the negative ecological impact of future development and private property were paramount. Only their status as underage activists would have allowed these students to see, as the clichéd adage suggests, the forest for the trees. As their achievements exemplify, SEQ members were instrumental in the grassroots environmental movement on Long Island, New York. An acknowledgement of their successful environmental activities is instructive, for it illustrates the contributions of high school student social and political activists in the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. In the group’s first four years, students consistently lobbied state representatives hoping to inspire legislation which would preserve key areas of their local, suburban environment. SEQ repeatedly proved that high school student action groups could be successful as political and social activists. Ironically, their relative youth and inexperience played a significant role in their ability to realize the goals they set. Still, as Art Cooley adroitly noted, “they all graduate and then you have to get some new ones.” With SEQ’s first successes as a testament to the high school students’ dedication, there was no need to fear that others would not lead the group into the future.
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