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Nature Notes: In the Moorlands

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 17:32

I went to Montauk on Monday afternoon. The traffic on the major roads was horrendous, particularly so on Route 114. The state’s highway through Hither Woods showed signs of a recent torture, mangled and shredded branches sticking out from the south shoulder. I hadn’t seen that kind of torture since I last worked for East Hampton Town. Halfway along, the culprit, a shiny blue tractor equipped with the mangling device, sat at the woods’ edge west of the old dump. On Tuesday the promise of more mangling along the south side of Route 27, presumably all the way to downtown Montauk, was in store. Happily, I wouldn’t be around to witness it.

Montauk’s sidewalks were crowded with people off all ages. The smell of summer’s last hurrah filled the air. At least they were busy at having a good time. Contrast that with an almost equally as busy downtown East Hampton Village, where the people’s faces were not so gay.

I stopped at Shadmoor State Park, the place in East Hampton Town that had more rare plant species per acre than almost any other place in the state. I wanted to see how they were getting on. The parking lot was almost filled. Walkers, joggers, and bikers were on the trails. I walked toward the ocean dragging a towel through the shoulder’s vegetation both going and coming. Guess what? Three miles of trail walking and not a single tick that could be seen with the naked eye. Later, though, I found bites on my arms and legs from larval ticks no bigger than the head of a pin.

Many of the not-so-rare but equally beautiful native plants were in flower — the yellow Maryland golden asters, the pinkish-purple Joe-Pye weed, the purplish-blue slender bush clover — while several species of goldenrods were just beginning to bloom. But where were the federally endangered sandplain gerardia? The grasslands of Montauk from Fort Pond to the Point were covered with their pink blooms before World War II. Their largest Long Island population was discovered in 1982, while the late Norman Keane and the Surfside Organization were fighting Shadmoor’s potential development into 64 residential buildings. The development never materialized, the town, county, state, and feds purchased the old military watch base’s two concrete buildings and its 100 acres, now all in parkland.

I didn’t find a single sandplain gerardia or state-threatened New England shooting star. I did find a couple of ladies’ tresses orchids, but none of the other rare plants listed for the park. The grassland and heather savannah are growing up. The Nature Conservancy has a scenic easement just to the east of the largest of the two concrete military outposts, both of which are decrepit with their northern faces painted with colorful graffiti art. That easement has been seriously neglected and is growing up into a shrubland. These days, the largest population of sandplain gerardia in New York State is found thriving at a United States Fish and Wildlife Service refuge in western Sayville.

The park dearly misses its longtime caretaker, Walter Galcik, who passed away several years ago. The coastal bluffs and their marvelous hoodoos are still in good stead as they wear farther back to the north with each tropical storm or northeaster, and the land is still safe forever from development, it’s just losing its character. I guess one has to take the good with the bad. I almost crawled down the last hundred yards of the main trail. A bench or two along the way would have been a welcome relief.

Dead tired but having one last place to visit, I got back on Route 27 and continued east. I turned onto Old Montauk Highway where there was a big sign announcing the town’s Amsterdam Beach park, kept going past Indian Field, still a grassland of sorts, and stopped at a spot just a bit west of the state park, which continues on all the way to the Lighthouse. I had been to this large tract of undeveloped land between the road and the ocean several times while serving as the town’s natural resources director and, once more after retirement, in 2016. It is 39 acres big and the choicest piece of oak and American holly heathland left in Montauk.

I had heard through the grapevine that about 20 percent of it had been cleared. I was astonished to see it so decimated, knowing that it was the biggest clearing of native woodland in years without a permit. I reported it to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, to East Hampton’s Code Enforcement, to the town’s attorneys, and two of the South Fork’s local newspapers. I wrote about it in “Nature Notes” in The East Hampton Star. Still, nothing was done. Someone in Code Enforcement told me it was a mistake.

On Monday I wanted to see how it was progressing. Was it coming back as an oak-holly heathland, or coming back as weeds. I found a few native plants — wild fox grape, the viburnum shrub, wild raisin — but I didn’t find any American holly, one of the keystone species of coastal Montauk wildlands. I did find lots of non-natives, among them Queen Anne’s lace, clover, wineberry, Japanese honeysuckle, and one of the worst Eurasian plant imports ever, now taking over much of Montauk all the way to the Point, mugwort!

To clear 10 acres without a permit is a major violation according to the East Hampton Town Code. The land belongs to a holding company under the name of Salzman, and as far as I can tell, is not in for development. Karen Blumer, a native Long Islander with many years as a practicing plant ecologist under her belt, has postulated a hypothesis for native lands that have been cut or burned over. She says leave it alone and eventually it will grow back into its original form. It works for fire-dependent pitch forests that have been burnt over. Witness the regrowth of multitudinous pitch pines on both sides of Sunrise Highway in the Westhampton area in the wake of the very large wildfire of 1995. But it remains to be seen if oak-holly heathlands will grow back accordingly. My latest observations suggest otherwise.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].

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