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Steve Englebright

Mute swans peruse the Setauket Harbor waters. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Susan Risoli

Mute swans might soon have an easier relationship with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, if a bill recently passed through the York State Legislature is signed into law.

The legislation was written to require DEC to provide scientific documentation that mute swans are a threat to the environment. Also, before taking any action to control the state’s mute swan population, the DEC would have to hold at least two public hearings and give the public at least 45 days to comment on its plans for dealing with the birds.

The legislation package passed the state Assembly June 9 and had passed the state Senate on April 22.

Mute swans, a non-native species from Europe, are considered an invasive species, according to the state DEC. Trumpeter swans, also found in New York, are native to the region and are not included in the DEC’s management plan.

The agency’s proposed mute swan management plan, released in March, called for limiting the statewide population to 800 birds. By 2002, there were more than 2,000 mute swans downstate and 200 upstate, the report said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the mute swan legislation was a response to public concern “that had been raised, particularly about the lack of appropriate science to justify this eradication of a very beautiful animal” that inspires “a sense of curiosity about the environment,” particularly among children.

In April, Englebright and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), also a member of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, sent DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife a letter saying the agency disregarded the state Legislature’s requests for “full documentation of the scientific basis for management decisions” and requests for “less reliance on lethal management measures. The DEC has failed to provide compelling scientific information as to why such an aggressive management strategy is being pursued.”

DEC spokesman Jomo Miller said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the letter from Englebright and Cymbrowitz “as part of its review of the comments received” on the draft management plan. The DEC hopes to adopt a final plan later this summer, Miller said.

“At that time, we will provide a response to the principal comments received, as we did for comments on the first draft of the plan,” he said.

In an interview, Englebright said the legislation is “not just an exercise in willfulness on our part but an exercise in democracy,” and it reflects “a very high interest” from the public about the fate of the swans.

The legislation would require DEC to “give priority to nonlethal management techniques” for controlling the mute swan population. The proposed plan said it does not advocate any specific method of controlling the population, and because many people object to the use of lethal control methods, especially killing adult birds, the DEC will use “nonlethal” methods where practical and timely to achieve the management objectives, the report said.

Research shows that mute swans “can significantly reduce the availability of submerged aquatic vegetation in wetland ecosystems” depending on the number of swans relative to the size of the area being considered, the spokesperson said.

The DEC said in the draft management plan that mute swans hurt the environment by eating and uprooting large quantities of plants that are food for fish and other wildlife. Swan feces have high levels of coliform bacteria, which can make waters unsafe for drinking, swimming and shell fishing, the document said. Their presence near airports poses “a serious threat to aviation,” the plan said. It also said that territorial swans have been known to attack people and other birds.

State funds should help bolster the Stephen D. Matthews Nature Preserve. Photo from Three Village Community Trust

The North Shore region is cashing in on its green pastures thanks to $6,000 in grant funding, the Three Village Community Trust said this week.

Three Village was one of three Long Island trusts to be awarded the money through the state’s Conservation Partnership Program, administered under the Land Trust Alliance, and will utilize the money to bulk up its conservation management of the roughly 10-acre Stephen D. Matthews Nature Preserve, Trust President Cynthia Barnes said.

“The grant will help tighten up the way we look after the preserve and will provide for more targeted control of the invasive species that threaten its native flora and fauna,” she said. “This grant represents an investment of $8,000 in the Stephen D. Matthews Nature Preserve.”

Barnes said the money would help enhance monitoring and management protocols at the preserve while also establishing a volunteer training and stewardship program. The end result, she said, should make for a more volunteer-friendly atmosphere to attract residents in the nearby communities of Poquott and beyond.

Louise Harrison, a conservation biologist and principal of the consulting firm known as Conservation and Natural Areas Planning, said interest in the area has been at an all-time high among Poquott natives.

“Poquott’s citizens turned out in large numbers for the local civic association meeting last month, primarily to hear about the preserve,” she said. “They had plenty of questions for me. We’re looking to recruit volunteer stewards who want to help monitor and manage the preserve and also to study it. We’ll be offering new and expanded programs to connect directly with the community that the Trust serves.”

Barnes said the wooded strip that is the Stephen D. Matthews Nature Preserve traverses land that is bordering communities in Port Jefferson and Poquott and includes several coastal forest types. It acts as a buffer between Poquott and Port Jefferson’s power generation station and is particularly vulnerable to invasive species because of its narrow configuration with long boundaries.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) heralded the grant funding as a necessary step in the North Shore’s environmental health.

“It is crucial that our state continue to fund and assist local organizations like the Three Village Community Trust to safeguard our environment. This funding, along with community involvement, will help protect this valuable property, ensure its preservation for years to come and that will benefit our entire regions,” Flanagan said.

The major portion of the preserve, bounced by two sides on Washington Street and Chestnut Avenue, consists of many native plant species. Yet, an especially narrow portion that runs just along Washington Avenue and meets Route 25A has been thickly invaded by exotic species of vines and damaged by tree-fall from storms, Barnes said.

“This nature preserve is an important buffer between the Port Jefferson Power Plant and the residential village of Poquott,” said Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee. “With this new grant in hand, the Three Village Community Trust will be able to work with village residents to restore and improve the ecological resiliency of this lovely woodland.”

The funding stemmed from a total $1.8 million that Gov. Andrew Cuomo allocated in 2015 Conservation Partnership Program grants for 55 nonprofit land trusts throughout the state. Three Village was announced as one of the recipients at a ceremony kicking off Earth Day at the end of April, along with two others on Long Island — the Peconic Land Trust in Southampton and the North Shore Land Alliance in Westbury.

Stony Brook University runs a lab on the waterfront at Flax Pond and researchers there say they worry about the deteriorating water quality there and its impact on the wildlife. Photo by Phil Corso

The Village of Old Field is looking to do some ecological spring cleaning.

Flax Pond, a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore, is in dire need of dredging before it deteriorates into an environmental disaster, nearby residents and advocates have contested. The pond’s last dredge was in 1947.

Residents’ names have been flooding a petition touting more than 210 signatures to date calling for action at the inlet there.

John Robinson, who lives near the water with his wife Fredelle and is at the mercy of the declining water quality there, has been helping circulate that petition and said the buildup of sand within the inlet has prevented the pond from properly emptying at low tide. He said he fears the region is just one major storm away from forcing the inlet to close off completely, which would have devastating effects on the ecosystem there, as the inlet acts as a marine nursery for the Long Island Sound.

“We have been watching the pond deteriorate over the last quarter of a century,” he said. “I’ve seen really major changes in the vegetation, the depth and the sea life. There are a lot of things going on, but one key aspect of this is the loss of adequate outflow.”

Fredelle Robinson, an avid fisher and nature lover, said the negative impacts were both aesthetic and environmental. Not only is the wildlife changing, but her waterfront home could be at risk if the water does not drain, she said.

“I used to stand in the inlet at night and fish. We could hear the striped bass and their tails flopping in the water,” she said. “You just don’t hear that anymore. Saltwater marshes all over are under stress and this is just another example.”

Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees also called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

A throng of concerned citizens, elected officials and Stony Brook University researchers gathered at the Childs Mansion near the inlet Sunday for a lecture sponsored by the Friends of Flax Pond to explore ways to address the clogging.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has been at the forefront of the Friends of Flax Pond’s efforts to address the deterioration on the water and spoke at the group’s Sunday panel. He said there were many factors that went into the best course of action for both the inlet and the surrounding community, all of which needed to be ironed out before taxpayer dollars get thrown into the mix.

“While we’re searching for money to do something to make sure the inlet doesn’t close, we’re also searching for answers to the questions of how to actually write a description of what we’d like to have done,” Englebright said. “We don’t have a scope of work yet that is well defined.”

Nancy Grant, program director with the 12-year-old grassroots Friends of Flax Pond group, said the large mound of sand in the middle of the inlet has gotten worse with each passing year. And if not addressed, the saltwater pond could potentially revert back to a freshwater body, which it has not been for nearly 200 years, she said.

“Flax Pond serves as a buffer to that whole area as far as flooding is concerned. It has also been supporting a lot of the health of the Long Island Sound,” Grant said. “It absorbs the crashing of the waves. There are homes at risk. There are species at risk.”

Grant’s group hosts a lecture series each winter and also sponsors various environmental workshops in conjunction with Stony Brook University, which works out of a lab directly on the inlet. Steve Abrams, manager of the lab, described Flax Pond as one of the most pristine marshes on all of Long Island. He said a dredging was necessary in order to sustain marine life at the inlet.

“It has been really important for studying plants and animals in a relatively natural state. But over the last number of years, serious storms have changed things,” he said. “Tides don’t drain the way they should. It would be unfortunate if species there lost their place to live and it would be less than desirable for research.”

Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said Flax Pond was an example of what the Long Island Sound faces as a whole and includes factors beyond the small Village of Old Field. He said old-fashioned power plants, like one in nearby Port Jefferson, dump warm water into the sound, which translates directly into the Flax inlet. He cited recent legislation out of the Town of Brookhaven requiring improved wastewater standards in the Carmans River on the South Shore and said similar action was needed on the north end.

“We must take a hard look at how we are going to stop this loop if we intend on preserving our waterways for future generations,” Nuzzo said.