Environment & Nature

Christopher Gobler. Photo by Conor Harrigan

By Daniel Dunaief

When they can’t stand the heat, bay scallops can’t get out of the proverbial kitchen.

A key commercial shellfish with landings data putting them in the top five fisheries in New York, particularly in the Peconic Bay, bay scallops populations have declined precipitously during a combination of warmer waters and low oxygen.

In a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, Christopher Gobler, Stony Brook University Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation and Stephen Tomasetti, a former Stony Brook graduate student, along with several other researchers, showed through lab and field experiments as well as remote sensing and long-term monitoring data analysis how these environmental changes threaten the survival of bay scallops.

Stephen Tomasetti. Photo by Nancy L. Ford/ Hamilton College

Bay scallops are “quite sensitive to different stressors in the environment,” said Tomasetti, who completed his PhD last spring and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Of the regional shellfish, bay scallops are the most sensitive to environmental stress.

Indeed, since 2019, bay scallops have declined by between 95 and 99 percent amid overall warming temperatures and extended heat waves. These declines have led to the declaration of a federal fishery disaster in the Empire State.

Tomasetti used satellite data to characterize daily summer temperatures from 2003 to 2020, which showed significant warming across most of the bay scallop range from New York to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He monitored four sites with sensors in the water in addition to satellite data during a field deployment with scallops.

At the warmest site, which was in Flanders Bay, New York, the temperature was above the 90th percentile of its long term average during an eight-day period that overlapped with the scallop deployment. The bay scallops in Flanders Bay were “all dead by the end of the heat wave event,” Tomasetti said.

At the same time, low levels of oxygen hurt the bay scallops which, like numerous other shellfish, feed on phytoplankton. Oxygen levels are declining in some of these bays as nitrogen from fertilizers and septic systems enter these waterways. High nitrogen levels encourage the growth of algae. When the algae die, they decay, which uses up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide into the water.

Field and lab studies

In the field, Tomasetti measured the heartbeat of bay scallops in East Harbor, Massachusetts by putting optical infrared sensors on them that took heartbeat readings every 15 minutes for a month.

Stephen Tomasetti conducts field work in East Harbor during the summer of 2020.

When the average daily temperature increased, their average heart rate climbed, which the scientists used as a proxy for their respiration rate. A higher respiration rate meant that the scallop was expending energy more rapidly, potentially leading to reductions of energy reserves.

Additionally, Tomasetti measured how quickly the scallops fed on algae in the lab under warm temperatures and low oxygen.  These conditions caused the scallops to stop feeding or to feed slowly. Tomasetti interpreted this as a sign that they were waiting out the stress.

In the lab, bay scallops in the same conditions as the bays from Long Island to Massachusetts had the same reactions.

While a collection of fish and invertebrates feed on bay scallops, the effect of their die off on the food web wasn’t likely severe.

“I think there are other prey items that are likely redundant with scallops that cushion the impact,” Gobler explained in an email.


Stephen Tomasetti with his wife Kate Rubenstein in East Harbor during the summer of 2020.

As for solutions, global warming, while an important effort for countries across the planet, requires coordination, cooperation and compliance to reduce greenhouse gases and lower the world’s carbon footprint.

On a more local and immediate scale, people on Long Island can help with the health of the local ecosystem and the shellfish population by reducing and controlling the chemicals that run off into local waters.

Waste management practices that limit nutrients are “super helpful,” Tomasetti said. “Supporting restoration (like the clam sanctuaries across Long Island that are increasing the filtration capacities of bays) is good.”

Gobler is encouraged by county, state and federal official responses to problems such as the decline in bay scallops, including the declaration of a federal disaster.

Long Island experience

A graduate student at Stony Brook for five years, Tomasetti was pleasantly surprised with the environment.

He had lived in New York City, where he taught high school biology for five years, before starting his PhD.

His perception was that Long Island was “a giant suburb” of New York. That perspective changed when he moved to Riverhead and enjoyed the pine forest, among other natural resources.

He and his wife Kate Rubenstein, whom he met while teaching, enjoyed sitting in their backyard and watching wild turkeys walking through their property, while deer grazed on their plant life.

Initially interested in literature at the University of Central Florida, Tomasetti took a biology course that was a prerequisite for another class he wanted to take. After completing these two biology classes, he changed his college and career plans.

Teaching high school brought him into contact with researchers, where he saw science in action and decided to contribute to the field.

At Hamilton College, Tomasetti has started teaching and is putting together his research plan, which will likely involve examining trends in water quality and temperature. He will move to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, MD this fall, where he will be an assistant professor in coastal environmental science.

As for his work with bay scallops and other shellfish on Long Island, Tomasetti looked at the dynamics of coastal systems and impacts of extreme events on economically important shellfish in the area.

Tomasetti is not just a scientist; he is also a consumer of shellfish.  His favorite is sea scallops, which he eats a host of ways, although he’s particularly fond of the pan seared option.

Striped Skunk. Photo by Dan Dzuirisn/Wikimedia Commons

By John L. Turner

John Turner

Although the hike was twenty-four years ago, I remember the experience as if it had happened last week. 

I was heading west along an old asphalt road, broken up by time and weather and flanked on both sides by an interwoven  fabric of dwarf pines and scrub oaks, vegetation typical to the globally rare Dwarf Pine Plains of Westhampton. Ahead and to my left I suddenly noticed several birds making a commotion. A pair of brown thrashers and a rufous-sided towhee were flitting up and down around a large clump of scrub oak, a clear signal that something had them agitated.  My interest piqued, I went to investigate. 

Coming around a rounded clump of scrub oak I saw the target of their concern — a striped skunk ten to twelve feet away, actively feeding on what I believe was a hatch of flying termites which formed a gauzy cloud above the skunk. (Several years earlier an intense wildfire roared through this area killing even the fire resistant scrub oaks — I surmised the termites were feeding on the decaying wood of the large, somewhat exposed rootstocks.) 

So excited was I by this first live sighting of a skunk on Long Island that I lost my common sense and got closer than I should have, trying to get a better idea of what it was eating. That I crossed the line became immediately clear when the skunk turned its back to me and stomped the ground with its front feet — a telltale sign a skunk is agitated and will likely spray. Obviously not wishing for this odoriferous outcome, I quickly (and comically) turned around and ran thirty or more feet, leaping over and around blueberry and huckleberry bushes and fallen logs to gain a safe distance, desperately hoping to avoid getting sprayed as I dashed away.  My hope became reality as the skunk didn’t spray.  

Several years later, this time in the southeast sector of the Dwarf Pine Plains, I had my second sighting of a skunk. It was early evening and I was with a friend birding a bit before nightfall at which time we were going to listen for whip-poor-wills.  We headed east on a wide sandy trail when a striped skunk suddenly broke out of the dwarf pines  and started to waddle toward us. It came within 25-30 feet of us before nonchalantly breaking back into the thicket.

The most recent (and shortest) sighting of a skunk occurred in October of 2021.  Driving west on Sound Avenue around dusk an animal ambled across the road about a mile west of Briermere Farms (famous for its pies). This sighting led me to think about the first several experiences I had with striped skunks on Long Island — individuals that unlike the experience above, unfortunately all involved roadkills and all in the Pine Barrens — along County Routes 111 in Manorville, 51 in western Southampton, and 94 (Nugent Drive) in Calverton.      

All of the sightings were exciting to me as they indicated that this distinctive mammal was still part of Long Island’s fauna and that it hadn’t disappeared. For several decades before naturalists weren’t sure of its status here as there were few if any reports of skunk sightings. Some feared it had been extirpated from Long Island. 

The striped skunk is a striking and beautiful animal, reminiscent of a negative photo image involving the stark contrast of black and white.  It has a black face with a white line running down the nose between the eyes.  The top of the head is white as if wearing a cap of cotton or snow with the white continuing down the back in two slightly separated racing stripes which sandwich a black back and rump. The bottom of the animal including its legs and feet is black. The rather fluffy tail is a mixture of black and white hairs. All in all, it is a most distinctive mammal!  

Three other skunk species occur in the United States ­— the spotted skunk, hog-nosed skunk, and hooded skunk. These are primarily western species.  Skunks were long grouped  with the “mustelid” mammals,  animals such as otters, badgers and weasels; they have since been broken out of this group and are now in their own mammalian family.  

Paul F. Connor, in his definitive 1971 New York State Museum publication “The Mammals of Long Island, New York,” had much to say about the species. He notes the skunk was once common on Long Island but became much less so in the twentieth century.  He ascribes two reasons for its decline. One is as roadkill victims in the ever increasing network of roads constructed on Long Island over the years (the home range of male skunks involves many hundreds of acres over which they wander in their search for food and mates) ensuring in most places here they will intersect a road.  The second reason for decline was due to poisoning from the widespread use on eastern Long Island of Paris Green, an arsenic based pesticide used to control the Colorado Potato beetle which skunks apparently ate with devastating results.  (Skunks readily eat insects — remember the episode above where I almost got sprayed?). 

During Connor’s survey he found only one skunk — in 1961, a road-killed animal near Sag Harbor, although he did find ample signs of skunk in the form of droppings, tracks, its tell-tale odor, even finding a den — in the pine barrens of Manorville. Connor notes several reports by other observers who saw skunks in the early 1960s in Montauk, Calverton, Napeague (Hither Hills State Park), and Yaphank, even as far west as the North Hills region of northwestern Nassau County.  

Connor mentions Daniel Denton’s earlier account (1670) of striped skunks on Long Island, stating they were once common and, surprisingly, were widely eaten by Indigenous people.  The famous naturalist Roy Latham backs this up by stating, in personal communication, to Connor: “the skunk was one of the more common mammals discovered in his Indian archeological excavations on eastern Long Island, found at most sites.” 

Remarkably, beaver and wolves, species long ago eradicated from Long Island, were also found at these sites. Latham also reported to Connor observing a pair of albino skunks in Montauk, in June of 1928. 

It is clear the striped skunk is hanging on here and, in fact, appears to be slowly rebounding. According to a Dec. 12, 2022, Newsday article written by Joan Gralla, recent skunk sightings have occurred in Smithtown, Commack, and Northport and a colleague, Dave Taft, recently mentioned to me in a phone conversation of a road-kill skunk he saw on the shoulder of the Cross Island Expressway in Queens. Tim Green, a manager in the Environmental Protection Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, reports that skunks are “fairly common but low numbers” at the property and recently saw a road-killed skunk on Middle Country Road in Calverton.   

The acquisition of so much parkland, and thus wildlife habitat, throughout Long Island — especially the preservation of tens of thousands of contiguous acres of Pine Barrens throughout central Suffolk County — gives reason for optimism that Pepe Le Pew will long remain a distinctive and unique component of Long Island’s fauna.

The Seatuck Environmental Association is interested in better understanding the presence and distribution of striped skunk and other mammals native to Long Island. To this end, Seatuck has launched a 2022 version of Paul Connor’s seminal 1971 report through its Long Island Mammal Survey and you can contribute to it as a “Citizen Scientist.”  This initiative will involve the use of trail cams to detect mammals and experts will utilize live traps to confirm the presence of small mammal species like flying squirrels, shrews, moles, and mice. If you wish to contribute sightings you can do this through the iNaturalist website. 

An informative program entitled “Terrestrial Mammals of Long Island,” given by Mike Bottini as part of Seatuck’s Community Science Webinar series, is available at https://seatuck.org/community-science-webinars/.  Mike is a wildlife biologist at Seatuck who you may know through his important work in tracking the recovery of river otters on Long Island (a future “Nature Matters” column!) 

I hope you see a skunk during one of your hikes or journeys in the wilds of Long Island. If you do, just remember, unlike me, to keep your distance! 

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

Photo by Michael Hall


Michael Hall of Port Jefferson snapped this photo of Conscience Bay in Setauket with his iPhone 12 on Feb. 1. He writes, “My wife Christina and I were walking in the northern, wooded section of Frank Melville Memorial Park on this cool winter day. The tide was so low we were able to walk into the tidal grasses. The layered colors of this erratic boulder caught my eye.”

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Braving the bugs, Alistair Rogers (right) and his colleague Stefanie Lasota collect leaf samples in Alaska for analysis. Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt

By Daniel Dunaief

Alistair Rogers lives, thinks and works on opposite extremes.

At the same time that he gathers information from the frigid Arctic, he is also analyzing data from the sweltering tropical forests of Panama and Brazil. He visits both regions annually and, within one eight-day span, saw a Polar Bear in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow), Alaska and a tarantula in Brazil.

Alistair Rogers. Photo from BNL

That’s not where the extremes end. Rogers is also studying plants at the physiological level to understand how best to represent processes such as photosynthesis, respiration and stomatal conductance in climate models.

The leader of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science & Technology Group in the Environmental and Climate Sciences Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Rogers recently was honored as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The AAAS has named fellows every year since 1874 to recognize their contributions to the advancement of science. Previous honorees included astronaut and former Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, a founding member of the NAACP and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and inventor Thomas Edison.

Lisa Ainsworth, Research Leaders of the Global Change in Photosynthesis Unit for the USDA Research Service, nominated Rogers, who served as a mentor for her when she conducted her PhD research.

“[Rogers] is one of the world’s authorities on understanding how plants respond to atmospheric change and in particular rising carbon dioxide concentration,” Ainsworth said. He’s an experimentalist who “built a bridge to the scientific computational modeling community.”

Ainsworth suggested she would not have the career she developed if it weren’t for the support she received from Rogers.

Rogers, who the Department of Energy recognized as an Outstanding Mentor three times and has been at BNL since 1998, “makes you believe in yourself when you don’t have any reason to do that. He believes in you before you know you should believe in yourself,” Ainsworth said. For his part, Rogers is “delighted to be honored and recognized as a fellow.”

Carbon dioxide sinks

For all the extremes in his work, Rogers has been collecting data from plants to address a range of questions, including how they will react to and affect environmental changes caused by global warming.

Through photosynthesis, plants are responsible for absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide humans produce through the burning of fossil fuels.

The uptake of carbon dioxide by plants and oceans has limited warming so far to 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial temperatures. Without such carbon dioxide removal by oceans and plants, the temperature would already be 3 degrees warmer.

The models his work informs are trying to understand what will happen to the carbon dioxide subsidy in the future.

“In order to work out how warm it’s going to get, you need to know the carbon dioxide concentration and the climate sensitivity (how much warmer it will get for a given amount of carbon dioxide),” he explained in an email.

Photosynthesis is less efficient at higher temperatures, but is also more efficient amid an increased amount of carbon dioxide. Drier air also reduces the efficiency of the process as plants close their stomata to conserve water, which restricts carbon dioxide supply to their chloroplasts.

The transfer of water from land to the atmosphere most often occurs through stomata, so understanding the way these pores open and close is important in predicting cloud formation and other land-atmosphere interactions.

Ainsworth described how a typical day of field work gathering data could last for 16 hours. She appreciated how Rogers worked and played hard — he is a cyclist and a skier — while keeping the work fun. Indeed, Ainsworth said Rogers, on regular calls with two other professors, blends discussions about grants and work decisions with their first choice for their guesses at the New York Times wordle game.

Leadership roles

In addition to his leadership role at BNL, Rogers is also part of the leadership teams for the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment — Arctic and the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment —Tropics.

Rogers said the Arctic is seeing the biggest increase in temperature relative to anywhere else on the planet faster because of climate feedback. When ice and snow melt, it reveals surfaces that absorb more heat.

The tropics, meanwhile, have been more stable, although the region is expected to experience hotter, drier temperatures in the coming decades as well.

Alistair Rogers. Photo from BNL

The Department of Energy is studying these biomes because they are climatically sensitive, globally important and poorly represented in climate models.

Rogers is working with other scientists at BNL and around the world to understand these processes to feed his data collection and analysis into global models.

Using an analogy for developing these models, Rogers suggested trying to predict the time it would take to get to the airport. A traveler would need to know the distance and the mode of transport — whether she was walking, biking or riding in a car.

A model predicting the travel time would make assumptions about how fast a person could go in a car, while factoring in other data like the weather and traffic density at a particular time to anticipate the speed.

If the traffic model wasn’t sure of the maximum possible speed of a vehicle, the error associated with predicting the arrival time could be large, particularly when considering the difference between traveling in a steamroller or a Lamborghini on empty roads.

Climate models use a similar process. By studying the species of plants, Rogers can tell the models whether the plants are the equivalent of sports cars or steamrollers.

Big picture

The worst case scenario of earlier models is highly unlikely, although the scenario of a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide also hasn’t occurred. The models, however, still suggest that changes in human behavior are critical to protecting the future of the planet against the effects of climate change.

Rogers is encouraged by the declining cost of solar energy and the work developing countries have done to bypass some of the more polluting sources of energy from the industrial revolution. He is also pleased by the commitment from the Department of Energy to look for climate change solutions.

These elements “represent great opportunities for scientists like me” to work on these problems.


William Honor snapped this stunning photo of Stony Brook Harbor at sunset on Jan. 30. Did you know that sunsets are actually more vivid in the winter? It’s all science! The Earth spins closer to the sun in winter, and the angle the sun takes setting makes sunset colors last a bit longer. Humidity is also lower in the winter, and the air is cleaner, causing purer colors to be splashed across the sky.

Send your Photo of the Week to [email protected]

Photo from the Reboli Center

The Reboli Center for Art and History, 64 Main St., Stony Brook continues its Third Friday series on Feb. 17 with a presentation titled The Enchanted Islands — Galapagos with guest speakers Carl Safina and Patricia Paladines from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The volcanic islands 600 miles west of the Pacific coast of South America have lured humans for hundreds of years. In 1535 a Spanish galleon carrying the Bishop of Panama found itself drifting helplessly in a no-wind situation near the islands. The crew, including the Bishop—finding themselves running out of water—staggered ashore. For two days they searched the land of black rocks finding nothing to alleviate their thirst. In desperation they began eating the island’s cacti, squeezing out the water these succulent plants retain. Unimpressed with the volcanic oasis that saved his life, the Bishop wrote in his journal that what earth the islands have, “is like a slag, worthless.”

Herman Melville also passed through the Galapagos aboard the whaler Acushnet, drawing inspiration for his most famous novel, Moby-Dick. But the most paradigm shifting visit was made 300 years after the cactus eating Bishop, with the arrival of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. His observations in the Galapagos Islands changed the way we understand the origins of life. But at first arrival, Darwin did not immediately see the beauty in the animals that greeted him. Upon seeing the islands’ endemic marine iguana, he noted, “The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large…most disgusting, clumsy Lizards…They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl.”

As the world celebrates Charles Darwin’s 224th birthday this month, Safina and Paladines will share their personal observations of the enchanting islands, the unique life forms that inhabit the rugged landscape, and the conservation efforts that now protect this crucible of evolutionary understanding.

This family-friendly event is free to the public and no reservations are required to attend. Refreshments will be served. For more information, call 631-751-7707 or visit www.rebolicenter.org.

Floating humpback whale offshore of Delaware. Photo courtesy the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute

This year has been tough for the population of humpback whales, as eight of them from Maine to Florida have had so-called unusual mortality events as at Feb. 7.

Indeed, a 41-foot humpback whale was discovered washed up Jan. 30 at Lido Beach on the South Shore. The whale likely died after a vessel strike, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Officials said.

Threats to whales in the area include getting hit by boats, becoming entangled in fishing lines and ocean noise.

The last of these potential dangers to humpbacks has received considerable attention from some members of the popular press, who have suggested that the process of installing wind farms along the coastline has or may create the kind of noises that can cause trauma to whale ears and that might throw a whale off course in its search for food.

To provide a broader context, unusual mortality events have been occurring for humpback whales since 2016, as 180 have been stranded along East Coast states since that time, according to NOAA data.

Scientists were able to study about half of the total humpback whale strandings from 2016 and attributed about 40% to ship strike or entanglements. The rest either died from starvation, parasites, inconclusive causes, or were in places where it would have been difficult to study and analyze them. 

The combination of whales distracted by feeding and boat traffic has led to some of the deaths.

“Our waterways are one of the busiest on Earth,” said Nomi Dayan, executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor. “During busy eating months, when they are gorging, it’s harder to pay attention” to what’s around them.

Many of these humpback whale deaths occurred during periods when wind farm activity was low along the Eastern Seaboard.

“What we’re seeing right now [in terms of whale strandings] is something that has been going on for years,” said Lesley Thorne, associate professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. 

In a press conference last month, officials suggested that the wind farms, which are designed to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, cut down on carbon emissions and slow global warming, are not likely to make what is already a challenging period for humpbacks even worse.

“At this point, based on the information that we do have, we do not believe the evidence supports that those planned construction activities would exacerbate or compound these ongoing unusual mortality events,” Ben Laws, biologist with NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, said during a Jan. 18 conference call with reporters.

‘What we’re seeing right now [in terms of whale strandings] is something that has been going on for years.’

— Lesley Thorne

As part of the investigation process, NOAA has brought together an independent team of scientists to coordinate with the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events to review data, sample stranded whales and determine the next steps for this investigation.

The scientists include marine mammal stranding network members, academics and veterinarians with local state and federal biologists.

At this point, most of the surveys off the coasts of New York and New Jersey are “characterizing the seafloor and the sub-bottom for engineering purposes for the foundation of offshore wind facilities as well as looking at cable burial risks along that route,” Brian Hooker, marine biologist in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said on the press call.

Slower boat speeds

Reducing boat speeds in areas where whales are likely hunting for food or migrating can reduce the likelihood of vessel strikes and, in the event of contact, can improve the outcome for whales.

“What’s been demonstrated in the past is that, with faster vessels, collisions are more likely to occur and it’s more likely for that collision to be fatal,” Thorne said. The specific speeds or thresholds that are more likely to cause fatal collisions vary depending on the whale species.

The whales around Long Island include sei whales, North Atlantic right whales, finback whales, minke whales and, rarely, blue whales, according to Dayan.

Some management strategies for a host of whales such as the North Atlantic right whale include seasonal management areas, in which boats around a particular area during a specific season are required to travel more slowly.

Linzer Tarts

Eagle Scout candidate Matthew Petrie, a Life Scout from Troop 204, will hold a Bake Sale fundraiser on Saturday, Feb. 11 at Tuscany Gourmet Market, 691 Route 25A, Miller Place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will feature all kinds of baked goods for the upcoming holidays including heart-shaped linzer tarts. All proceeds will go towards improving the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail in the spring.  

An aerial shot of Carlson Corp. property in Kings Park. Photo from Town of Smithtown

As the number of people signing the Change.org petition against a Kings Park rail yard grows, the property owner said the plan would benefit Smithtown and Huntington.

In the last few weeks, residents of Kings Park and the surrounding areas, including Fort Salonga and Commack, have voiced their opposition to a proposed rail yard. More than 2,000 people have signed the Change.org petition titled “We Oppose Townline Rail Terminal.”

Townline Rail Terminal LLC, an affiliate of CarlsonCorp, owned by Toby Carlson with property on Meadow Glen Road in Kings Park, proposed to the Surface Transportation Board — an independent federal agency — a plan that asks for railroad tracks to be used for commercial use. The proposed rail spur construction would extend approximately 5,000 feet off the Long Island Rail Road Port Jefferson Branch line and be located near Pulaski and Town Line roads. Among the uses would be the disposal of incinerated ash and construction debris using diesel freight trains. Incinerated ash would be trucked between Covanta waste facility on Town Line Road in East Northport and the rail terminal.

Petitioners on Change.org have cited concerns about the rail spur being too close to where children play and homes; health risks associated with diesel exhaust and incinerated ash; diesel trains operating between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.; the impact on the quality of life; noise and possible water pollution; negative impact on home values; and the lack of notice provided to residents about the project.

Representatives and members of the Commack Community Association, Fort Salonga Association and the revived Townline Association have also spoken out against the project at meetings, on social media and on the organizations’ websites.

The use of rail over trucking has received support from Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

Bob Semprini, Commack Community Association president, said in a phone interview that local elected officials have always been helpful based on his experiences in the past. In this case, he feels “it’s a poor decision on their part.” He said that elected officials and Carlson cite the closing of the Town of Brookhaven landfill in 2024 as the reason for opening the rail yard.

“The bottom line is this, they are selling a bill of goods to the community that if this does not happen, we’re all screwed — and this is not the case,” Semprini said.

He added that he has heard that while the Brookhaven landfill is scheduled to close in 2024, it may only close partially next year and there will still be the potential of sending ash to the town. A request for comment from the Town of Brookhaven to confirm was not answered by press time. He added local carting companies are working on plans to transport off Long Island, and if Covanta was open to it, one of those companies could transport the incinerator’s ash.

Semprini added that while Toby Carlson has said the rail spur would lessen the number of trucks on local roads, many feel if the project goes through, there will be more trucks.

He said the community and civic associations are ready to work against the proposal. 

“We always have to fight for our quality of life in this town, and it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

Carlson defends rail yard

In a telephone interview, Toby Carlson said the industrial area in Kings Park is ideal for such a rail yard as the businesses in the area historically have used construction materials such as gravel, stone, brick and cement, and also because Covanta produces ash.

The Northport resident said that 12,000 to 14,000 truckloads of material a year travel the roads to supply the area’s needs, and the rail terminal could potentially take “tens of thousands of trucks off the road.”

“Rail is the most efficient form of transportation,” Carlson said. “It’s the most environmentally-sound form of transportation, and to be able to consolidate all those loads that are coming in will take trucks off the road.”

He added that the rail spur would help when the Brookhaven landfill closes next year.

“At the end of the day, what we’re just trying to do is consolidate everything into a plan that makes sense,” Carlson said.

He said residents protesting the plan are not looking at the “longer-term picture of how our society has changed and how we’re all consumption based.”

He added that the only way to help fix the garbage problem is to make a concerted effort to reduce the materials we consume.

“We always want to push our solution somewhere else, into somebody else’s backyard, but I think regionally, locally, we need to solve our own solid waste issues,” he said, adding, “What about the hundreds of thousands of people that live out in Brookhaven that don’t want our stuff coming to them anymore?”

He said during the night, one train, which will run along the Port Jefferson line, will travel along the rail with approximately 20 to 27 cars.

“Materials will come in the night, we’ll drop that set of train cars off and that same train power unit will pick up 27 loaded cars, and take them out once per day, five days a week.”

He said the materials brought in are used locally and will stay in the Smithtown and Huntington areas. 

“We are not supplying Babylon,” he said. “It’s really a regional solution for Smithtown and Huntington needs.”

Carlson said there would be an environmental review process, and if the proposal receives approval from the STB, it will still be a years-long process. Proposed buildings and site work would be subjected to Town of Smithtown approval.

As for residents’ concerns, he said some issues would be addressed with the rail grade closest to residents being 25 feet below the elevation of the existing Long Island Rail Road grade. There will also be a planted berm at least 15 feet high about the rail ground, an approximately 180 feet vegetative buffer. He is also open to sound walls, he said, “and other mitigation measures are on the table for discussion, depending on what scientifically gives the greatest amount of buffering and mitigative results.”

He is grateful for the support of Wehrheim and Trotta, who Carlson said, like others, are looking toward the future to figure out how to tackle the Brookhaven landfill closing.

The owner said he encourages everyone to send their concerns to STB and be curious about the proposal, as well as what’s happening with Long Island’s waste and how others feel about waste being shipped to their communities.

“They’re going to look at all those comments, all those concerns, all those things and they’re going to basically provide a solution to them, whether they decide for the project or against the project,” he said. “All those words have to be heard and they have to be addressed.”

According to the Town of Smithtown, “the STB will not issue a final decision until the public has an opportunity to comment on the proposal.” Residents can view the plan and all documents pertaining to it as well as letters of support and concerns on STB’s website under docket number FD 36575.

Hoyt Farm's interpretive specialist Sheryl Brook explains the process of maple sugaring to Hauppauge Girl Scouts Troop 428 during last year's event. Photo from Town of Smithtown

Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve in Commack is gearing up for another season of maple sugaring for families, scout troops and nature enthusiasts to take advantage of. This unique educational program, available to the general public, teaches the ancient process of making maple syrup/sugar, which was passed down by the Native Americans to the Colonists. 

Classes will run on Sundays, Feb. 19, Feb. 26 and March 5, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Tickets are $5 per person (cash only.) The class is open to both residents and non-residents. It is recommended that guests arrive by 1 p.m. to register for the class as this is a very popular event. 

Hoyt Farm Park Manager Jeff Gumin teaches a group about tree tapping at a previous event.
File photo by Greg Catalano/TBR News Media

“This is one of the best educational programs the Town of Smithtown offers and it’s one that every Long Islander should partake in. The techniques used to make maple syrup are a part of our history that should be treasured for all time. Jeff Gumin, Sheryl Brook and the team at Hoyt go above and beyond in teaching this demonstration. It’s an unforgettable experience, which I highly recommend for the whole family,” said Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim.

The maple sugaring program is a demonstration, encompassing the history of Native American early life, how maple sugaring was originally discovered, all the way up to the modern day process. An interactive portion of the program enlists the help of younger students to teach the anatomy of the tree, the importance of chlorophyll, and the role of photosynthesis in making maple syrup. 

The Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve maple sugaring program is unique in that Black Walnut trees are also tapped for sugaring, in addition to making maple syrup from Maple trees. Maple sugaring season is approximately three weeks out of the year. In order to produce the sweetest sap, weather conditions must be below freezing at night and over 40 degrees during the day. 

The maple sugaring program began in the late 1970’s, and started with one class. It is now a full blown family-oriented interactive experience, available to the general public, (not restricted to Smithtown residents) appropriate for all age groups. School classes, girl scouts, boy scout troops, kids and adults of all ages are welcome and encouraged to take advantage of this unforgettable experience. 

Hoyt Farm is located at 200 New Highway in Commack. For more information, call 631-543-7804.