My First Big Story

(This ran as my column in the Fire Island News on May 29, 2015.)

A year-long 50th anniversary celebration—extending through this summer—is underway to commemorate a great event: the creation of the Fire Island National Seashore. In a David-versus-Goliath saga, a most extraordinary place—Fire Island—was saved.

It was my first big story as a reporter on Long Island. It was 1962 and I had just started at the Babylon Town Leader, a newspaper which for decades had criticized projects of New York State public works czar Robert Moses, a Babylon resident. Moses had just announced his plan to build a four-lane highway on Fire Island. It would, claimed Moses, “anchor” Fire Island and protect it from storms.

I was assigned to go to Fire Island to do an article about the impacts of the highway on the island’s nature and communities. I was a 20-year-old from New York City but I knew something about nature having been an Eagle Scout and coming from a family that went camping every summer.

A walk in exquisite Sunken Forest made the environmental significance of Fire Island clear to me immediately on the visit, arranged with the help of George Biderman of the Fire Island Association. I lucked out in learning about its magical communities by connecting with articulate Fire Islanders such as TV journalist Charles Collingwood and writer Reginald Rose who, with others, explained how these communities — and the island’s nature — would be largely paved over by the Moses road.

I wrote a story, the first of many. Two other weekly newspapers joined with us in the journalistic crusade including running our articles: the Suffolk County News and the Long Island Commercial Review.

What an uphill battle. Hardly any elected officials would say or do anything in opposition to Moses. He also seemed to have some big daily newspapers in his pocket. The New York Times and Newsday pushed hard for the road.

But we kept pushing, too. We found, for example, how the four-lane highway Moses built to the west, along Jones Beach, rather than being an “anchor” needed to be regularly bolstered with sand pushed along its edges by bulldozers working at night.

The first call I received the morning my first story ran was from Murray Barbash, an environmentally attuned builder from Brightwaters. Murray (who passed away in 2013) and his brother-in-law, Babylon attorney Irving Like (thankfully, very much with us and still a Long Island environmental champion) organized a Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore. The view was that Moses could not be stopped on the state level because of the enormous power he wielded in New York. If Fire Island were to be saved, it would have to be through the federal government. Also, the Seashore initiative offered a positive goal.

A national seashore was then a relatively new idea. The first, Cape Hatteras, was created nine years earlier, in 1953. But U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall paid a visit and embraced the Fire Island National Seashore vision. Also, conservation-oriented Laurance Rockefeller, the brother of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, became chairman of the state Council of Parks in 1963 and liked the Fire Island National Seashore concept, too.

Moses was furious at what was happening. He confronted Nelson Rockefeller. Moses had run for governor himself, in 1934, and suffered a then record two-to-one defeat, so he amassed power by running state commissions and authorities instead.

According to the Leader’s source—a person at Moses’ Long Island State Park Commission—at the climactic meeting with Rockefeller, Moses insisted the highway would happen and that the governor put a lid on his brother. If Rockefeller wouldn’t, Moses threatened he would resign from his many commission and authority posts. He seemingly thought the state would fall apart without him. In the collision, Nelson wouldn’t be steamrolled.

Moses quit his government posts. And the bill establishing a Fire Island National Seashore was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 11, 1964, the date now the kickoff for the all-year 50th anniversary celebration.

Murray and Irv, it should be noted, went on to flip the Fire Island strategy a few years later when Long Island was faced with the Long Island Lighting Company’s plan to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants—the first at Shoreham. They understood that there would be no way at the federal level to stop this. The U.S. nuclear agencies—the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—never denied a construction or operating license for any nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime (to this date).

So here the strategy was to utilize state power. Citizens to Replace LILCO, created by Murray and Irv, pressed for passage of the Long Island Power Act and use of the state’s power of eminent domain to eliminate LILCO if it persisted with its nuclear scheme. This was the key that caused the closure of a completed Shoreham plant and no other nuclear plants being built on Long Island.

The Babylon Town Leader was sold in 1964. At the newspaper I also covered the early civil rights struggle on Long Island. And I went to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair opening day to report on activists from Long Island protesting racism in hiring by the World’s Fair. Moses had held on to being in charge of the World’s Fair.

The chain that bought the Leader ran my article as a front-page story with the headline: “Jail Pavilion for Suffolk CORE.” But no longer was I protected by Moses-critical management.

I was called in to see the associate publisher, Wilson Stringer, who declared: “Mr. Moses called and is very upset with you. You’re fired.”

I would end up at the daily Long Island Press and after its closure in 1977, writing books—I’ve authored six—and anchoring the nightly news on Long Island TV station WSNL. For the past nearly 25 years, I’ve hosted the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up. I’m chief investigative reporter at Long Island TV station WVVH.

And I’m a full professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury. I teach Investigative Reporting and Environmental Journalism—and continue to practice both.

So I’ve done fine, despite Moses. As has Fire Island.

Whenever I head out to Fire Island and see it come into view, a good feeling comes over me about my part in helping save this national treasure.

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