Environmental Awareness on Fire Island: A Talk with Robert F. Sayre

By Shoshanna McCollumTurnout to listen to Dr. Robert Sayre at the Ocean Beach Environmental Commission’s 6th Annual Awareness Day event at the Community House on Sunday morning, September 9th was respectable. Fire Island residents came as far a Fair Harbor and Point O’ Woods to listen to Dr. Sayre, which is of little surprise. Being an acclaimed academic professor with the University of Iowa as well as author of such books as Recovering the Prairie and Take The Next Exit: New Views of the Iowa Landscape, his reputation precedes him. Sayre is no stranger to Fire Island. Summering with his family in Point O’ Woods since boyhood, he reminisced to the audience that Ocean Beach is where his mother took him and his siblings “to get haircuts” when he was young, and in his upcoming book he explores his love for Fire Island and the Great South Bay.Fire Island: The Environmental History of a Barrier Beach is scheduled for release in 2013. (SUNY Press.) His slide presentation began with material that had been covered in other books about Fire Island and the Great South Bay published in recent years: the “salt hay” industry, the fish factories, and the first Fire Island hotels of the 19th Century. However rather than a dry rehashing of what’s already been written before, Sayre viewed these events from an ecological standpoint thus keeping the subject fresh.

Discussion the grassroots campaign to preserve the Sunken Forrest from development in the 1950’s was spoken with considerably more detail and intimacy than some of the more general Fire Island histories. This remains consistent with Dr. Sayre’s Point O’ Woods roots, as the private gated community is largely credited with spearheading the organized movement to “save” the Sunken Forrest – an event that many now view today as a forerunner to the island-wide movement to prevent Robert Moses from constructing a highway down the middle of the barrier beach of Fire Island which lead to the establishment of Fire Island as a National Seashore on September 11, 1964.

However the lecture did not just talk nostalgically about the past. Sayre injected some harsh realities about the “environmental degradation” of Fire Island over the past century. Salt hey is a thing of the past due to high nitrogen content in the bay waters that has killed off the native grasses only to be replaced by the ubiquitous and invasive fragmite reeds in Fire Island’s wetland areas. He also spoke of Robert Cushman Murphy’s groundbreaking article in Natural History Magazine in 1950 simply entitled “August on Fire Island Beach” in which 60 species of songbirds were identified. “While I have not conducted a study myself, I believe anyone would be hard-pressed to identify 60 different bird species during the month of August on Fire Island today,” he stated soberly. Sayre then went on to speak pointedly against vehicular traffic on the beach, jet skis in the bay, as well as low-flying helicopters and small private aircraft doing their share of collective damage to Fire Island’s fragile ecosystem. He furthermore urged the ferry companies to rethink their policy of bringing thousands of weekend party revelers to Fire Island and do their share of damage through litter and noise pollution. (A statement that brought a hearty round of applause from the audience.)

Then the subject of white-tailed deer came up. For decades this has been a hot-button topic on Fire Island. No doubt Dr. Sayre knew he was venturing into controversial territory, but he did not flinch on his position concerning the matter. He suggested a hunt or culling of the white-tailed deer population was necessary to restore the ecological balance of Fire Island. “Contraceptives only are effective when the deer herd is under control,” he responded during the question and answer session of his talk. Some folks in the audience cheered at these sentiments, while other faces tightened and remained quiet. Sayre concluded the lecture by comparing the struggle to protect and restore the ecology of Fire Island to that of the opposition to the Robert Moses road in the 1960’s, if not a continuation of the same struggle. “None of this will be easy,” he said “but we need to get started.”

Note: The officers of the Ocean Beach Environmental Commission have not returned FireIsland.Com’s inquiry on whether or not they endorse Robert Sayre’s position on the white-tailed deer with an official response.