On July 14, 1993, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo stood before a congregation of environmentalists, civic leaders, and lawmakers amid the lush landscape of Southaven County Park in Shirley and delivered what one environmental activist there that day believes to be the late governor’s best oratorical performance of his political career.
The event was held to celebrate the signing of the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, which effectively banned construction on more than 50,000 acres of Pine Barrens land. The passing of the law capped a bitter legal battle that pitted environmentalists and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society against developers, whom were eager to build on the 100,000 acres of land that stretches across the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. Environmentalists, concerned that the more than 200 proposed projects on the Pine Barrens site could damage LI’s sensitive drinking water supply, brought the suit.
The lawsuit, initially filed in November 1990, made it all the way to the State Court of Appeals, where it was dismissed, exactly two years after it was first filed. The court said construction could continue without the three towns conducting an environmental impact study, the basis for the suit. The court, however, called on the state Legislature to protect the Pine Barrens.
Lawmakers and environmentalists got to work soon after the ruling. A bill, sponsored by state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and then-Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck), passed unanimously.
A celebration was planned for Southaven County Park the next summer. Cuomo, who was not instrumental in the bill’s passage, according to Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, was nevertheless invited.
Cuomo, who died last week, “delivered a more eloquent speech on the environment, certainly than I’ve ever made and that I’ve ever heard in terms of capturing why the environment is so important,” Amper told the Press. “He was a master orator, even on matters in which he was only peripherally involved.”
“I have delivered at least 500 speeches on the subject of protecting water and open space,” Amper added, “and the best of them put together couldn’t hold a candle to what he said and what he did to that audience that day.”
With his elbows pressed against the podium, and fingers interlocked, as if in prayer, Cuomo tried to paint a glowing picture of New York—not the misconstrued version that many outside the state believed in.
“This is an environmental state, and the Pine Barrens now is its latest, most glorious expression,” Cuomo boomed. “This is what the state is the best at; nobody thinks of us that way. Because if you’re anywhere in the United States, and someone says to you ‘New York,’ the instant Pavlovian response is for your mind to summon up a subway mugging in Manhattan—that’s what happens when you say New York. Nobody thinks of us as environmentalists, but that’s what we are.”
The Long Island Pine Barrens Society replayed the speech at its 36th Annual Environmental Awards Gala in 2013, where it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act. Honored that night for their roles in the successful passage of the law were LaValle and DiNapoli.
But it’s Cuomo speech that Amper, and other environmentalist present at Southaven County Park that summer day, will never forget.
“I know that way down deep we’re always looking for something bigger than we are, something more beautiful, something we can throw our arms around and wrap our souls around, and say this is right, this is good, this is something I can believe in with passion, this is something I can give myself to,” Cuomo said. “
“Sometimes it’s a person, and then they take them away, they shoot them down and they murder them and they break your heart and you give up on people and you look around for causes, and you run out of them,” he continued. “And you get into public life and you’re not even allowed to say the word morality or God or religion, they rule all of that out. And you find this truly barren land, if you’re looking for something larger than yourself and then it occurs to you: Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the Pine Barrens, the water under Long Island, the rivers, the chestnut tree in the park in South Jamaica, Queens, the environment—ecology, preserving it, saving it, fighting for it.”
“With sureness,” Cuomo said, building toward the conclusion, “I go to bed tonight having signed a bill and made it a law knowing that I did the right thing.”
The video was shared with the Long Island Press by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.