April 16, 2015
Dear Supervisor Walter and Honorable Council People,
A distinguished member of the birding community and past president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society (ELIAS) posted a message about her experience at EPCAL on the New York Birding listserv today. The message stated that while she and two others were birding the western runway at EPCAL, four (4) police vehicles with a total of five (5) officers showed up and informed the birders that they were trespassing and that the runway was under constant surveillance. After the officers took everyone’s personal information and issued them a warning, they were told if they were caught offending again that they would be jailed. While walking is permitted in the adjacent grassland areas, the birders were told they cannot drive or walk on the concrete runway.
This response by the police department is unconscionable. To threaten members of the community with the prospect of jail for driving their vehicles at a safe and responsible speed on an abandoned runway as they enjoy the sights and sounds of nature runs counter to everything local government should stand for. As an environmental analyst for the Town of Brookhaven (and avid wildlife photographer), I understand the importance of nature, open spaces and encouraging the public to interact with our natural resources.
I personally have visited EPCAL countless times over the past six (6) years and have cherished every moment of it, knowing one day it will be altered by development. I have witnessed short-eared owls hunting at dusk, seen red-tailed hawks soar high above, watched as American Kestrels descend on the property during spring and fall migrations resulting in concentrations of this grassland dependent bird that cannot be found anywhere else on the island. Discovering a family of fox and their adorable kits was one of my greatest joys I’ve ever had as a nature photographer and listening to the call of the Eastern Meadowlark is one of the truest signs of spring. These experiences have all been made possible by my ability to traverse the runways in my vehicle in a safe and responsible manner. In all of my trips to EPCAL I have only once witnessed a vehicle driving at excessive speeds, but on nearly every trip I have enjoyed the beauty that these grasslands offer.
Instead of driving members of the public away (many of them Riverhead Town taxpayers) with big concrete barriers and threats of jail time (for birding!), the Town of Riverhead should be encouraging people to come to EPCAL and enjoy all that it has to offer. The Town is proud of their efforts to construct a pathway around the border of the property to be used by bikers and joggers alike, but wishes to punish those who want to drive the runways in search of birds, fox, groundhogs and deer. While it may be easy for some like myself to walk long distances with heavy equipment, there are many others in our community who are not as mobile - nevermind the very real threat that ticks pose to anyone walking in the grasslands. Driving is easier, safer and allows visitors to see significantly more wildlife.
It is my hope that the Town of Riverhead can find a happy balance. Permit vehicles on the western runway from dawn to dusk. The Town can post speed limit signs and Town police can routinely patrol the area and go after people who are acting in an unsafe manner. I can assure you that everyone who visits the area would be happy to pay a nominal fee for a runway access permit (with strict guidelines regarding hours, speed, etc.). If anything, whatever “policy” the Town has chosen for access to the runways should be clarified to the general public. It is clear that the barriers as installed have not been effective and I can attest that the policies for access have changed many times over the past half decade with no rhyme or reason.
I ask you, the stewards of Riverhead Town, to please reconsider the policies regarding access to the Western Runway. Myself and others (particularly members of ELIAS) would be happy to work with you to craft a policy that meets everyone’s interests. I have attached some of my favorite images from EPCAL taken over the years for you to all enjoy and I ask that you reconsider. These grasslands are a special resource in your Town and we all know that the land will one day likely be developed - please let myself and others enjoy all it has to offer while it lasts. Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to your responses.