The origin of the Central Pine Barrens extends back thousands of years to the Ice Age when massive glacial ice sheets created Long Island, forming its rolling higher terrain--the moraines--and flatter, sandy outwash plains. Over time, herbaceous and woody vegetation colonized this area and transformed this landscape of sand, clay and gravel into an environment that supported numerous and diverse species of animals and plants.
The Central Pine Barrens region was initially inhabited by Native Americans who archaeologists believe arrived here approximately 12,000 years ago. The extensive habitat present provided significant quantities of resources for native peoples to hunt, gather, and collect for food, including seeds, nuts, berries, tubers, fish, shellfish and game, as well as shelter. Although larger, more permanent communities were established along the coastline, evidence suggests that there were frequent forays into the interior as well.
Native cultures were greatly changed with the European arrival in the 15th and 16th centuries. Infectious diseases took a heavy toll and Native Americans were increasingly marginalized economically. In spite of these adversities, they maintained and nourished their traditional ways of life. There was continuity in belief systems and the structure of social relations and these traditions continued well after European contact, with native peoples still actively maintaining their ancestral communities and cultures. (Photo: Carmans River)
As Europeans began to settle in the area beginning in the colonial period, much of the region became agrarian in nature, with farms established in areas with fertile soils. Significant communities developed adjacent to sources of water power, such as the Carmans River mill in the hamlet of Yaphank in central Brookhaven Town, and adjacent to other major water bodies, such as the Peconic River. However, much of the region remained remote, undeveloped and sparsely populated.
During the American Revolution, Long Island, including the Central Pine Barrens, was occupied and controlled by the British. However, American forces still conducted a number of activities in parts of the region to advance the cause of the Revolution. In one example, in November of 1780, Long Island native Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge led a contingent of American soldiers from Connecticut across Long Island Sound and across the heart of the Central Pine Barrens to destroy a British fort in Mastic and capture enemy troops. On his return trip back to Connecticut, he and his forces stopped in Coram, also in the Central Pine Barrens, to cause further difficulties for the British by destroying a significant quantity of hay stockpiled for British horses.
In the post-Revolutionary period, lumbering and woodcutting became some of Suffolk County's most prominent industries. Numerous cutting camps sprang up throughout the area to harvest hardwoods, such as white oak, to satisfy New York City's seemingly insatiable appetite for wood for building materials, but especially cordwood to be burned for heat in urban fireplaces.
Many other traditional activities occurred in the Central Pine Barrens. These included cranberry and blueberry farming, brick making, the use of water-powered mills for grinding grain and milling lumber, tanning, operation of forges for manufacturing iron products from local bog iron deposits, manufacture of charcoal and creation of pine tree products from sap (including turpentine and pine tar).
The completion of the Long Island Rail Road's main line in 1844 opened more of the region to settlement and utilization. In the mid- to late 1800s, parts of the area became a destination for wealthier sportsmen who established hunting and fishing lodges in areas including Calverton, Manorville, Yaphank and Flanders. Some of these eventually became public parkland.
A number of prominent people also inhabited the Central Pine Barrens. Mary Louise Booth, a native of Yaphank (born there in 1931), became a well-known writer and journalist, first as a reporter for The New York Times and later as the founding editor of Harper's Bazaar, which she helmed for more than 20 years.
The Central Pine Barrens figured prominently in the 20th Century as innovation began to sweep across the country. As “wireless” (radio) technology began to expand in the early 1920s, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) established its main transatlantic transmitting station, known as Radio Central, in Rocky Point, and its companion transatlantic receiving station in Flanders and Northampton.
The region also played a significant role in American defense. Camp Upton, now the site of Brookhaven National Laboratory, was established near Ridge as a military training camp during World War I and was later again used for training duringWorld War II. During the Cold War era, a BOMARC missile base (formally known as the Suffolk County Air Force Base Missile Annex) was established in Westhampton in the late 1950s and the US Navy, in conjunction with the Grumman Corporation, established a Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant (NWIRP) in Calverton, where final assembly and testing of military aircraft, including the famed F-14 Tomcat fighter jet and A-6 Intruder, was conducted.
Also in the 20th Century, as the post-World War II development boom began, the mining of sand and gravel (especially for the manufacture of concrete) and growing of nursery stock and sod became increasingly important industries, featured prominently in the support of development and construction on Long Island and the New York metro area.
However, as development continued to spread eastward into the Central Pine Barrens, recognition of the environmental significance of the region increased. A realization began to develop that Long Island’s only source of potable freshwater was its underground aquifers and that, unlike New York City, the area could not import water from outside areas. Residents came to understand that activities that occurred on the surface of the ground could adversely affect the quality and quantity of the groundwater beneath. In addition, an appreciation for the ecological resources of the region began to grow, as residents began to realize that the Central Pine Barrens represented the largest natural, undeveloped wilderness remaining on Long Island and that the area harbored significant species of plants and animals, some of which were very rare and found only on Long Island.
Environmentalists, naturalists, civic groups and others began to grow increasingly concerned. In 1977, three local naturalists founded the Long Island Pine Barrens Society to increase public awareness about the significance of the Central Pine Barrens. In 1978, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation established the Long Island Pine Barrens Task Force, which ultimately proposed creation of a preserve of at least 90,000 acres and which analyzed issues pertaining to the protection and management of the region. In that same year, RCA donated its former radio transmission and receiving sites in Rocky Point, Flanders and Northampton, totaling 7,200 acres, to New York State.
In 1984, Suffolk County adopted a new local law which established the Pine Barrens Review Commission to evaluate development in several pine barrens ecological areas of the county, including the Central Pine Barrens. Two years later, Suffolk County approved a $60 million open space initiative, targeting nearly 5,000 acres across the county for protection, a large portion of which was in the Central Pine Barrens. In 1987 and 1988, Suffolk County voters approved the Drinking Water Protection Program which was to use ¼% of the local sales tax to purchase lands in order to protect groundwater supplies.
However, with development in the Central Pine Barrens accelerating, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society in 1989 commenced litigation against Suffolk County and the Towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton to require that a cumulative environmental impact review be required and conducted for the more than 200 development projects proposed in the region.
In 1990, the New York State Legislature passed the Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve Act to protect an area which encompassed the lands and waters in Suffolk County east of Patchogue-Mt. Sinai Road (County Road 83) from the Long Island Sound shoreline to the south shore and extending eastward to include the Peconic Estuary. This Act (which became Article 57 of the New York State Environmental Conservation Law) established a council of 17 voting members from the state, county and local governments that was charged with the preparation and adoption of a comprehensive management plan for the Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve. However, there were no mandatory provisions in the law and the council was never assembled and therefore never met to take any action.
In 1992, the New York State Court of Appeals, in the final action of the 1989 Long Island Pine Barrens Society lawsuit, ruled that while no cumulative impact study could be required under existing state law, a comprehensive, cumulative plan for the entire area was warranted and prudent but could only be required by the State Legislature.
In recognition of the potential permanent loss of the Central Pine Barrens and the prospect of additional litigation that would continue to embroil the region, in 1993 the New York State Legislature passed the “Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act,” to protect the largest, remaining Pine Barrens region in Suffolk County. The 1993 Act carved the Central Pine Barrens out of the larger, previously-established Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve and was an actual amendment to Article 57 of the Environmental Conservation Law. This time, however, this particular statute had teeth and mandated a series of specific actions to ensure the perpetual preservation of the groundwater, surface water and ecological resources of the Central Pine Barrens.