On West Harbor Beach in Bayville, waves crashed on the sand and the smell of saltwater was thick in the gentle wind. In the distance, an osprey sang a one-note melody.
This was the scene last Sunday at the Mill River Rod and Gun Club, where U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from Glen Cove, announced legislation to rename the nearby Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge in honor of former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff, of Muttontown. Wolff, who is 99, served in the House of Representatives for eight terms, from 1965 to 1981, and is the oldest living former member of Congress.
“Today we celebrate a man who dedicated his life to public service,” Suozzi said. “Sometimes the things you do don’t get recognized right away, but here we are, recognizing Lester’s commitment and courage to preserving our natural surroundings.”
For four of Wolff’s congressional terms, he represented New York’s 3rd Congressional District. During his second term in 1967, he sought to preserve the wetlands on the North Shore after then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller approved legislation to build an 8.5-mile causeway across the Long Island Sound, to connect Oyster Bay and Rye. The plan was proposed by developer Robert Moses in an effort to reduce traffic in New York City.
Wolff said he believed the proposal would “despoil” the natural beauty of the coastline, and he condemned the project. He proposed the creation of a wetland restoration site in place of the proposed bridge. In 1968, his efforts were rewarded.
In the 50 years since its establishment, the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge has provided a place for people to explore and observe the natural world, while protecting the region’s shoreline.
Today, communities on the North Shore are fighting a plan by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to build a tunnel across the sound, near the refuge. The newest tunnel design is an 18-mile-long, multi-level tube with two lanes on each level. It would stretch for nine miles under the sound, and for the other nine miles underground, on the North Shore and in Westchester. The entrances and exits would be north of the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway and Jericho Turnpike, and south of the New England Thruway and Playland Parkway. The project, with an estimated cost of $31.5 billion, would take 12 to 15 years to complete.
Wolff has attended two of three meetings held by the Village of Bayville Anti-Tunnel Committee to detail the ramifications of the tunnel for the North Shore. He has spoken at both. At the May 9 meeting at Locust Valley High School, he said that his involvement in the 1960s was spurred by his belief that “the Long Island Sound is a national treasure and deserves the attention of the federal government.”
He reminded residents that the creation of the wildlife refuge helped stop the construction of the bridge. “The federal government needs to get involved again,” he said, “and a marine park should be created in the sound to stop the tunnel.”
When Wolff rose to speak at the meetings, the applause was loud, and he received standing ovations, too. Many people see him as a hero.
Humble at the news conference held by Suozzi in his honor, Wolff directed his remarks at the current issue. “This honor is in the tradition of this area, and its importance can’t be overlooked,” he said. “The Long Island Sound is one of the greatest natural resources in the nation. A bridge or a tunnel would make this place a dead sea.”
He added that he was confident that the region’s legacy of environmental preservation, which he began a half-century ago, would continue for generations through the labors of like-minded individuals, whom he referred to as “guardians of nature.”
East Norwich resident Ken Warren, a past president of the Mill River Gun Club, is one such guardian. He said he believed Cuomo’s dream of a sound crossing is simply that — a dream.
“It’ll ruin all the beauty behind us,” Warren said, looking out over the refuge. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Laura Lane contributed to this story.