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The end of an era-Islip board cuts funding for Nature Center.

South Shore Nature Center

ISLIP TOWN—For the past 35 years, the South Shore Nature Center (SSNC), located on Bayview Avenue in East Islip, has served as a haven for those seeking to get away from the congestion and commotion of everyday life. With over 206 acres of woods, shoreline and marsh to explore, the Nature Center offers a variety of ways for visitors to get better acquainted with our natural environment in its most pristine state. Since its inception in 1977, it has aptly served its purpose as a public recreation and outdoor education facility for hikers and nature enthusiasts of all ages. But now, for the very first time, the future of the beloved facility is unclear
The center will lose its annual funding starting Jan. 1, 2013 as a result of budget cuts by the Islip Town Board in the face of a $26-million deficit. The move, which will save the town approximately $82,400 per year, cuts funding for all educational programming and staff, effectively ending Director Alison Tews’ 23-year tenure at the facility. The board has vehemently dismissed rumors that they are looking to sell or develop the property, stating that the center is not closing down and that plans to continue the facility under a public-private partnership are currently underway.
“It is not the board’s plan to close the nature center,” said Councilman Anthony Senft, who said he and Deputy Supervisor Trish Bergin Weichbrodt had recently met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy and the Great South Bay Audubon Society to discuss ideas for a new partnership. “All we’ve done is remove funding from the budget line. We’re now working collectively to determine the best way to move forward and keep the Nature Center a vital resource to the community without town funding.”
Senft said that the town is actively developing an advisory panel over the next few weeks to work to find ways to provide the funding necessary (through fundraising, grants, non-profit support, etc.) to keep the SSNC in good condition and maintain its function in some way as an educational center.
“The group we’re putting together consists of experts in both parks and public-private partnerships,” said Senft. “These people have expressed great interest in the cause and want to be involved in the process.
“This is an unfortunate reality, and we were faced with very difficult choices. Ultimately we had to weigh those town services like the Nature Center that are nice to have with the ones we must provide, like garbage pickup and road maintenance.”
Although certainly not the worst-case scenario, critics feel that the board’s decision was shortsighted and not in the best interest of the community.
“They made decisions impacting the community without looking at the big picture, and I don’t think they’re utilizing the properties to the extent they could be,” said Kathy Ewart, president of the East Islip Historical Society. “I truly believe that all avenues should have been looked into. Eighty-two thousand dollars is not a lot of money, and instead of simply cutting funding, they could have explored other ways to turn the center around. That area is all we have left of what Bayview Avenue once was. It was meant to be preserved, and it should be done properly.”
At the town board meeting on Dec. 11, residents criticized the board for taking action without openly deliberating with Nature Center associates, especially Tews, before taking action.
“If it’s true that the board made this move in a non-transparent way without including Alison Tews in the discussions, then I’m very disappointed,” said West Islip resident Steve Fratello at the meeting. “This should have been. I hope that from here on you will do your utmost to provide at least some funds for the Nature Center.”
Later on, Tews asked the board if they could work jointly to consider alternatives, offering to take a pay cut if necessary.
“Let’s open the doors for communication here and explore other opportunities,” said Tews. “We need unified management, and we can find a way to make this work if we all work together.”
Lisa Orr, whose father, T. Decker Orr, donated 15 acres to the Nature Conservancy and another eight acres with a building to the town to facilitate the Nature Center’s development, traveled from Maryland that day to speak before the board. Orr began by quoting the words of former Islip Town Supervisor Peter Cohalan during the center’s official opening in 1977:
“All it will take to continue to preserve this Center is sensible and responsible leadership support from an intelligent and sensitive public as well as some help from God…”
Orr then highlighted the perceived contrast between the town’s original intent for the center and the board’s recent actions.
“Providing an educational nature center was not just my parents’ intent, it was a requisite stated in the covenants of the deed,” said Orr. “The town was trusted from the beginning to do all it could to maintain and continue the Center as it was originally intended. Is it sensible and responsible to eliminate funding without informing key stakeholders and property owners, without any public process, and before there are plans for future operations, programming, safety or oversight? Is it sensible, responsible, intelligent or sensitive to terminate and evict the resident naturalist who has 23 years of on-site experience before any plans are in place? What a loss of expertise and historical knowledge!”
After the meeting, in a letter to this newspaper, Orr referred again to Cohalan’s remarks on the day the center opened:
“I think all of you present today know that the best way to kill a project is to make it a ‘joint cooperative effort’ of several governments. The only way we could participate in the department of the Center was if it were planned, implemented and operated by one agency.”
“I couldn’t agree more [with Cohalan’s statement] and that is why the Nature Center has been operating effectively for more than 35 years,” wrote Orr. “With no one entity taking responsibility, no one living at the Center, and no funding, the SSNC will no doubt fall into disrepair and become vulnerable to vandalism, illicit activities, rotting boardwalks and liabilities.”
Last Wednesday, Tews sat at her desk inside the informational center, where she lives in an upstairs apartment, and reflected on the situation.
“It’s not being done properly,” she said. “If they wanted to do this right, there should have been a transitional phase where we could have all worked together. No one from the town has come down here or even contacted me since I got my walking papers, and I’m not even sure what they want me to be doing. I had to find new homes for our animals by myself.”
Tews’ position covered a wide range of duties, including teaching environmental education and hiking programs for families and schoolchildren, monitoring natural resources, maintaining trails and boardwalks, working with correspondents, managing the budget and deterring trespassers. When she first joined the Nature Center staff as a summer employee 23 years ago, there were three full-time employees. By this year it had been cut down to just her position and one other part-time employee.
“I’ve always felt like we’re a service,” said Tews. “Our programs were always either free or very cheap. We have a very small budget, and I never asked for much.
“I think it’s important for people, especially children, to be educated about nature and know the value of it so that they can develop a relationship with it and make informed choices. I think there’s a needless fear we have about nature that can be easily remedied by being around it more. It’s one thing to read about it, but we have to experience and touch things to make them real.”
“It’s overwhelmingly difficult to be a part of the layoff process for any one of our employees, because [we] understand how important of role these people play in our town,” said Senft regarding Tews’ termination. “However, at the end of the day we’re responsible to the entire town, not just our employees, and we believe that while difficult, these cuts were necessary.”
Tews said that she recently applied for a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help pay for busing to the center, which had become a big issue since transportation funding was cut. She recently submitted it through the town, but she never heard anything back.
Tews has until March 1 to vacate the SSNC premises and plans on moving back to her home state of Pennsylvannia.
“I’m concerned that no one will be keeping an eye on the place,” said Tews. “I remember when I first came here, I was constantly running out and chasing kids off the grounds. The boardwalks also need to be maintained every year or they’ll be completely inaccessible.”
Despite the circumstances, Tews said she looks back at her tenure fondly, and hopes that the town and its citizens will find a way to maintain its services and programs.
“I’m proud to say that I’m leaving the center cleaner, safer and better maintained than when I first came,” said Tews. “The residents have been wonderful, and I’m grateful for all the support I’ve gotten from the community. I’m definitely going to miss everyone.
“I think in the long run people will find a way to keep this center, but I think it will take a lot of time and effort to get what they really want. They’ll have to fight, it won’t be given to them.”