The Fire Island National Seashore. Est. 1964
Fire Island National Seashore was established by Congress on September 11, 1964, following a long history of preservation efforts, most with grass-roots support. Without the plan by master builder/ developer Robert Moses there would be no NPS. His role was a major turning point in Fire Island history.
In 1908, part of Fire Island that had been the site of the Surf Hotel, just east of the Fire Island Lighthouse, was preserved for public use by the State of New York. Governor Charles Evans Hughes signed a bill authorizing Fire Island State Park, the first state park on Long Island. This park was expanded in 1924, and was later renamed Robert Moses State Park. That portion to the east of the Fire Island Lighthouse was transferred to Fire Island National Seashore on November 10, 1978.
One of the first portions of Fire Island to be protected from development was the Sunken Forest. On Friday, September 9, 1938, an article in the Suffolk County News announced that Robert Cushman Murphy “Fears Fire Island Highway Would Ruin Sunken Forest” in response to concerns that the county might build a road along Fire Island Beach. Murphy is quoted as saying that it would be a good idea for the county or Federal government to acquire the forest and administer it as a natural sanctuary.
In the 1950s, a concerned group of private citizens gradually cobbled together a 50-acre tract of beach, dunes and ancient holly forest just east of Point O’Woods through a fundraising campaign spearheaded in 1952 by the Wildlife Preserves, Inc., and The Nature Conservancy. Sunken Forest Sanctuary was officially dedicated as the Sunken Forest Preserve in 1960. The entrance plaque can still be seen along the western trail entrance. In May 1966, the Sunken Forest Preserve, Inc. donated the property to the recently established (1964) Fire Island National Seashore, under the condition that the property shall always be maintained in its natural state and operated as a sanctuary, and that no public road or highway shall be built through it.
Mr. Robert Moses, the powerful master planner, had long talked of building a highway on Fire Island, the slender, 32-mile-long barrier beach on Long Island’s South Shore. In 1962, having transformed much of metropolitan New York with bridges, tunnels, parks and parkways, he revived the notion as president of the Long Island State Park Commission. Mr. Moses, the powerful master planner, had long talked of building a highway on Fire Island, the slender, 32-mile-long barrier beach on Long Island’s South Shore. In 1962, having transformed much of metropolitan New York with bridges, tunnels, parks and parkways, he revived the notion as president of the Long Island State Park Commission.
The powerful planner promised for $50 million he could hold back the sea by constructing an 18- foot protective dike on the island’s Oceanside on top of which would be a concrete highway to anchor it. The political weight he wielded and his long record of successes helped get him support in all the right places. The total width required for the road would be 875 feet. With the average width of the island at only 1,000 feet, and in some places only 600 feet this meant that the road would take up most of the land where houses stood in several communities. In some places the road would be the entire island. Moreover, the cost for it’s construction would be more in the neighborhood of $120 million. Moses view was that the road would save the island and give access to its splendors to thousands of New Yorkers. In reality the road would have destroyed the natural resources of the island, and its natural beauty. The Fire Island Association quickly lead the fight against the plan along with local groups that formed.
It took mammoth storms in winters of 1954-55, and March 1962 — with huge destruction of many homes — to trigger action among thousands of people all along Long Island’s south shore.
Right after the 1954-55 storm, Gil Serber formed the Fire Island Erosion Control Committee (FIECC), which became a very active group participating in lobbying for a federally supported beach erosion and hurricane protection project from Montauk Point to Fire Island Inlet. Congress approved this project for the Army Corps of Engineers which included major beach nourishment in 1960. Some modest funds were appropriated, and then abruptly cut off soon thereafter, and we’re still “reformulating” plans today, after four decades of worsening erosion – much of it due to sand blockages to the east. In that same 1960 year, in December, Islip proposed building a paved “service road” on the island’s west end, and the FIECC stood with nearly 1,000 hardy souls at a public hearing in Ocean Beach and showed their disdain for paved roads. Moses was surely not pleased, but he knew more storms were to come. Serber and other friends then set up a new not-for-profit organization in 1961 called the Fire Island Voters Association (FIVA) with Arthur Silsdorf as President. (FIVA later became the Fire Island Association.)
Just a few months later, in March 1962 we saw a monster nor’easter sit off Fire Island for five high lunar tides. It ripped out more than 40 homes on Fire Island. Moses was right on cue, but with a new wrinkle – pave an even larger four-lane highway right down over the Corps proposed dune and beach-building plan. Governor Rockefeller named Joseph Carlino, Speaker of the Assembly, as Chair of a “Temporary State Commission on Protection and Preservation of the Atlantic Shore Front,” but with Robert Moses as Secretary.
The “Temporary Commission” had unanimously approved the Moses plan at a meeting on June 6th. Joseph Carlino started this four-hour meeting, and called on a long list of speakers. Road opponents had 90 minutes. Arthur Silsdorf of the Fire Island Voters Association talked about the virtues of turning all major undeveloped areas to a national seashore. This followed with FIVA-designated spokesmen Gil Serber, and George Biderman.
And then, Charles Collingwood, a well known TV personality came forth with his prepared speech. According to the New York Herald Tribune, Collingwood sprinkled his speech with quotes from “Alice in Wonderland” about the walrus and the carpenter weeping over sand. Then, as reported in The New York Times, Collingwood stated the following, which was referring to a 1938 letter from news correspondent Elmer Davis regarding Hitler’s taking over of the Sudetenland: “Mr. Moses wanted to save Fire Island ten years ago (1929), but luckily hard times came along and he didn’t have enough money to do it. Luckily, because he would save Fire Island the way Hitler is saving the Sudetenland – to the distress of many of its inhabitants.” Standing ovation.
This caused Moses to walk out of the meeting, and registered in headlines the following day. Even so, Moses was confidant that the Temporary Commission’s position would stand in September when the state legislature got back in operation. In fact, in August, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors voted for it, and things seemed bleak.
The FIVA now had the Moses plan in enough detail to analyze it. Very quickly it was discerned that most of the land to be traversed by the highway was to be placed into private development, not into parks for the public. Some of the areas to be developed were to be made available to those with homes eliminated by the road, but the major portion was to be opened for new development. The idea developed then was to prepare a detailed report of this analysis, and then present it to Governor Nelson’s brother, Laurence Rockefeller, widely perceived as a conservationist. He was heavily involved with New York State parks. It was not long thereafter that Governor Rockefeller asked Moses to resign from the New York State Council of Parks. From that point on, the lobbying efforts of the Fire Island Association (evolved from FIVA), and many other affiliated groups such as the Citizens Committee for a National Seashore, based on the mainland, were much more effective. Interior Secretary Udall then added to his support of the Corps beach nourishment plan, and gave his full support to a new National Seashore.
Then Maurice Barbash of Brightwaters, builder of the Dunewood community near Fair Harbor, and his brother in-law Irving Like, a lawyer, organized the Citizen’s Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore. Members of this grassroots group began to collaborate with the League of Women Voters, chambers of commerces from across the South Shore, and various mainland environmental and civic organizations.
Participation in letter-writing campaigns, town hall meetings and phone calls to elected officials was fueled from the growing environmental concerns among county residents. Suburban development was eroding the cherished oak and pine forests for housing developments, strip malls and highways. Fire Island would not be an exception.
As a result of the community efforts, on August 20, 1962 H.R. 12965 was voted on and passed in the House of Representatives.
This bill established the National Seashore of Fire Island. In 1964 President Lyndon B Johnson signed the bill into law, which created the National Seashore and halted development of any proposed highway, which would have run east from what today is Robert Moses State Park.
Below -Maurice Barbash and Dunewood.
The group, the Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore, outflanked Moses in a two-year grass-roots lobbying campaign. They spoke at Kiwanis Clubs, mounted petition drives and gained support from Stewart L. Udall, the interior secretary. Eventually they turned local opinion, and even the opinion of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, Moses’ boss, in favor of establishing the national park. It was dedicated on Sept. 11, 1964.
The Wilderness Act was passed on September 3, 1964. Fire Island National Seashore’s enabling legislation refers to a zone between Davis Park and Smith Point County Park for which “access … shall be provided by ferries and footpaths only” and “no development or plan for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken therein which would be incompatible with the preservation of the flora or fauna or the physiographc conditions now prevailing, …”
This unique Act, unlike that of any other US National Seashore, embeds 17 communities – uniquely — right within the park.
For current info see here: https://www.nps.gov/fiis/learn/historyculture/history-of-fire-island-national-seashore.htm