The Formation of the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee

The booming residential and commercial development of the suburbs in the New York Metropolitan area during the decades after World War II accelerated the filling and destruction of our last remaining wetlands.  But by the late 1960s scientists and citizens alike had come to recognize the value of these wetlands as critical habitat for animals and plants.

In Douglaston, a middle-aged lady named Aurora Gareiss watched the process with increasing concern.  She lived at the edge of the Udalls Cove marsh in her house named “Bit `O Bay,” on Douglas Road a few blocks south of Douglas Manor's Memorial Field.  From her backyard she could watch the rich and vibrant bird life that depended on the wetlands, and she could also see the many new homes that had recently been built in the area of Little Neck north of the Long Island Railroad, mostly on filled marshland. 

In 1969 several newly proposed projects galvanized her into action.  The Village of Great Neck Estates, lying directly east of the Douglaston peninsula across Udalls Cove, proposed to fill in most of the remaining wetlands to build a golf course.  At about the same time plans were being made to build a new parking lot for the Little Neck LIRR station, north of the tracks near the east end of the station platform.  That lot would be on the Nassau County side of the Queens/Nassau boundary, and would be connected by roadway to Great Neck.  Other projects were also proposed for construction in the wetlands on both sides of the peninsula. 

One day Aurora was lamenting the situation to her neighbor Ralph Kamhi.  She urged him, as she had urged others, to write letters to various state and local officials protesting the development plans.  Ralph replied that while letters from individuals might be helpful, what really was needed to get the officials’ attention was an organized preservation campaign – and that meant having an organization.  

And so it was that on October 20, 1969 Aurora founded the Udalls Cove Preservation Committee with a few likeminded friends and neighbors.  Aurora was president of the fledgling group and Ralph was its vice president.  Tom Dent, who also lived athwart the marsh, was the lawyer who incorporated the group in early 1970.  Others on the Board of Directors included Arthur Kelley, a high school science teacher who had been born in Douglaston in 1924 and lived here all his life; and Dr. Leo Kellerman, who would later go on to become the “Johnny Appleseed” of Douglaston, planting some 750 trees around the community. 

In remarkably short order, every relevant government official came to know Aurora Gareiss – from Congressmen to Governors to Mayors to Parks Commissioners, she proselytized, wheedled, harangued, preached, begged and pleaded for help and support in her mission to preserve the few remnant acres of wetlands and woodlands in the Udalls Cove watershed.  Her remarkable gift was that she could do this with passion, fervor, even zeal, but never with rancor or unpleasantness.  Every official knew her; they all respected her; and, perhaps less common in the world of public activism, they even liked her.  In due course, Aurora secured support from federal, state and local officials – elected and appointed – for acquisition and preservation of the land.  Today, all but a few acres of that acquisition has been accomplished, and in the center of the Udalls Cove Park & Preserve lies Aurora Pond, named for the woman who made it happen. 

Aurora was in the right place at the right time.  What we know today as the environmental movement, but which was originally known as the “ecology" movement, had snowballed throughout the 1960s, a period of exceptional social ferment.  It emerged during that decade alongside other dramatic social upheavals – the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the anti-Viet Nam war movement, which extended into the peace and nuclear disarmament movements; the women’s liberation movement; and the gay rights movement.

The notion of “conservation” was not a new one.  It had started in the 19th century as a way of preserving the extraordinary landscapes of the American west.  During the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was the first to set aside federal land, protecting what would later become Yosemite National Park.  The first true National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872 under President Ulysses Grant.  (The U.S. system of national parks has been described as one of America’s best ideas, and has been exported to almost every country on earth.)  Conservationism as a movement – or more accurately, a creed – became a central theme of the national agenda under President Teddy Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, first head of the National Forest Service.  Here in New York, great urban parks like Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn complemented spectacular wilderness preserves like the Adirondacks – the largest park in the nation outside of Alaska. 

Until the 1960s, this was the mission of the conservation movement: to preserve large tracts of open land and grand vistas.  But the mission rapidly evolved after 1962, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring.  Carson warned that the vast number of new chemicals created as part of the industrial era, particularly during and after World War II, posed a profound threat to all of creation, including human beings.  Her warning resonated with city dwellers breathing heavily polluted air and surrounded by waters so contaminated they were virtually devoid of life. and sometimes even caught on fire. 

 

Scientists pursuing the relatively new discipline called ecology investigated how the many different elements of a natural system work together and depend on one another, so that eliminating one element – a species, or a habitat area – can cause the rest to suffer or collapse.  Certain types of habitat areas were recognized as being of exceptional importance.  Front and center among these were coral reefs, tropical rainforests, and wetlands.  While coral reefs and tropical rainforests are not found extensively in the U.S., wetlands are found throughout the length and breadth of the nation.  Indeed, some were even left in urban areas like New York City; and it was one small patch of these that Aurora Gareiss set out to save.

In 1969 when Aurora embarked on the mission to save Udalls Cove, she was riding a wave of public sentiment and scientific understanding that  provided an especially favorable context and impetus to her efforts.  In that year Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required for the first time in history that government decision-makers consider the environmental impacts of major projects before undertaking them.  (Known as NEPA, this law is the source of the now ubiquitous Environmental Impact Statement or EIS.) The federal law was soon copied by many states, including New York, and even by some municipalities, including New York City. 

NEPA took effect on the first day of 1970, starting what is often called the Environmental Decade, a period actually extending 11 years to the end of 1980, during which every major federal environmental law and many major state environmental laws were enacted.  A few months later, on April 22, 1970, came the first Earth Day, in which tens of thousands of citizens participated.  NEPA was soon followed by the federal Clean Air Act, which took effect on the last day of 1970.  Thanks to that law, our motor vehicles are today more than 98% cleaner than in 1970; acute urban air pollution events like those that killed thousands in the 1950s are virtually unknown; and despite geometric growth in population, energy demand and vehicular travel, our air today is much cleaner than it was 40 years ago.

Most important from the perspective of wetlands preservation, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.  That law established a national system of regulating discharges of pollution into our nation’s water and, in particular, established limits on the filling of wetlands.  New York State followed suit in 1973 with its own law to limit filling of tidal wetlands (those in salt water ecosystems), and soon thereafter with another law governing the filling of freshwater wetlands. 

It was into this fertile soil that Aurora Gareiss planted the seeds that would eventually grow into the Udalls Cove Park & Preserve, affording permanent protection to the remaining undeveloped wetlands and wooded uplands of the Udalls Cove watershed.  She envisioned a tract of open space extending south from the edge of Udalls Cove all the way to Northern Boulevard.  On the east side of this tract the marshlands to be protected extended to the LIRR tracks, not far from the Great Neck station.  On the west the salt marsh snaked along a narrow corridor between the houses of Douglas Manor and Little Neck, then changed from salt to freshwater wetlands at about the location of a small pond nestled on Sandhill Road (known locally as “the Back Road”) at the foot of the LIRR tracks between Little Neck and Douglaston.   On the south side of the tracks the wetlands in turn gave way to woods in the steep-sided Ravine through which flows Gabler’s Creek. 

Today, Aurora Gareiss’ vision has become a reality, as the entire area is designated as parkland; and all but about 2 acres of this little swath of wilderness has been acquired by state or local governments.  And the pretty pond near the boundary of the salt and freshwater ecosystems now carries her name: Aurora Pond.