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Sunday, April 16, 2000

Carl Ross stands in Long Island forest he helped save
Carl Ross
Newsday Photo/Bill Davis
In a sense, Carl Ross began his career of saving America's forests right here in Manetto Hills Park, a well-treed, peaceful spot on Plainview Road, between the Long Island Expressway and the Northern State Parkway. He and high school friend Robert Adler helped save this spot from development.
The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, with 2,400 acres of woodlands, has long been a welcome nesting spot for numerous species of birds, including this osprey.

Some Spots Where Nature Is Still Preserved
THERE IS NO true wilderness left on Long Island. With the arguable exception of a few areas of the pine barrens near Moriches and Westhampton, the regionís forests have all been altered significantly by humans. Still, there are dozens of local nature preserves that offer a window into what Long Island looked like before white settlers arrived. Here are a few examples, all of which have marked hiking trails:

Leeds Pond Preserve in Manhasset, a Nassau County park operated by the Science Museum of Long Island, includes 16 acres of oak, maple and tulip trees that are representative of the hardwood forests that once blanketed the northern half of Long Island.

Massapequa Preserve is also a county park, but its 423 acres display the mixture of pine and oak trees, plus freshwater wetlands, that make up the pine barrens forests that once dominated the southern half of Long Island.

Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, one of nine small federal refuges on Long Island, offers hiking and canoeing in 2,400 acres of oak and hickory forest.

Rocky Point Natural Resources Management Area. Before entering the 5,800-acre pine barrens forest of pitch pine and oak, hikers must first get a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation office in Stony Brook. Rocky Point Natural Resources Management Area is one of the largest forests left in the region.

Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, operated by the Nature Conservancy, features 2,039 acres of upland oak forest, including some beech, maple and dogwood trees. Guided nature walks are available year round, but call ahead.

ó Fagin

Saving the Forests
for the Trees

Carl Ross is a fighter for wild open spaces who lives in a place where there's no true wilderness left. That's why he does it.

By Dan Fagin
Staff Writer

EVEN IN MEMORY, it's a modest forest. A small cluster of trees just beyond the neighborhood baseball diamond. A speck of wildness in an ocean of split-levels and cape cods. But a boy could pick one of the sturdier trees, climb up a couple of branches and, enveloped in green, imagine himself far from Plainview of the late 1950s.

Those trees are long gone now, replaced by another tidy house and another neatly trimmed lawn. But the patch of wild lives on in the memory of Carl Ross, who never left Plainview yet has become a prominent if controversial voice in an epic battle over the future of almost 200 million acres of wilderness.

"I remember that patch of trees very vividly. It was our wilderness, our deep woods. We played there practically every day," said Ross, 47, whose beard is flecked with gray now but who has lost none of the relentless energy, optimism and ardor of the tree-climbing boy he once was.

"As a kid, you think something's always going to be there. You just assume those trees are always going to be a part of your environment, just like the school and the baseball field and everything else you've grown up with. Then you get older and it's a shock when you realize that's not necessarily true. Wilderness can go away -- forever," said Ross, whose environmental awakening occurred 30 years ago this month with the celebration of the first Earth Day. Two years later, he took his first stab at activism, working with friends to save a wooded tract in his home community.

Now Ross puts in 16-hour days in a spartan office in Washington, D.C., and in the Plainview home he inherited from his parents, toiling thousands of miles away from the great ancient forests he has never seen but fights passionately to protect. And he operates at an even greater distance, philosophically, from the cozy world of the large and long-established environmental groups who regard him as a loose cannon and an uncompromising zealot.

Yet Save America's Forests, the group Ross started 11 years ago in his Long Island living room, has become a leader in one of the highest-profile environmental issues of the year: the campaign to drastically reduce logging in the federal government's 155 national forests, which collectively cover an area nearly twice the size of California.

Ross is the driving force behind an anti-logging bill that has more support in Congress than any other version, including one backed by the much larger Sierra Club. He hobnobs with celebrity supporters such as scientists Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson and actor Ed Begley Jr., and his heretical attacks on the environmental movement's usual allies in the Clinton administration, including Vice President Al Gore, have gotten him front-page attention.

Not bad for a skinny, intellectual kid who was too restless to finish college and didn't figure out what he wanted to do with his life until he was 36.

"I did it my own way. I'm not the Western guy; you know, the big hiker or camper. I didn't finish at Columbia. I didn't go to law school. I didn't do those things," he said. "I just looked at life in a different way."

Picking over his toast and orange juice at the Plainview Diner on a damp spring morning, Ross ruminated on his winding path to an unlikely career as a fighter for wild open spaces who lives in a place where there's no true wilderness left. "There are some nice parks on Long Island, some nice places to go hiking. But basically, I realized I had grown up in an area that has been ecologically impoverished for centuries," he said as traffic crawled by outside on Old Country Road. "That's why I'm trying to preserve these last ancient forests and restore these other wilderness areas, because I've seen what happened here on Long Island."

Like many other communities near the Nassau-Suffolk line, Plainview was a work in progress in 1957 when Abraham and Jeanette Ross arrived from Brooklyn via New Jersey. The potato and vegetable farms were disappearing fast, but the rural crazy-quilt landscape of field and forest had not yet given way entirely to the fastidious needlepoint of the postwar suburb.

Young Carl watched the bulldozers dig out the footprint of his family's home, and played with his toy trucks in the front yard as a cement mixer poured the foundation. When the house was ready and the family moved in, he spent much of his time outside. If he wasn't watching the construction teams putting up identical split-level houses elsewhere in the neighborhood, he was exploring the woods at the community's edges.

Carl Ross
Newsday Photo/Bill Davis
Ross is still very much in touch with the wild spirit of Manetto Hills Park, formerly known as the Shattuck estate.

 

Carl Ross in front of U.S. Capitol
Newsday Photo/Bill Davis
The Capitol Hill office of Save America's Forests puts Ross right within lobbying reach of lawmakers.

"To grow up on Long Island at that time was wonderful, because you still had this great, vast outdoors. There was so much countryside all around. All of it was exciting. And all the development was a thrill, too, because when you're a kid it's exciting to see all the machines, and the roads and the houses going up," he said. "You don't know yet about the downside of what all that development brings."

It would be a stretch to call them tree-huggers, but the Rosses were appreciators of nature. Abraham, a graphic artist, painted outdoor scenes for recreation, and Jeanette, a second-grade teacher, was an amateur photographer whose work was displayed in the family's living room. When Carl was a baby, she took him for strolls every day in Prospect Park or the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and introduced him to Smokey Bear on a summer trip to the National Zoo in Washington.

Jeanette also made sure the front and back yards were full of trees, planting hemlocks, two sycamores and a blue spruce. (Carl, ever the advocate for wild things, likes to point out that many of the ornamental trees his mother planted are dying from disease or pests, while a maple and pine tree that began as weeds are thriving on the home's front lawn.) Since the family didn't go camping or take trips to Yosemite, Carl got most of his early ideas about nature and the West from the popular culture of the day. Lincoln Logs, Dr. Doolittle, episodes of "Wild Kingdom" -- he counts them all as early influences. "I grew up thinking that the cabin in the wilderness is the American ideal," he said.

The Rosses weren't social activists, either, but Carl remembers dinner-table conversations about the civil rights movement and Vietnam. Civil defense drills in school led to long family talks about the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear war. "I cared about life's cruelties, and about unfairness. That was something I certainly was imbued with from an early age," he said.

Jud Newborn, who met Ross in junior high school and has renewed the friendship in recent years, remembers him as a music prodigy -- he plays classical clarinet -- and, more significantly, as the first person in his class to grow a beard. "It was a genuine beard, not something scruffy. And what went with the apparent early maturity of Carl's beard was that he was politically and intellectually more mature than most of the students his age," said Newborn, who lives in Plainview and is the historian at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.

Ross and some of his friends volunteered at a psychiatric center for kids, and participated in an exchange program with a predominantly black high school. And he remembers the first Earth Day, during his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School, as "a very big day for me.

"I wasn't really an outdoor type of person, but on that Earth Day I remember being really moved by the idea that we're all parts of this very delicate planet, that we're all in this together," he said. "That was a unifying idea, an important, electrifying concept."

By the time he went off to Columbia, Ross was fixated on the contrast between his comfortable life in Plainview and his deeply felt belief that the world was teetering on the edge of environmental and nuclear catastrophe. "On the one hand, I had this idyllic beautiful, lovely suburban experience -- very typical. But at the same time there was this impending doom about it."

Carl Ross greets  Representative Carolyn Maloney
Newsday Photo/Bill Davis
Ross visits Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-Manhattan), a supporter of his forest bill.
Carl Ross at his desk
Newsday Photo/Bill Davis
Ross, a proponent of legislation reducing the cutting of trees in national forests, does his homework at his desk in his Washington, D.C., office.
Feeling restless, Ross left Columbia after a semester and bounced around the Northeast, periodically returning home to Long Island. Wearing his longish hair in a ponytail, he worked for a while at an organic blueberry farm on Cape Cod, and volunteered at the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation upstate, helping to rebuild a barn. He agonized over the draft, but decided to register and was not called. And back home in Plainview in 1972, he found a cause in the fight to preserve one of the last large open spaces in the community, the Shattuck Estate. Nassau County had bought the 138-acre parcel just north of the Long Island Expressway, and there was talk about turning it into a golf course, or possibly selling it for a housing development. Ross and some of friends had a different idea: They thought it should be a nature preserve.

"All our parents thought we were just nuts. They thought it was a noble cause, and a bit cute, but that it would never happen," recalled Robert Adler, now a professor of environmental law at the University of Utah. The students circulated petitions and put out a newspaper called The Hard Times featuring an article by "Chuck" Ross that was equal parts Abbie Hoffman and Johnny Appleseed. "We continue to slaughter, to clear-cut, to poison, to pillage," he wrote. "We must deflate our ego-centric view of ourselves vis-a-vis the universe. Enrich the soil, plant a garden and fight."

The ruckus they stirred up convinced the county to shelve its plans to develop the property, and even though other building proposals have surfaced over the years, today the estate, known as Manetto Hills Park, is the nature preserve Ross had envisioned. "It's very satisfying to know we accomplished something," he said.

Ross went back to Columbia but again was turned off by the rigidity of academic life, and dropped out one year short of graduation. He moved back home and did odd jobs -- one summer he and a friend sold watermelons from a pushcart on Canal Street -- but mostly he focused on his music and his vegetable garden, and on reading lots of books. "I had a lot of interests and I didn't know which one to follow. I liked them all, especially the music," he said. "When I played I felt so much joy, but I also thought: Am I solving anything? Is it enough? What can I do?"

The answer finally came in 1988, when an Oregon forest activist named Lou Gold spoke at the Huntington theater now known as the Cinema Arts Centre. "He gave an amazing talk about what was happening on public land, in the national forests, and it was something that really struck me emotionally," Ross said. When Gold came back for another presentation the following year with a group of "tree-sitters" -- activists who climb trees to try to stop loggers from cutting them down -- Ross got in his 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass (the same one he still drives) and joined the caravan to its next stop: Washington, D.C.

The issue Ross has made his life's work is one that puzzles most Easterners, who generally think national forests are the same as national parks. They're not. National forests are run by an arm of the federal Department of Agriculture, which traditionally has viewed the billions of trees in those 155 forests (the closest ones to Long Island are in Vermont and New Hampshire) as a crop to be cultivated and harvested, not as a pristine ecosystem to be left undisturbed.

For decades, activists and biologists had been pushing to end the practice of logging huge swaths of forest, known as clear-cutting, especially in the publicly owned national forests. Many of these ancient forests contain massive trees and are the home forscarce plants and animals, including lynx, salmon, grizzly bears and, most famously, northern spotted owls. But the activists' efforts generally failed, in part because local protesters in places such as Idaho, North Carolina and Colorado were disconnected from each other and especially from Washington, D.C.

"Very quickly I had the concept of creating a national network joining all these groups together in a coalition," Ross said. He met a like-minded young activist, Mark Winstein, and the two stayed up until 3 a.m. one night planning a strategy for the group Ross named Save America's Forests. The two organized the first anti-logging rally ever at the Capitol, and in 1991 walked into the offices of a congressman from Dallas named John Bryant and announced they wanted to help pass his bill to ban road-building and clear-cutting in federal forests.

"I found they were the most effective group in town. They really lobbied it hard," said Bryant, who retired from politics in 1996 and now does some lobbying work for Save America's Forests and many other clients. In a 1994 vote in the House of Representatives, Bryant's bill got 142 votes, 76 short of a majority but enough that Ross decided to devote almost all of his time to passing a revamped and expanded bill that he christened "An Act to Save America's Forests." So far, he has 120 sponsors in the House and five in the Senate, and is working to attract the moderate Republican supporters he needs to pass the bill.

Today, Save America's Forests remains a lean operation with a full-time staff of three, a budget of about $400,000, an office on Capitol Hill partly furnished with cast-off furniture Ross found on the stoop of a nearby police station, and a legion of admiring scientists and activists from more than 600 loosely affiliated groups around the country. "Here are three guys and a group of interns, and they've got a bill with 120 co-sponsors in the House!" said Stuart Pimm, a professor of ecology at Columbia and a leading expert on species extinction.

"This is a group of people who are capable of reaching into the scientific community, figuring out what needs to be done and then having the incredible energy to take a bill like that and work it into every House and Senate office," Pimm said. "I'm just as impressed as hell with that."

Ross is so single-minded about his work that he often sleeps on a beat-up couch in his office, commuting home to Long Island on weekends. But his relentless, uncompromising style has infuriated the Washington offices of the major environmental groups. "At one point people in the environmental community in Washington tried really hard to maintain a relationship with Carl, but I think most people gave up on it," said Jim Jontz, a former Indiana congressman and the executive director of American Lands Alliance, a conservation group in Washington.. Industry groups, too, have written him off. "You can't deal with Save America's Forests. They don't want to talk to you. They're extremists," said W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association.

The bad feelings with his fellow environmentalists boiled over last October, when President Bill Clinton announced an ambitious plan to permanently ban logging and road-building in at least 40 million of the 192 million acres in the national forest system. To circumvent opposition in Congress, Clinton said he would do it through administrative actions that would be finalized before the end of this year.

In Washington, all of the forest-protection groups reacted with huzzahs -- except one. Ross was widely quoted saying that Clinton has broken previous promises to curb logging on federal land, and that his plan was too vague, too limited and riddled with potential loopholes.

Then in January, Ross embarrassed Vice President Gore a few weeks before the New Hampshire primary by releasing a poll suggesting that most voters in the state don't think Clinton's plan goes far enough to protect forests. "Quite frankly, I think Carl Ross is crazy to attack the president on this, and you can quote me on that," said Mike Leahy, who directs the National Audubon Society's forest campaign. Added Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club: "He's out of sync with the rest of the movement."

But anyone who has known Ross for very long knows he has always moved to his own beat. He's more convinced than ever that only a law, approved by Congress, granting permanent protection to federal forests will rescue what little remains of the nation's great fir, redwood and pine woodlands, and the besieged animals living there.

"We're working against time, against the very real likelihood of more species extinctions in America and around the world," he said. "Growing up on Long Island, you can sense what's been lost. That's what this is all about."


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