The Mashomack Preserve is “a museum of life in process.” It comprises one-third of Shelter Island, part of Long Island, and is located just 90 miles from New York City. Featuring miles of coastline and acres of salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, tidal creeks, and oak woodlands, the Mashomack Preserve has been called “The Jewel of the Peconic.” It hosts a concentrated population of breeding ospreys as well as nesting populations of the endangered piping plover and least tern. In a long-term effort to maintain the delicate biodiversity of the grasslands and oak forest, the Preserve is replanting indigenous flora. But not so long ago, this thriving, fertile land was at risk of development, endangering its natural charms and isolating its beauty from the public.
The Mashomack area was originally inhabited by the Manhanset, a tribe related to the Algonquian people. This parcel of land was bought by William Nicoll in 1693 and stayed in the Nicoll family for two centuries, until in 1923, “Miss Annie” sold off part of the land. A German developer acquired the entirety of the land shortly thereafter, in 1925. Referencing Where They Go by Water by Muriel Porter Weaver, the Shelter Island Reporter describes a very different-looking Mashomack during Prohibition: “‘a grand game of cops and robbers, glamour and cold cash,’” as it funneled alcohol delivered by ships from Canada and the Caribbean.
The German owner Otto Kahn lost the land in the crash of 1929; it was acquired by another real estate firm in 1934. For the next several decades, the land was mainly used as hunting ground by exclusive clubs. In 1966 Mashomack almost became part of a national seashore park, by way of a pitch to the Department of the Interior. Community opposition shut down the initiative, however, until another proposition came along in 1973. Investment group Mashomack Forest, Inc. proposed a scheme carrying a large price tag, to build out the land into a ritzy residential complex including an airstrip, golf and yacht club, marine village, riding paths and playing fields. However, that plan collapsed in 1979, at which point the land parcel was bought by The Nature Conservancy, with half of the necessary funds raised on-island, and some coming from “‘the Fords, Rockefellers and so on.’” Thus, the Mashomack Preserve was born.
Mike Laspia, a caretaker of Mashomack since its creation in 1980, observes that the land went from an exclusive club that raised animals for the purpose of hunting them to a public nature preserve. “It was an interesting shift. This place had always been very private, patrolled. When I was working the club part of my job was patrolling the beach and property, and if I found someone who wasn’t a club member I asked them to leave. Now we’ve had a total reversal of that; since about the mid-1980s it’s been fully public.”
In addition to preserving an ecologically important area, the Mashomack Preserve seeks to educate people about its natural resources, particularly children. As the Shelter Island Reporter describes it, “While children are being taught the principles of green living, their involvement with the environment begins and ends, in many cases, in the classroom. ‘There is a real disconnect between young people and the outdoors,’ said Mr. Laspia.” The Mashomack Preserve, along with the Nature Conservancy, recognizes the need to instill a love of nature at an early age and to unite locals with the land through programs like “No Child Left Inside.” The Mashomack Preserve also hosts numerous research projects. Its focus on indigenous plant life makes it “a great control area,” according to Laspia.
The success of the Mashomack Preserve is indicative of the mission of The Nature Conservancy: to preserve the natural ecosystem and counteract the negative effects humans often have on their environment. With over a million members, The Nature Conservancy has saved over 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide, overseeing preservation and marine conservation projects in all 50 states and more than 30 countries. The Mashomack Preserve does a tremendous job fundraising through a 1,700-strong Friends organization.
As a Long Islander, I am proud to support the Preserve, for its commitment to protecting our increasingly threatened natural resources and for its service to the Shelter Island and Long Island community. I want my children to grow up immersed in nature so that they can become better stewards of our planet’s resources. “Mashomack” means “where they go by water,” and that is what the preserve allows us to do: witness the wildness of the land encountering the untamed ocean. Thanks to the intervention of The Nature Conservancy, the tireless work of the Mashomack Preserve, and the generosity of supporters, these 2,039 pristine acres will return to the land and remain available for research and recreation.