As Dai Dayton trekked a winding, wooded hiking trail in Sag Harbor on a warm March day, twigs crunching beneath her feet, she absentmindedly cleared the path as she went, throwing loose branches to the side—pausing to breathe in the serenity.“Do you hear that?” she asks as she gestures toward a kettlehole a few feet away. “Those are the peepers.”
Ms. Dayton’s singular appreciation for the natural environment, her dedication to it, and how she has inspired others have enabled the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, of which she is a founding member, to continue to flourish in its 30th year. It is why the peepers, tiny frogs that are a key part of a South Fork spring, remain safe from harm, their peeps audible despite the loud sounds of skeet shooting or hunting just a few miles away..
For its 30th anniversary, the volunteer organization is celebrating 300 miles of trails—spread literally throughout North Sea, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, Hampton Bays, Noyac, Sagaponack and elsewhere in Southampton Town and beyond—the accumulation of which its more than 300 members have worked tirelessly to achieve. They have saved wildlife, prevented development, fought the influx of all-terrain vehicles and, of course, preserved more and more land.
“Towns don’t do this for us—that is what is so amazing,” said founding member Pingree Louchheim, a Sagaponack resident. “All of that is done by private people, and I don’t think there are many places that they can say they have a trails system 100-percent maintained and created by private people.”
The Southampton Trails Preservation Society was actually founded by a group of equestrians who realized that they were losing the trails they rode in the Long Pond Greenbelt to rapid development. The existence of the trails goes back to colonial times, and they are historic features, Ms. Dayton explained, adding that they need to be preserved in their natural state.
Indeed they have, and members have led hikes on South Fork trails every weekend for the past three decades.
A program within the organization, called Horses On Trails, or HOT, is flourishing. Board member Leslie Lowery, who leads the program, along with trail rides once every month, explained that horses have historically been a natural part of the environment. “We try to maintain a horse presence in the trail system, otherwise people forget that horses are permitted and encouraged, and not detrimental to the environment,” she said. “It is a passive use of the environment and it’s beautiful.”
Ms. Dayton said preservation has been no easy task, although having a responsive Town Board and local government leaders who are environmentalists has been helpful. The Southampton Trails Preservation Society has worked actively with Southampton Town government as well as the State Department of Environmental Conservation and environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Long Pond Greenbelt, as well as neighboring trails groups such as the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society.
Perhaps the most important achievement was securing a trail law within the Southampton Town code during the late 1980s, which ensured that trails would be recognized and preserved as natural resources, Ms. Dayton said. The town code also mandated that developers point out all existing trails on proposed subdivision maps, keeping them from being broken up or interrupted by new house lots and development.
At that time, Fred W. Thiele Jr.—now a local assemblyman and the village attorney for Sag Harbor—played an important role as the town attorney for Southampton. Mr. Thiele explained last week that the law gives planning officials the power to protect old trails that cross private property.
“The primary issue really was, as the area got under development, the fear that a lot of these trails and trail linkages would be lost because of development,” said Mr. Thiele. “We have the authority, under the law, to protect features such as trails.”
Ms. Louchheim echoed that sentiment and said that the law has truly been instrumental.
“If in a subdivision there is a trail that people have been using, that trail has to remain in the subdivision,” she said. “It could be moved, but it has to stay there. That was very important because too many subdivisions were being plopped right in the middle of our trail system.”
At the time, homeowners would repeatedly argue that the law would “impinge on their property rights,” Ms. Louchheim said, but things have changed. “I have to tell you, now I see these real estate developments for sale and they say ‘next to trail or trail access’; they are just touting these trails.”
Both Mr. Thiele and Ms. Dayton explained that the town’s Community Preservation Fund has also been key. “As far as protecting trails and public access, we put many tools in the toolbox, probably the most important tool has been the Community Preservation Fund because important trail linkages that otherwise might have been lost, the town has been able to acquire,” Mr. Thiele said.
The CPF was created in 1999 and is supported by revenues that come from a 2-percent tax on most real estate transfers. It allows the town to buy land, although the property owners must be willing to sell; the fund cannot be used during such proceedings as eminent domain or condemnation. Thus far, the fund has preserved more than 3,000 acres of land that could have been lost to development.
Now the biggest task for the society is maintaining existing trails and ensuring that they remain open and accessible to hikers. That means that after every major storm, members must be prepared to clear the paths and make sure that the blazes remain painted on the trees so that hikers do not get lost. That takes manpower, because paint “deteriorates,” said Howard Reismann, a board member.
A white blaze means a hiker is on the Paumanok Path, a 130-mile, east-to-west trail that stretches from Montauk Point to Rocky Point on the north shore. The organization has just a few miles left to finish this path in the Shinnecock Hills area—and on April 23, its members will host an inaugural hike celebrating its completion.
“The towns have done their fair share with laws, but really what has protected the trails has been the private sector—the Trails Preservation Society; they have helped to maintain the trails, advocated for stronger laws to preserve the trails,” said Mr. Thiele.
“What is really great about it is it is all volunteers,” he continued, “people that give their time to the community, to the town, and provide a resource that is really beneficial.”