2022 | A Message from our President

December 19, 2022

By John v.H. Halsey


With nearly 39 years under our belt, I can’t help but reflect on our earliest conservation successes. They truly define who we are as an organization today and our approach of finding win-win solutions to conservation challenges for landowners and communities alike. It is when community conservation began to take hold in our work. What follows is a story worth being retold.

During our infancy in the mid-1980s, along the shoreline of Big Fresh Pond in Southampton, a 1-acre parcel of pristine freshwater wetlands and upland was to be developed. A building permit application had been filed and neighbors were notified and alarmed. The owners, Eduardo and Pola Schijman, soon realized that there was mounting opposition and that an attorney had been retained to fight the development of this special parcel. The Trust was invited to join the litigation, but we declined in order to explore other options. With the help of David Gilmartin, the Schijman’s attorney, the purchase of the property was negotiated as a bargain sale.

At the time, the property was appraised at $125,000, but the Schijman’s were willing to sell it to the Trust for $85,000. The difference between the appraised value and the purchase price constituted a charitable gift to the Schijmans – a win-win for the owners, the Trust, and the community. But we did not have $85,000! Enter Kurt Billing, a 24-year old neighbor who grew up on the pond, known by the nickname of “Nature” among friends and family. Amazingly, he took out a $25,000 personal loan to contribute to the cause. Then he helped raise the balance of $60,000 from other concerned neighbors. The closing happened 36 years ago in December 1986 and was the first of its kind at the Trust in which neighbors joined together to preserve land.

Kurt, who taught hundreds of local children to swim in Big Fresh Pond, said in a New York Times article from December 28, 1986: “I’m 24, I don’t earn a lot, I live and work out here, and it’s going to take me a long time to pay that loan off. But I know 40 years from now, when people can still use that lake to fish and teach their kids to swim, I’m going to be glad that I and other people put the effort in at this time.”

For Kurt, and many others, the land and the pond represented extraordinary community assets. The property contributed to the health and beauty of the pond as well as the sense of place around it. Kurt’s passion ignited the neighborhood to action, and illustrates the power of the connection between land and people. To date, the Trust has completed over 600 projects on the East End and beyond, every one of them grounded in the connection to, and the love of, the land. Recent examples include the acquisition of sacred land at Sugar Loaf Hill in concert with the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society and Southampton Town, the protection and restoration of
farmland that now hosts working farms in Brentwood with the Sisters of St. Joseph and Suffolk County, and the re-assemblage of the Condzella family farm with the help of New York State and many donors in Wading River and beyond.

In these pages you will learn more about our most recent work, all made possible by you. I invite you to also explore our website – our Interactive Map as well as our Places to Visit pages. You will read some of the conservation stories you’ve helped write through your support and learn more about the people behind the acres. These stories reflect the connection between land and people in a multitude of ways, and the foundation of community conservation. The Trust is striving to strengthen and celebrate this connection by growing a diverse conservation community, one in which our work is relevant to all. Indeed, this is key to our continued success. 

After the Trust’s acquisition of the 1-acre shoreline preserve that Kurt made possible, he led the charge to protect over 160 acres in Tuckahoe Woods with the help of Suffolk County, Southampton Town, and the Trust. This is part of the Big Fresh Pond watershed. There is a trail through Tuckahoe Woods that includes a Kurt Billing Loop with a spur that leads to our preserve on Big Fresh Pond. The preserve is now known as Nature’s Preserve after being dedicated to Kurt soon after his untimely death in 2009.

But Kurt’s inspiration is captured on a memorial rock at Nature’s Preserve: “This preserve is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Billing, known by his many friends as ‘Nature,’ a devoted servant of the land who, with a big smile, tireless energy, generosity, and open heart, made our community a better place. With ‘Nature’ in mind, we celebrate the Nature he loved.” Our work is dedicated to Kurt and all of you who we have the privilege to work with in common cause to conserve what we know and love for generations to come.


Tim Caufiled, Kurt Billing, and John v.H.Halsey in 2006

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