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May 20, 2009 1:37 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

New hiking trail will honor beloved outdoorsman

May 20, 2009 1:37 PM

Kurt Billing spent much of his life marching through the woods or battling in board rooms to get more woodlands protected for others to march through. So when he died last fall, his friends, most of them like-minded crusaders for environmental protection, decided to do something to ensure his memory would live on.

It seemed only natural to find a special piece of the East End that could bear his name.

And there were few places on the East End more special to Kurt Billing than the swath of woodlands and swamps that stretch north from the Tuckahoe School to the waters of Big Fresh Pond, where he grew up. Hidden amid the deciduous forest, in the wider-than-apparent stretches of undeveloped land between subdivisions, are groves of beech trees, vernal pools that are home to salamanders and a variety of other rare amphibians, some rare surviving sprouts of native American chestnuts—and a low hill summit that affords hikers breathtaking views sprawling as far as the Connecticut coast.

“This is one of those little nooks on the East End that people just don’t know about, even people that live right in the neighborhood,” said Mike Bottini, a naturalist and close friend of the late Mr. Billing, who is leading an effort to refurbish and rename the 150-acre preserve and a broad system of hiking trails that snake through it in honor of Mr. Billing. “I love this spot. You can see red-tailed hawks cruising and you’re looking down on them from up here. It’s really amazing.”

Mr. Bottini and a broad network of Mr. Billing’s friends have banded together to spruce up the Tuckahoe Woods Preserve, which Mr. Billing helped create, particularly the summit of Tuckahoe Hill. It was from that hilltop that Mr. Billing perched himself on a painter’s ladder in the 1980s and took a series of photos which, when stitched together, showed a stunning 360-degree vista almost entirely free of signs of human development. That image helped convince county legislators to kick in the money to preserve the land around it.

Today, the trees mostly obscure the view to the south, but because the land to the north slopes away steeply, into the hollow of North Sea, the views to the north still span nearly 180 degrees west to east. The dense vegetation completely hides any signs of the thousands of homes that dot the area and, except for a grain silo at Lois Bacon’s estate on Cow Neck, there is nary a manmade structure visible in any direction. The sandy bluffs of Robins Island and the waters of Peconic Bay and Shelter Island Sound are the only breaks in the carpet of green.

The hilltop itself is owned by Southampton Village and has long been used as a brush dump, composting site and as the target shooting range for the Southampton Village Police Department—circumstances that pose a number of significant hurdles to the effort to incorporate the summit into the hiking trail.

Huge piles of tree stumps line the dirt road leading to the hill, but Mr. Bottini said he has been working with village officials to slowly clean up portions of the property so that the hiking trail may cross the summit, circumventing the areas still used by the village. He said the hope is that in the spirit of natural preservation, the village might be allowed to begin dumping its brush at the town landfill.

“There’s a lot to address,” he said. “The village has needs they have to meet, but I think there are solutions if we can get the village and the town and maybe the Peconic Land Trust working together on it.”

Illegal dumping on the property, which can be accessed by a dirt road off North Magee Street, has been a problem at the site, but Mr. Bottini said that bringing the area, and its beauty, into the public eye might help curtail such activity.

Jay Huber, a college friend of Mr. Billing, has already raised nearly $10,000 for the improvements to the trail, probably more than will even be needed, Mr. Bottini said. Atop the summit is a circular concrete pad, the foundation of a World War II era observation post. Part of the plan for the memorial trail is to build a small observation tower on the pad, so other visitors can take in the sight that Mr. Billing found so enthralling.

“He always thought it would be cool to create a nature observation platform up there,” Mr. Bottini recalled of his partner in many preservation efforts. “You wouldn’t have to go too high to get this amazing view. It would be a perfect memorial.”

Tuckahoe Woods might not even exist if not for Mr. Billing. While in his late 20s, the man nicknamed “Nature” in high school spearheaded the effort to corral town and county officials into preserving the land, which is home to rare spade-foot frogs and spotted salamanders and ecologically sensitive beech groves.

It was not his first crusade. He had already been instrumental in the preservation drives for large portions of the area around his Big Fresh Pond Road home, including a parcel that he personally took out a loan to purchase and preserve through the Peconic Land Trust, fund-raising to pay back the loan. He was a founder of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, a member of the town’s Trials Advisory Board, and sat on the board of directors of the then-Group for the South Fork.

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If you get a chance, hike this trail. It affords really great views from the base of the old WWII lookout tower. A small observation platform would be great. Also the same can be said for Whiskey Hill., Bridgehampton. You won't believe the views if you have not seen them.
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on May 22, 09 6:24 PM
I agree, I just implore those of you that do, to take out of the wood everything you have brought into the wood with you.

That even means cigarette butts.

I personally have grown weary of finding discarded items of trash in the wood, and piles dumped by people who just don't seem to know any better.

I implore you to leave nature as pristine as you found it.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on May 26, 09 12:27 PM