It’s only fitting that the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge be named for former U.S. Rep. Lester Wolff. After all, it was there that, as a House of Representatives member, he created the wetland sactuary more than a half-century ago.
President Trump on Monday signed legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, naming the refuge for the now 101-year-old Wolff, who served in the House from 1965 to 1981.
The oldest living former member of Congress, Wolff, a lifelong Democrat, continues to express his political opinions freely, which include his dislike of the president.Nonetheless, he said he was grateful for the honor that Trump has bestowed on him, and that he would cherish it.
“I’m actually amazed this went through,” Wolff said, adding that the bill was approved unanimously in both the House and Senate. “I’ve been a strong critic of what the president has been doing, so I still find it surprising that he signed it. I think it’s a significant thing, with the impeachment, that the president is able to pay attention to our little Long Island.”
Suozzi said that the accolade was well-deserved. “This is to honor a former member of Congress who took on a big- button issue in the 1960s, when he took on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Moses and preserved these wetlands,” Suozzi said. “His contribution is most valuable.”
For four of Wolff’s congressional terms, he represented New York’s 3rd District. Starting in 1967, during his second term, he sought to preserve the wetlands on the North Shore after Rockefeller approved legislation to build an 8.5-mile causeway across the Long Island Sound, to connect Oyster Bay and Rye, N.Y. The plan was proposed by Moses, the legendary developer, in an effort to reduce traffic in New York City.
Wolff said he believed the proposal would “despoil” the natural beauty of the coastline, and he condemned the project. He proposed the creation of a wetland restoration site in place of the proposed bridge. In 1968, his efforts were rewarded, and plans for the bridge were tossed.
In the 50 years since its establishment, the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge, now the Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge, has been a place for visitors to observe and explore the natural world, while protecting the region’s shoreline. At 3,209 acres, it is the largest refuge in the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge complex. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oyster Bay’s refuge is especially important for wintering waterfowl such as black ducks, greater scaup, bufflehead, canvasback and long-tailed ducks.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to construct a tunnel to the mainland from the North Shore in January 2018, Wolff was involved once again. Cuomo wanted to build an 18-mile-long tunnel across the Sound, near the refuge. Wolff attended meetings in Bayville and Oyster Bay, and told residents that the proposal should be rejected.
Two organizations were created to stop the tunnel, the Bayville Anti-Tunnel Committee and the Coalition Against an UnSound Crossing. John Taylor, a former Bayville village trustee, was the committee chairman and co-founder of the coalition. The governor pulled his plans for the $31.5 billion tunnel in June 2018 without explanation.
“The refuge has been important for three reasons — for wildlife, stopping the bridge and maybe stopping Cuomo with the tunnel,” Taylor said. “After Lester came to our first meeting in Bayville, I texted Tom Suozzi and said that he should have the refuge named after Lester. Suozzi picked it up.”
Suozzi introduced the bill on Jan. 4, 2019. He said he was happy to do so. He knows Wolff well, and described him as “well-respected and a great public servant.”
The bill did not receive the necessary votes in the Senate in 2019, so Taylor decided to use a connection he had made years ago. He wrote a letter in June to Trump, who was Taylor’s client for 12 years when he was an advertising executive.
“We put Trump in the Diet Pepsi ads when it was sponsoring the Mike Tyson- Michael Spinks fight,” Taylor said. “Trump liked the ads, and asked me to do advertising for his casinos and hotels.”
Taylor never heard from Trump, but said he hoped the president saw the letter, and that it helped to influence his decision to sign the law.
“Having the refuge named after Lester is well-deserved, and a nice way to recognize someone who saved our area from that bridge,” Taylor said. “He’s one of the most incredible people I know.”
Wolff remains active, though his monthly visits to see colleagues in Washington, D.C., have been curtailed since April as a result of a fall in his East Norwich home that necessitated his use of a wheelchair. While recuperating from a broken pelvis and shoulder, he said he is continuing to update his Twitter page daily. He also is running his website, AskCongress.org, a political and parliamentary portal where he posts political videos and information and gives users an opportunity to share their opinions.
Wolff said he hasn’t been to the Oyster Bay refuge in a while. “The refuge is more important now than ever, because of the threat to our environment from those who are casting aside the question of climate change,” he said. “Trump has been terrible for the environment. Every bit of environmental legislation is being reversed that was ever enacted.”
The refuge needs to be enhanced and enriched, Wolff added. “I want constant supervision at the wildlife site and at the Sound, which isn’t always clean. It’s a critical site.”