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Call Of The Wild

Tanner’s Pond expands hours as it continues to serve as a premiere community nature preserve

There’s a part of Tanner’s Pond Road that’s about as nondescript as any byway you might find abutting any number of suburban sumps around Long Island. An abundance of greenery frames the perimeter of this area that sits across the street from a row of lovely homes with carefully landscaped front yards. About the only item that might catch your eye is the fact that a sturdy, black wrought-iron barrier rather than a beat-up chain-link fence serves as the barricade between this piece of Nassau County property and the streets of Garden City. A concrete apron that breaks up the curb leads to a pair of gates that happens to be openly inviting on this perfect summery Saturday afternoon.

Closer inspection reveals posted signage that provides a phone number for anyone with inquiries about volunteering or wishing to report any problems should call. Topping this message is the name Hickory Hollow Alves Arboretum. You’ve arrived at what most village residents know to be the Garden City Bird Sanctuary.

On this particular day, the smell of freshly cut grass hangs in the air with streetside bags of lawn clippings indicating the source of this delightful scent. Just inside the entrance, a bird splashes around in a birdbath situated in the shrubbery while just a few hundred feet beyond, a rabbit cautiously sniffs around the edges of a slightly untamed lea. Before long, a lanky gentleman with a bushy mustache, burnished tan and twinkling blue eyes amicably ambles up to greet newly arrived visitors. The man is longtime Garden City resident Rob Alves, the steward and soul of what’s officially known as Nassau County Storm Water Basin No. 232. For nearly two decades, Alves has overseen the transformation of this neglected nine acres into an eco-friendly oasis that serves as a haven for both wildlife and harried individuals seeking a respite from the chaos of everyday life. The seeds for it were planted back in 1992, when the sexagenarian was appointed to the Village of Garden City Environmental Board.

“[The village] asked me to inventory the green space. I think the village’s focus at that time was the St. Paul’s fields, St. Paul’s school and the middle school fields, which are actually owned by the Diocese of St. Paul’s. Then, I noticed these other properties the village owned that had an abandoned railway line, a stormwater basin and I recognized that it was right in our heartland,” he explained. “After we finished it, we wanted to see the things we could do with the space we had. I had originally envisioned a hiking or jogging trail over by the abandoned railroad tracks behind the Doubleday property. Then somebody suggested a bird sanctuary, which I never even knew what they were talking about. So we did a public outreach and other people in the village came forward and wanted to do different things up to and including nothing. But enough people wanted to do more than I originally anticipated.”

With help from Betsy Gulotta, president of the South Shore Audobon Society, Alves and an army of volunteers slowly started transforming this trash-filled water basin into a protected nature refuge under the auspices of the Nassau County Adopt-A-Spot program. With technical assistance from Hofstra University, (which has a similar water-basin/preserve on its campus), and funds donated by local residents, it was officially proclaimed The Garden City Bird Sanctuary on April 27, 1996 by Gulotta’s husband Thomas, who was the Nassau County executive at that time.

As a one-time county hydrogeologist for the department of public works and a current geologist for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Manhattan office, Alves not only possesses the technical know-how to be an effective caretaker of the land, but he’s well-equipped to navigate the red-tape strangled labyrinth of dealing with village, county and federal governments. With the Garden City Bird Sanctuary registered as a certified 501©3 non-profit, there are plenty of grant requests to be written, jargon-laden mandates to be followed and a constant quest for funds needed to keep the center running.

“I do not get anything from the village financially or the county either because we have a use and occupancy permit that says that we’ll take over some of the maintenance. So it’s been a matter of constantly trying to raise enough funds that I can conduct simple types of things,” he explained. “We have to have a million dollar liability policy to leave the county blameless. You start with nothing and then you have to come up with $2,500 dollars each year for that.”

Other expenses include tools, seedlings, plants and, most crucially, water. The dry summer of 1995 not only burnt up the pine barrens out east, but caused numerous brushfires in the water basin, necessitating the use of a water service, which in one year produced a bill of more than $7,000. Luckily, a local plumber installed a meter, linkage with the village water system and even put in a number of underground sprinklers. Currently Alves is in the midst of trying to install a private irrigation well using solar power to run the pump. And while he’s gotten blessings from the village and county to pursue this project, he’ll need to privately fundraise the roughly $50,000 needed to complete this endeavor.

Sandwiched between the village’s adjacent village soccer fields and a New Hyde Park industrial park, the sanctuary has paths that wend their way throughout the preserve on two different levels. An arboreal canopy covers many of these walkways lined with post and rail fencing, offering a noticeably cooler respite from the sun’s heat. As we casually stroll along, the amiable eco-warrior proudly points out the many charms that might not be obvious to the practiced eye. On the roughly one acre that lays off to the left of the entranceway sits one of the last remaining remnants of the Hempstead Plains. While this patch of unruly wildflowers and plants may not seem like much, it was part of roughly 60,000 acres of native grasslands that once stretched from Floral Park to Plainview.

Elsewhere, Alves pointed out leatris or butterfly weeds, a native species enjoying a rebirth after being dormant for years. Sprinkled among the ferns, milkweed and elms are nesting boxes overflowing with string, cotton and other materials used by birds for nesting. Other areas have sections and trees serving as living dedications to the deceased. All this wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of volunteers, most notably the numerous Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts that have labored here and made significant contributions—be they butterfly gardens, an extended arboretum, a sturdy gazebo made from recycled materials or a museum-worthy display case.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the Boy Scouts. When they reach the Eagle project level and find me, whatever project they want to do is immaterial. But I’ll work with them on it to make sure they’re all different. What are the skills they’re learning? Project management, coordination and learning how to plant, all things that they’re learning for life,” Alves admiringly said.

“I tell them that they all contribute a small piece to the overall process and no one will really notice if one was done here or there but by the time years have gone and you see a steady accumulation of improvements, then you all come back and recognize it. Then you realize you were building that all together, you just didn’t know who the other teammates were. You realize these kids end up having a major life change when they complete a project like that.”

To date, more than 20 Boy Scouts have achieved Eagle Scout status dating back to James Okas in 1995 with more recent Scouts being Alonzo Africa, who became an Eagle Scout in April and Joe D’Amico slated for induction on June 8. In addition, three Girl Scouts have achieved the equivalent Girl Scout Gold Awards—Sarah Sylvester in 1998, Amelia Melito in 2006 and Colleen Way in 2010.

One of the most impressive projects is a case that not only documents all the projects built up through April 2012, but it also displays pictures and explanations of the different species found in the preserve along with their actual nests. Here, visitors learn that among the species frequenting the preserve are barn swallows, northern cardinals, downing woodpeckers, American goldfinches and mourning doves.

In addition to being a nature haven, the Tanner Pond Environmental Center has also been the site of Halloween and Christmas festivities, a recent 3K Earth Run and even a wedding. Going forward, Alves plans to expand last summer’s nature camp to two weeks. In addition, the center’s hours will be expanding from noon to 5 p.m. on weekends to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays in June, July and part of August, thanks to a grant from Adelphi University.

“Although we’re not getting any money, the university is paying for an intern. They offered $3,000, so we’ll be able to be open seven days a week, with that person becoming our [temporary] field representative,” Alves explained. “Then another Adelphi person who is an education major will be working out here the month of July. For two weeks in July, we’re going to run a nature camp in collaboration with the village recreation department. I think that runs the week of July 9 and 16. From 10 to 12, about 18 to 20 kids who sign up through the recreation department will meet up over at Nassau Haven and then get walked over to the Tanners Pond Environmental Center, where we’ll have different activities for them.”

It is this sense of community and collaboration that’s enabled what’s slowly become known as a Garden City fixture to grow and thrive. “This is why I say you don’t need money sometimes,” Alves said as he took a drag from his cigarette. “The village’s recreation department is full of great people and we see them all the time so now they know we’re not going away and we know they’re not going away. Now we’re not just friendly neighbors looking over a fence; we’re working together.”

For more information about the Tanner Pond Environmental Center/Garden City Bird Sanctuary, visit gcbirdsanctuary.org or call 516-326-1720.