Widgets Magazine

The Backstory of Mashomack Preserve With Mike Laspia, Director

Q: You’re an unusual guy--you really are from Shelter Island; you’re not a transplant. But are you a hare legger? A: No, I’m a Stirling baby, born in Greenport. My family lives here on the Island, and I grew up here.

Q: How did you become director of Mashomack?

A: When my wife Susan and I got married in 1970, her father was the gamekeeper for the private shooting club that pre-dated Mashomack. As a result they let us get married there. At the time, I was working at my father’s nursery—my background is in landscape architecture and design—but started hanging out, and had a hunting dog, and then in 1978 they hired me as the gamekeeper.

In 1979, Aeon Realty, which owned the land, refused to renew the shooting club’s lease and I was out of a job. In June or so the company called me, and hired me to be caretaker of the property. They wanted me to live on the property, and so we moved along with our two small daughters, then 4 and 2. In July they told me they had a contract to sell to the Nature Conservancy, and part of my job was helping while the Nature Conservancy did the fundraising to get the $5 million. They brought out the Fords, Rockefellers and so on. They closed on the deal in January 1980.

At the time, my wife and I were thinking of moving to the eastern shore of Maryland as soon as the deal closed, assuming my work there would be done. But the Nature Conservancy offered me the job, and we decided to do it. That was 35 years ago.

Q: Mashomack was a shooting club before the Nature Conservancy bought it? What was that like?

A: Mashomack existed as this no man’s land; the shooting club had the grounds heavily patrolled and posted. You weren’t allowed to be there unless you were a member. Members were people from the South Fork and the city; very exclusive. They were after birds, waterfowl and such. They would raise the birds and then release them to hunt them.

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My grandfather was a potato farmer on Shelter Island; he had a farm up on Menantic Rd. I can remember in the early 50’s my grandfather leased some land down in Mashomack for a year to grow potatoes, and I remember coming with him. He planted what we now call the North Field, but he only did it the one year because he didn’t harvest any; the deer dug them all up and ate them, stems and all.

Q: Wow, the deer crisis predates the more significant (though still relatively sparse) development of today.

A: Yes, there’s always great food crops for the deer, and back then all deer hunting was poaching; there was no season.

Q: So what did the Nature Conservancy do when it bought the former shooting club?

A: The first thing that the conservancy did back then was do a master plan for the property, with help from Stony Brook. We spent the next two years doing a natural resource inventory—the animals, geology, plants, marine life—what did we have, where was it, did it need protection. Then we devised a plan to open the preserve to the public, create a trail system that enabled people to enjoy the property while still protecting the species the needed protecting. So we did that over the next couple years. Then we decided to expand our interaction with the public, and I began to lead a lot of walks, have classes, etc.

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It was an interesting shift. This place had always been very private, patrolled. When I was working the club part of my job was patrolling the beach and property, and if I found someone who wasn’t a club member I asked them to leave. Now we’ve had a total reversal of that; since about the mid-1980s it’s been fully public.

Q: Does Mashomack close during part of the year?

A: No, we’re open year round; in the winter it’s mostly hiking and cross country skiing. We do programming year round, but it can be hard as our stuff is outside. When we have snow like this season, there’s a lot of cancellations. It’s hard to get around in 18 inches of snow.

It starts getting busier in the spring, then summer, but our busiest season is fall—once it starts to cool off, and it peaks in October/November. As long as it’s still reasonably mild, like this past year, it’s still pretty busy in December.

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Fall’s so busy because everyone wants to take a walk on a nice fall day, and the place is big enough that people aren’t on top of each other. We have four trails, one’s accessible and a half mile, and the longest is ten miles. Even though hikers might pile up at the visitor’s center, everyone spreads out pretty quickly.

Q: You mentioned Mashomack holds many interesting educational programs throughout the year. Do you hold any special events?

A: The biggest one we have is the last Saturday in July, it’s our biggest fundraiser, a dinner and auction. We’ve been doing it for 35 years, and it’s all done by volunteers; all the cooking, set up, clean up—over 100 people. The party is at the historic Manor House and its beautiful grounds. Normally the Manor House is usually used to host researchers, have meetings and the like.

While the gala is open to the public, people need to reserve in advance so we can plan appropriately.

The public’s first chance to visit the Manor House and explore its grounds is on Memorial Day weekend when we haven a open house. We hold another open house in early December, it’s all decorated for the holiday, we do egg nog, carols, fun stuff for the kids.

A couple times a year we make the house available for people who sign up for a special waterfowl walk, so if you’re coming here for the event from off island you pretty much have to stay here to make it work.

Q: Anything else the public should know so they can really enjoy their visit to Mashomack?

A: We have a great visitors’ center, with lots of information. We don’t have picnic tables, things like that—it’s passive recreation. We have baby strollers with inflated tires so people can bring young children. We don’t have caged animals for people to see or pet; to see a red tailed hawk you need to pay attention while hiking.