Ashley Schiff Park Preserve

The Ashley Schiff Forest Preserve - A Stony Brook Legacy
George S. Locker
SUNY Stony Brook Class of 1971
June 2003

George Locker was a student of Ashley Schiff who graduated from Stony Brook University with a BA degree in 1971. He practices law in New York City and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy.

Professor Ashley Schiff
Ashley Schiff was a popular professor of political science who joined Stony Brook University in 1965. It was a time of war, protest, campus engagement, and intensive discussion and debate. Few other universities of the period - old or new -- could boast of a more passionate or more politically discerning student body.

In this period of national activism, the students viewed Schiff - and he viewed himself - as a political moderate, if not somewhat conservative, respected for being accessible, open-minded, and "brutally honest".

But beyond these qualities, what most accounted for Schiff's profound impact on student life was his deeply felt commitment to practice and promote integrity within the university community.

Professor Schiff was an early conservationist and expert on the politics of forest management (Ashley Schiff, Fire and Water - Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service, Harvard University Press, 1962). Upon learning that a bulldozer was about to topple the tallest conifer on campus, he quietly chained himself to the threatened tree, and thereby became a legend.

Cardozo College and Professor Schiff
In those early years of Stony Brook, the university experience included a residential college program. Working in close conjunction with faculty advisers and a full time program coordinator, and with funds allocated by the university, student representatives created a "college program", within each dormitory to integrate residential and academic life, and, ideally, to provide a rich and supportive living and learning environment.

As the master of Cardozo College, Schiff was renowned for his ceaseless work outside of class to improve undergraduate life. He was credited with providing the Cardozo residents "with a seemingly unending flow of celebrity guest visitors, with a calendar of educational events unmatched by any of Stony Brook's twenty other residential colleges" (Statesman, October 3, 1969, page 1).

When the sea of mud, which epitomized the campus environment, threatened to engulf the newly installed Roth Pond in front of Cardozo, Schiff donated -- and he and students planted -- azaleas along its eroded banks. This was intended as a gift to the university, and, equally important, as an example to the college administration (Stony Brook Review, October 1969).

Professor Schiff's Tragic Death
In the early fall of 1969, Dr. Ashley Schiff died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 37, leaving behind a wife and young family. His death shocked the young Stony Brook community, already seasoned to anti-war marches, intrusive drug raids, and serious student activism.

Five hundred students attended Schiff's funeral service, held beneath a beautiful linden tree near the campus. The campus spoke from its heart in a two-page memoriam in the student newspaper, The Statesman, entitled: The Passing of a Friend:

"...Seems the good they die young...", wrote the editor;

"Not only was there always something going on at Cardozo College, but what was going on was always worthwhile";

"He had a genuine, humane smile, was a gentleman, a human being who cared about people...";

"When named one of the five best teachers by the class of '68, Schiff wept...";

"The students loved him, because they learned from him, and they learned from him because he combined his scholarship and his humanity with great integrity" .

The Search for a Memorial to Schiff
Resisting administration offers to name a building after their beloved professor, students organized to formulate a more appropriate memorial. They did not have far to look.

Just south of Cardozo College was a large chunk of woodland, untouched by the new Tabler Dorms, and surrounded by nothing but Nicolls Rd and the South Loop Road. Schiff had a tradition of taking new students walking there each September. He loved the forest.

What more fitting memorial to the early scholar of forest management than a forever-wild nature preserve within the campus itself? Support for the proposal grew rapidly, and in a week's time, President John Toll committed the University to creation of the preserve.

The Dedication of the Ashley Schiff Forest Preserve
In 1970, the Ashley Schiff Nature Preserve was dedicated at a public ceremony by the former United States Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall. It was plotted and surveyed (+/- 28.273 acres) (Map of Ecological Preserve Area, Stony Brook, NY, Lockwood, Kessler & Bartlett, April 6, 1971), and identifying signs were placed that asked visitors to "Take Only Photos, Leave Only Footprints".

President John Toll exclaimed: " we dedicate a wilderness preserve to the memory of Ashley Schiff, where future generations at Stony Brook can learn to share his appreciation of nature. .... Of all the tributes we might pay him, I believe this is the one that would have touched him most, and best carries forward his special contributions to Stony Brook" (John S. Toll, In: Tribute to Ashley Schiff, October 9, 1969).

The Memories and Commitment Dimmed
On the newly growing south campus, parts of Nassau and Suffolk Hall were built within the boundaries of the Preserve. The South Loop road was altered and widened, and the famous conifer tree that Ashley had saved was felled without notice.

Time passed. The signs disappeared. Students and faculty who knew Schiff moved on, and the existence of the Schiff Preserve slipped from public awareness. Campus maps did not show it.

In 1986, controversial plans to lease university land for construction of a privately owned conference center and 150-room hotel (which later fell through) threatened to slice a piece of from the Preserve.

An updated survey conducted in 1998 revealed that the Schiff Preserve was 26.667 acres, a loss of 1.61 acres, or 6% of Preserve land (South Campus Site Map, June 1998).

A New Beginning
In spring 2001, aware that the Ashley Schiff Forest Preserve enjoyed no formal legal protection, concerned faculty and alumni brought these concerns to the attention of the University Senate and administration officials. The Senate sought to have the Schiff Preserve placed into an irrevocable forever-wild status. In May 2001, the University Senate passed a motion without dissent that the forested lands on campus be designated as "University Living Treasures".

In meetings with university officials, the Senate Environment committee, alumni, community leaders, Mrs. Dorothy Schiff (Ashley 's widow) and State Legislator Steve Englebright advocated permanent protection for the preserve (which could be via a private or state land trust).

As a result of these efforts, The Schiff Preserve is now at least identified on the campus map. It is discussed in official university planning documents. Soon, the Preserve will be marked and denoted by several distinctive public signs. Moreover, President Kenny has assured the Senate that the Schiff Preserve will not be touched during her leadership. Her commitment is welcome, it continues an important tradition, but it is not enough.

The Future of the Preserve
Because there is no formal "forever wild" protection in place, President Kenny's successor could decide that it was necessary to eliminate the Schiff Preserve and there would be no legal impediment.

When available land for development and expansion becomes scarce, especially within the main campus, pressure will mount to bulldoze and to build within the Schiff Preserve, or perhaps to swap land. In the past, acreage was trimmed from the Schiff Preserve for roads and buildings even when available land was not scarce.

We believe that we cannot gamble the fate of the Schiff Preserve on the good sense and discretion of future university administrations. Now is the time to assure that it is formally and legally preserved for future Stony Brook generations.

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