Southampton Trails Preservation Society
SOUTHAMPTON TRAILS PRESERVATION SOCIETY
We Are A 501(C)(3) Not For Profit
P.O. Box 1171
Bridgehampton, NY 11932
|Kurt "Nature" Billing
March 21, 1992
January 24, 1962 - February 3, 2009
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.
Mr. Bottini said that an effort is underway to connect the trails of the Tuckahoe Woods Preserve with those of the large Tuckahoe
Swamp Preserve and to trails that snake north to a stretch of preserved land capped by the pond-front parcel Mr. Billing
preserved with the personal loan, now owned by the Peconic Land Trust. “It would be nice if we had a way to take people over to
Big Fresh Pond,” Mr. Bottini said. “That was the ultimate spot for Kurt. It would connect two sacred spots in Kurt’s mind.”