Steve Englebright: Gentleman Statesman and Champion Environmentalist

From Suffolk County, he was for 30 years the leading environmental figure in the New York State Legislature, a giant in environmental affairs in the state. But a big change resulting from last year’s election is that Steve Englebright, in a surprise upset, was narrowly defeated.

However, Englebright, who before his loss was chair of the State Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, is not leaving politics.

He has decided to run again for the Suffolk County Legislature – of which he was a member from 1983 until 1992 when he was initially elected to the State Assembly.

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” comments Englebright, 76.

About Englebright, another Suffolk County assemblyman, Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, who served with him on the Suffolk Legislature and also in the State Legislature, says that in New York State government, “Nobody has made a bigger contribution to the environment. Steve has been at the forefront of all the major environmental measures. He has made such a big difference.”

Englebright, a resident of Setauket, has been prime sponsor of hundreds of successful measures on the environment on the county and state levels.

Englebright is especially proud that he helped “shape” the New York State Clean Air, Clean Water, and Green Jobs Bond Act approved overwhelmingly statewide in a referendum last year. He is equally proud of his labor on a “prelude to it,” a Green Amendment added to the state constitution. It, too, was approved overwhelmingly in a statewide referendum, on Election Day 2021. He was its prime sponsor in the State Assembly.

Of the $4.2 billion bond act, Englebright says: “We need to challenge the overheating of the earth’s atmosphere and earth’s oceans. It is important to do what we can to set an example to sister states and other nations in the fight against climate change.”

The Green Amendment now enshrined into New York law declares that every person has “the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

A Democrat, Englebright attributes his 23,707 to 22,734 loss last year to Republican lawyer Edward Flood as a spillover in Brookhaven Town of votes for a town favorite son, Lee Zeldin of Shirley, in his bid for governor. And also, notes, “at the end of the campaign, dark money mailings full of misinformation and accusations over the bail issue.”

Englebright’s love for the environment started early. He grew up in Bayside, Queens, and “I saw the last farms in Bayside developed,” he recalls. He spent time in “Bayside Woods – all gone now, built on. All the open space has been lost.” What happened to his boyhood home “left an indelible imprint.”

He attended the University of Tennessee, attracted to its geology program. He received a Bachelor’s Degree and later a Master’s in paleontology/sedimentology from Stony Brook University. Stony Brook hired him to curate their geological collection, in part, because of his background in museums. He had been as a junior curator at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and volunteer in the vertebrae and paleontology collection at the American Museum of Natural History. His work founded the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences at Stony Brook University.

Its first exhibit was on the Long Island Pine Barrens. Englebright understood the extraordinary purity of the water beneath the Pine Barrens, how their sandy porous soil allows rainwater to migrate cleanly to the aquifers below on which residents depend for their potable water. Underneath the Pine Barrens, Englebright knew, was the finest of the water supply. And, he comprehended the ecological import of Pine Barrens habitat, which includes many rare plants, birds and animals.

In the 1970s and early 80s, hardly anyone else in this area understood any of this. The Pine Barrens were considered scrub and wasteland – not important like the land along the shoreline or farmland – and were designated in county government development plans for industrial use such as along the Long Island Expressway.

That first exhibit focused on where the Hauppauge Industrial Park had gone – on top of Pine Barrens.

“I had watched it, basically a complete ecosystem, wiped away and transformed into buildings and parking lots,” Englebright recounts.

He decided it “was basically unethical to simply document the passing of the ecosystem.” So, he decided to get into politics – running for the Suffolk Legislature – and through government get environmental action.

Englebright taught me and many others about the huge significance of the Pine Barrens. He would take people, one at a time, up Danger Hill in Manorville. From the top of it, one could see the Long Island Sound to the north, bays and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and to the west and east great stretches of green Pine Barrens.

We were looking, said Englebright, at “Long Island’s reservoir.”

He went on to become a critical figure in the passage of the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act of 1993, which has saved more than 100,000 acres of Pine Barrens.

“I think I have the strongest environmental record in the history of the state legislature,” Englebright told me after his election defeat.

His return to the Suffolk Legislature it is not assured. The Republican designee is Anthony Figliola of East Setauket, a former deputy supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven. Republicans have done well in contests for the Suffolk Legislature recently and it now has a Republican majority of 11 to 7 after years of Democratic majorities.

Englebright and Figliola will be vying for the seat that had been held by Democrat Kara Hahn of Setauket who after 12 years on the legislature cannot run again because of the 12-year term limit for members. She served as the panel’s Democratic majority leader from 2016 through 2019 and was chosen its deputy presiding officer for 2020 and 2021.