Long Island Sound loses champion in Terry Backer

Terry Backer

Terry Backer

I’ve done a fair amount of birding on Long Island Sound over the years. The waters off the shores of New England are rich in ducks in the winter and shorebirds in the summer. For more than 10 years now, I’ve scoured Long Island Sound (either on a boat or from the shore) for birds during the Christmas Bird Count. In short, Long Island Sound is a vital habitat for for birds and other wildlife.

Long Island Sound lost one of its most passionate championship this week with the passing of Terry Backer, the Soundkeeper. I had the privilege of speaking with Terry several times, including interviews for newspaper stories, as a guest on my former Bird Calls Radio talk show and just shooting the breeze. Terry will be missed by many and the health of Long Island Sound is much greater today because of Terry’s commitment to taking on those who would harm the water.

Here’s an article I wrote on Terry a few years ago when his Soundkeeper organization was celebrating its 25th anniversary. (Printed in The Hour, Sept. 2012.)

By CHRIS BOSAK

Hour Staff Writer

NORWALK – Terry Backer has been the Soundkeeper for 25 years, marking a quarter century of protecting Long Island Sound and taking on anyone and anything that would hurt the body of water.

“Terry is the type of guy who is not afraid of a fistfight – and he’s been in lots of fistfights,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said. “He was born to be a keeper.”

Soundkeeper is a Norwalk-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving Long Island Sound. After scoring his first lawsuit against the city of Norwalk in 1987, Backer has won dozens of court victories that benefit Long Island Sound. Many of his lawsuits have focused on power plants and storm drainage.

“Find polluters and stop them. That’s always been the motto here,” Backer said. “We’re a watchdog group, but we’re more than a watchdog – we don’t just bark at the problem.”

Backer, with his white beard and weathered seaman’s cap, looks right at home at his office in an oysterhouse on Norwalk Harbor. Nautical maps of the Sound and other nautical artifacts hang on the walls of his modest work space, but there is nothing modest about the work that gets done there. His work has garnered national attention and the Waterkeeper Alliance movement he helped start with Kennedy and others is now in 22 countries and six continents.

“Long Island Sound has always been the focus, but it’s a global movement, too,” Backer said. “Waterkeepers are in Nepal, China, India, Latin America. They are all autonomous, but it’s all based on what we did right here. The legacy is the Waterkeeper Alliance. Sometimes I wonder how this happened.”

It’s been a banner year for Backer in terms of recognition. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proclaimed April 23, 2012, as Terry Backer Day to honor his 25 years of protecting Long Island Sound. This summer, he received the “River Hero” award from the River Network and was honored at River Rally 2012 in Portland, Oregon. He was one of only five individuals to earn the peer-selected award this year. Other winners came from Iowa, California, Alabama and Iraq. In late 2011, Backer received the David S. Dunavan Norwalk Harbor Stewardship Award, presented by the Norwalk Harbor Management Commission.

Andrew Willner, the former New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and current board member with the Waterkeeper Alliance, said the honors are well deserved.

“He does a superb job. He’s the model by which many of us who came after him go,” Willner said. “He’s been the inspiration for an enormous amount of people. He’s relentless, pragmatic, smart, warm and charming. He’s a born leader. I wouldn’t want him as an adversary.”

Although he was born in Norwalk and operates Soundkeeper in the city, Norwalk was one of Backer’s first adversaries. In 1987, Backer — along with Kennedy and John Cronin of the Riverkeepers, as well as fisherman groups –sued numerous municipalities for Clean Water Act violations. Norwalk was the first city to settle and agreed to improve its sewer drainage treatment or face severe fines. The settlement also included an $87,000 payment to the Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s Association. Half of that money was used to start a professional full-time protector of the Sound — and the Soundkeeper was born.

“It was so improbable,” he said. “But we captured people’s imagination.”

Backer grew up on Weed Avenue in West Norwalk when much of the surrounding property was farmland. Backer comes from a long line of farmers of a different sort. His family has been shellfishing on Long Island Sound for generations. Backer grew up in the family oyster and lobster business and eventually headed out to work the waters of Alaska and the West Coast.

He was in for a rude awakening when he returned to his beloved Long Island Sound. The water seemed much dirtier than he had remembered. Much of the water, in fact, was void of oxygen and had become toxic.

“I asked my father: ‘What is this crap in the water?’ He said: ‘Yup. That’s what it is.'” Backer recalled. ”

Not long after that Backer visited Nyack, a town on the Hudson River, to buy bait for his lobster pots. He was surprised at how much cleaner the Hudson River was compared to Long Island Sound.

“It looked great because of the progress made with the Riverkeepers,” Backer said.

Kennedy added: “Two days later John Cronin and I were in Norwalk at an oysterhouse. We sued almost everyone on the coast of Connecticut, I think.” That led to the settlement with Norwalk.

Twenty-five years later, the water of Long Island Sound is much better off by most measures. Oxygen levels are higher, municipalities have better sewage treatment centers and the fisheries are rebounding – but still not where many would like to see them. Backer calls the Sound an “amazingly resilient” body of water.

“The water is definitely way better,” longtime Norwalk oysterman Norm Bloom said. “But you need to keep an eye on it. It’s an endless battle. There’s a night and day difference in the water, but everyone has to chip in and help maintain it.”

Backer continues to fight the fight. He has been embroiled in a long brawl with Northport Power Plant on Long Island. Backer says the plant’s method of drawing water from the Sound kills countless fish and small animals. He also contends the water is too warm when it is returned to the Sound.

“They are whacking the food chain pretty hard,” Backer said.

The power plants claim they have made improvements over the years.

Backer is also a Democratic state representative from Stratford, a position he has held for more than 20 years. Kennedy recalls fondly Backer’s first trip to Hartford as a legislator.

“He didn’t even own a tie and there’s a rule in the Assembly that you have to wear a tie,” Kennedy said. “He borrowed a tie and just kind of stuck it over his head.” With all the election and environmental victories Backer has enjoyed over the years, perhaps his most impressive victory was successfully battling brain cancer a few years ago. He has spoken publically to support others battling the disease.

“I get a little tired here and there, but who doesn’t?” Backer said. “As long as the good Lord gives me the will. There’s still work to do. It’s not just 25 years of what we’ve been doing, but also where we are going. I’ve been thrilled and honored to take care of something that has taken care of my family for so long.”

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