Profile: Counting 2,039 acres as his backyard

PETER BODY PHOTO | Mashomack Preserve Director Mike Laspia at his office in the Manor House, a short walk away from the house where he and his wife have lived for 33 years.

How do you land the perfect job, one that not only suits your interests but stays fresh forever? Something that always keeps you challenged and learning new things? How do you find a job from which you can’t imagine retiring because it’s so much a part of your life?

Talk to Mike Laspia, the director the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve. He’ll tell you it’s just a matter of “being in the right place at the right time.”

The son and grandson of Island farmers whose father started what eventually became the Shelter Island Nursery on St. Mary’s Road, Mike was born in 1948 and went to the Shelter Island School, graduating in 1966.

He remembers riding on a special seat on the back of his grandfather’s tractor, rocking up and down the rows of crops all day long. “I loved it,” he said during a recent talk at his office at the Preserve’s Manor House. He and his wife Susan, who also works at the Preserve, live 100 steps away in what’s known as the Pond House, where they’ve been since 1980 and raised three daughters.

“Tough commute,” Mike said.

He grew up loving to hunt and fish, like a lot of local boys, walking past the home of Susan Sanwald on the way to school every day. A year behind him, she caught his eye and he caught hers. They started dating in high school and were married in 1970 on a bluff overlooking Bass Creek in the Preserve, then a private hunting club where his father-in-law was the gamekeeper.

He had asked Mike, who had a Labrador retriever, if he wanted to work weekends fetching birds for the gun club’s wealthy sports. Mike did it for years. In 1978, when his father-in-law retired, the club asked him if he’d take the job.

By then Mike had spent two years at the state agricultural school in Farmingdale studying landscape design, expecting to run the lawn and garden care side of the family nursery business. To continue his studies, he’d transferred to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst because it was an easy hitchhike down the Mass Pike to Albany, where Susan was going to SUNY.

“I loved hunting and I loved the gun club,” Mike said of his decision to leave the nursery and take the gamekeeper job. “I had gotten to know a lot of members well.”

Asked if he had his father’s blessing, he hesitated. “He understood,” he said. Leaving the family business “was not an easy thing to do” and it was a risky opportunity. Club employees had come and gone and, it turned out, the future of the preserve itself was up in the air.

Soon after Mike went to work there, one of the brothers who owned the preserve’s 2,039 acres and leased them to the gun club called to say they wanted to sell and they were evicting the club He told Mike he wanted him to move onto the property and stay on as a caretaker to keep it secure and to show it to prospective buyers.
the indispensable man

The club members also wanted Mike. They asked him to move with Susan to Dutchess County, where the club was relocating and continues to operate today. “We loved being on the water, all our families were here, so I said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’” But he said “sure” to the brothers, moving into the Pond House in 1979 with his wife and two daughters.

Over the years, he had shown the property to Arab, Japanese and American real estate moguls whom the Gerards had courted but he’d always felt they weren’t serious. Three or four weeks after he and his family had moved in, the Gerards called to say they’d reached an agreement to sell to the Nature Conservancy.

Mike hadn’t even known there was a deal in the works. The New York Times reported it in a major story with a banner headline because the property was so large for a tract of open space along the congested coastline of the Northeast.
“My job was to provide security and to meet with the Nature Conservancy staff and show them the property and help them raise the funds” to seal the deal, Mike said. There were many donors among Island residents and Mike found members of the gun club who wanted to give because they still had a love for the place.

Raising the $5 million it needed in just a few months, the Nature Conservancy closed on the deal on January 14, 1980, Mike recalled with precision. “At the same time, they offered me the management position,” he added. By then, he already had worked with a lot of regional and national Nature Conservancy staff and officials, picking them up at airports and train stations, meeting with them as they assessed and inventoried the property and strategizing with them about the fund-raising effort. They asked him to stay on.

“I was in the right place at the right time. It was great thing,” he said. He was 32 years old and the resident expert on the Mashomack Preserve, its fields, its oak forests, its creeks and ponds and its beaches.
a family affair

His third daughter was born after the family moved to Mashomack. She now lives in Queens and works for Capital One bank in New York. Daughter Novella is married to Paul Yeoman and lives on the Island with their daughter, the Laspia’s one grandchild. The oldest, Erica, is engaged to Chris Johnson and also lives here.

Mike was a one-man band for a few years as the Conservancy figured out how to manage and operate its new holding. Eventually his wife Susan, who had worked the retail side of the family nursery, volunteered as his administrative assistant. That became a paying job as the Nature Conservancy began using the Preserve more and more for meetings, symposia and research. She’s now in her 28th year on staff; just this week, Mike marked 33 years on the job.

That job is a lot more complicated and challenging than retrieving birds or merely keeping an eye on the grounds. As the administrator of one of only two Nature Conservancy preserves in the East with a developed campus and a major educational and research function, he’s a key player in several monthly meetings and is the point man on many programs and projects.

There’s a staff of seven full-time and three part-time employees and the Preserve has a membership of 1,600 annual supporters. It attracts 25,000 to 30,000 visitors.

“I will say one of the most interesting parts of the job that I never envisioned was the creation of the board of trustees,” he said. “That’s been just a great experience in working with these trustees and still to this day it surprises me there are so many people dedicated to conservation at Mashomack and beyond Mashomack’s borders.”

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” Mike said of his career, beginning the first few years when he helped the Nature Conservancy develop a master plan for the property. “That was like going to college,” he said, working with ornithologists from Cornell, marine scientists from Stony Brook and Southampton College and botanists “from all over.”

These days, Mashomack is in the midst of a review of its facilities to determine what changes, repairs and renovations will be necessary to support future needs. Mike applied to Columbia University for a and the university sent engineering and architectural students over the past year to gather information and will soon issue a report. “We’re very close to bringing it all together and coming up with a plan,” Mike said.

On another but related front, the Preserve is gearing up to make itself available as a research facility for the increasing number of universities looking for “living laboratories,” he said. Some will address questions the Nature Conservancy itself wants answered, such as how much mercury is found in the tissues of its resident bird populations — a study that has been undertaken by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine.

“The hours don’t mean anything,” Mike said of his time in the office and out on the Preserve, because “it’s a way of life.” The preserve, after all, “feels like my own backyard,” he explained.

How do you retire from a job that’s so intertwined with your life? “That’s a good question,” Mike replied. He and his wife don’t see themselves going off to live in the Florida house his 90-year-old mother recently left to come live with Mike’s brother on Shelter Island.

“It’s a great job,” he mused, “and I always keep myself busy.” He can’t quite see life without the Preserve all around him. “I’ve seen a lot of natural history,” Mike said, counting most recently four bald eagles, two adult and two immature, right on the beach near the Manor House.

It won’t be long, he added, before they start nesting at the Preserve.