By Shoshanna McCollum
Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) officially announced the retirement of Park Superintendent K. Christopher Soller, effective March 31, 2018. He departs after holding the title for nearly a decade – longer than any prior FINS Superintendent preceding him, and a career spanning 41 years with the National Parks Service (NPS).
Soller made history the very first day he stepped into the role upon his appointment in 2008. While Fire Island is famous for its prominent LBGTQ communities, Soller would be the first openly gay individual to take the helm as FINS Superintendent. He would also be the first FINS Superintendent who was also a Fire Island inholder, as he and his longtime partner Jack Curry were Fire Island Pines homeowners at the time.
He came in on the heels of the very charismatic Superintendent Michael Reynolds, whose skyrocketing career with NPS eventually elevated him to the role of National Park Service Acting Director in January of 2017. In contrast, it took time for Fire Island residents to warm up to Soller, who often came across as shy and reclusive, but his accomplishments spoke for themselves.
The long overdue FINS General Management Plan languished for over a decade before it was finally completed on Soller’s watch. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he would deliver a comprehensive breach management plan to address the geographic changes that affected the Otis Pike Wilderness Area, while simultaneously working on coordinating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Fire Island to Moriches Inlet Reformulation Study (FIMI), among other storm recovery efforts on the barrier island.
“He has taken on what others would not and I am glad Chris has been here through these challenging times,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone when he presented Soller with an honorable certificate of citation at an Fire Island Association meeting on July 25, 2015.
However, many believe Soller also leaves behind a legacy of divisiveness among Fire Island’s constituency.
Nude sunbathing was abruptly discontinued at Lighthouse Beach in 2013 – a blow to clothing optional beach goers, as it was one of the more popular locations where the lifestyle was tolerated in the Tri-State area. Smaller traditionally clothing optional spots on Fire Island were then systematically shutdown over the summers that followed.
Then there is the controversial White Tailed Deer Management Plan championed by Soller, advocating the culling of Fire Island’s docile free roaming deer population, which was adopted as policy on New Year’s Eve of 2015. The press release announcing Soller’s retirement issued by FINS headquarters in Patchogue on March 22, 2018 lauds the Deer Management Plan as one of his triumphs, but there are presently two lawsuits pending against it by three not for profits in which NPS, FINS, and Soller was personally named among the defendants. The suits include:
“I think that it is important to hold Chris accountable for some of his decisions,” wrote a representative of Fire Island Wildlife Foundation, Inc. in an emailed statement to our publication. The Saltaire, NY based organization released a report over the winter that claims 1442 registered comments were in opposition to the proposed deer culling, while only 107 comments supported it during the Open Comment Period of 2014 when the White Tailed Deer Environmental Impact Statement was still in its preliminary stages.
If the lawsuits do not prevail, funding has already been allocated so that FINS may retain sharpshooters to cull the deer herd at William Floyd Estate at Mastic Beach in 2019; with either sharpshooting, a public hunt, or some combination of both to be utilized on Fire Island proper in 2020 – 2021.
FINS Assistant Superintendent, Kelly Fellner will step in as acting superintendent until a permanent replacement is announced.