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Conservancy Looks at Bigger Picture

By Robert Miller

In the midst of Fairfield County — the state’s most populous county, where starter mansions pop up faster than mushrooms— there is a 15,300-acre forest, all in one woodland piece.

“In Fairfield County, it’s amazing you can find a forest that large,” said Stephen Patton, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Devil’s Den Preserve in Weston of the land surrounding the Saugatuck Reservoir. Saving it is one of the conservancy’s priorities — by the month’s end, it and Redding will have secured another chunk of it, buying the 66-acre Grasmere property protecting Tannery Brook for $1.3 million.

But the greater prize is still waiting, reflecting the conservancy’s change in philosophy, with the realization that just saving a few acres here and there won’t really preserve nature as a whole.

“We’re interested in landscape-scale preservation, said Michael Horak, spokesman for the conservancy’s national organization. “That means vast tracts of land. And it means not necessarily working just by ourselves to save them.”

In February, the state of Connecticut and the conservancy announced they would spend between $90 million and $98 million to purchase development rights to more than 15,000 acres of land owned by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. and its parent company, the Kelda Group. The Nature. Conservancy will contribute $10 million toward that purchase. “BHC is deducting about $100 million off the price of the land,” Patton sakL “It’s a great bargain.”

“The money is in the governor’s budget,” said David Leff, deputy commission of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “And I’m guardedly optimistic that it will happen. It’s a lot of money, but a lot of people support it.” About 5,000 acres would be land in what the conservancy calls the Saugatuck Matrix Forest - the 15~300-acre unbroken forest that surrounds the Saugatuck Reservoir. Already saved there are the 1,700-acre Devil’s Den preserve and 1,000 acres of Trout Brook Valley land preserved from development two years ago.

The land is a hardwood forest, typical of the Northeast Piedmont regiod that stretches from southern Maine to West Virginia. But within it, there are:surprises - bogs, vernal pools and flood plains. It’s also largely in one piece, with little fragmentation and few roads cutting through it. “It’s in good ecological condition because it’s been preserved since the 1930s when BHC bought it,” Patton said.
But the conservancy is looking farther afield. Farther north, there is all the land bordering the three rivers that feed the reservoir - the Saugatgck~ the Aspetuck and the Little River. Including places like Tarrywile Park in Danbury and Huntington State Park in Bethel and Redding and the Saugatuck Forest land, there are about 45,000 acres of open space in the Saugatuck Forest Lands in a circle that extends from Weston and Easton to Ridgefleld, Danbury, Bedding, Bethel and Newtown.

“This land includes the Saugatuck River, which has some of the best trout runs in Fairfield County,” Patton said. “The river corndors also are habitat for forest birds. We know there are 22 species of migrating songbirds that nest in Devil’s Den. But there are also raptors - Broad-winged hawks, Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and Northern goshawk and all nest in the region.”

A decade ago, The Nature Conservancy, the nation’s oldest land conservation organination, might not have thought about preservation on this scale. “We have 50 state chapters, and we did our work state by state,” Patton said. “We’d find a site with a rare orchid on a ridge, we’d buy it and put a fence around it.” But Horak said the conservancy began to reevaluate its basic tenets in recent years, realizing that buying and preserving fragmented islands of land in a sea of development did not truly protect flora and fauna.

“We found. we can’t save 50 acres here, 50 acres there and preserve endangered species.- we needed a more comprehensive effort,” he said. A state-by-state approach created some redundancy - “We’d each be preserving a place for the big turtle,” Patton said. And it ignored the flow of the natural landscape, which is oblivious to where Connecticut ends and Massachusetts begins As a result, the conservancy adopted a philosophy of “Conservation by Design,” looking at much larger landscapes, called eco-regions. The state organizations also began working together to save land that crossed their boundaries.

Today, the Connecticut chapter of The Nature Conservancy has eight priority projects. .said Lise Hanners, director of conservation science for the chapter. Of those, five are joint efforts with the chapter’s counterparts in either Massachusetts, New York or Rhode Island; one, the Berkshire-Taconic landscape in northwestern Connecticut, is a tn-state effort involving Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. “It’s obvious this is the only way we’ll get the job done,” Hanners said.

The Saugatuck Forest. however, is all in Connecticut. Hence the conservancy’s active part in negotiations between the DEP and Kelda to preserve all the water company lands. Because much of the land is Class I watershed land that directly borders the Saugatuck Reservoir, state law prohibits Kelda from selling it outright. But Patton said the fear is that a few decades hence -farther than we can see in the present. Kelda, or whoever owns the reservoir, might ask the state to abandon it as a source of drinking water, opening all the land up to development.

By saving it, Patton said, the conservancy would be preserving that Matrix forest, the core of the Saugatuck lands. It also would lion- or the vision of the late Katherine Ordway. She gave The Nature Conservancy the Devil’s Den property in 1968; in doing so, she foresaw a day when it would be part of something much larger.

“If you stand back and look at Fairfield County, you’ll see a sea of development,” Patton said of the greater Saugatuck project. “This land is what’s left for open space. Preserving it won’t happen overnight. But we wouldn’t be involved if .we didn’t think we have a good chance of keeping it preserved.’