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
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.’
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