By Kate Frazer
For more than 50 years, The Nature Conservancy has worked to reconnect Connecticut’s lands and waters and restore its vital natural communities. This year, our members and friends helped us reach a historic milestone: the protection of 50,000 acres of forests, rivers and coastline across Connecticut. Below is the story of one watershed protection project that helped us reach this goal.
The visit began at Meyers Pond. Seven people looked out over the shimmering water and tussock sedge wetland. Stands of hemlock, oak and hickory towered over the landscape like ancient sentries.
Staff from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Program were here to meet with Adam Whelchel and Holly Drinkuth of The Nature Conservancy and staff from the Green Valley Institute and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to see the project these partners were proposing for funding.
The group made their way to Lost Pond on a tract of land donated to the Conservancy by Dr. Ralph Otto and his wife Cecelia. Around nearly every bend, another great blue heron took off, stirred by their approach, and with steady wing beats made its way across the water.
Standing on the shore, Dr. Otto spoke simply about this land and why he donated it to the Conservancy. "It doesn’t get much better than this," he said, looking out at the open water.
In March, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a landmark $1 million grant from NAWCA for work in Connecticut for the Quinebaug Highlands Natchaug River Watershed Project, which will permanently protect 11 different tracts totaling 1,103 acres of wetlands and forest, including the 98-acre Still River Preserve acquired in December 2007.
The proposal grew from a partnership with three private landowners, the Green Valley Institute, the Wyndham Land Trust, Connecticut DEP and the towns of Eastford and Woodstock.
Taking a bird’s eye view of this landscape, one can easily see why this project brought so many groups together and earned the Conservancy its first standard grant from NAWCA.
These lands are situated in the northeast corner of the state within a region called the Last Green Valley, named for a satellite photo of the night sky in which the region appears as the one dark area in the densely populated region from New York to Boston.
But this land is much more than a dark spot. A closer look reveals a labyrinth of unique habitats created by the Mount Hope and Natchaug Rivers as they course through 35,000 acres of largely unbroken forest.
Ringed boghaunter dragonfly and frosted elfin butterfly dart through Atlantic white cedar swamps. Wetlands support the largest remnant population of breeding American black duck in Connecticut and provide critical places for migratory waterfowl to winter and rest. Secretive wetland birds like American bittern and sora still enjoy its undisturbed marshes.
This network of forest and freshwater habitats also provides for human communities. "The water is very high quality because it is so densely forested," explains Holly Drinkuth, director of the Conservancy’s Quinebaug Highlands Program. The highlands sustain the largest drinking water supply watershed in Connecticut, with benefits that trickle down all the way to Long Island Sound.
"It’s like time has stopped in this forest," says Drinkuth, surveying the landscape once again. “There’s so much forest land, the brooks are sparkling. There’s something magical here. You are literally at the top of the watershed. And working at this scale, with many different partners, is really the only way to protect the full suite of services our landscapes can provide.”
Kate Frazer is a Nature Conservancy conservation writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.February 07, 2011